Thursday, January 06, 2005

Warehouse Artist Studios

An artist/bohemian type working for themselves is perceived in a variety of ways by the general public. A lot of the perception actually has to do with a combination of the artist's cashflow and apparel strategy, as opposed to the stirrings of their soul. Strangely, as a young man, people often saw me as a responsible, solid guy. Ha!
In the early eighties I ran my screen printing operation out of a funky old warehouse by the railroad tracks in Eugene, Oregon. Enormous pastry and coffee in hand, I’d get to my shop a bit past nine and dig in for the day. Usually I'd run out of work between 1:00 and 3:00 pm, leaving the rest of the day to run, draw comics and hang out.
Being that the economy had had the shit kicked out of it just then, I was moderately proud that I’d been able to scape up enough business to keep a roof over my head… ultimately I turned enough of a profit to embark on my checkered career publishing my own wacky comic books, but that’s not the subject of this rant.

Warehouse Artists Studios was the literal name of the co-op warehouse wherein I rented space. The studio took up the second floor of a truly dilapidated old funkster warehouse that had most recently been used to store spices. Add to that the gay girls who illegally lived in the space next to mine, burning patchouli oil night and day. This place had a certain bouquet! I’d been printing T-Shirt jobs out of my flat, and it was getting a bit ridiculous. At an opening in a local gallery, I saw a flyer for “Warehouse Artist Studios”, a 5000 square foot space that magically divided up the floor into 170 square foot units that rented for forty bucks a month. I went down the next day and rented two adjacent spaces, which apparently I’d be paying $75 or $80 a month for. A slight, nervous man named Lynn rented my space to me. He was the manager, he had a chair upholstering business in the studio. Straight away, I could see ‘ol Lynn was a duck seriously out of water.

This impression was dramatically confirmed like three days later when Lynn informed me that the Warehouse was failing economically, and that he was resigning as manager. He handed me the studio ledger and checkbook saying “you seem like an astute fellow, why don’t you manage this dump?”. I was rather taken aback at this, but sure enough at the next meeting of the co-op, the members all but begged me to save their studio. I had my serious doubts, but figured there wasn’t much to lose, so why not? It wasn't lost on me either that as manager my rent for my 340 square foot space dipped to $35.00 per month!

The co-op had about 12 members. We were several hundred dollars in the hole. We could pay rent, but couldn’t pay the heating bill. We were required to carry basic liability insurance, which had gone unpaid and lapsed, for starters. I sat down and did a bit of math. I figured if we raised the rent on the basic space about $10.00 a month for five months, and attracted a couple new members, we’d squeak by and could continue renting the dump.

The measure passed at the next meeting. At least with the eight or nine people who decided to stick it out, as a couple dropped out with the news of the temporary rent increase; we did indeed need to attract new members straight away. We papered the town with flyers for the warehouse, and got free listings in any newspaper we could. Miraculously, the plan worked. We lowered the basic rent back to $40.00 per month ahead of schedule and got an infusion of fresh blood. I can’t take too much credit for it, as the place snapped to with an esprit de corps I’ve rarely encountered… I’d say it was goddamn grassroots socialism is action, almost.

Now here comes the fun part, the personalities that made the place click, the swashbucklers, crackpots, con men, assholes and outright brilliant geniuses I encountered in my stint at Warehouse Artist Studios. First comes a woman named Kathy Caprario. She was a dramatic beauty from New York of Italian descent, the best known painter in Eugene, an “older woman” to me of maybe 33-35 years (I was all of 24 at the time). Kathy is the person who was singlehandedly most responsible for the survival of Warehouse Artist Studios at the time of the financial crises. To say she was resourceful and a bit of an aggressive shark is an understatement. For starters, she marched me down to see the owner of the owner of the building when the lease came up. The guy was a real estate money grubbing slum lord type who claimed an artistic background. Right. Our rent was $650.00 per month. Kathy figured that Jeff, the slum lord, was lucky that anyone at all was renting this dump in a crappy ecomomy. She advises me to offer the guy $450.00 per month. No problem! It was an invaluable early lesson in having brass balls.

So we’re in this real estate lizard’s office, and I make the rent offer. Jeff, the lizard in question, completely ignores me and starts this serious, near lecherous flirt with Kathy. She plays this guy like a fiddle, and we walk out of there with a lease for the next year of $550.00 per month, a hundred per month rent reduction. Yes folks, in 1982 in Eugene, you could rent a 5000 square foot studio for that low price. I should mention too, the year after that, Kathy had moved on to a private studio space, but I’d learned well and got that damn rent down to $475.00 per month!
Kathy also had us apply for City of Eugene room tax grants. Turns out there was actual civic supports for the arts afoot! We hastily threw together grant applications to run a gallery in our common space, such as it was, and to offer figure drawing sessions to the public. Given the level of initial interest in these projects, we all saw it as a way to get the city to help pay our rent with minimal execution of said projects.
But who knew! The figure drawing sessions maintained a core of attendance for a couple years. The gallery stared off as nothing—an unrented space was hung with art. But before long, a 22 year old painter of promise named Mike Perkin rented a space and started doing some pretty cool work in his cubicle. He tried his best to ape Francis Bacon, but the works looked a bit like Francis was a werewolf Mexican wrestler or something.
When it came Mike’s turn to show his work, he turned a critical eye at the tiny room where I asked him to hang his paintings. He asked me if I had the studio checkbook. What do you have in mind, Mike? He directed me to the Eugene Planing Mill, a massive lumber yard across the street from us. “Let’s stud up couple walls so I can hang my big paintings”. Outragous! Here’s this wild kid, plays the same tapes over and over (Scarey Monsters by Bowie, anything by Lou Reed) and yells at his paintings. At the drop of a hat, we get some lumber and flail away for a couple hours with hammers. Before you know it, instant gallery! We build some pretty decent walls in a jiffy (other studio members drifted in a pitched in) and whitewashed them. Mike’s paintings for that show were terrific. They were done in ruddy reds, earthtones and orangey yellows, with wood and burlap assemblage fastened to the canvases. The average size was maybe 3’ across by almost 5’ tall. My favorite was called “The Inside of Lou Reed’s Stomach”. If I wasn’t blowing every cent on publishing comic books, I woulda bought it. The opening was a revelation. Mike’s family showed up and they were the most amazing bunch of open minded art, theatre, film and literature lovers you could imagine. A lotta beer went down. I remember late at night, Mike’s mom was wrestling on the studio floor with one of her four sons. From there on in, our little gallery stood a few decent shows, and even better parties. And through it all, the city kept the checks coming!

Keith the retired Air Force colonel is next in our cast of characters. Bald, prim, post heart attack, gentle former Texan Keith. A late life painter, an ultra practical man. Ruled by logic on the outside, soft as a grape inside, he had a good heart even if it was failing him, he did his share to keep the warehouse afloat. He painted small landscapes that revealed a luminous take on Oregon’s rainy colors. Nothin’ amazing, but nice. Fluid, painterly, sea foam light permeating the canvas with a bit of warm ochre and alizarin crimson, tacking it to the surface of the earth. Keith enjoyed regaling the Warehouse crew over beers with stories of flying B-52’s through mushroom clouds after bomb tests in the Pacific back in the day. Knowing that I was involved in the anti-nuke movement of the day, he teased me “I did H-Bomb tests all day long, and I’m not glowing yet”. Although he had a son who was around forty, Keith took a fatherly interest in me, and used to take me to lunch in his enourmous four door GM pickup truck with one of those worthless diesel engines they tried to manufacture for a couple years. He’d take us to the local Lions clubhouse. The food sucked. He’d insist we have a beer with lunch, which I didn’t like as I usually would go for a run later in the day. Hell Steve, have a beer, indulge the old boy! Unbidden, he told me his life story. Before retirement, had risen as an assistant to one of the joint cheifs of staff. After retiring from the military, he’d been a ROTC instructor on the University of Oregon campus in the sixties. He’d have run ins with various rag-tag groups of pseudo Maoist college kids. Then one summer, Keith and his wife were vacationing in the Cascade mountains east of Eugene. Hiking in the foothills, they came upon an encampment where some of these same youths were enacting a military training drill with assault rifles! They were indeed serious about the revolution bit. After a tense momentary face off with no word exchanged, Keith and his wife turned on their heel and hiked out. “I felt like I had a target on my back”, he said, adding that he never saw those kids again. On another occasion over a beer or two, Keith revealed the ultimate dark thought of he and his peers as youths in Texas. They wanted to have sex with black women! He told me this in reverant hushed tones with a desperate fire in his Seventy year old eyes. Kinda freaky.

There was another older painter at the studio, one Nick Nickolds. He was maybe 60-65 at the time. He was the real deal, a life long bohemian, painter and philosopher dedicated to the pursuit of his art. He’d been an orphan from Denver who lived the middle decades of his life in Mexico. Nick scored the studio to the right at the top of the stairs. It was the best studio there as it had a separate private entrance. He painted in a style that at once reminded me of William Blake and Titian. His color was rich, saturated and full of light, yet he built up layers of delicate glazes that gave body and air to his figures. He was painting the figure, and faces and the natural world, yet it was semi abstract. It was as if Blake had decided to lapse into abstraction and gotten about 73% there before deciding he still had to have a face here, an eye or a breast there. This work was technically masterful and evoked images and emotion like a skeleton key. It alluded to everything while putting it’s finger on nothing, like a Robert Hunter lyric. Nick was so consistently true, dignified and full of heart that you had to love him. He was a slightly rotund, dapper little man with ample sparkle in his eye. He once showed me a vial full of crystalline dust, claiming that it was a sort of emulsified, crystal LSD. He stuck a pin in it, putting a miniscule amount on the head of the pin. “That’s enough”, he said. He claimed he’d had the vial for years, had been in San Francisco in the sixties with it (it was full back then). He asserted he’d provided hundreds and hundreds of trips from his little vial. Today, I almost wonder if I made that part of the story up! It just sounds too good to be true.
Nick was a guy who was always fascinating, who revealed himself to me a little bit at a time as we became friends. He approved of my comic books, and my attempts to explain the nature of reality, time, the singularity of the eternal now in cartoon form, and all that jazz. Nick told me I was on the right track as an artist. “All you have to do is be careful about the beer”, he advised me, and boy was he right, as I developed enough of a drinking habit that I ultimately had to stop altogether for my own good. Nick eventually moved back into what he considered the morass of Marin County, as he had money connections down in California. I never saw him again, don’t know if he’s still around or not. I often reflect on what Nick taught me about maintaining integrity as an artist, and about having respect for every human being regardless of anything. I consider it immense good fortune to have known Nick and been his friend, albeit for only a couple of years.

P.S. Nick is indeed still around, at http://www.nicknickolds.com


copyright 2005 Steve Lafler all rights reserved

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