There will come a time in the future when mankind will have destroyed the earth through pollution and misuse of resources and escaped to the stars on a great fleet of starships. Those ships will be highly regulated, bastions of cleanliness and organization. They will also be a place focused around one of future society’s greatest resources: cats.
At least, that is, in part the premise of downtown Las Vegas artist Jesse Smigel’s show “The Perfect Future is Sanitary ... The Sanitary Future is Purrrfect,” scheduled to be on display at the Winchester Cultural Center, 3130 S. McLeod Drive, through July 12.
“I’m kind of obsessed with cats,” Smigel said. “Plus, I love science fiction movies and ‘Star Trek.’ Getting to combine all that is super fun.”
The show includes a 24-foot-long photomural of a battle in space between the ships of The Borg, the hive mind antagonists from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and cats. There is also looping video and propaganda posters and sculptures of a spaceship with an animatronic cat at the helm, a model of the Starship Enterpaws and a 6-foot-tall hairless bear with a giant ear on its back.
To put it mildly, it’s an unusual show.
“It’s been a well-received show,” said Darren Johnson, the curator for the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery and the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery. “All the artists that show at the gallery do a workshop with the (Winchester) skateboard team, and what he did with them was really interesting.”
At the show’s opening, the team was cast as engineers and child soldiers, wearing laser tag systems from 1986. While the soldiers guarded the exhibit the engineers roamed it, taking readings and spouting technical jargon. Staff members of the cultural center distributed future food, a medicine cup with two pills.
“They were actually pink and white Good & Plentys,” Johnson said. “Eventually a rebel group showed up, led by Jesse, and grabbed the food, and a guard grabbed him and the Good & Plentys went everywhere.”
A mock battle ensued that was fought mostly with the vintage laser tag systems.
The theatrical aspects of the show aren’t surprising in light of the five years Smigel spent working at the Judy Bayley Theatre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“I was looking for work near UNLV while I was going to school there,” Smigel said. “I found out the job involved carpentry, welding, scenic art and painting. Then I saw the size of the shop and all the equipment they had to work with, and I knew I had to work there.”
About a year ago his freelance work creating set pieces for high-end window displays became profitable enough that he left the theater. But he still has connections and close friends there.
“My old boss was just helping me finish up one of the pieces for this show,” Smigel said.
Smigel was born and raised in downtown Las Vegas, and you can hear the sounds of people screaming on the thrill rides of the Stratosphere from his backyard. He lives one street over from where he grew up, and he shares a back wall with his mother. He walks through that wall to her yard to the workshop he now uses as his artist’s studio. It’s where his father used to rebuild Model A and Model T Fords.
“I’ve laid down a brick floor, set up new lights and put in a swamp cooler,” Smigel said. “I’m kind of a night owl, and this is a great place to work.”
Much of Smigel’s work involves carving large blocks of Styrofoam with power tools, then sealing it with a hard coat to make the piece more durable, smooth and paintable. The finished pieces often look like oversized children’s toys and reflect the artist’s sense of craftsmanship and whimsy.
“They wanted a very serious description of the show, and that just didn’t work for me,” Smigel said. “It’s friggin’ cats in space. Does that interest you? No? Well, then, don’t come.”
He has always worked in the art field, beginning at 16 as an assistant to internationally recognized local artist Austine Wood Comarow. He worked for a few months in retail at an art supply store. Despite that, he isn’t comfortable calling himself an artist.
“I’ve devoted my life to art, but I’m not a fine artist,” Smigel said. “I’m not even an artist. I’m just a guy who likes to make some stuff.”
He thinks fine art is comparable to martial art.
“If you ask a guy who’s a ninth-level black belt if he knows karate, he’ll say ‘No, but I’ve studied it,’ ” Smigel said. “When can you say that you’re an artist? If you’ve taken one painting class at UNLV or had something in a juried show? Does it happen when you sell a painting? I would say devote 50 years to doing art, and then on your deathbed if someone asks what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I was an artist.’ Before that, you’re just practicing.”
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.