Jennifer Smith interview – for Indiana’s Got Talent blog
Jennifer Q Smith is the Queen of Fuzz at Avant Garb, a company that designs and builds mascots for teams, universities and corporations throughout the country. She has been making, wearing and analyzing costumes, wearable art, street wear and mascots all of her life. Even as a 4 year old, she donned her cowgirl outfit, strapped on her holster and hopped on her stick horse to patrol the neighborhood. She was part of the wearable art movement in the 70’s with Friends of the Rag in Seattle.
She wore her site-specific costumes on NYC streets. Her wearable art pieces have been shown at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, at MoMA exhibitions and at PS1, where she was a Studio Artist. Jennifer Q has been married forever and has 2 always fascinating daughters.
David Boyer interview with Jennifer Smith
How did Avant Garb first come into being?
I had been designing and making costumes for art performances and for theater in Seattle, NYC and San Francisco. When I started Avant Garb, my plan was to design costumes for avant garde theater.
However, a small, chocolate chip cookie company in Berkeley asked me to make a giant cookie for them. Making the cookie changed my outlook, and I altered my plan. The day after it was finished the Chocolate Chip Cookie mascot, was on the front page of the S.F. Chronicle. I thought that was pretty exciting. That was the beginning of Avant Garb – Mascot Makers.
What was your first “mascot’?
Several years before the Chocolate Chip Cookie, I was with a costume and performance group in Seattle named, “Friends of the Rag”. We were commissioned to create costumes and a performance for the opening of the opening of the Seattle Aquarium in 1977. I designed and wore a costume called, the “Sexy Salmon” It was a big hit. That was it for me!
Following the Sexy Salmon, I made a black velvet “Formal Clarinet” for the Seattle Symphony. Joan Mondale, the Vice President’s wife came to Seattle to see a Friends of the Rag performance. I was wearing the Clarinet. I later met Joan Mondale in DC, at another Friends of the Rag production. I told her that last time we had met, I was a clarinet. She said, “I remember”.
There must be so much meticulous detail in creating one of your mascots. How long does it usually take to complete one? Or does that depend on the character involved?
It takes a million hours to make a mascot. We sculpt the head and cover it with fabric and fur, make the patterns for the body, the muscles, big belly, giant head, legs, arms, tails that boing and really big mascot shoes. Yikes! Yes, there are detail, details, details – like eyebrows, painting the eyes, making sure there is plenty of vision ( which needs to be hidden) and ventilation ( also hidden)…. and claws and clothing and logos. Yup, it takes a million hours.
Is there a lot more involved in one of these costumes than meets the eye? I mean, are there certain safety and health requirements that have to be met?
The performer’s safety is always at the front of my mind. We work hard to give performers good, stable vision. That means, there is an athletic helmet that is secured inside the mascot head. Sometimes the hardest part about making the head is placing the helmet so that the performer has good, stable vision. We also put air vents in the head. Air needs to circulate so the performer can breathe. We have engineered mascot shoes so that the performer’s own shoes are secured into the mascot shoe. Nobody likes to wear someone else’s sweaty shoes. Mascot performers shouldn’t have to either. We send each mascot out with its own Mascot Manual so clients know how to care for their mascot.
Have you found that just as many adults enjoy your work as kids?
Mascots are a public spectacle. They are for children and adults. When a mascot shows up, we all know we’re going to have fun. Mascots create community. Strangers connect when a mascot is present. Mascots are for everyone.
On the subject of mascots, what was “Barf-boy” used to promote? I’m sorry, with a name like that, I just had to ask. LOL
Everybody asks about Barf-Boy. He was a mascot for a children’s biology exhibit named, “Grossology.” Grossology was about everything that is disgusting about the human body – like well…barf.
We made 5 Barf-Boys for exhibits in Children’s Science Museums all around the country. He’s pretty great, isn’t he?!
Any exciting news about Avant Garb to let us in on before you go?
The exciting news about Avant Garb is that we are a company in the United States that makes things by hand. We make it by hand, people can touch it, interact with it, have their picture taken with it. Yet, mascots are of the moment. They interact with us in our physical world and they are present in our digital world.
And the mascots become part of the fabric of all of our lives. Everyone has hugged a mascot, had their picture taken with a mascot, laughed at a mascot’s antics or turned to that stranger and talked about the mascot. The mascot and the team, product, event they represent has become part of the story that connects all of us.
I kinda believe mascots could bring world peace. It would be a goofy world peace, but what the heck!
I love making mascots – flocks of mascots, herds of mascots, multitudes of mascots!