Volume 3 Number 2
Table of Contents
Blues records do make money, but it takes a while.
What does one say about five weeks of continuous theatre?
Laurie Carlos is not a star. She is not famous, but her work is.
Given how interwoven the musicians in Austin's famed scene are (one band gives birth to two side projects, which in turn give birth to a couple more...and it never ends), it seems inevitable that they'll spill over into other artistic forms as well.
Ah, Dirty Martin's. There is no finer establishment in which to speak of philosophy, religion, great literature, and art.
Can we talk about race without talking about culture? Can we talk about culture without talking about race? Can we talk about the artistic/cultural/political climate in Austin without talking about money?
One of the creepiest things to see is a sunbeam piercing a sky that's almost black with rain clouds. It's beautiful, too, of course.
Blues Joint Effort by Christopher Hess
The alarm has been sounded, the cry has gone up -- and has been going up for some time now -- that the record industry is hurting. It's the technology, the spreading-too-thin of Joe Average's entertainment dollar, the ease with which any shmoe can record and produce his own record and, on the other end, the capabilities of the big guys to be everywhere, and cheap. Caught in the middle of all this are the independents -- the small companies committed to a stable of musicians with usually specialized sounds and philosophies and to the production and distribution of their product in a wide yet dignified manner. So instead of being swallowed up in the not-as-commercially-viable void between consignment stores and the Best Buy racks, steps must be taken.
Started in 1987 mainly to record live performances at Antone's blues club, the Antone's Records label received some acclaim for its releases of Memphis Slim and Matt Murphy's reunion and Eddie Taylor's last recordings. An anthology was made for the club's 10th anniversary and featured blues gods Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Otis Rush and many others. The success of these records prompted the label to take operations from the club into the studio, and local legends and Antone's fixtures Doug Sahm, Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli were among the first of these releases. James Cotton Live, released on Antone's in its second year, was nominated for a Grammy and established Antone's as a reputable blues label. All was going very well, even better than expected. But the thing about the blues is that it doesn't sell millions -- especially the kind of traditional "low-down" blues that Clifford Antone, president of the label and proprietor of the club, likes to focus his energies on.
If quality recording and purity of the music are a record company's goals, then it's necessary to have capital to back up the projects. Especially if they won't immediately make the money back. Blues records do make money, but it takes a while. And those in the business of recording jazz are in much the same boat. Discovery Records, based in Santa Monica, was started back in 1948 in Los Angeles by Albert Marx and focused exclusively on jazz, recording the likes of Dizzie Gillespie and Georgie Auld. The label was sold in 1952, but was bought back by Marx in the late '70s and reactivated. Discovery re-established recording artists like Sue Raney and Mike Wofford in Los Angeles,and maintained its image as a solid jazz label throughout the 1980s. Marx died in 1991, and Jac Holzman -- who had founded Elektra Records in 1950, built it up as an important home for the folk movement of the '50s and '60s and then retired from it after it was acquired and made a part of what is today WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) -- saw the label as a solid platform for a new company. Holzman's ties to the Warner Music Group provided the means for distribution through WEA, which would enable them to use the resources of a major while retaining the autonomy of an independent. So, officially, they are a free-standing label of the Warner Music Group. They have worked the independent position to successful effect, reactivating the old catalogs, releasing contemporary jazz to a large market, and expanding at a deliberate and careful pace to the world outside of jazz.
"This is a business, but it's a business hardened by a very emotional side -- the music. It all depends on why you're in it," says Syd Birenbaum, CEO of Discovery Records. Birenbaum has been involved with the company for many years, working his way through the ranks until his appointment to chiefdom in early 1996. He is responsible for the Antone's deal. In 1993 he came to Texas and was captivated by a female blues-country singer during a SXSW showcase. The singer was Toni Price, and the show prompted both immediate and sustained interest in her career on Birenbaum's part, which led to his offer to distribute her first album, Swim Away. In order for this to happen, Discovery and Antone's (to whom Price had already committed and with whom the recording had already begun) had to strike a deal. Originally the deal was just for Price, but over the next few years the interest and communication were maintained, and in 1996 the two labels signed an agreement by which Antone's would remain an independent label with distribution handled by Discovery and WEA. From that point on, all Antone's releases would carry the double imprint of both labels.
Through the contract, Discovery has exclusive licensing and distribution rights to all Antone's releases for about two-thirds of the world -- North America and the Pacific Rim mostly. Antone's still handles their European distribution, a market they are plenty comfortable covering on their own. Also part of the contract, Discovery has the option of refusing any offering made by Antone's, a necessity and a technicality, but one that could carry great weight. "It's not a clause we hope or plan to enact often, but there are some things in the catalog that may not be of sufficient commercial interest for us to take on," says Birenbaum. This begs the question of how much influence Discovery executives will have over who and what gets on Antone's. If there is no distribution interest at Discovery, no matter what the level of artistic value or historical interest to those at Antone's, a project could be considered unmarketable and not undertaken. But Birenbaum shrugs that off. "Our involvement is more a fraternal than a controlling one, in terms of what is good for Antone's is good for Discovery. If we didn't believe what they were already doing could work, we wouldn't be in this."
On the side of Antone's in this is a deep commitment to the music -- and luckily that is characteristic of Discovery as well, who have developed a reputation for sticking with their artists in the face of moderate to little commercial success. A label that just as adamantly pursues the re-release of their back catalog of jazz recordings as they do the recruiting of new and alternative acts is about as safe a situation as a small label like Antone's could hope for as they enter the tenuous world of contracts with major distributors.
Antone's has never been flushed with cash, and for the past few years they've been struggling to stay afloat. Attempts to tap into other markets with the formation of the DMZ and Dos labels were unsuccessful and laden with money problems. And, as these separate entities are not of interest to Discovery, they've been put on the back burner.
Considering the mountains that independent labels must climb in today's market, it seems that joint ventures of this nature are in everyone's best interests. "It's a plan that's viable in the 90s," says Birenbaum, pointing to the example of, among others, the Trauma/Interscope/MCA collaboration that's produced such commercial mega-successes as No Doubt and Bush. "At any given time in contemporary music new life and energy springs forth from the independent label. And in order for us to stay in touch with that, the type of deal we have with Antone's is a very graceful way of pulling all the elements together." It's a plan that they intend to expand, as long as it doesn't harm the interests of their current partners. Those partners include the Eureka label, a "straight- ahead rock" label also in California that's home to the shockingly SRV-ish Cory Stevens; and China Records, a UK-based, mostly-techno label whose catalog includes the Art of Noise, the Egg and Morcheeba.
The focus on the devotion to the music and the autonomy of the independent label is a subject Birenbaum consistently returns to: "It's important to us to maintain the integrity of [the Antone's] institution. If we wanted to corrupt or exploit it, we'd buy it outright. That's the way that kind of thing is done, but we don't want that. We want to give them the opportunities we have as a WEA entity because we believe in the music they believe in. They wouldn't have that opportunity otherwise."
True. Antone's stands to benefit relatively quickly from this collaboration, as they have a few major releases planned for this year including the early January release of new albums by Boozoo Chavis, Miss Lavelle White, and Snooky Pryor, as well as the truly massive re-release project that will begin to happen on a monthly basis with about 25 titles to hit the stores by April. This will mean renewed circulation as well as a new marketing push from Discovery.
The push couldn't have come at a better time, as the past couple years have been particularly rough on Antone's. Led to believe that 1995 was a successful period for selling blues records, Antone's headquarters was bombarded with returns at the end of the year. And with no releases coming out in the first half of 1996, there was no product out to pick up the slack. So the debt and the tension grew. They muddled through, though, with a little help from friends and investors who are willing to put up money for what they believe is a cultural necessity for the city. That help enabled Antone's to stay afloat until, in the middle of '96, Discovery re-entered the picture and bolstered the business end with a promise of product movement and steady, solid release dates. Business was taken care of.
But the fact remains, the last word has to be music. And, logically, it must be Clifford Antone himself who utters it. "Everything is rolling along just fine. They said it'd take about a year before we could see if this was working or not, so we'll see in another six months or so," Antone says. He seems detached from the subject, though, and steers the conversation back to the music. The Discovery folk "seem like good people; they know what they're doing," he says. "But that's for them to figure out. I see it like you don't really care who you're doing it with, you just want to get it done." But in speaking about the label, there is an option on the agreement, a future opportunity for Discovery to bail if they aren't satisfied or to buy if they are. So does that mean they already have ownership investment -- a year lease with an option to buy?
"Well, that's just to see what happens," Antone says. "That's for the lawyers. I don't want to sell the label. But I don't really think about that much; that's not what it's about for me. Label shmabel, I just make records. That's all bullshit."
If one thing is true about Clifford Antone, it's that he is dedicated heart and soul to the music he records. "I know how to record people, blues people. Look at Lou Ann, Doug Sahm, Kim Wilson. I recorded those people right. I got the real thing out of them for history's sake. I'm a music guy, that's what I do. Just listen to the Doug Sahm record and a [Texas] Tornadoes record back to back and tell me what's what."
The division between the business end and the artistic end of the recording business is a line Antone isn't too willing to cross, and he has seen all too well how that boundary can keep real talent out of the game. "The music biz is cruel to the true artist, most of them dwell in obscurity," says Antone. "Look at Eugene Carrier down in Houston. Hell, look at James Polk. He's the best goddam keyboard player around and you don't see him at the Austin Music Awards. The business is a complete, absolute joke."
Accordingly, Clifford Antone's projects of choice do not have the commercial appeal that those in power at Discovery will likely take interest in. But that's something that he apparently can live with. It's enough that he can keep recording local artists in the way he thinks they should be presented -- "for history's sake." And the age-old fact that it is this obscurity that keeps the music he loves so pure is not lost on him either. It's just a sad fact that has to be accepted and risen above. That last word? "It all boils down to the same thing. It's just me and my friends here on our own trying to make our way in the world."
We Came, We Saw, We Were Overwhelmed:
FronteraFest '97 by Courtenay Nearburg
What does one say about five weeks of continuous theatre? Well, we couldn't get to every performance, but damn! Sure wish we could have! FronteraFest '97 lives up to its reviews as "THE alternative theatre event of the year" (Austin-American Statesman, FronteraFest '96), with cutting edge performances and challenging new work by Frontera Company players and local amateur artists.
FronteraFest is set up to showcase new and developing works in a unique format that has four or five short pieces on each nightly bill, from which five are selected by community panelists to reappear at the end of the week in a Best of the Week performance on Saturday nights. The fifth and final week of the festival is devoted to those pieces selected as Best of the Fest, with Thursday night given up for the Wild Card Night, a selection made by the producers of FronteraFest, pieces not chosen for Best of the Fest but that the producers want to see again.
FronteraFest '97 featured poetry readings, Late Night Open Jam Sessions (for any and every body to get up and perform anything), dance performances, monologues, scenes, and short plays. Some of the more delightful pieces were the most innocently wrought, without staging and costume, just a slightly nervous performer taking their first baby steps into the spotlight. Other performances were brilliantly designed and directed, including selections from FronteraFest's featured artists, including Laurie Carlos (Minneapolis), Amparo Garcia (Houston), Mauricio Cordero (Boston), and Austinites Daniel Alexander Jones and Jason Phelps.
The featured artists held workshops and seminars throughout the FronteraFest, and there were also special performances held at local residences through a new program called "Mi Casa es Su Teatro." Frontera@Hyde Park has established itself as the premiere company producing new works in Austin through this festival. Jason Phelps' movement piece Aria Inertia premiered in the festival, and will be seen once a month throughout the year as it develops. FronteraFest moves into the vanguard of new theatre as it promotes new works, particularly interdisciplinary pieces incorporating spoken word, expressive movement and dance into theatre.
Some highlights of the nights we were able to attend: Aimee McCormick's shocking work, Major, a bloody tortured vision into the life of a child living with a father suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after Vietnam; T.J. Gonzales' Under South Texas, a monologue on a meteorologist's return to his hometown and the memories of his brother's death; Laurie Carlos' The Cooking Show and How the Monkey Dances, a delightful smorgasbord of poetry, song and dance with three-bean salad on the side; and director Eric Case's rendition of John Patrick Shanley's Missing Marissa, a powerful and humorous scene between two jilted lovers of the mysterious Marissa.
FronteraFest '97 well deserves all the raves it has earned, delivering non-stop theatrical delight every evening for what seemed like a very short five weeks. The goal of the producers is to expand the festival into a city-wide, multi-venue event over the next few years. We look forward to the opportunity to see this quality entertainment shared on a wider scale.
Art Pioneer: Laurie Carlos by Courtenay Nearburg
Laurie Carlos is not a star. She is not famous, but her work is. By reinterpreting the presentation of drama, incorporating dance, poetry and music into theatrics, she moved outside contemporary American theatre, then surrounded it to overcome. Her first commercial success, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide..., moved from off-Broadway in 1975 to an immensely popular Broadway run from 1976 to 1978, winning an Obie Award in '76 and the Tony Award in both '76 and '77. For Colored Girls was conceived in a bar by Carlos and Ntozaki Shange, who worked with jazz, text and movement, to create a new vernacular in theatre, a language and text that Carlos calls her own.
Born and raised on New York's Lower East Side, Carlos was the product of show business parents: her mother a dancer and her father a drummer. In her recent piece for FronteraFest '97, The Cooking Show and How the Monkey Dances, Carlos explores her relationships to her family, her teachers, her neighbors and the city itself as she takes the grandmotherly role of cooking a healthy meal for the audience as she tells stories and discusses current events like the O.J. Simpson trials. "I invite the audience into my kitchen. It's improvisational work, using excerpts from The Monkey Dances. The reference to self is incorporated in the cooking," Carlos explains.
As she dices and mixes, tales unfold of her grandparents in Alabama and her daughter's refusal to eat meat; and the recipe is spiced up with assorted memories related through songs, dances, and poetry. Carlos moves from the table with innocent grace, reverting from the grandmother to the Monkey child, stirring up the emotions with her delightful repertoire of characterizations that never leave the realm of who Laurie Carlos really is. A child swinging her arms carelessly as she botches an old Negro spiritual she learned in grade school metamorphisizes into a gospel diva giving it her gut-busting best. The self-effacing grandmother gives way to the struggling single mother, then to the sensual jazz poet. And then, you eat.
Carlos devoted herself to performance from an early age. A stout middle-aged woman, she has an ebulliant charm that envelopes her audience as if into her arms. Watching her parents' dreams wither and die as the pressures of raising a family closed in on them, Carlos persevered through the birth of her own daughter while working as a belly-dancer, as a stripper, in a shoe store, and so on. "They were defeated by what the word 'artist' means. It plagues my family to this day. My daughter has a CD out now and it's called 'Walter T. Smith,' after my father," she says.
She was supporting herself as a performer by the age of 18, determined that she would make a living presenting new works. She is insistent about working with new writers, always breaking ground. For Colored Girls was an experimental project, putting seven black women on stage with no costumes and no set -- at first because they couldn't afford them -- and with the backing of musicians Oliver Lake and the World Saxophone Quartet, including Julius Hemphill and David Murray. "It was an immense success in legitimizing the form. No one had done this before. It was outside the black stereotypes that were so common in theatre," says Carlos.
"I never met up with institutionalized racism. I knew it when I saw it, visiting my grandparents in the South. But in New York, I was a black American. It was completely integrated in the projects. Everyone was from someplace else," Carlos says, describing her childhood and her interpretation of her own role in American theatre. "I want to discuss the stories about my historical roots and what is true about me as a world person."
"I discovered that the voice that I wanted to work in was feasible and perhaps commercially viable," Carlos says. "The text is autobiographical, spoken word with choreographed dance and movement. There were seven black women and we were multi-racial, multi-ethnic. American theatre had set itself up for black female stereotypes and those were the only roles available. We challenged all the stereotypes. No one could make us play maids and hookers and mamas anymore."
In the early '80s, Carlos collaborated with Jessica Haggerdorn and Robbie McCauley and began developing a new piece called Sounds and Motions. By 1982, choreographer Jawole Zoller joined the team and they began creating more performance art, incorporating new vocal techniques that just did not exist in theatre. "I have a clear need to integrate what exists -- I'm not working in a compartmentalized way," she says.
Their performance group, Thought Music, gave birth in 1983 to Urban Bushwomen, a dance company created from text-based work using vocal musical interpretation in the context of movement. With Urban Bushwomen, Carlos perfected the techniques of vocalization in dance with breathing. "I wanted an acting company that moved," she explains. With Thought Music, she performed Teeny Town. She has directed and performed with Urban Bushwomen on such projects as Praise House and Heat and has toured with the company, performing at The Walker Art Center, Jacob's Pillow, The Painted Bride Arts Center, and Montpellier.
"The concept of what it means to be a black American artist is so fucked up. You can't function like that," Carlos emphasizes. "It's important to say black American because the definition of African American is too limiting. We must break out of the confinement."
As an interdisciplinary theatre artist, Carlos has written and directed several performance pieces including White Chocolate, Monkey Dances, Persimmon Peel, Organdy Falsetto, and Nonsectarian Conversations with the Dead. Her works have been seen in New York at the Lincoln Center Outdoors, P.S. 122, The Danspace Project, BACA Downtown and DTW, as well as at The Walker Art Center, Penumbra Theatre, and The National Black Arts Festival. Her collaborations with new artists sustain her career, such as her work with former student and Austinite Daniel Jones on Blood:Shock:Boogie, a piece that premiered in FronteraFest '96.
In 1993, Carlos began working with Movin' Spirits Dance Company as co-artistic director with Marlies Yearby. Her recent work with that company includes Feathers at the Flame, which premiered at the Tribeca Arts Center in December 1995, and That Was Like This, This Was Like That, which was presented by Women and Their Work in Austin in January 1996. "In 1993 and 1994 I found myself reevaluating my own work. I found that I am in a big learning curve," Carlos says.
Her work began to take her to Minneapolis/St. Paul more often starting in 1990, when she and McCauley took Persimmon Peel to Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. She spent the next year working on the film version of Praise House with Julie Dash in New York, then returned to the Twin Cities to direct The Mojo and the Sayso at the Penumbra Theatre. It was her first time to work with Penumbra Theatre Company, where she now is a Fellow-in-Residence, curating Non-English Speaking Spoken Here, a performance art series in two parts, the "Belafonte Chronicles" and "Audre Lorde Sighs." The series involves the works of Native American, Latino, and Huong peoples in the Twin Cities.
"There's a commonality of what we do know that we need to address. Thus, the multi-ethnic nature of my work. Knowing is not an important thing. There is incredible spiritual reexamination going on globally, especially in the Americas," Carlos says.
Carlos expounds the virtue of theatres creating space for the new work of interdisciplinary artists like Austinites Daniel Alexander Jones and Jason Phelps (Aria Inertia). "The fact that Frontera creates an opportunity for these works to be seen is amazing. Penumbra creates space for new forms. It's amazing," she says.
"I just like to say what I say, do what I do, read the reviews, and keep doing it regardless."
Carlos' career has been spent mostly in the theatre, but she is no stranger to the film industry. At the age of 17, she was in two films, and worked for Belefonte Enterprises as an assistant casting director. Her most recent work was with Shu Lea Chang in 1992, as an actor in Fresh Kill, an independent feature that came out in limited release and now plays in Asia. She also appeared in Public Enemy's music video "911 is a Joke." She formed an acting company in New York that attracted luminaries like Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) and his wife LaTonya Richardson, Avis Brown, and Tony Award-winner Ruben Hudson (Seven Guitars).
As an actor, Carlos herself recently received rave reviews for Theodore Ward's Big White Fog at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and for creating the role of BayBay in Shay Youngblood's Talking Bones at Penumbra. Over the course of her career, she received the Obie Award for her portrayal of "lady in blue" in For Colored Girls, a Bessie Award for her work in Heat and another Bessie for White Chocolate.
Carlos directs workshops and leads seminars all over the country, and presented a "Breath as Truth" workshop during her recent stay in Austin as a featured artist in the FronteraFest. In the workshop, she shares techniques she developed over six or seven years to facilitate better performance. "Breath ignites muscular memory. The muscle, bones and skin all contain spirit memory. We use the breath to get inside the muscular memory. It helps the artist facilitate emotional life," Carlos says.
Pretty Eye Candy by Marlo Bennett
Given how interwoven the musicians in Austin's famed scene are (one band gives birth to two side projects, which in turn give birth to a couple more...and it never ends), it seems inevitable that they'll spill over into other artistic forms as well.
"Pretty Eye Candy," a visual art exhibit at the Electric Lounge, showcases the perfect example of the collision of musicians with paint, canvas, wood, magic markers, metal, and a host of others media (in a music venue, no less). The works cover almost all of the club's wall space, from the high-up wall at the front of the club that can be seen through the front windows from the parking lot, to the Elbow Room, even to the men's restroom.
Sincola vocalist Rebecca Cannon, curator and organizer of the exhibit, got the idea for it when she realized how many musicians she knew that did art that no one ever saw.
"Playing music is their main thing, so they don't concentrate much on getting their art shown," she said. "I just started calling people who I knew did art, or who I thought might, and soon we had enough for a show."
Some of the show's art is directly related to music. Sincola's Terri Lord displayed her concert poster art (mostly for Sincola shows), and Lyman Hardy from Ed Hall exhibited posters from last month's George Clinton and Cibo Matto concerts. Richard Whymark of the Right Bleeding Bastards and Miss Xanna are both displaying collections of their photographs of various musicians, and Michelle Solberg and Kathy McCarty each displayed the original paintings that later became album covers for them.
And some of the works have no relation to music other than the occupation of their creator. Stretford's Bill Jeffrey contributed a surrealistic painting that looks like skyscrapers floating on clouds in a rainbow-ish sky and a collection of "Back Page" illustrations that the Austin Chronicle rejected; electronic musician Monte McCarter displayed a black and white image of the Mona Lisa behind bars with the caption "Open 24 hours"; Pork's Edith exhibited a crayon and magic marker drawing of Mr. Potato Head; and Jason of Starfish contributed a poster of what looks like a man's jeans ad with the caption "Our culture has an obsession with sexual imagery." Rogelio Yanez, a 17-year-old who is the only non-musician in the show, spray-painted an image on the stall doors of the men's restroom. Sean Lennon doodled a moon and sun on a closet door during February's Cibo Matto show.
Swine King's Randy "Biscuit" Turner, who helped organize the hanging of the pieces, exhibited a number of 3-D pieces that range from a hat made of dozens of stuffed socks to "Haunting Specter of the Terrible Sawmill Accident Twins," which can't really be described but should definitely be seen. Turner said that this exhibit is a sort of extension of his front yard art, in which he hung five strings from a tree and constantly changes the items that hang from them.
"There are joggers in my neighborhood who always tell me that they can't wait to see what I put up next," he said.
Some works were done specially for this show. Cannon said that bassist Andy Maguire, who has two paint-on-canvas pieces exhibited, had never painted before, and Hunter Darby of the Wannabees started his painting of John Lennon with a BB gun when she asked him to be in the show.
"Pretty Eye Candy" opened at the Electric Lounge on March 7. The pieces will stay up for six to eight weeks.
Rust in My Burger by Manuel Gonzales
Ah, Dirty Martin's. There is no finer establishment in which to speak of philosophy, religion, great literature, and art. Just as there is no finer mix of ingredients -- a perfect blend of grease, salt, and butter with love and art and life.
And so, there I was, eating a greasy, buttery hamburger on toast and chomping down some onion rings, golden and glistening, and chatting with my good friends Meredith Phillips (editor and writer extraordinaire) and Barry Margeson (writer and owner of the Clarksville Pie Co.) who introduced me to Scott Rolfe, who shall henceforth be called "Superfly TNT Smooth Up-and-Coming Artist." Look here, people, he's about to explode, and if you're not careful, when it comes to Scott's art, you might just get hit by shrapnel.
We're talking about found object art. The name's self explanatory, but for our benefit, I asked Scott to clarify: "Essentially, you use everything as a medium, from traditional paints and inks to whatever you can find -- rusty metal on the side of the road to toys to paper or whatever -- and make it all into something interesting." Talk about interesting. If you happened to catch the "February Found Object Show" at the Laughing at the Sun Gallery down on South First, you would have seen what Scott meant by "something interesting." Take his "Fishin' in the Styx." A hanging sculpture made of mixed media ranging from a three-foot long branch fixed across the top of the piece to a foot and a half, three-inch chain drooping down the middle of the canvas to pieces of pipe and plastic and paper, all painted purple and black and brown, with which he develops a muddy color and a morbid, nearly inaccrochable picture.
Hailing from Maine, Scott graduated with a Spanish major and a Graphics Design minor from Connecticut College, and then, on a whim, he moved to Austin. "I don't know why. I just did." During the week, he works as a graphic designer for the Texas Railroad Commission and he does free-lance graphic design work (most notably for Barry Margeson and Clarksville Pies).
The Laughing at the Sun show is only his first in Austin, but after this show, I feel confident that we will see his work with greater frequency. In the show, he exhibited ten large pieces and a number of small, found object refrigerator magnets. In his pieces, he reveals his dry wit and his uncanny ability to tell stories with his found pieces of scrap metal and shingles. His most telling pieces were "Pig versus the Machine" and "Rhino versus the Machine," found object and mixed-media pieces in which he pits, respectively, a small toy pig and a small toy rhino against two separate machines. "The fan in the rhino piece actually works, too." The rhino and the pig stand comically defiant against the looming machines, which are conglomerations of metal and plastic and motor put together by Scott. The constructions are 3-D boxes, hollowed out, with two-inch borders. They hang from the wall like canvases, maybe four-inches deep, and the hollowed sections are three-inches deep. There, in the center, the pig and rhino ready themselves to battle the two machines, but in each piece, it seems that the two sides are at an impasse. "If you look closely, though, you can see the edges of the box look corroded," Scott said, and then shrugged.
It takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to a year-and-a-half for Scott to finish a piece ("Fishin' in the Styx" took from the beginning of '95 until February of '96, and has been, so far, his most ambitious piece), and for anyone who wants to buy a portable, affordable, and small work of Scott's art, his tiny magnets are perfect little patches of his talent-colorful and exact and usually the size of computer chips.
During the Laughing at the Sun opening, a man walked into the gallery carrying a bottle of red wine. He browsed through the exhibits, looking at this person's work and that person's work, scrutinizing each artist's found objects and considering how they were made into art. As people are always drinking wine at art openings, no one paid him too much attention, but just as he was leaving, he stepped up to Scott and handed him the bottle of wine. "This is for you," the man said. According to the gentleman, he frequents art openings and gives a bottle of wine to the artist he believes has produced the best work of the show. If you're reading this article, and you are the man with the wine, Scott would like to say thank you for his first rave review. He enjoyed the wine, and he's glad you enjoyed the show. As for the rest of you, get on out there and see some of Scott's work, listen to the stories in his art, and play with his magnets. It'll do you some good.
This piece is probably the first in a several-part series of ramblings on how I, as a cultural worker, experience life here in Austin. My assumption is not that my little story uncovers great truths and inspires personal growth and change. What I want to deal with here, on a really speculative level, is a challengingly complex set of social, cultural, artistic, and political issues. Of course, how I experience them is specific to me. I don't believe, however, that I am the only guy around who is thinking about this stuff. Maybe it's just my newly 40 year-old and slightly porous mind. Maybe I'm thinking more about how and where I want to hang my hat for the next 20 years. Whatever it is, I know I can't possibly get to all that's on my mind in this one column. I admit to being a bit confused about some stuff on which, maybe, most of you already have a firm grasp.
The big thing for me right now is looking at life in Austin and coming up with reasons to live and work here. To be sure, Austin is the only town in Texas that I want to live in right now. Our little college - town - capital - city - third - coast - music - capital - hill - country - River - City ain't a half-bad place to hang out. But, you know, Texas ain't the only place to live in these United States. These united states. And as much as it may sound like I'm about to go into some kinda political rap, that ain't it. (That might be installment seven of the series.) And it's not just about life in Austin; for me it's bigger than that. But I am here. And yes sirs and ma'ams, I'm sure there must be a particular Texas-sized spin particular to us folks down here in the Capital City.
My concerns for this piece are mostly about race and culture and money: about how I see race and culture fitting into the arts scene here; about the pros and cons of doing cultural work in the political climate in which we all operate here. Maybe I said that backwards...but, if I did, that kinda gets to the heart of where I'm headed with some of this. Like I said earlier, I'm confused about this stuff. Can we talk about race without talking about culture? Can we talk about culture without talking about race? Can we talk about the artistic/cultural/political climate in Austin without talking about money?
I guess the bigger question for me is, "Can we talk about culture and race in Austin (the US, the world) and walk away from the conversation without either feeling guilty, victimized, self-righteous, attacked, ignored, angry, beaten or marginalized? At this point -- for most of us, I'd wager -- the answer is "no." But is that bad or just the way it is? And if that is just the way it is, do we just accept that as normal and struggle on?
The pundits line up on all sides of the race - vs - culture - vs - artistic - merit issue. To some in the Austin arts scene, it's ridiculous to suggest that there is a reason to talk about race (as it concerns the arts) at all. To some others in the scene there is little else in the arts scene more worthy of immediate and depth discussion. Of course there are more folks who are somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but some others don't/won't even comfortably involve themselves in the conversation.
Sadly, there are also a few who don't even know that the conversation is going on -- they are above that kinda thing! You know, art!? The people who produce it; those who consume it; those who promote, market, advertise, sell, make money on it are all colorless and color-blind (mostly white, by coincidence). Art is just art! If you don't believe me, just consult the appropriate Western cultural canon for the list.
Now, there is that ethnic art, folk art, functional and "cultural arts" stuff, but here we are talking about true colorless/colorblind art. The thing is, Austin seems to have tons of this colorless/color-blind, above-PC artistic and cultural work, programming that is lily white. And a lot of these same folks who produce this programming are non-profit, tax-exempt, publicly-funded organizations that receive funding from sources that "require" culturally diverse programming and community outreach effort. And what they continue to produce is lily white -- from the artists, to the techies, to the staff, to the board, to the audience, to their advertising. They sometimes also are the folks who get the lion's share of public monies available to Austin's arts groups.
We must also consider that some folks get funds because they address the needs of particular under-served ethnic/cultural groups in town. Black folks who do African American programming, Brown folks who do Mexican American/Hispanic programming sometimes get funds to "serve their communities." Not to worry though, this is never, NEVER, anything close to the lion's share of available public funding.
So, what we have in the public arts community here (and I'd bet this is not all too unique to Austin) is a situation where the folks who get the most money to accomplish their "multicultural" missions, don't. Those who are said to get sufficient money to accomplish their "culturally-specific" missions, don't. Those folks who do the least to address issues of multiculturalism and diversity, but mention them in their proposals, continue to walk away with the lion's share of public arts funding.
To me, this whole scenario illustrates that there should be more conversation going on. Somebody should be talking about this and trying to understand how to put more integrity into the process of acquiring public arts funds. And of course this just brings us back to the fact that this situation is much more complex than it appears to some. Its not just a matter of black and white. Giving a little money to Black folks to do Black programming, giving a little money to Brown folks to do Hispanic programming, and giving the most money to a few "mainstream" major organizations to do their brand of colorless/color-blind programming misses the point of promoting publicly-funded diversity in the arts. It brings us back to debate notions of affirmative action, multiculturalism, and the value of cultural diversity in public arts policy. You know, it's that same conversation that no one seems to be able to walk away from without getting their feelings hurt. The point is, it's a conversation that simply needs to continue until we get better at this stuff.
If we are to come together and benefit from the fruits of the various cultural communities in Austin, public arts funding sources (and the politicians who choose to meddle in the process) need to acknowledge that some rethinking of the process is in order.
Black folks are not the only folks who like blues. Brown folks are not the only folks who like accordion music. White folks are not the only folks who dig Bach. With the little bit of money that folks of color get in this process, you still can count on there being "ethnic programming" produced for Austin audiences.
What should really be looked at here are the "major organizations." Since they get the lion's share of the moneys, shouldn't they also be doing everything in their power to make their programming, their outreach, their artists, their board membership, and the use of their advertising dollars as culturally inclusive as possible. After all, they are the ones who get the big bucks to meet their missions of serving the entirety of the Austin arts community.
One of the creepiest things to see is a sunbeam piercing a sky that's almost black with rain clouds. It's beautiful, too, of course -- an anomaly of nature, a tiny piece of an enormous flaming ball of gases that somehow manages to float through layers of what will soon become a thunderstorm, fight its way to the ground, and deliver a little cheer to people who would rather see more of its siblings and fewer of its enemies. But as much as I admire that beam's persistence, I can't help wishing that it would be still for just a little longer and let people like me have their fun.
For me, a storm transforms the most mundane views into amazing things. Seen close-up, two blades of grass that are dripping with rain and being tossed about by the wind become a pair of gallant knights dueling to the death for the love of a beautiful princess -- a nearby rose that is sheltered from the elements by a luckily-placed hedge. An abandoned paper cup metamorphoses into an ocean for twigs, bugs, and leaves, and they in turn become hungry sharks, shaky boats, and courageous sailors, each fighting for their own survival. Cars look shiny, clean, and new (forget about how they'll look later). Even something potentially irritating like a power outage can be an adventure when it turns you into a pioneer just settling the country and triumphing over a lack of fire and hot food. The clouds, of course, can become absolutely anything -- a mountain peak, a sailboat, an elephant. If you're driving alone down a deserted stretch of highway (I-35 near Carl's Corner is a perfect place), you can turn off your lights and tune your radio to static and be the only person left in the world. A window becomes a frame for a painting of a world that's never existed before and will change the next time you blink, never to exist again. An ordinary door becomes a portal to all these worlds.
It's weird: when I was a kid, I never liked fairy tales much, but they seem to get a lot more interesting when they come from my own head.
It's just so easy to forget how much good a difference like a storm can do for the human mind when you're cold and wet and wrestling with an umbrella on your way to work. The beauty gets trampled by the inconvenience; the clarity is destroyed by the negativity. It's like when you were a kid and had a morbidly fascinating fear of the dark -- did you care that someone on the playground didn't like you when the monster in your closet was hungrily prying open the door? How can everyday troubles loom as large as they usually do when you can look at a tree and see a high-rise home for elves?