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COOS BAY - It isn't easy to enthuse about germs. Flesh-eating microbes and epidemics aren't your usual feel-good topics, but don't shoot the messenger. Viruses and germs can inspire great art.

Portland fiber artist Maria Winner joins 14th century painter Hieronymus Bosch in the artistic celebration of plagues. Her work is on display at the Coos Art Museum through February 18.

Winner is part of the Portland-based study and exhibition group STiTCH, a six-member consortium that uses threads, beads, fibers and fabrics to create texture-rich art. Their work first appeared at CAM in 2008 with the exhibit "Of Needle and Pen." The current show, "Truth to Tell," will travel to Tillamook later this year.

Maria Winner attacked this year's theme like an epidemiologist at the site of an e coli outbreak

She literally puts the beauty back into disease with her trio of necklaces dubbed, "Everything Wants to Live."

While Bosch concentrated on the victims of bubonic plague - capering peasants, dancing through flames in celebration of death - Winner narrows her focus to the cause: germs.

Her "Everything Wants to Live - Influenza Glam" is a graceful necklace cascading several inches below the collarbone, composed of soft, round fabric puffs studded with spikey beads, like a pomander pierced with cloves. The piece is greenish-yellow, accented in blue, silver and pink. The two companion pieces, in virulent shades of red, are subtitled "Contagious" (a spider web of beading and stitches spreading unevenly down from the neck) and "AIDS Choker."

If Winner's necklaces are provocative, her handmade book, "Deadly Beauties," is as helplessly hypnotic as the scene of a fresh roadside accident.

Subtitled "a viral irony," the book is 12 tactile pages created with fabrics, stitches, feathers and beads, finished off with a shiny brass lock and key. It's displayed next to a sign that invites the viewer to touch it, to turn each page and read.

"Deadly Beauties" features five horrific diseases, each preceded by a lovely, pastel page of silk organza lightly printed with a four-line poem.

The smallpox page is especially rich. Winner uses an open chain stitch of soft, white cotton, shot with gold, across a field of moist, pink velvet. There is an uncomfortable sense that this virus is not at all contained. Twists of cushiony, red fabric extrude fuzzy, finger-like stalks of orange. Long, ivory-colored beads burst from each red mound. Bits of gossamer, celery green silk erupt from the velvet, while a seemingly accidental sprinkling of thin, metallic threads extends a few inches below the page, which I urgently want to turn. When asked how she came to combine viruses with beauty, Winner's response was swift and clear.

"I, being an artist, have my share of artsy magazines and periodicals laying about the house. My husband, an emergency room doctor, has the same. Only his sport images of open wounds, pustules and multicolored rashes. There was an article about viral research which had the most gorgeous images. ... I was hooked. Who could pass up playing with that kind of irony?"

For anthrax, the artist tucks clusters of glossy, elongated pearls beneath fine, gold netting. Squiggles of metallic gold swim across a background of violet, blue and gold, chasing a tracery of tiny gold stitches.

Ebola features blood red beads below a web of orange stitches. Built up with twists and threads, the fabric seems to swell with its cargo of tiny, brightly colored beads, unnervingly active.

Using velvet rosettes and rainbow-hued threads, Winner entices us to approach disease. Her art invites us to look, to touch, to examine her vision of truth.

Teri Albert reviews art and artists for The World. She can be reached at



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