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When artists go bad

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


There’s a great, telling moment in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 documentary The Mystery of Picasso where Picasso is working on a painting and the painting goes terribly wrong. The director has provided a transparent canvas so the audience gets to see the modifications and decisions that Picasso makes, and it’s fascinating to watch the great artist realize, after a few wrong choices, that what he’s creating is a mess. After the last, disastrous change Picasso finally takes a moment, looks at the canvas, and reaches the same conclusion the audience has: "This is not good. This is very bad," he says, and immediately scraps the painting. It is reassuring to know that even the most eminent of artists knows when he totally sucks.

Failure is inevitable to all artists, and unfortunately most aren’t able to destroy the evidence (like Picasso) of their most notorious works. Every artist has that one, wince-inducing memory— the terrible performance, the disastrous opening, the idiotic design — that they can never get out of their mind. Learning to deal with the consequences of failure is necessary for the artist to develop, but it sure isn’t any fun. I asked a number of Fort Wayne artists to look back in horror at their worst moments in the arts, and they agreed to dredge up the ugliness. For them I give my thanks but also, this heartening reminder: Only the mediocre are always at their best.

Thom Hofrichter, actor, director: It was my final year in UNLV’s undergrad theater program, and as a senior they finally gave me a role I could sink my teeth into, Horace Vander Gelder in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. After four weeks of rehearsals it was time to strut my stuff in a big way. People knew that I could take on small character roles, but now I was gonna show them that I was ready to carry a bigger piece of the show. Several hours before our opening I was at home listening to music. One of my housemates had a black lab mix called Madame. She came up to me as I sat in a chair, and as I patted her head I said, "So, how do you think it will go tonight?" And without missing a beat, she puked all over me.

In retrospect, I realize that Madame was answering my question. While she only ralphed on me once, I spewed forth three weekends in that play, and I am sure the audience was every bit as dismayed by what I regurgitated at them as by what Madame yakked up on me. I don’t want to go into too much detail (after 23 years it’s still pretty painful), but let me sum it up by saying that I’ve been to funerals that got more laughs.

What embarrasses me most about the story is that not only was I unable to change course to fix an impending disaster, I wasn’t even able to recognize when I was in the middle of one.

Larry Wardlaw, director: I was directing my first show for the Theatre Workshop (now Arena Theatre) in 1971–the show was Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and we were invited to do selections from the show live on the famed Ann Colone show on WANE-TV. Ann was on vacation and Dave King was in the host chair. We did a couple of numbers from the show, and cut to the set where we chatted about the show dates and details. I could sense that he did not know a lot about theater, and was struggling to come up with questions. He suddenly turned to me and said, "You said this is one of Porter’s best shows, so why hasn’t he written anything lately?" In shock, I hesitated, looked at the piano player for reassurance, and finally said "Because he’s dead!" We cut quickly to a commercial, during which the producer determined that this segment was definitely over.

Jason Stopa, artist: There was one time a few years ago that I really screwed up a few pieces. I was creating mixed media works for a show in Michigan, and I wanted to do some large work. So I bought two thick sheets of masonite and created my paintings. The paintings turned out really well–they had collage buried under layers of paint, paying some obvious visual cues to Jasper Johns.

I went to the hardware store and bought two birch wood panels and glued each piece of birch wood to each respective painting. The next morning I went to pick these suckers up and they weighed a good forty pounds a piece, easy. How would they hang on the wall? I thought. I tried to find the strongest wire to stretch across the pieces and drove. When I delivered them to the gallery curator, we tried hanging them there on the spot. As I was about to leave, one of the painting’s wire snapped, and fell straight off the wall. The curator shot me a glare that was pretty humiliating. Luckily, he had some industrial grade wire on hand, and fixed my mistake. I left soon afterward. Needless to say, I learned my lesson and I’m now bent on trying to make pieces as light as possible.

Sankofa, musician: My most memorable failure has been as an artist trying on a business suit. After having gone the indie label route with 2004's CD The Rosetta Stone, I opted to press the next CD myself. Along came 2005's Still Means Something. Having already secured the domain name "obeseamerica.com," I figured it would make a great name for my imaginary label. I contacted friends in college radio promotion and hit up numerous familiars with press contacts. Of the 1000 CDs I pressed, 200 were set aside for college radio. Friends in Sweden, Germany, Brazil, Australia, France and maybe even Guam were hit up in the name of press. Of the 200 CDs mailed out to college radio, I got two responses. One of those was a request for me to send them more CDs for fundraiser giveaways. Of the number I sent out internationally, I garnered one review. Speaking from both fiscal and press standpoints, my efforts were for naught.

On the side of a silver lining, having so many copies of Still Means Something serving as dustily boxed reminders inspired me to make this year’s The Tortoise Hustle a microbrew release, complete with 250 numbered CD tins and other such whimsical ingredients. I was never involved in music for the money and my Still Means Something experiment proved a fitting reminder.

Julia Meek, artist: I was invited to do an eleventh-hour, small solo art show, and being late fall, art-gift giving season, I was requested to include some of my "Catchers Series" (embellished, structural glass blocks as art.) I was up to my eyebrows in other seasonal art deadlines, and in fact, had retired the "Catchers Series" at least six months earlier, but I foolishly though I could manage to power-produce it in time for the show’s feature.
I was up and running. Then my trusty glass cement ran dry. I raced to replace, and settled for the "new and improved" version–and proceeded to break THE very rule I preach ad nauseum: ALWAYS pre-test a new material. In this case, the blocks came out sweet, and all looked swell as the display went together. So I found out the hard way, at show’s end, that the "ultra catchers" were not only unsold, they were nearly naked, as ALL of the beads had liberated themselves and were rolling around the gallery’s display case and floor.
So I’ve learned to take a little more time, a lot less chances, and fewer eleventh-hour marathons. And I always pre-test.

(Look for Part 2 of “When Artists Go Bad” in FWR #85)

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