"It all started," Megan Lotts begins, before stopping to backpedal for a little context. "Well, you know, I love to ride the bus," says the artist, "and there was this guy who always wears this DiGiorno Pizza jacket, and I got to thinking about what people wear."
Lotts, 32, is perhaps best known here for her "Why Are You a Madisonian?" project during the city's sesquicentennial celebrations, when she invited residents to respond to the question and paired their answers with her photographs of them. More than 500 people participated. Thousands more saw the resulting quilt-like display.
Millions may see her new project, "Wear It!" Funded by a Madison Arts Commission grant, it is a limited edition of 200 prints.
The medium: T-shirts.
Lotts plans to sign and number each, then distribute them free of charge to friends, acquaintances, kids and complete strangers, starting April 1. No fooling.
That pizza jacket started Lotts musing about fashion, individuality and propaganda - commercial, social and political. "We're bombarded with images and art," she observes over coffee at Fair Trade on State Street. "I pass the Gap all the time. I see people come out of the Gap with a new wardrobe and I think, okay, that's cool, but five million other people are wearing the same thing. We're afraid to be individuals."
Lotts describes her design for the front of the shirt - rendered in vibrant colors with pen and ink on watercolor paper - as an aerial landscape depicting Madison's isthmus. "I'm fascinated by the isthmus," she says, "by the city's architecture, and how it's laid out." It reminds her of the Yucatán and Machu Picchu, how ancient cultures negotiated natural space.
The back of the shirt bears a basic explanation of the project, an equivalent to the title card you might see next to the image if it was hanging in a gallery, along with her Web site (www.meganlotts.com). Maybe one of the limited-edition T-shirts will be framed or hung on a wall at some point. Lotts herself thought about doing so. But she finds strong appeal in the prospect of uncertain outcomes, of releasing art into the wild. Once she gives the shirts away, anything could happen.
T-shirt recipients will be invited to join the limited edition's other wearers for a photo opportunity on the Capitol's State Street steps, to document the project. But there is uncertainty even here. All 200 people might show up, or a handful. Either way, Lotts says, people who wear or see the limited edition will be part of a shared experience.
She likens the process of giving her work away to sharing a stick of gum or a high-five with someone - a peace offering or act of good tiding toward the community. "Like picking up a leaf or a flower and giving it to someone," adds Lotts, who is finishing her master's in library science at UW and has been short-listed for a position on the art faculty at Oklahoma State.
Lotts expects the T-shirts to disperse across and beyond town, perhaps even around the world as their wearers travel or relocate. There is the tantalizing prospect that millions of people might see these 200 prints over the T-shirts' lifespans. Some of the shirts could change hands, be given as gifts, donated to St. Vinny's, put up for bid on eBay. Before they are all worn threadbare, you could see one in the wilds of Iceland or Patagonia, on the streets of Paris or beaches of the Caribbean, in Africa or Antarctica.
"I would love to be somewhere really removed from Madison," muses Lotts, "and see it."