Gary Baseman’s Master Plan

 Gary Baseman wants to conquer the planet.

But he won’t do it with nuclear weapons or political extremism. No death rays or mutant viruses, either.

When Baseman takes control, it will be with big-eyed weirdos like Toby (a fez-wearing mash-up of Mickey Mouse and a bowling pin), Hotchacha (a rotund little devil) and Marilyn (an all-purpose name for assorted apple-cheeked kewpie dolls).

Baseman uses his characters in paintings, in drawings and as models for vinyl toys. He makes ceramic sculptures, books, posters and limited-edition prints.

Give him a Sharpie and he’ll even sketch on a cocktail napkin if you ask nicely.

“Since I was 9, all I ever wanted to do was be the greatest artist in the world,” he said.

Baseman’s exhibit at Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville shows that age and experience have done little to mellow that mission.

“Bedtime for Toby” is a fun-house explosion of the artist’s imagination. Doodles in gilded frames, cartoon canvases and tiny characters have overthrown the white walls and dull concrete floor of the space.

I talked with Gary in the middle of the gallery while the show went up around us. Workers unpacked boxes of peg-legged rabbit dolls. In the corner, a ring of tiny stuffed Tobys circled two larger Tobys. It felt like I’d been invited inside one of Baseman’s vivid hallucinations.

Central Virginia seems like an odd place for the Los Angeles-based artist to land, considering his recent solo shows have been in New York, Taiwan, Rome and Barcelona (his next stop is Minnesota).

But it makes sense if you consider that Baseman is the progenitor of a movement he calls “pervasive art.”

It makes sense if you consider that Baseman won three Emmys for creating and executive-producing the animated series “Teacher’s Pet.” Or if you know that he’s done New Yorker covers and Target ads, illustrated children’s books and designed the entire line of Cranium games.

It makes sense because Baseman is a man in perpetual motion, a one-man image factory bent on filling the world with his doe-eyed inner demons.

And once you realize that, the question isn’t so much “Why Charlottesville?” but “Why not?”

“Pervasive art is everywhere,” Baseman said. “My goal is to break down boundaries. I want to blur the line between fine art and commerce.”

The willingness to take his art everywhere and anywhere is Baseman’s secret weapon.

Last year’s “Teacher’s Pet” movie was a hit with critics and kindergartners. His vaguely disturbing paintings earn praise from both the lowbrow and highbrow crowds. And his foray into limited-edition toys has made him a favorite with underground collectors.

As a result, Baseman’s fans run the gamut from his 4-year-old nephew to curators of international museums.

“I want to communicate and have a conversation that is understood by a mass audience,” Baseman said. “I want to blanket all the media in every way. I want to take over everything.”

Don’t get the wrong idea here.

Sure, Baseman said those things with arched eyebrows and an impish grin. And it’s true that his inspirations are Andy Warhol, Walt Disney and Ralph Lauren. But the guy is no conniving capitalist.

After all, there are easier ways to make money than by painting happy worms, naked women and squirrels.

In person, Baseman seems like a constant conduit for his imaginary world. He is never without his sketchbook. His hands are always moving.

While Baseman’s work has the inviting sheen of a Saturday morning cartoon, the artist takes every opportunity to evoke a more visceral reaction from his viewers.

Characters in his iconic dream world deal with sacrifice and longing, desire, mortality and self-loathing. There is sensuality, blood and violence. All the while, his paintings, drawings and sculptures stare back at us with enormous eyes, clown faces and the occasional trickle of drool.

The images are simple. The colors are bright. And because we approach them as cartoons, we’re that much more surprised when they leave us unsettled and giddy.

“How people act and react to each other has changed, especially in the last decade,” Baseman said. “The way we communicate with art should be different, too.”

If he gets his way, we’ll be challenged by images at every turn. Pervasive art will slink off the gallery walls and onto cereal boxes, coffee mugs, T-shirts and pillowcases. And the faster Baseman works, the quicker he’ll take over the world.

Of course, we could try to stop him. But once you lay your eyes on the 4-foot plush Toby in the center of the gallery, you’ll realize it’s already too late.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 25, 2005

One Ring Zero – The Return of Lit Rock

Michael Hearst has rocked more book stores than he cares to mention.

But that’s what happens when your band records an album of 17 songs written by some of the country’s most accomplished authors.  “As Smart As We Are,” by One Ring Zero, features original lyrics by such writers as Rick Moody (“The Ice Storm”), Paul Auster (“The New York Trilogy”), Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”).

“We love collaboration,” said Hearst. “And the way we fell into this one was sort of an accident.”

Michael Hearst first met Joshua Camp while working at the Hohner distribution center in Ashland (Hearst was the assistant harmonica technician and Camp was the assistant accordion technician).  Both attended Virginia Commonwealth University as musical composition majors and both were active in the local Richmond music and arts scene.

Hearst and Camp fell in love with an instrument called the claviola, a bizarre combination of accordion, piano and flute first manufactured by Hohner in the mid-90s.  (It was quickly discontinued due to lack of sales).

They found the claviola so ridiculous and unique that they built a band around it.  The pair’s obsession for misfit instruments (theremins, accordions, toy pianos, something called a Jones-O-Phone)  helped them build a sound as eclectic as their growing cache of musical toys.

One Ring Zero performed klezmer-circus-cartoon pop in traditional music clubs and even recorded a handful of CDs.  But Hearst discovered that their hard-to-define style consistently led them to other artists on the fringe.

One Ring Zero played as part of dance performances, improvisations and stage shows.  Eventually they became the “backup band” for Richmonder Clay McLeod Chapman’s “Pumpkin Pie” shows, a series of manic monologues made even loopier by the band’s dark carnival soundtracks.

When Hearst and Camp felt that they had reached critical mass in Richmond, they headed for New York City.  One day, while walking in Brooklyn, Hearst stumbled upon a shop simply called Store.  More performance art than retail, the tiny space was also the NY headquarters for McSweeney’s, the upstart publishing enterprise of rising literary star David Eggers.  Hearst handed the manager a One Ring Zero CD.

The manager loved the music and invited the band to play during readings at the space.  Before they knew it, Hearst and Camp became the house band at the epicenter of the hot and hip NYC literary scene.

It was author Rick Moody who first invited the band to improvise during some of his readings outside of the McSweeney’s space.  And soon after, Hearst had the idea to “turn the tables” and ask Moody to write some lyrics for them.

The idea gained momentum and other authors were approached.  Some declined but many more agreed.  After Hearst and Camp composed the music to match the words, the 17-song experiment became “As Smart As We Are.”

“There’s so much competition in the music world in general,” said Hearst, “and in New York City specifically, that it’s good to have anything to make yourself stick out.”

The exposure has opened up an entirely new audience for the band.

“It’s definitely a different vibe without everyone sloshing their beer around,” said Hearst.  “There are more glasses in the audience and people pay more attention to the lyrics.”

These days, One Ring Zero finds themselves playing more book shops and cozy pubs than whiskey-soaked dives.  But Hearst is thankful for the band’s newfound notoriety in the obscure genre known as “lit rock.”

“I was getting tired of the whole rock thing.  This project coincided nicely with me getting older,” Hearst said.  “I don’t have to pretend to be the cool guy on stage anymore.”

This week, One Ring Zero embarks on a sort of ‘mini-tour’ that starts in New York, makes its way down to New Orleans and then heads back up north.  Hearst considers it a “final push” for the U.S. promotion of “As Smart as As We Are.”  Afterwards, the band will focus on promoting the CD in Europe.

For the band’s Feb. 4 homecoming, there will be two different shows.  The first, a half-hour free show at Chop Suey Books (1317 W. Cary) at 6 p.m., will feature the core duo of Hearst and Camp.

Down the street at Mojo’s (733 W. Cary), One Ring Zero will pick up drummer Johnny Hott (of the Piedmont Souprize) and guitarist John Gotschalk for 9:30 p.m. set that will be decidedly louder.  Cover for the 18 and up show will be $3.

Does the band worry about being pigeonholed as the rock band for book nerds?

“My favorite review of the album went something like ‘forget the Billboard charts, this album should be on the New York Times bestseller list.’ It put us more on the map than anything else we’ve done,” said Hearst.  “We’ll probably do a second one.”

With a host of big-name authors that the band counts as collaborators and friends, One Ring Zero has a head start.  But Hearst still has a huge wish list of writers he would like to work with.

“I even went to the book store with my Palm Pilot to write some names down,” said Hearst.  “It doesn’t get any geekier than that.”

The Big Picture – Ed Trask

 

When he was in second grade, Ed Trask fondled a French Impressionist painting.

 

His father took him to Washington for a show at the National Gallery, and Trask was mesmerized. When the curious boy wanted a closer look, he just leaned forward and planted his palms on a Pissarro.

 

Visitors and museum security went nuts. Panic and mayhem erupted. And young Trask was let go with a few stiff words.

 

But to this day, he can still remember what the painting felt like. He never forgot the deep swirls and thick smears of color and the layers and layers of paint.

 

“I thought . . . wow, I want to do that,” he said.

 

So he did.

 

If you’ve ever walked or driven through Richmond with your eyes open, you know Trask’s work. After more than a decade, the 38-year- old Trask has established himself as one of the most prolific mural painters in Richmond.

 

He put a beaming beauty queen on the side of the Sidewalk Cafe in the Fan and a sullen-faced Princess Diana in Shockoe Bottom. His brushwork has adorned the exterior – and interior – of dozens of local businesses, including Bandito’s, International Roofing, Moto Europa, Kuba Kuba and Chop Suey Books.

 

And in addition to his commissioned work, many of his smaller paintings often “magically” appear attached to abandoned buildings and boarded-up storefronts.

 

Call it “guerilla art.”

 

Technically it’s illegal, but since he never paints directly on any buildings, Trask prefers to think of it as a sort of “low- impact vandalism.” The work can last anywhere from four days to eight months before it disappears as curiously as it arrived.

 

“I decided to make Richmond my gallery,” said Trask. “Here’s my artwork whether you want it or not.”

 

For argument’s sake, let’s assume you want it.

 

The good news is that you won’t have to go on a scavenger hunt through condemned neighborhoods to see his latest paintings. Trask’s new work has been framed and hung politely on plain white walls at the Eric Schindler Gallery in Church Hill.

 

Has the outlaw artist mellowed out? Yes . . . and no.

 

As a boy in Loudoun County, Trask loved painting. But he also had a knack and a passion for playing the drums.

 

After high school, he realized he didn’t want the life of a musician, so he enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. In 1992, he earned his degree in painting and printmaking. But he never quit the drums.

 

“Whenever I play drums I see colors,” Trask said. “It rejuvenates me in every way.”

 

Through the ‘90s, he pounded the skins for bands such as Holy Rollers, Kepone and Smalltown Superstar. Since 2001, he’s been behind the kit and around the world with Richmond punk legend Avail.

 

For those keeping score, this would be the “no” answer to the mellow question.

 

Because if there is a polar opposite to mellow, it has to be beating the beeswax out of the drums while sweaty teenagers smash into one another.

 

Call it “angst management.”

 

It must work, too, because the guy whupping up on the drums isn’t your typically sullen punk rock painter. He’s a happy husband, a proud father and the owner of not one but two Volvo station wagons.

 

And over the years, Trask’s easygoing manner has earned him a reputation as bona fide nice guy.

 

“He’s a real country gentleman,” said longtime friend and former bandmate Chris Bopst. “He’s genuine, he’s talented and he works hard. This city can make people lazy. Ed’s never been lazy.”

 

Besides doing murals and sign work for hire, Trask shows and sells his smaller paintings. As a member of Avail, he is expected to practice, record and tour with the band. He also waits tables two days a week at Millie’s, where he’s worked for 12 years.

 

“It’s kind of like a family,” said Trask. “I could be on tour for nine months out of the year and they always gave me my job back.”

 

In his spare time, he runs the informal Eggspace Gallery, surfs when he can get to the ocean, rides his skateboard and helps watch 2- year-old Eleanor while his wife, Kelly, teaches yoga.

 

For Trask, fatherhood has been “humbling, scary and rewarding.”

 

“Lord knows that kid is teaching me so much about myself,” he said.

 

Most days, you can find Trask in a ramshackle white building at the southern end of the Manchester Bridge.

 

His studio is on the second floor, above the Eggspace Gallery. Walk through the cramped pile of amps and instruments that makes up the rehearsal space of Richmond rock band RPG. Step over the Pabst- soaked couch and take the stairs until you hear music.

 

The room is part workshop and part shrine. It’s not fancy, just four walls with a disheveled ceiling and a paint-smattered floor. But something about it resonates.

 

Something feels alive.

 

The walls are cluttered with 10 years of artifacts, memories and dabs of color. The wood floor is flecked with sawdust, spilled paint and bits of blue tape. A set of drums sits quietly in a dark corner.

 

In front of one wall, Trask’s visual inspiration hangs like wet laundry. A thin rope runs the length of his studio, sagging under the weight of snapshots, postcards and comic books. Each image is clamped in place with clothespins.

 

As Trask talked, he slathered the sky in one painting with long, quick strokes of orange. He squinted at another, looking for mistakes. And he cut some wood frames for pieces in his current show.

 

Call it “multi-Trasking.”

 

He pulled a painting of the Clay Springs Motel from the table, set it on the floor and steadied it with one hand.

 

“I already see something I want to change,” he said.

 

He gestured toward the lower right corner and pulled the pencil from behind his ear. He ran the graphite over the dried paint, leaving a dark, jagged line.

 

Trask’s paintings are uncomplicated, rectangular slices of the world. Though his work shows a fondness for power lines, roadside motels and old guys in khaki pants, Trask’s landscapes and portraits aren’t loaded with symbolism. There are no deep riddles to solve.

 

“He works instinctually,” said Kirsten Gray, owner of Eric Schindler Gallery. “He’s not self-taught, but he’s self-educated.”

 

Gray was drawn to the rough edges of Trask’s work and the fact that he is contemporary but not at all concerned with what everyone else is doing.

 

“I don’t think his work is pretty; I think it’s gritty,” Gray said. “It’s uniquely his own, and he arrived there by doing what he wanted to do.”

 

What Trask wanted to do was learn from those who came before him. He wanted to pick up the torch from artistic heroes such as Thomas Hart Benton and Winslow Homer, two American painters who had their heyday about a century ago.

 

“I didn’t leave school being taught traditionalism,” said Trask. “I felt like I had to find it myself.”

 

But what sets Trask apart is that he didn’t become just another retro-copycat. And his work is more than just a one-man crusade against naked walls in Richmond. His paintings and murals evoke the past, but they also move forward with a jangled energy that draws on punk percussion, deep yoga breaths and the spontaneous laughter of a 2-year-old girl.

 

“Everything in life is art; everything has a rhythm,” Trask said. “It’s always right in front of you, and most people take it for granted.”

 

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 2, 2006.

John Hodgman and His Expertise

Picture author John Hodgman beginning his day just before noon.

“I haven’t even showered,” he says over the telephone. “I’m not fit to be seen in public.” On this detail, you must take him at his word. He could be rumpled and stinky or he could be freshly scrubbed and spritzed with a light, yet masculine cologne. You’ll never know for sure.

Because no matter how deeply you sniff the telephone receiver, it still smells like plastic.

For argument’s sake, he probably smells just fine.

Tomorrow night, Hodgman appears at Chop Suey Books with cartoonist David Rees (“Get Your War On”) and musician Jonathan Coulton. At some point in the evening, the topic of his latest book is sure to come up. Lately, it almost always does.

“The Areas of My Expertise” is a hardcover compendium of complete falsehoods. Kids on the street call it “fake trivia,” but the author himself described it as “playful, jokey and accidentally profound parables.”

A glance at the Table of Contents is enough to entice the curious and ward off the squeamish: Jokes That Have Never Produced Laughter, page 56; Basics of Snow and Ice Warfare, page 59; History’s Worst Men’s Haircuts, page 71; Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands, page 200.

In a former life, Hodgman was a New York literary agent with an expense account. He represented, among others, Bruce Campbell (star of the “Evil Dead” films and author of “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor”) and Darin Straus (“Chang and Eng”).

“It was a very rewarding and not wholly despicable profession,” he said. “I got to eat lunch for free. And not just lunch, but also alcohol.”

Back then, Hodgman was up early and groomed for a mass audience.

But he longed for a life of creativity. He craved solitude, desperation and struggle. He wanted to write.

So in 2000, he relinquished his life as an agent to become a full-time writer. Hodgman contributed regularly to The New York Times Magazine. His work, and voice, was featured in several segments of “This American Life,” broadcast on National Public Radio.

In late 2003, he sold the idea for “The Areas of My Expertise.” As a consequence, he was contractually obligated to spend 2004 writing short bits about hoboes, squirrels, lobsters and cyborgs. His book contains several charts, a few old photographs and almost nothing about sports.

“I’m very interested and able to absorb esoterica and ephemera,” said Hodgman. “I enjoy reading things that were not necessarily published to be remembered.”

As a teenager, Hodgman was heavily influenced by encyclopedias, almanacs and the “Book of Lists.” He also cited the influence of a book called “Big Secrets,” which exposed the truth about Masonic rituals, the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the location of the secret door in Disneyland that led to a private cocktail lounge.

Hodgman’s “Expertise” is an acquired taste, deadpan absurdity dealt with a straight face.

In person, with his camelhair coat, fat-knotted tie and black-framed glasses, the author is more economics professor than literate subversive.

While any reader with a nickel’s worth of sense can figure out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t really invent polio as a “Final Solution” for eradicating hoboes, Hodgman said that hidden within the 240 pages are some kernels of truth.

“The lies are big, the truths are small,” said Hodgman. “Just like life.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 2, 2005

VCU Arts Grads Sweet on the Big Apple

The song says if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

 

For decades New York City has been a beacon for artists, musicians and writers.

Some have seen it as a creative Everest, the ultimate test of determination and talent. To others it’s a boot camp, a resume booster or a stocked pond of professional connections that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

 

Whatever it is, it’s not easy.

 

The competition is fierce, and the cost of living can sink you before you even get started. Forging a career is a constant struggle between survival and self-expression.

 

With all this in mind, we wondered why artists still go. If New York City is such a meat grinder, why do graduates still head north with portfolios full of hopes and dreams?

 

We asked a group of alumni from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts who are living and working in Brooklyn and Manhattan – five people stuck in that tug of war between survival and success.

 

We found that part of the lure is the challenge of doing more with less: less money, less space and less time. But equally appealing is the promise of more: more opportunities, more connections and more people with money to spend.

 

Each grad had his own reason for coming to the city. Each had stories to tell. But all share the same reason for staying: It’s New York City.

 

After all, very few places feel like the center of the world. And even fewer actually are.

 

 

The Firestarter

 

Eric Sto and Kelie Bowman wanted beer.

 

They wanted a drink to celebrate the new gallery space they had just rented. It felt like a done deal. It deserved an official clink of the bottles.

 

Their walk to a nearby deli took 10 minutes. When they got back, Bowman’s house was engulfed in flames. All they could do was watch it burn.

 

While the couple was homeless, the gallery deal fell through. “It was definitely an inspiration,” Sto said. “It was like, ‘We’ve got to do this now.’ “

 

The pair soon found a better space in a better location. They moved in, spent two months renovating and finally opened the doors.

 

They dubbed the new space Cinders Gallery.

 

The tiny storefront gallery sits on Havermayer Street, just a few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge. The main space is a modest, 300- square-foot rectangle with a concrete floor. Toward the rear is a smaller room, a hip art emporium packed with books, T-shirts and one- of-kind creations.

 

Among those one-of-a-kind creations is the co-owner himself. Even among New York City’s endless cavalcade of characters, Sto stands out.

 

It could be his ‘do, a spiky explosion of hair that flops and sways with every nod. But more likely it’s that the 27-year-old has become an enthusiastic champion of Brooklyn’s underground art scene.

Sto came to New York in December 2000.

 

A friend invited him, told Sto he’d love it here. Sto had just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. His friend had a spare couch. He figured he’d check it out. He checked it out and he loved it.

 

He loved it enough to give up his $200-a-month house in Richmond for a $400 box in his friend’s kitchen. There were no spare bedrooms, so Sto built one out of cardboard and lived next to the stove for eight months.

 

His living situation is less “improvised” today, but housing is still at the top of his mind.

 

“The real killer is real estate,” Sto said. “It’s so bloated that all your earnings go for your rent.”

 

Sto hasn’t had a regular job in four years. He works a handful of freelance jobs every month, including production work on films. He helps run Cinders but says he doesn’t earn any money from it.

 

When the gallery makes a dollar, it almost always goes to pay the rent.

 

“There’s enough foot traffic to keep us alive,” he said.

 

That traffic comes courtesy of a neighborhood art boom that spawned more than 30 venues for contemporary work. In the last five years, Williamsburg has taken its place alongside Manhattan art meccas like Chelsea and SoHo as a destination for serious browsers.

 

And while the more slick and polished galleries lure the curious to Brooklyn, Sto doesn’t fret the competition. He’s confident that Cinders has carved itself a grittier, more grassroots niche.

 

“I had set up a lot of art shows in little warehouses,” Sto said. “I wanted a permanent space.”

 

At Cinders, Sto managed to keep much of the ambition and creativity of those “anything goes” warehouse shows. A new exhibit opens every five weeks, with smaller events scheduled in between.

It’s a very rough-edged, do-it-yourself kind of space. A place where the wilder the idea is, the wider Sto’s smile spreads.

 

As a result, Cinders has become home to a generation of under-40 artists who do more than just paint, draw and sculpt. They make books, zines, T-shirts and toys. They play and record music, own businesses and run Web sites.

 

“There are a lot of folks in that age group who have a similar aesthetic,” Sto said. “So many people here are in tune with each other.”

 

Sometimes that community comes together for group shows at Cinders.

 

During last summer’s “Porch Show,” artists dressed the gallery like a suburban backyard, complete with wooden porch and an AstroTurf lawn. This past December, “The Family Room” show transformed the gallery into a living room with a couch, a television and a faux fireplace.

 

“We’re less like a gallery and more like a neighborhood friend,” Sto said.

 

That authenticity is important to Sto. He clings to it even when offered big money to capitalize on his alt-culture image. Adidas came knocking. Apple showed up too, suggesting that he’d be a perfect dancing silhouette for one of its iPod commercials.

 

Sto said “no thanks” to both.

 

“It’s selling your soul,” he said.

 

But while he won’t sell out willingly, his hand may be forced. Williamsburg has caught the eye of developers. And longtime residents, along with recent transplants, are feeling the not-so- subtle squeeze.

 

Sto said lots of his friends live and work in large “art buildings.” Recently, everyone who had an apartment and studio in one big building around the corner was kicked out.

 

“It’s definitely a reality,” Sto said. “If all my friends are gone, if we don’t have our community – it’s going to be hard to stay.”

 

 

Man in Motion

 

For years, Jason Akira Somma taught his body to flip, twist and flail as an instrument of self-expression. Two months ago, he got the chance to use it for self-defense.

 

It was around 8 a.m. when a man came at Somma with a knife. He grabbed the guy’s arm and they tussled a bit before the attacker ran off. Somma came out of the deal with a long scratch on his face, a strained wrist and a wickedly cool drinking story.

 

Though frightening and weird, the incident did nothing to sour Somma on life in the Big Apple.

 

“New York is the only option,” he said. “It has the most funding and the largest audiences.”

 

The dancer-choreographer-filmmaker-photographer came to New York after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography in 2002. Since arriving, he’s survived on a steady diet of multi-tasking.

 

When he’s not performing with groups such as Chris Elam Misnomer Dance Theater or Amanda Loulaki and Short Mean Lady, he’s choreographing, shooting and performing in original dance videos. When he isn’t sending his film work to contests and festivals, he’s photographing some of New York’s finest dancers.

 

And when he isn’t doing any of the above, he’s waiting tables at Yaffa Cafe in the East Village.

But what Somma really wants to do is get into the galleries. He wants to find a way to sell his performances as art object.

 

“That’s the tricky thing about dance,” he said. “It’s very separate from the visual art world.”

For Somma, film and video are the way to bring the two together. He’s directed and starred in two music videos for former Richmond musician Lauren Hoffman. And his dance-themed video for the One Ring Zero song “Afrodo” was broadcast on cable’s Sundance Channel.

 

 

The Robot Guy

 

If you’re looking for a method to Nick Kuszyk’s madness, here it is: The man paints robots.

He paints them over and over and over again. He hasn’t stopped, won’t stop and it’s very likely that he’ll never stop.

 

“I’m a beserker,” Kuszyk said.

 

It’s an obsession that seems to be working out well.

 

Shortly after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in 2002, Kuszyk was awarded a $2,000 Virginia Museum Fellowship. In 2005, he was the recipient of a Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts.

 

But the 28-year-old doesn’t seem much impressed with awards, success or even himself.

 

“I was making garbage down there [in Richmond],” he said. “But now it’s refined garbage.”

 

In 2005, Kuszyk moved to New York City after the death of a friend. He came to help the outdoor advertising company that his friend had co-founded. He came to pitch in, do whatever work he could.

 

When that work was done, it was back to the robots – those portly gray buckets of bolts that always seem to be falling apart. He painted them on canvas, wood and nearly anything else that would hold paint.

 

Most days Kuszyk would sell the paintings on the street in SoHo. But one day he walked into Williamsburg’s McCaig-Welles Gallery with a full portfolio. He asked owner Melissa McCaig-Welles if she liked robots. She did.

 

She especially liked Kuszyk’s robots, bought some of his work right there and offered him a solo show. Kuszyk’s show last summer at McCaig-Welles featured more than 340 paintings, most priced less than $50. According to the gallery, the show was a near sellout.

 

The works varied in size, color and price. But the subject never changed: fat-bodied bots floating in colored squares. In some paintings, they were alone. In others, they were stacked like firewood, piled like junk or scattered like leaves in the wind.

 

Their simplicity begs you to look deeper in search of some hidden revelation. Do the robots represent humanity’s fragile spirit? Our malfunctioning emotions?

 

Kuszyk couldn’t care less. He just likes to paint robots . . . over and over and over again.

 

Ask him what he likes about being an artist in New York City, and he’ll tell you, “bigger, better, more” and “hotter, sweeter, cooler.” Introspection is not his strong suit.

 

He’d rather talk about high-stakes pingpong tournaments. He’d rather tell you about how his roommate killed a rat in the sink with a ballpoint pen and a fork. And there’s always the subject of the little old man on the sidewalk who called him “Sweetie.”

 

Kuszyk seems to be the same man he was in Richmond. He’s still a little obnoxious, a bit outrageous and never willing to take himself, or life, too seriously.

 

The only difference now? Life in New York is infinitely more amusing.

 

Today, Kuszyk said, he is supporting himself with his art. He does paintings, T-shirts and the occasional mural. And talks are under way with some New York publishers about the possibility of working on children’s books.

 

So how exactly would a wisecracking, robot-painting, self- described “beserker” define success?

 

“I’m stoked,” he said. “I’m doing it.”

 

 

Divine Intervention

 

George Ferrandi’s small studio is packed with holy casualties – one burnt Mary, a cracked Jesus and some minor saints with peeling paint. This is where they wait for much-needed repair, bundled in moving quilts and wrapped in plastic.

 

Ferrandi’s Grand Street workshop – aka Saints Alive! – is a sort of emergency room for religious statuary. New York churches send their injured sculptures to the artist. She heals them and sends them back.

 

On warm days, the work spills out onto the sidewalk. Ferrandi said that when the statues are set outside, people stop to touch them. Sometimes they steal a kiss. On cold days in the winter, they ask her to bring the icons indoors.

 

Ferrandi moved to New York two days before the World Trade Center attacks. In the aftermath of 9/11, she wanted to find work that had meaning.

 

Her family restored churches in Baltimore, so she opened the Brooklyn phone book and called a religious goods dealer. Ferrandi’s family business was mostly architectural and structural work, but she was more interested in broken statues.

 

The man on the phone made her a deal, and a very unique day job was born.

 

When she’s not mending Jesus, Ferrandi works on her own art. Her studio is home to oversize bunny heads, tiny animals carved from Ivory soap and paintings of sad-sack superheroes in their underwear. The VCU sculpture grad shares 2,500 square feet of apartment and studio space with her boyfriend – fellow sculptor and VCU alum David McQueen – and another roommate.

 

“We have a ton of space by New York standards,” McQueen said.

 

Even so, neither artist is going to host a dance recital in his studio anytime soon. The work space is crowded. If you want room to walk, shelves to the ceiling are a necessity.

 

But both see the cramped quarters as a fair trade for the power of the city.

 

“When you do something here, if it gets any attention it’s part of a larger dialogue,” Ferrandi said. “The world is part of the conversation.”

 

When her show is reviewed in The New York Times, her friends and relatives in Gainesville, Fla., get to read about it.

 

“New York functions like the Internet – there is such a concentration of people,” McQueen said.

“There are few cities in the world where you can immerse yourself in as large an art community.”

 

Immersion in the larger community often means connecting to a smaller community. Both McQueen and Ferrandi show work at the nearby Cinders Gallery. They both do what they can to support other artists.

 

Sometimes that’s as simple as just showing up for an opening.

 

“It’s good to have people you can count on,” McQueen said. “To not have anyone show up in this city makes you feel like the biggest loser in the world.”

 

Building a name in New York might be the ultimate goal for an artist, but you need to survive long enough to succeed. Most people Ferrandi and McQueen know have two jobs. She does her church work. He tends bar and waits tables.

 

“It takes a lot of energy,” McQueen said. “But you can feel that energy. It gives you motivation.”

 

And you’ll need that motivation because it seems that even the simplest tasks in New York take twice as much time and patience.

 

“I miss being able to get more than one thing done every day,” McQueen said.

 

Running errands usually means heading into the mass confusion of Manhattan.

 

“Take going to the hardware store,” Ferrandi said. “If you don’t have a car, you have to borrow one.

Traffic takes an hour, and then there are 40 people at every register.”

 

But again, as much as the negatives leave non-New Yorkers scratching their heads, Ferrandi and McQueen are happy exactly where they are.

 

“Walking down the street, you are part of this enormous history. You’re not just witnessing it but living it,” Ferrandi said. “I can’t imagine not wanting to be here.”

 

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 4, 2006

Stephen Vitiello

It’s much easier to imagine Stephen Vitiello as a walking, talking recording studio with a beard. Just think of him as the “Six Million Dollar Man” designed by Sony and Bose.

Otherwise, you’ll get stuck trying to wrap your head around the fact that he makes art out of sound. You’ll have to grasp the idea that his work falls somewhere in that wide chasm between music and visual art.

Most people didn’t realize there was anything there in the first place.

There is, and in the small but growing field of sound art there is a shortlist. Look for Stephen Vitiello’s name somewhere near the top.

For the next two weeks, a piece by Vitiello joins work by 10 other international musicians and sound artists at the Cultural Olympics in Turin, Italy. “Echoes From the Mountains” is a collection of performances and installations in and around the ski resorts and villages hosting the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

Vitiello’s piece, “Whoosh,” debuted yesterday and will run through Feb. 26.

“In most of the work I’ve done, people give me a place to interact and a problem to solve,” said Vitiello, an assistant professor in the department of kinetic imaging in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts since August 2004.

He was commissioned to produce the new piece by curator Ombretta Agro Andruff.

Most of Vitiello’s past work has been about gathering sounds from outside and bringing them indoors to a gallery setting. He goes for long walks with big microphones in the rain, in the subway and in abandoned buildings. In 2003, Vitiello recorded the Yanomami tribe and environmental sounds of the Amazon rain forest.

Most notably, in 1999, he worked on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center for an artist-in-residency project. He attached contact microphones to the window and recorded sounds of the building creaking, the bluster of storm winds and the haunting roar of passing jets.

The installation in Turin will be his work’s first foray beyond the warm confines of a gallery.

“It’s my first time outside,” he said. “Public art is a whole other game.”

In Turin, his canvas will be a circular configuration of five speakers set up outside in the resort village of Bardonecchia. His recording will run every day for two weeks from morning until night.

Some people will walk past and miss it entirely. Others will stand in the snow and soak it in.

“Whoosh” is Vitiello’s attempt to capture the thrill of the speed and velocity of winter sports. The 20-minute sound piece includes the scrapes and slides of metal against ice, the rush of air from speeding athletes, the huff of heavy breath and the thud of a fall.

“I’m not much of a winter sports follower,” admitted Vitiello, who prefers weekly forays to the James River with his wife and 4- year-old daughter.

He may not know the difference between a bobsled and a luge, but the man can sculpt noise like he’s working with wet clay.

For “Whoosh,” he combined samples from sound-effects libraries, recordings he made and sounds that he commissioned foley artist Carrie Palk to produce. (Foley artists produce and record sound effects for films. In simplest terms, they are the artists who go “clip-clop” with coconuts when the scene calls for a horse walking on the sidewalk.)

Once he collected enough material, Vitiello went to work on his laptop. He manipulated sounds, layered tracks and remixed to take full advantage of the speaker layout.

The final product sounds like a race between sumo wrestlers on ice skates.

“Whoosh” captures the sense of speed and tosses in some audio hallucinations for good measure. Reverbs, clipped voices and an ominous rumbling add a sinister edge. The smallest sounds are amplified so that the twirl of a figure skater sounds more like an avalanche.

“Sound is very emotional,” Vitiello said. “When I work with it, I feel in control and excited.”

Vitiello started as a punk-rock guitarist and ended up as part of the New York art scene, where he worked closely with groundbreaking video artist Nam June Paik. Over the years he has collaborated with musicians, artists, dancers and choreographers such as David Tronzo, Pauline Oliveros and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

He’s become a sound artist with an international reputation and a rapidly filling datebook. So far this year, he’s scheduled for exhibitions in Norway, Australia and England. Yesterday, he planned to perform selections from his new album, “Scratchy Monsters, Laughing Ghosts,” with fellow musicians in Malaga, Spain.

Back home in Richmond, Vitiello rides the bus to VCU from his home in Montrose Heights. The 40-year-old Vitiello spent 38 of those years in New York City. He never learned how to drive.

So he uses the time to listen. Sometimes he’ll plug into music, and sometimes he just absorbs the sounds around him.

To Vitiello, things like the hum of the engine, the hiss of the brakes and the overlapping noise of a dozen conversations are no different than the notes of Mozart.

And as the bus makes its way to Vitiello’s Franklin Street classroom, the quiet guy with the beard and the backpack is rearranging the noise in his head.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 12, 2006

GWAR: Art from the Pit

Creation has always been as simple as finding someplace dark, warm and wet. Toss in some bacteria and wait for the party to start.

Back in 1985, that dark, warm and wet place was the urban landscape surrounding Virginia Commonwealth University. The bacteria was a motley group of artists and musicians.

And the multiheaded monstrosity that lumbered out of the shadows was called GWAR.

Smart money would have pegged the band as a one-shot goof, an outlandish product of idle hands, cheap beer and wild imaginations. After all, the band played head-nodder heavy metal, a genre hardly considered avant-garde.

What set GWAR apart was its live show. Onstage, band members dressed as horrific characters, a mix of “Lord of the Rings” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Once word spread about the band’s ultra-violent, schlock-rock circus, everything changed.

Soon, what started as a performance art experiment became an international underground sensation. And 20 years later, a small army of misfit artists finds itself at the helm of America’s most bizarre corporation.

“We created our own niche and stuck there,” said Bob Gorman, an artist who joined GWAR in 1988. “We’re the ultimate anti-heroes. We want to have fun and we don’t want to be told what to do.”

Tomorrow, the group unveils “The Art of GWAR” at the Artspace Gallery in Manchester’s Plant Zero Art Center. The exhibit is a collection of costumes, props, posters and comic art. The show is a sampling of two decades of output by the members of Slave Pit Incorporated.

For clarity’s sake, members of GWAR classify themselves as musicians or artists.

Musicians play the music and portray the lead characters: vocalist Dave Brockie is Oderus Urungus; guitarist Mike Derks is Balsac; bassist Todd Evans is Beefcake the Mighty; guitarist Cory Smoot is Flattus Maximus; and drummer Brad Roberts is Jizmak Da Gusha.

The artists draw, paint, sculpt and mold in the full-time fabrication shop known as The Slave Pit. Artists create costumes, sets and peripheral materials such as T-shirts and comic books. They also play minor characters during the onstage antics.

But no one settles for a single job description. Ideas come from everywhere.

“Artistically, we’re a commune,” Gorman said. “That’s our strength, that’s the reason we’re still around.”

Since 2003, the group has operated the Slave Pit in a nondescript building on Hull Street. The windows are boarded shut. You won’t find a neon sign advertising the home base of the “Scumdogs of the Universe.”

Inside, the workspace is divided in two. On one side is a storage room packed to the ceiling with 20 years of spare parts. It’s a vault of giant skulls, battle-scarred robots and faux stone set pieces.

Three man-sized black containers stand in a corner. Each “blood tank” is strapped to its own red dolly. Onstage they hiss and spew like gory sprinklers, soaking the crowd and adding messy punctuation to amputations and beheadings.

The other side of Slave Pit headquarters is a workspace with four weathered tables and a mud-caked floor. Against one wall, legs and torsos are stacked like firewood. Tattered battle flags and posters hang from the wall.

The white plaster head of guitarist Mike Derks waits patiently to be fitted with the dreadlocked Balsac helmet.

Gorman and Matt Maguire, an artist who joined GWAR in 1991, run the shop. Together they deliver new costumes from concept to creation. They construct the oversized sets. And because their art takes a beating on stage, repair work usually tops their to-do list.

In the weeks leading up to a tour, the Slave Pit becomes a monster factory in overdrive. What they do is custom work that cuts across several disciplines. Since they’ve been working, Maguire and Gorman have perfected techniques for sculpting, casting and pouring latex molds.

In essence, the Slave Pit is a special effects company with one client.

“The way we do things has to be different than Hollywood,” Gorman explained. “It has to last. It has to be hosed down at the end of the night and stuffed in a box.”

Gorman said “The Art of GWAR” is a chance for the band to showcase the scope of its projects. He hopes they appreciate the detailed art behind the hilarious, the lewd and the just plain odd.

For those unfamiliar with GWAR, the show is an opportunity to sample the band’s salaciousness without the crowd, the noise or the Gallagher-like rain of make-believe body fluids.

“There is nothing else like GWAR,” Gorman said. “No one has ever done something like this, consistently for 20 years.”

The last few years have been steady for GWAR. After the exhibit, the band will gear up for a summer festival tour. Afterwards, they’ll finish a new album and then hit the road once again around Halloween.

Beyond that, the members of GWAR are looking to diversify. Gorman and Maguire are convinced that somewhere on the horizon is a Broadway-style spectacular.

“We’re made for that,” said Gorman. “We never had any money or budget and we still pulled off the craziest junk in the world.”

One thing is certain, age has not mellowed the mutant-metal masters. While the world may have caught up with their wild and wicked ways, band members promise that nothing they ever do will be predictable.

“We still have to pull ourselves back a bit,” said Maguire. “We still shock people.”

And if they ever stumble on a place that seems way beyond the limits of poor taste?

“We’ll still go there,” Maguire said.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 26, 2006