“Can you imagine going to college during a civil war?” asks Amanda Kay Dunsmore, an artist who divides her time between Chicago and Northern Ireland. “Yet Belfast has the most unpretentious art environment I’ve ever been in. When you have friends who have been blown up, you’re nearer to the fundamental things in life that matter. Universities are a neutral ground. Catholics and Protestants meet for the first time because they’re raised in separate schools. Then they realize they’re so bloody similar it’s ridiculous.”

Dunsmore, who graduated from the University of Ulster four years ago, is a sculptor and installation artist who uses everyday materials in often surprising and subversive ways. Though a native of England, she says it’s been much harder adjusting to life in Belfast–a city divided by sectarian strife since the late 1960s–than in Chicago.

“It’s an extremely isolated place, a totally different culture,” she says. “People have different ways of communicating. British people never went there because they thought it was extremely dangerous. They don’t come [to Chicago] thinking it’s a dangerous place. It’s a mind-set. But that’ll all change now. Belfast will be a different place because of the truce.”

When Dunsmore was living in Belfast in August of 1993, a bomb exploded on busy Dublin Road, across the street from the Arts Council Gallery, the third time the gallery had suffered collateral bomb damage in as many locations. The bomb had been planted in a large tree, and all of the leaves were blown off. “The tree had the disposition of winter in summertime,” Dunsmore says.

Inspired by the attack, she played off a common sign in Belfast, spelling out “Stay Clear–Keep Out–Danger” in the gallery’s window using Linotype leaf prints on mortuary tags. The installation, called A Troubled Tree, contained 3,800 fluttering leaf-tags, the same number of lives that had been lost due to bombings in Northern Ireland and England since 1968.

Contrary to what some Americans may think, however, Dunsmore says that Belfast is not a contentious hotbed of politically oriented art. “Very few people do political art in Northern Ireland,” she says. “Most of the political art is intellectually subtle, with an incredible sense of black humor. The Northern Irish deal with everyday life by using the loveliest sense of humor I’ve ever come across–it makes pain more acceptable. It isn’t in-your-face blood and guts because people on the street may have lost a son. You don’t want to hurt people. You want to hurt the right people.”

Dunsmore says she’s tried to apply Belfast’s unpretentious and grimly humorous aesthetic to the work she’s done in Chicago. “Art to me is serious play,” she says. “I try to have fun. People try to take their work too seriously, and it’s a load of crap. My work has absolutely no use whatsoever–unless you want to get sadistic about it.”

But Dunsmore’s most recent mixed-media sculptures–made from a variety of common woodcrafted products and household items like shish kebab sticks, chopsticks, clothespins, wine corks, hair combs, and plaster vegetables–do explore the potentially treacherous turf of sexual and domestic politics. Many of the pieces have genital references; their pricking and poking quality is blunted by an almost ritualistic, obsessive use of materials, giving them a rare beauty.

When viewed from across the room, for example, the exhibit’s centerpiece, The Big Pussy, has an enticingly luxuriant texture; upon closer inspection, one realizes that it’s composed of thousands of wooden clothespins–an ironic use of a common object traditionally associated with housework.

Within Without is a huge wreath and a suspended sphere, each constructed of thousands of wooden shish kebab sticks. If I Had a Good Man for Every Bad Bottle of Wine is a male torso made of hundreds of wine corks. Organic Orange Joy is an interactive work composed of hundreds of warped combs strung on a wire. Rat Trap, a series of 19 strikingly phallic plaster-cast horseradish roots snared in rattraps, begs the questions: Who’s the bait? Who’s the victim?

Dunsmore’s job at a Wicker Park restaurant may have inspired her choice of materials. “The materials find me,” she says, relating how she found a barrel of 5,000 clothespins behind her studio some years ago. But she’s at a loss to explain the source of some of her imagery. “I don’t go out and say, “I’m going to do penises or a big pussy.’ These are not political choices, but they end up being that way.”

Dunsmore will return to Northern Ireland in mid-August. “It’s tough to live there, but you get used to it,” she says. “Every time I leave and come back I’m astounded. There’s a strong art movement in Belfast–it has some of the most talented work I’ve seen in my life. But now a friend has told me that there are no more armed patrols, no more sectarian shootings. It’s becoming like any other city. That ought to be interesting. I don’t know if I’ll be able to live there with no war going on.”

The Fall and Rise of the Big Pussy continues at Idao Gallery, 1616 N. Damen, through August. It’s open noon to 7 Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 9 Friday and Saturday. Call 235-4724 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.