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Welcome to Jen Clay's nightmares

During her heavily medicated childhood in rural North Carolina, Jen Clay would sleep restlessly in her bedroom with the lights switched on, keeping vigil for the shadowy claw she believed lurked beneath her bed.

“I just remember having this big bag of pills,” Clay recalls of her night terrors as a 9-year-old. “I had a lot of allergies, plus asthma and pneumonia. But I was a happy kid, really.”

These nighttime hallucinations, along with sleep paralysis and an uncommon diet of “Sesame Street” and R-rated horror films, inspire the unsettling, surreal and playful creatures of Clay’s performance art and sculptures. Clay re-created the claw during a 10-minute performance at FAT Village’s Projects space in 2016, when she emerged from behind a white curtain dressed in a feathered costume with a wobbling, bulbous neck. Built with cascades of purple, green and yellow synthetic fabrics, Clay’s costume shimmered as she shuffled around the warehouse, silently greeting freaked-out visitors seated in a semicircle. Long, white puppet arms protruded from the curtain, which displayed a stop-motion video projection of bouncing colors and geometric shapes. Clay thought her audience looked bewildered, which excited her.

“The creatures are all based on childhood hallucinations and stories,” Clay, 32, explains over coffee at the Grind Coffee Project, a downtown Fort Lauderdale cafe across the street from her squat warehouse studio near South Andrews Avenue. “When I was really young, I did see things, but I never got a definite sense of why I saw them. It made my childhood feel fantastical. My parents thought I was just really imaginative, but they felt real. That is the cornerstone of why I make art: to confront people with the unknown, the ambiguous tension where you’re anticipating something strange is going to happen. And then, it does.”

For Clay, a Fort Lauderdale sculptor who helps program FAT Village’s annual performance-art festival the Nerve, mining her past has proven fruitful to her career. On Saturday, Nov. 11, Clay’s works will go on display during Small Press Fair ’17 in FAT Village, a celebration of independent publishers and zinemakers. Clay will showcase 40 miniature flags, each printed with several “ridiculous, silly” non sequiturs, she says. After that, in October 2018, the Young at Art Museum in Davie will host Clay’s first major solo exhibition, a technology-themed installation that will include costumes, stop-motion animation and video projections.

Clay’s appetite for the bizarre fits her upbringing in Hickory, N.C. She describes Hickory as a place rich with small-town eeriness and local phenomena, fueled by ghost stories Clay’s mother would tell her. A neighbor regaled her with tales of the Mothman, a 1960s West Virginian folk legend about a humanlike creature with red eyes and a 10-foot wingspan. Clay, who learned to read at age 10 (“I’m not sure why. My childhood memories are fuzzy,” she says), also was fascinated with the legend of the Brown Mountain Lights, mysterious lights that appeared through the thick canopy of the nearby Brown Mountain ridge behind her house. Explanations for the gaseous lights ranged from ghosts to alien abductions. Clay believed both, at first.

“I was an impressionable child, and hearing all that drove my imagination,” Clay says. “But I don’t believe in the supernatural. I wouldn’t be able to function in my work if I did. I do have a deep, deep fear of aliens, though.”

Clay became a mother at 19 and lived in Hickory until 21, when she moved with her daughter, Myona (now 12), to Charlotte. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where as a social experiment she left hairy, grotesque puppets on the roads near campus.

“I wanted to interrupt mundane life with the unexpected,” says Clay, who later earned a master’s in sculpture at the University of Florida.

What drives Clay now is creating more of these “interruptions,” but on a grander scale. In 2015 project “UnderNeath,” Clay projected a Claymation video loop against the façade of the former Girls’ Club Collection in Fort Lauderdale, depicting the building’s “insides getting slowly ripped into, showing the imagined anatomy inside," she says. For the past two years, Clay has performed at the International Noise Conference at Churchill’s Pub in Little Haiti, costumed as the Void, a black, oval-shaped creature with long, branching arms that resemble rakes. She describes the character as a “manifestation of fear and being afraid of the dark.” In a singsongy voice, the Void has told the audience, “I’ll always be with you. I want to be your friend.” More recent, in June at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, Clay presented “Nearing,” in which she re-created the Mothman myth with a black-feathered costume with wing flaps covered in pink, organlike shapes.

Clay’s studio is a stuffy, windowless warehouse shared with three other artists, including printmaker Chuck Loose of Iron Forge Press. Her space, covered in piles of shiny green and blue fabric, is a wardrobe closet and workshop for her puppetry and Claymation projects. During a recent tour of the studio, she put on the Mothman costume.

“It opens up like this, and you see what’s inside,” says Clay, her voice muffled by the cloth, as she displays Mothman’s pink and red wings. She struts around the studio and giggles, her laughter punctuated with hearty snorts. Finally, she says, “It opens up and I’m like, ‘See, we can change to be just like you.’ ”

“I want the audience to be pushed up against this otherness, to embrace the void, to realize that you’re no longer safe and comfortable,” Clay says. “These costumes are designed to look sinister, like supernatural stranger danger, right? But they’re actually friendly. They’re saying friendly things. They want to be your friend. And you’ll either feel allured or repulsed by the performance, but I want you to feel both. I’m invested in that murkiness: Is it all in my head and I’m crazy, or is it all really real?”

“SPF ’17: Small Press Fair Fort Lauderdale” will take place noon-6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at FAT Village, 521 NW First Ave. Admission is free. Go to SPF-FTL.com. Clay’s handmade flags are also on display at the Art and Culture of Hollywood. For more information, go to JenLynnClay.com.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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