First is the letter “H.” It tumbles and dances along the top edge of a board.
Below that, the letter “O” repeats in a tangle of orientations.
The bottom half of the board is burned with “P” and then “E”— their serifs catching on the surface’s striations and knots.
Centered among the repetitions of “HOPE” is the image of a phoenix. “I am represented as the phoenix,” artist Elijah Brown says. “I am rising above my past to embrace a hopeful future.”
At just 17 years old, Brown illustrates his past in the spaces between letters. Images are of a candle, a razor blade, a noose, a gun, a syringe, bullets, handcuffs, abstract animals with disquieting mutations.
Brown explains that he is rising above a childhood marked by abuse, neglect, homelessness — and the myriad effects that accompany those situations .
Brown’s piece is one of about 30 on display at “Parade the Collective,” an annual art exhibit featuring works created by Cirque du Soleil’s performers, technicians and staff.
Putting the pieces together
Nancy Good, owner of Core Contemporary Gallery, is the curator of the 13th annual “Parade” exhibit.
For two days, Good arranged and assembled the works. “It’s very conscious,” she says. “My responsibility is to honor the pieces and let them shine. It was a lot of ‘Where do you want to be?’ (and) ‘Do you two play well with each other?’ ”
She devised a narrative that leads visitors clockwise around the gallery. The opening piece, a beaded impression of a face, starts off Good’s exploration of the human journey. “It leads with being a stranger, maybe behind a mask,” she says, “because you’re not ready to reveal yourself yet.”
The journey continues into strange lands: a photograph of two acrobats in a desert, a still image taken in Vietnam and a multimedia wall-mounted diorama of a garden by “Mystere” performer Kent Caldwell.
“I like the feeling of, as kids, when you’re curious and exploring,” Caldwell says. “I like showing this world and putting it out there for people to create their own narrative.”
Caldwell created “Garden of Enki,” a combination of paper-mache and 3D-printed components. “I like that juxtaposition of processes to make one cohesive environment,”he says.
Mounted on a dark board, three-inch tall humanoid figures inhabit a sprawling garden of foliage, staircases and waterfalls.
“These shorter ones are like shadow people,” Caldwell says of painted figures from railroad model sets. “They’re visiting this landscape maybe from another dimension.”
In his seventh year contributing to the exhibit, Caldwell elevated his interest in world-building, adding coded buttons to alter the LED lights that shine on the garden and manipulate a functioning door.
Moving through the gallery, Caldwell’s piece is followed by three abstract images, suggesting the ambiguity of the human condition.
Next comes Brown’s work. “It’s such an emotional piece,” Good notes. “Elijah uses this visual language to interpret his journey.”
Brown’s woodburning piece is followed by a small statue of a beast that is somewhere between man and elephant. “We all evolve and morph on our journey,” Good says.
The gallery’s exploration of the human journey wraps around the room, over a gown that was worn by the singer Jewel for “One Night for One Drop” and then pours out onto a floor space populated by small sculptures.
Renee McHenry, a backstage tech for “The Beatles Love,” used organic materials for “Emergence.” The work is assembled with driftwood and has faces carved out of nuts emerging from glossy gourds. “I think everybody’s got that,” McHenry says. “Something that makes you invent yourself several times in life. It makes you better for it, more interesting. And I like to celebrate that a little.”
Other works include a metal wall-mounted impression of the Las Vegas skyline and a series of body-painted portraits.
Brown’s is the only work not created by a Cirque du Soleil employee. The teen represents Whaler’s Creation, a local nonprofit that supports children in foster care and adoption.
La Toria Kern, founder and director of the nonprofit, discovered Brown’s talent while visiting one day. “She was super impressed,” Brown says. “I don’t know if I would be pursuing it so much if she didn’t encourage me.”
Brown is now in a loving foster home and on track to graduate high school. And his troubled past is lending itself to his artwork.
About six months ago, Brown discovered woodburning, the art of meticulously and tediously burning images into a wooden surface with a tool similar to a soldering iron.
His piece, titled “Salvaje,” took him 15 hours to complete, but the most challenging aspect was deciding what images to include. “It brought a lot of memories,” he says.
Whaler’s is one of three local nonprofits that Cirque du Soleil is sponsoring this year. “We consider it a wraparound,” says Brooke Wahlquist, a project manager in community relations for Cirque. “They not only are getting a grant, but we try to take other actions to give the organizations a platform.”
When Wahlquist caught wind that Kern had a talented teen, Wahlquist suggested, “What about the Collective?”
Wahlquist explains that it’s important to Cirque’s company culture to support art and creativity internally and throughout the community.
“The name ‘Parade’ actually comes from an acronym in French,” Wahlquist explains. “But what is a parade? It’s eclectic, celebratory, participatory — all these things that the Collective is.”
Cirque du Soleil’s Social Action Grant
Every year Cirque du Soleil selects three local nonprofits to receive social action grants.
A committee of employees and non-employees reviews applications by organizations that support at-risk youth.
“We focus on organizations that help young people get out of the cycle of poverty and improve their possibility of not going homeless,” Cirque project manager Brooke Wahlquist says.
This year’s recipients, in addition to Whaler’s Creation, are Embracing Project, a nonprofit that provides services for children and teens who have been victims of sex-trafficking, and CircleIn, a tutoring app that helps Clark County School District students help each other with school work.
“We try to do more than just give out the grant,” Wahlquist says. “That means doing events like back-to-school drives. And when there are opportunities — like including a kid’s art in the gallery — we try to do that, too.”
Previous social action grant recipients have included the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and Project 150.