A flash of bright silver beckons visitors to the warehouse at 9010 Maier Road in North Laurel. Made of sunlit silvery coils and pastel streamers that wave in the breeze, a whimsical robot display points to the entrance.
Soon, mock spaceships will show "alien visitors" where to park — a fitting welcome to the otherworldly displays inside.
At ManneqArt Museum, visitors come face to face with silent dress forms in costumes made from non-traditional materials such as wood, metal and recycled plastic. One piece, by local artist Stacy Levy, is a fanciful fabric sculpture representing children's favorite stories featuring a corset made of book spines. Another has a carousel that turns via a wooden handle with a velvet tent drape and a bustle made of paper "tickets-to-ride."
Each of 40 eclectic pieces — sans the human-hair sculpture, special-effects makeup and energy of a live model that complete the artwork — is a universe in itself.
Launched with a soft opening earlier this year, the museum preserves the "sculpture on the human form" created for the ManneqArt Wearable Art Challenge, an international competition entering its fifth year.
Lee Andersen, founder and president of the nonprofit that runs the competition, wants ManneqArt to be "the only museum of its kind." She modeled her organization after one in her native New Zealand (World of WearableArt), but for many Howard County residents, ManneqArt is their first encounter with the art form.
The museum leads visitors "down a fantastical path — a sort of forest of mannequins," says Janelle Broderick, a Columbia resident and director of Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, where ManneqArt held its first artist awards ceremony.
Broderick visited with her three small daughters. The girls were fascinated, she says, with two sculptures in particular: Robert Reed's 2014 piece called "Auntie Organics: GMO Picnic" and his "Poodle Scruba Doodle," a "pink, frilly, fun piece."
The 8-foot tall costume, "Auntie Organics," which won ManneqArt's "serious" award, depicts ants made from dolls' heads and distorted plastic fork legs shopping for genetically modified food. The cuddlier "Poodle," which was modeled in ManneqArt's first year, is constructed of bath scrubbies with a toilet brush for a tail.
Reed, who's moved from Hawaii to Florida since he began participating in ManneqArt in 2013, says his work is often perceived as irreverent, although he doesn't think that way.
"I like wearable art most when it's interpreted as other things than clothing," Reed says. "There's a fine line between wearable art, fashion and theater."
Al Scolnik, ManneqArt executive director and Andersen's husband, has his own ideas about Reed's sculptures, of which the museum owns eight.
"He's got an attitude about marriage," Scolnik quips, pointing to Reed's "Committed" — a strait-jacket wedding gown topped by a toy bride and groom in an electric chair and adorned with torched silk roses.
Reed was ManneqArt's 2015 master award-winner with the piece "OMGeode! A Diamond in the Fluff: That's Tutu Much." This year, artists will compete for titles in categories inspired by ocean, eco, energy, aviation and inner lights with $12,000 in award money at stake.
Fashion design student Portia Harris will be among them. She learned of the competition through Sally DiMarco, program coordinator at Stevenson University and a donor and member of ManneqArt's board.
Harris' entry is made of recycled water bottles in the "ocean" theme. At Andersen's suggestion, she incorporated "inner lights" to be eligible for an additional award through a ManneqART collaboration with Sandy Spring Museum.
"Everything [about ManneqArt] is unconventional, and I love stuff like that," Harris says. "This is so inspirational and cool to me."
Hers will be one of about 60 new works that come in each year, says Andersen, who juggles overseeing the museum with designing art clothing for Andersen-Becker, Inc., the fashion business she co-owns in the same space.
She and her business partner, Joan Becker, ship their sewn-in-house pieces to 500 specialty boutiques across the U.S. (Among the most remarkable pieces is a jacket in her new fall collection with buttons made of 50-million-year-old ammonite fossils from a once-submerged island in Morocco.)
"We are the only company of our kind, we believe, left in America and one of the few left in the world," Andersen says.
On the factory side, Andersen recently launched the Maryland Fashion Institute, where she teaches "real world experience" to anyone, at any level, seeking to start or grow a career in fashion.
Sharing space with the museum is a temporary measure, she says. "Our long-term plan is [to] have a purpose-built, sculptural-shaped museum in Merriweather Park that is synergistic with the beautiful lines of the Chrysalis and the natural woods."
There are no plans in place to do that at present, but Inner Arbor Trust president Michael McCall says ManneqArt embodies the spirit of Merriweather Park.
"Lee is one of the most original creatures of pure creativity anywhere, with a passion for fostering creative expression with everyone," McCall said in an email. "Having a ManneqArt Museum resident in the heart of Columbia would be a true gift to us all."
For now, the clothing factory doubles as a museum and event space; Oregon artist Doe Badley installed a striking floor-to-ceiling faux stained glass window in a new reception area in January.
Columbia resident Darcy Elliott and Simon Mayers of Richmond are renting the ManneqArt Museum for their wedding reception in October.
Elliott said she looks forward to sharing the ManneqArt experience with their guests, who will be allowed to photograph the art. She particularly enjoyed David Walker's "Twisted Up in Wood," winner of last year's "flora" award, at a recent visit.
"I thought it was really cool; I'd seen some of [ManneqArt's] work at the Columbia mall, but the museum visit was much more of an in-depth experience," she says.
The museum's leaders hope to build on that experience; 50 more sculptures lie in storage, pending its expansion into a permanent home. And based on the attendance at last summer's calendar photo shoot at Savage Mill, they'd have the audience to support it. Scolnik said it drew close to 1,000 spectators.