Leslie Hall's collection of glittery sweaters is bold and bizarre -- just like the artist herself
Leslie Hall likes to put herself on display in strangely glamorous and unflattering ways.
During her senior year of high school in Ames, Iowa, she snuck into the fall homecoming parade wearing a pink, sparkly Goodwill gown, a neck brace, and a tiara won by her mother when she was crowned Miss Auburn, Neb., in 1970. Her mother was there, too, driving the '67 Mustang convertible that Hall had decorated with posters that read ''Queen of the Art Department." Hall was perched on the back, giving parade waves and throwing Tootsie Rolls. It was the beginning of her campaign to become prom queen, and her stunt made the front page of the local paper the next day. Later in the year, she handed out buttons with pictures of herself wearing the neck brace and tiara.
And what do you know, come springtime, she won.
Now Hall, 23, wants the world to know about her latest fixation: sweaters. Bright, gaudy, glittery sweaters -- once worn by women in the '80s who wanted to ''dizzle and dazzle," in Hall's words -- that have long since been thrown out or donated to secondhand stores. She has more than 130 of them, carefully folded inside green plastic tubs in her Jamaica Plain apartment, and a wildly popular website, with pictures of her wearing her favorites. She's named each of these ''gem sweaters," as she calls them -- wild, fantastic names like ''Caterpillar Cry" and ''Gum Drop Mystery."
''This is truly an American icon who's been thrown away," she says, and she's determined to give these shimmering sweaters their rightful place in history.
Hall, who has picked up gem sweaters at thrift stores in 10 states, sees herself as an archeologist of sorts: ''I'm their last chance."
Beginning Thursday, Hall's sweaters and photographs of her wearing the sweaters will be featured in their first gallery show, at JP Art Market in Jamaica Plain.
''I see a lot of art," says Art Market owner and director Patti Hudson. ''Hers has been the most refreshing I have seen in a long, long time."
A gleam in her eye
Hall found her first gem sweater at a thrift store while she was looking for something to wear to a high school dance, and when she saw the black sweater covered in ribbons, fake diamonds, and multicolored sequins, she knew she had stumbled upon something magical.
''No one in that dance shimmered and shined the way I did," she says. Her fellow students, entranced by the sweater, stepped aside to create a path for her through the crowded gymnasium. ''Have you ever seen Moses part the Red Sea?" she says. ''Because the visuals were the same."
Her favorite sweater is one of her first, ''Blue Bunny Patch," on which the beadwork does ''a magical dance," Hall says. She keeps track of each sweater by name, weight, and place of purchase. Others that stand out in ''Thyn Collection," as she calls her assortment of sweaters, are ''Spider's Paw," a turtleneck with jagged fringe framing a ''V" of blue and red stones, and ''Orange Peel Milk," which has pearls ringing the neck and cuffs and delicate pearl-encrusted flowers flitting across the front.
In the almost five years since she moved to Boston to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Hall has become something of an Internet celebrity. Links to her website (gemsweater.com) have appeared on numerous blogs. She's been featured in Vice Magazine and the German magazine Blond, and she's appeared on cable-television talk shows in Los Angeles and Toronto. She has even graced the cover of alternative weeklies in Seattle and Portland, Ore.
Hall also fronts an all-girl hip-hop band, Leslie and the Ly's, and she encourages people to wear their own gem sweaters to the shows. Sometimes she invites people up to have their sweaters named onstage; one man at the Knitting Factory in New York gave her the sweater off his back.
It's not just the sweaters that fascinate people, of course -- it's Hall. In each of the nearly identical photos on her website, she is wearing heavy blue eye shadow, red lipstick, oversize round Goodwill glasses, and one of the 16 pairs of skintight gold pants made for her by her mom. Hall's blond hair is swept up in a modified beehive, and the look on her nearly expressionless face is one of chilly disdain.
Growing up, Hall dreamed of being a celebrity. Whether as a painter, photographer, or musician, she didn't care; she just wanted to be a household name.
''Once the scale started hitting 200-plus," she says, ''there went the modeling plans."
Hall has always had a way of making herself memorable, says her mother, Rena Hall, recalling that her oldest daughter posed for her senior yearbook picture in an ''I've Seen Elvis" T-shirt and the ever-present neck brace. (The brace, one of Hall's favorite props, belongs to her mother.)
''She loved making fun of herself," says Rena Hall. ''I think that's what endears her to other people."
But it's about more than just making fun of herself; it's about being in the spotlight, and Hall has a knack for combining the two. Just ask her high school art teacher Dorothy Gugel about Hall's quest for the crown. ''She sold herself as prom queen the entire year," Gugel says. ''It was all one big work of art."
Tim Ranow stumbled across Hall's website when he was looking for sweaters online last summer. Ranow lives in Los Angeles, and it was colder than usual out. He was also looking up Jem, the rock star from the '80s cartoon, and before he knew it he had been directed to Hall's website.
''I clicked the link and my life was changed," he says.
Ranow, 36, who works at a Hollywood doughnut shop, became so enamored with Hall that he projected one of her pictures from his computer out the window of his L-shaped apartment building, displaying her haunting face and glittery sweater onto the other wall of the building.
''She's majestic," Ranow says. ''You can see that she breathes gem."
Another big fan of Hall's is Sandra Stark, a photography teacher at the Museum School. ''I actually think she's a comic genius," Stark says. ''For being so young, she makes really astute cultural comments couched in humor, and I think that's really difficult to do."
Hall put on a show at the school called ''Fat Girls Phat Art," which featured four 165-pound-plus women working out to exercise videos in the school lobby and holding doughnut-eating contests, among other things. Her band has also performed at the school, as well as at clubs around the country.
At a show at the Midway Café in early March, Hall rocked the mike dressed neck to toe in a skintight gold suit that showed her every bulge and sag. She jerked and shimmied to computer-generated beats while her two backup musicians jammed on fake instruments and videos of monster trucks played in the background. Her most popular song? ''Gold Pants."
The fans, Hall says, are ''people who really appreciate chubby women doing hip-hop."
On the move
Hall is drawn to the eye-catching and the unappreciated, and she lifts them up for examination in an oddly appealing way, using herself as the canvas. Her sweater obsession is funny, and she knows that, but to Hall, it's no joke. She loves these sweaters. She wears them out on the town. She pays outrageous Internet bills to run her website.
And she has a purpose: ''I want to again stabilize them as a serious art form," she says.
Some people don't buy it. ''I hope you are having fun exposing the world to your attempts to prove that you are smarter (and/or somehow 'special') than other people," one person wrote of Hall's photos on the Vice Magazine website.
But those who really know her believe in her sincerity. ''It's not an ironic comment," the Museum School's Stark says. ''And I think that's why so many people respond to it."
Hall has big dreams for her sweaters: She has a book deal in the works with a design company -- the title: ''Gem Sweater Be Thy Name." She's been contacted by manufacturers in Thailand and Portugal about designing a new line of sweaters, and she's shooting for a spot on ''Jimmy Kimmel Live."
The time of gem sweaters is now, she says. ''I think people are falling back in love with these. I think people are shimmering again, and they need that."
After four years of painting and printmaking at the Museum School (with a year off to take art classes in Savannah, Ga.), Hall graduated on Sunday and is coming back in the fall for a fifth-year program. This summer, armed with a $1,200 grant from the school, Hall plans to convert an RV into a gem sweater museum on wheels and drive it around the country, collecting donations and performing with the Ly's along the way.
Despite the massive popularity of her website and her plans for spreading the word about gem sweaters, Hall has no illusions of grandeur. She plans to move back to Iowa -- ''I'll probably be looking for a boyfriend and figure out a new way to reinvent myself," she says. And if the sweaters don't catapult her to fame and fortune, she'll get to work on a DVD about the rise and fall of an Internet star.
But for now, her sights are set on a sparkling horizon: ''I'm writing gem sweater history."
Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leslie Halls gem sweaters are at JP Art Market, 36 South St., Jamaica Plain, from May 26-June 5. The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays, 4-7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6 p.m. 617-522-1729. Leslie and the Lys perform at midnight on June 3 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline; $7 ($6 if you wear a gem sweater). 617-734-2500, www.coolidge.org.