At an air show at Niagara Falls when fiber artist/photographer Amy Caterina was 13, she witnessed a midair collision of two Blue Angel planes in which one of the pilots was decapitated. That same year, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch; three months later, the meltdown at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl became the worst nuclear-power-plant disaster in history. Other 13-year-olds were aware of such catastrophes and no doubt saw the terrifying images of death and destruction, but they likely quickly moved on with their puberty-dominated lives; little Amy cut out gruesome newspaper clippings and packed them into boxes.
What most intrigued the future artist wasn't horror, but rather how something could exist, and then suddenly not exist, and it forever ignited a fixation on the nature of death and destruction, of what's left behind. With these kinds of childhood highlights, one might expect Caterina to be a dark, tortured soul, so when she bounces into the room, bright-eyed and beaming, her peroxided hair aglow, you might do a double-take.
"I've been told I have an optimistic darkness," she says while giggling. As she retrieves doggie treats so that her beloved wiener pooch Walter Hill will agree to perform some tricks, she continues, "But my whole childhood was terrorized with thoughts that we were going to be nuked by the Soviets."
"CAKE/Fondant" at Coastline Art Gallery, Coastline Community College, www.coastline.edu. Open Tues.-Thurs., 1-5 p.m.; or by appointment. Through Oct. 6. Free.
Her reaction to terror is not to run, but to embrace. To combat her Cold War fears, she shaved her head in college and drew a Gorbachev splotch on it for a school assignment. She has no fear of flying; instead, she makes model airplanes (including those lost in the Bermuda Triangle) with her husband, artist Kevin Hill, and hangs them in a diorama over the bathtub. "I just sit really low when I'm in there," she says with a wink. And since she can't stand the ocean, over her bed hangs a framed poster of Jaws. Most unusual, instead of being into guns, knives or other deranged weaponry, she knits.
Caterina, who is currently an adjunct art instructor at Santa Ana, Golden West and Coastline colleges, is a highly respected fiber artist whose installations of life-sized deer and other forest creatures knitted from Fun Fur have dominated exhibitions throughout Southern California. It's disaster darlin' meets Bambi and Thumper—and there isn't an evil hunter or forest inferno to be found.
Turning tragedy into warm and fuzzy triumph is her gift. She has had seven operations, for example, and since she's not keen on the hospital experience, she is drawn to surgical tools, which she instantly re-defines by knitting them cozies even a grandma could love.
"Every time I go to the dentist or doctor, I ask if I can have something. My goal is to collect every type of tool that's ever been used on me," she says. "Then, I take these tools, which are very hardcore-looking, and give them something soft and cuddly because they took care of me, you see—it's reciprocal. Of course, I leave little bits of metal sticking out that are just terrifying enough. I love that juxtaposition."
She also suffers from frequent nosebleeds, which she promptly transforms into art. "Whenever I get one, I go to the scanner and bleed on it," she admits. "Once, I took the scans and crocheted an afghan with all of these abstract splotches on it and hung it up at a show. Two older ladies just loved it until I told them what it was."
But it's the end-of-the-world scenarios that really get her soon-to-be-bottled plasma flowing, and her grand apocalyptic statement, the Cupcake Bunker, debuts next month at Coastline's "Cake/fondant" exhibit.
"I was in the shower," she recalls, "and I thought would it be totally bizarre to make a bunker shaped like a cupcake because it's the thing that you love, that gives you the most comfort, the most joy, and it's an irony that the best thing you've ever had in your mouth will probably be where you'll die."
The bunker, which is roughly the size of a Smart Car, will house one survivor who'll be surrounded by food, tools and first-aid necessities—all covered in cozies. And this brings us to the color pink.
"I was a tomboy growing up, and I've been wearing men's clothes forever and don't even know how to act like a woman, but I LOVE pink," Caterina enthuses. "I just have to 'come out' about it, I guess—everything I have is pink. If I could have a pink car, I would. So, I'm embracing this 'love that dare not speak its name,' and inside the bunker, everything is so pink and so cuddly and so soft that when I started to cover things, it got really nauseating pretty quickly."
The only downside Caterina realized, after talking with doctor and scientist friends, is that no one could actually survive in the bunker if things do take a turn for the worst.
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"You'll only have so much time before you poison yourself with CO2," she says, sighing. "So, it turns out that my Cold War cupcake is actually a sarcophagus."
But what a way to go.
This article appeared in print as "Doomsday Darlin': Amy Caterina loves a pink-colored Apocalypse—and other fuzzy disasters."