The idea to transform NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson’s fire suit into a piece of art was conceived over dinner one night in 2016.
Johnson and his wife, Chandra Johnson, were dining with installation artist E.V. Day and her husband, cookbook author Ted Lee, in their Brooklyn, New York, loft. They’d been introduced by Michele Snyder, the senior major gift officer at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Johnson noticed Day’s “Bridal Supernova” in her home studio.
“(Day) had this piece of art that was there,” Johnson said in an interview with the Observer. “It was actually a Barbie doll (dress) that was exploding. I thought, ‘That is so cool.’ ”
Johnson’s exposure to Day’s work sparked a thought: What if Day exploded one of his fire suits? (Such suits contain fire retardant properties and are part of the safety gear that all drivers use.)
After hours of conversation, the Johnsons commissioned Day to create something with Jimmie’s 2006 Daytona 500 racing suit.
“When I really retraced my steps, 2006 is a huge year for me and my career,” Johnson said. “The Daytona was my first 500 win. (It was a) very trying time. My crew chief was suspended for a couple of races. That suspension and the success that we had on track really helped me mature as a driver and helped our team bond as a group.
“That moment in time led us to our first championship in 2006,” he said. “Once we won ’06, we won four more, essentially five in a row. All roads led back to that Daytona 500 fire suit.”
Celebrating the Johnsons
“Daytona Vortex,” by E.V. Day made its public debut on Dec. 23 in the Gorelick Gallery on Level 3 at the Mint Museum Uptown. It’s on loan from the Johnsons, and will be on display through June 5.
The Johnsons are well familiar with the Mint and the local art scene. The couple lives in Charlotte, and Chandra Johnson owns the SOCO Gallery in Eastover.
When Jennifer Edwards Sudul, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Mint, heard about “Daytona Vortex,” she asked if the Mint could exhibit it first. Chandra Johnson has served on the Mint’s board of trustees and is on the advisory board now.
“Jimmie and Chani (Chandra Johnson) are huge philanthropists,” Edwards Sudul said. “It seemed like a wonderful way to honor them. Let the audience know, not only is he this successful sports figure, but also they have this whole other cultural life and role.
“I wanted to make sure that was celebrated in the galleries.”
‘Between the chaos and the celebration’
Day was given complete freedom with the commission. The fire suit arrived by FedEx in 2016 in its Alpinestars bag. The Italian-based company had custom-built the suit for Johnson.
Day began exploring racing, as well as the history of fire suits. She discovered how the materials incorporated into NASCAR’s fire suits evolved through NASA’s need to design a safe suit for astronauts.
Day also toured Hendrix Motorsports, attended a Daytona 500 race and sat next to the team in the pit. She listened on headphones to team captain Chad Knaus speak with Johnson.
A photo from the winning day in 2006 — red, white and blue confetti, shot from a cannon, falls around Johnson — portrayed the positivity Day wanted.
“It needed to be exhilarating in terms of a celebration,” Day said. “There’s a fine line between the chaos and the celebration. That I took very seriously. In no way did I want it to seem like a crash.”
Day cut along the seam lines of the fire suit to reveal the structure of the garment.
She revealed the exoskeleton and then added a reinforcing black denim for the frayed sections to maintain the integrity of the fabric. The reversed engineering of the suit also is a way to pay homage to Karuta, the complicated armor of the samurai, according to the Mint.
Tension as visual cue for art
The piece is anchored to a 30-inch, near-polished stainless steel disc on the floor with heavy-weight fishing line.
Sixty points of fishing line go to eyebolts in the ceiling, holding all the elements of the suit at different heights. The materials Day used — steel turnbuckles, heavy-weight fishing line — underscore the pressure within the piece.
“In Daytona Vortex, as in in all my ‘Exploding Couture’ sculptures, hundreds of fishing lines are pulled from the floor to the ceiling and hold fragments of the garment in a new form, suggestive of a stop-action explosion,” Day said. “The sculpture could also be called a drawing in space comprised of tension lines.
“The tension… is also a visual cue, underscoring the forces required to metaphorically dismantle an iconic form. Daytona Vortex is a launchpad of celebratory energy, bursting the seam lines of the fire suit in victory.”
‘Commemorating the moment’
The exploding wedding dress, the one Johnson saw in Day’s studio, is an example of the installation art Day is known for.
“The dress is for a 12-inch Barbie doll,” Day said. “It’s in a four-foot cage. Hundreds of fishing line come from the lace and all the edges, pulling it out into a big explosion puff. It looks like an exploding star because it’s exploding from all different perspectives.”
In 2000, Day’s “Bombshell,” the first installation in “Exploding Couture,” exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, a show for contemporary American art at the Whitney Museum.
It’s an eight-foot replica of the white halter dress Marilyn Monroe wore in the movie, “The Seven Year Itch.” It expands more than 20-feet between two floors.
Others in the series include “Black Bombshell” and “Winged Victory.” “Transporter” is part of the Mint’s collection and may be seen on Level 4.
“The work I do in the ‘Exploding Couture’ series is really about commemorating the moment and the transition between something we recognize, an image and the transformation of female stereotypes coming apart,” Day said. “The idea is that it is in mid-explosion.”
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This story was originally published March 1, 2022 8:13 AM.