Nick Cave, artist and academic, was doing the out-of-town-visitor thing, watching the fish feeding at the Shedd Aquarium with a few friends, when the law swooped down on him.

“All of a sudden I was embraced by four undercover cops,” he recalls. “They were saying ‘Stay calm, stay calm, we don’t want to embarrass you,’ and I was hysterical, like ‘What in the hell is going on?’ Everyone was looking.”

The explanation? “Some woman said a black male in jeans and a white T-shirt stole her purse,” Cave says. “It was humiliating, disgusting.”

The cops quickly realized they had the wrong person, but didn’t bother to apologize, and the incident became one more stick on the fire that fuels Cave’s art.

“All this work is about me as a black male in this country,” he says. “It’s about fear, about not knowing what could happen, about being redefined every time I step out of my studio and not having any control over it.”

Cave (no relation to the musician) came to Chicago four years ago to teach fiber art at the School of the Art Institute. Over the last couple of years he has produced a series of three-dimensional works he calls “Sound Suits,” shamanistic costumes made of found materials like twigs, feathers, and bottle caps. Fixed against a white wall, as several of them are now in a group show at the Evanston Art Center, the Sound Suits more than hold their own–fabulous garments of pencils and feather dusters and picket fencing. But they are also meant to be worn.

Sometimes Cave dons them himself to perform, pulling them on over the bodysuit of muscle he has built around himself, an armature graceful and powerful enough to catch the lens of Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom he posed in 1989. Then they dance and prance, clank and swish, tinkle and taunt.

“This is exterior versus interior,” Cave says, in a voice too soft for such a body. “That’s how I move myself through life. My exterior has to be the strongest aspect of my being, because that’s what people see.”

Cave and partner Jeffery Roberts opened Robave, a clothing store at 3270 N. Clark, this month after figuring out that “people spend money on clothing and food, but not on art.” It takes a few hundred dollars or more to purchase one of his hand-printed shirts or dresses at the tony shop, but a look at the garments that fly straight from the cave of his subconscious is free at the Evanston Art Center. “Pushing the Boundaries: Explorations in Fiber” runs through November 3 at the center, 2603 Sheridan Road in Evanston. Hours are 10 to 4:30 Monday through Friday, 7 to 10 Thursday evening, 10 to 4 Saturday, and 2 to 5 Sunday. Call 475-5300 for more information.

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