Intestinal couture

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Detroit artist Cristin Richard makes art and fashion out of hog intestines.

Before you turn away in disgust, it has to be said that the travel bags in her show at Lisa Spindler Studio in Detroit, "Excess Baggage," are nothing short of elegant.

The small exhibition is open by appointment through Sept. 30 -- part of Detroit's Month of Design. Should you miss that, one of Richard's prototype bags is also on display, though not for sale, in the gift shop at the Siren Hotel downtown.

"Cristin's work is haunting and serious," said Spindler, an artist and photographer who shot a series of striking photographs with models that help frame the exhibition and give it added visual punch.

"When I first visited her studio in the Fisher Building," Spindler said, "I realized I was walking into something very different and special."

The lookalike bags in "Excess Baggage," which range from off-white to deep beige, certainly qualify. Beautifully lit in Spindler's Woodward Avenue storefront studio -- once a Lane Bryant store -- they read like high-end couture made from some dauntingly expensive, translucent fabric. It's the sort of thing you'd expect from leading fashion houses.

Yet whether you're talking the bags in the show, the human-hair shoulder capes from her "Epaulet Series," or the ball gowns she was previously known for (not in the show), you're unlikely to guess what the material is. It's that gorgeous.

A number of Richard's creations, which straddle the line between fashion and sculpture,  have entered private collections, including that of Detroiters Gilbert and Lila Silverman, who routinely made ARTnews' list of the world's most-important collectors.

Beyond "Excess Baggage," Richard's also had solo shows at Playground Detroit and Culturefix in New York City. She was also commissioned to design a wedding dress out of lamb's intestines for a woman in Paris.

"Lamb intestines," Richard said, "are much more delicate than hog intestines, and somewhat tedious to work with."

Richard's exhibition was the result of a Design in the City competition sponsored by Design Core Detroit, with support from Gucci. In addition to Richard, six other emerging designers won awards to create installations during Detroit Month of Design.

Animal byproducts first entered Richard's life when she was a student at the College for Creative Studies, where she now teaches.

It was never really about the shock value. Instead, her practice is rooted in a commitment to sustainability, and a moral conviction that if you're going to eat animals, it's only right that you use ever single part.

Add to that her deep interest in anatomy -- Richard got into the University of Michigan's medical illustration program years ago, but chose CCS instead -- and you've got a recipe for a lifelong passion. 

Was Richard ever grossed out by her material? In a word, no, even though she has to hand-wash the guts time and again before they acquire their translucent quality.

"Because I had this fascination with anatomy and biology," she said, "I was completely fine with it."

Richard buys her material from an Eastern Market butcher. "The bundles are packed in brine," she said, "and I figured out that the more I wash it, the more translucent it gets. And the salt almost crystallizes on the surface."

As with so many local artists, inspiration first struck at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Richard was mesmerized by an Inuit garment on display.

"It was a seal-intestine parka," she said, "that ended up spawning my whole thesis collection." Intrigued, she did a deep dive into Inuit practices surrounding animal consumption, with an eye toward how she could adapt them to modern uses.

Their approach, Richard said, "reflects such a high level of respect. They’re not just throwing things away. They take from the earth, consider it a blessing and use every last scrap."

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Cristin Richard: Excess Baggage'

Through Sept. 30

Lisa Spindler Studio, 1520 Woodward, Detroit

By appointment only - visit