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Fashion mash-up: Maria Pinto finds inspiration in Field Museum artifacts

Chicago fashidesigner  MariPinoutside Field Museum Chicago August 22 2012.  FashiThe Field Museum Collectiopens 9-14-2012 features work by MariPinto.

Chicago fashion designer, Maria Pinto outside the Field Museum in Chicago on August 22, 2012. Fashion and The Field Museum Collection opens 9-14-2012 and features work by Maria Pinto. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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‘FASHion and the field
collection: maria pinto’

♦ Through June 16, 2013

♦ Field Museum, 1400 S Lake Shore
♦ (312) 922-9410;

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Updated: September 13, 2012 4:30PM

‘Museums have always been part of my respite,” fashion designer Maria Pinto says while walking to the Field Museum’s conservation laboratory, where items are examined, documented, photographed and prepared for exhibition.

These days, museums are also part of her resume. Opening Sept. 14, the exhibit “Fashion and The Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto” features 25 Field Museum artifacts alongside eight of Pinto’s own designs.

The exhibition grew out of a lecture in 2010. The museum’sCurator of North American Anthropology, Alaka Wali, approached Pinto about speaking to the women’s board. The discussion featured Pinto’s own designs alongside body-related museum artifacts — chosen by Pinto not because of any scientific reasoning, but simply because each inspired her.

The discussion was a success. It made Wali want something more permanent.

Two years later, Pinto heads inside the conservation laboratory to inspect artifacts before they get installed in her exhibit. She gestures to details on a Sudanese ceremonial sword, its baby crocodile case sheathing the weapon as if swallowing it from blade tip to handle.

Pinto plans to display the sword alongside a crocodile-skin armor vest from Cameroon, an ancient Japanese gauntlet and a hippo-skin shield from Ethiopia.

“We’re spoiled as designers these days,” Pinto notes about readily available materials, “but these cultures used what they had, and created such beauty.”

Pinto took great pains in choosing each piece in the show. She dug through the museum’s collections — all securely stored in a giant vault — and photographed items she enjoyed. As part of her editing process, she storyboarded them like a fashion collection.

“If it was up to me, we’d have 300 pieces,” says Pinto, her chestnut eyes lighting up. “Editing was so hard. I can’t always explain what I chose — it was subconscious.”

The armor display will also contain one of Pinto’s creations — a deep emerald green alpaca jacket with horn buttons from her fall 2009 collection. The coat to a women’s suit, it emulates a cavalry frock with buttons stacked in a long, precise vertical row.

“I’ve always considered what we wear as a kind of armor,” Pinto says. “Because of that I’m attracted to things that are literally armor.”

“The craftsmanship in Maria’s work is amazing, even under a microscope,” notes conservationist Shelley Paine, who inspects each object and keeps it safe while on display for 10 long months. “We all have that piece [of Pinto’s] we want to run away with,” she adds with a grin.

While Pinto’s work is a natural fit for the history museum, the exhibition style is wholly unique.

“I wanted music that takes [the artifacts] out of the context of history,” Pinto says, “contemporary but not clubby.”

Add dramatic dim lighting (also a necessity due to the light-sensitive artifacts) and a veritable fashion show emerges: Seven groupings of wearable items, including two cases of accessories, top gray custom mounts (“white is too clinical,” Pinto says ).

Compelling objects include a seal-intestine raincoat (“you want to wear it,” Pinto notes); a Brazilian ensemble made from bark; and Pinto’s shearling pants displayed next to shearling Inuit hot pants. There’s an artifact from every content except Europe, and many are on display for the first time.

As for what she hopes viewers get out of it: “I want them to say ‘This is very different from what I’ve seen at the Field.’ ” And, markedly, from the fashion world. “Fashion is over after you do it. At the end of the day it’s done. You move on. You can’t move on fast enough.” Pinto notes with relief, “This is different.”

Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.

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