Tuesday, April 10, 2012

is a highly animated fellow:

                                                  LANCE 'FEVER' MYERS

Lance Myers is currently working on a 20-minute animated video called The Boxer, featuring his character Twomey Martin, a pugilist with a secret. Myers has done plenty of big-studio work, too – A Scanner Darkly, anyone? Space Jam? Prince of Egypt? – even while crafting personal (and award-winning) projects The Astronomer (2000), Subsidized Fate (2003), and a comedy series called The Ted Zone for now-defunct SuperDeluxe.

We knew Myers first from Twomey’s appearance in Jeanette Moreno’s Moko comics anthology back in 1992, and were recently able to cajole the artist into creating an autobiographical comic for the final print edition of Minerva's Wreck.

(Eventually, Myers willing and the pixelcreek don't rise, we'll have those four pages up in here for your delight, too.)

Right now, we've got an interview with the man, conducted last year outside Tamale House on Airport Boulevard, both of us happily munching just, oh, perfect tacos at a storefront-shaded table beneath the big Texas sky …

                                             SCENE FROM 'THE BOXER'

 “The Boxer is sort of a snapshot of where I am, emotionally, about my work,” says Myers. “I’m doing everything myself, and I’ve had some very competent animators offer me their time to work on it – but I’m just not at the point where I can hand it off. I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m gonna work a day job – and it’s a great day job – but it’s not entirely creatively satisfying. So I’ll have my side project that I hold dear to my heart, and it will be all mine. I want to be able to just, if I spend a year designing a character and creating all the animation, and then I look at it and decide it’s not quite what I had in mind, I can redo it. And I don’t have to explain that to anybody, I don’t have to justify it, I don’t have to re-plan my schedule. And it’s not gonna sell, and it may show in festivals – I’d love for it to show in festivals – but I’m not creating it to sell, I’m not creating it for anybody else. This is what I want to do, so I’m gonna do it.

"I’m lucky enough that I have a job and a life that allows me that," says Myers, "so I’m gonna take advantage of that and just make something I want to make.”

Brenner: Where are you working, these days?

Myers: BioWare. I’m working on that new Star Wars MMO that’s going to come out soon. Star Wars: The Old Republic. It’s gonna be enormous.

Brenner: So you’re doing The Boxer, which is your biggest thing so far, and like so many of your other projects, this one is animated. What is it that, uh, draws you to animation so much?

Myers: It moves. [laughs] Y’know, I went through various career aspirations as an artist. I wanted to be a cartoonist, and that’s why I moved to Austin in the first place. I was looking at the Daily Texan stuff, Jeanette [Moreno]’s stuff, and Tom King, and Walt [Holcombe]. Chris Ware and Korey Coleman and Karl Greenblatt. All those people who were doing that stuff in the early ’90s, at the Texan. And I wanted to be a part of it, so I moved here for that.

And then almost all of those people got interested in animation at the same time, and we all started working at Heart of Texas together. And of course there was the band thing. But as far as visual arts go, I went back to school and wanted to be a painter. And discovered that any time I did a painting, any time I did a static image, I was always trying to tell a story with it ~ and painting wasn’t the right medium for it. Some people can pull it off, like Robert Williams, but it just didn’t work for me. I felt like, if I’m trying to tell a story I should just tell a story.

And I love film, and I think that painting and static images hanging in a gallery are, for better or for worse, not as culturally relevant as film is. In the two years I’ve been at BioWare, I’ve never come in to work and heard anyone discussing a painting they saw at a gallery. But I do hear discussions almost every day about movies. And, occasionally, books. But mostly movies ~ and TV shows. Do you agree with me at all about this?

Brenner: Well, I think that people at BioWare might be a pretty distinct subcultural set … but, at the same time, you’re saying that film, that video, and even stuff on TV, is much more culturally relevant in how pervasive it is. And yes, I do agree. In fact, it’s currently less bothersome that it’s culturally relevant. Because, years ago ~ many years, even ~ there was only network television stuff, and that was mostly crap. And so the cultural relevance of it, you’d wonder, what the fuck is wrong with people that they embrace such shit? What are they, idiots? But these days you can’t say that it generally sucks anymore. Because, especially with cable and the Internet, there’s so much good stuff out there. So I don’t think the greater cultural relevance is a bad thing at all.

Myers: Right. And, for me, this is coming from somebody who’s very into visual arts. I mean, I go to art shows and museums on a regular basis. I plan vacations around places that have works of art that I can go see. And I had lunch with Michael Sieben the other day, and he’s somebody who’s made a splash in the visual arts scene, whose work I admire. And I was kind of surprised to hear him agree with me on a lot of these points.

I have a degree in studio art with a minor in art history, and I love talking about art and thinking about art. And it’s easier for me to justify a work that’s moving, that talks, that tells a story. It’s easier for me to feel, in creating something like that, that it justifies itself somehow. Whereas, when I finish a painting, I oftentimes wonder, “Why did I just do that? What is that?”

That’s just a personal hang-up, maybe. It’s a weird thing. I would love to have a better understanding of how to create static images and be satisfied with them. I’m a big fan of static images, I’m just not a big fan of my own static images.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Man Behind Austin's Domy Books

                                               (Or, in this case, yes: The man in front of it.)  

                                         PHOTO BY CASEY JAMES WILSON


If what you really want is sequential art featuring super-powered people dressed in various forms of Spandex and generally beating the super-powered shit out of one another, then you should go to Austin Books & Comics ~ because Austin Books & Comics is the best place in all of Texas, and one of the best in the whole country, to assuage your jones for the latest adventures of the Fantastic Four and Green Lantern and Iron Man and the Runaways and that whole crowd. And only because the store is so well managed, so thoughtfully designed to attract and welcome, as if in spite of the depths of its geekery, will you also find a sweet array of non-superhero and indie titles (alternative comics, right?) and thick volumes of collected illustration and so on, gladly pointed out to you by the helpful staff. It's a terrific place, Austin Books & Comics.


If you're looking for just a few of those alternative comics, and you don't give a mutated rat's ass about Captain Steroid-Man Versus The Nefarious Nematode or whatever; and maybe you also want to have your eyes expanded and your mind blown by oversized volumes featuring the wildest street styles or the rarified conceptual stuff, by handstitched zines and skater rags and faux-brow periodicals, by the sort of slick graphic-design compilations and photographic anthologies that would give the collective body of the AIGA a raging hard-on; and, hell, you'd actually enjoy a display or two of Dunnies and Labbits and miniature Gundams; and, sure, you'd totally love a gallery of original art right there in the same store?


That's where, as The Austin Chronicle put it when they awarded Domy the ‘Most Dangerous Store for Graphic Design Addicts’ award in their 2009 Best of Austin issue, "Russell Etchen is your towering ginger guide to much of what's best about having eyes and the knack for pattern recognition."

Well, yes: Etchen is the manager of the store, after all. He started it in Austin after he and some friends were successful with the first Domy Books in Houston. He started the store; he stocks it well; he hires good people; he schedules the readings and the presentations and the exhibitions in the big one-room gallery; he makes connections with artists and publishers around the world and brings his favorites and their wares into the impressive Eastside venue. And he is towering ~ well, he's 6' 4" ~ and he is gingery.

But, like, what's his story?

"I was brought up in a very Christian home,” says Etchen.

[He's sitting in Domy's back room where, months before, a life-size and disturbingly realistic model of the murder scene of Mary Kelly ~ Jack the Ripper's final victim ~ was on display, the body having been rendered in latex and placed upon painstakingly recreated furniture (with everything, even the desecrated flesh, in shades of gray: like the photo on which the scene was based) by the proprietor's friend, sculptor David N. Allen.]

"This was in the suburbs of Houston ~ in Clear Lake, near NASA," says Etchen. "Everything I was allowed to listen to also had to have roots in Christianity, except what my parents listened to ~ which was ‘50s pop music and ‘70s psychedelic records and things like that, from before they were Christian. Otherwise, I had no reference for culture ~ or current events, even. My parents and I, we had no common interests, except for talking about God. And, uh, I never really got down with that program.

"And then, around age 12, my dad got me a subscription to Mad magazine. Which was against everything he brought me up with. It was almost like my dad was secretly trying to subvert me ~ without my mom knowing or something? ~ even though he could only go so far. And from there I got into comicbooks, which were secular. But comicbooks were fine, and popular music was not. The Simpsons were not. There were a lot of very weird inconsistencies in what I was allowed to do or not do.

"Then, when I was 15, I met these kids from Chicago, twin brothers. We were in an office supply store with our moms, getting ready for the sophomore year of high school, and we both had on the same cartoon T-shirt ~ it was for a comicbook called Bone by Jeff Smith. So we were these 15-year-olds in the Office Depot, and I spotted the shirt that I was wearing, and without hesitation I went up to this kid and I was like, "You know about this?" Because this was in '93, I think, and Jeff Smith had just begun, was maybe six or eight issues into it? And me and the brothers became immediate friends.

"So I had this, like, twin crew. They'd been brought up in the suburbs, too ~ very Catholic. But the difference is that their dad would take them into Chicago to go to Quimby's Queer Store, so they got exposed to many comics very early on. So, the first day I'm hanging out with them, they're showing me Dan Clowes's Eightball, they're showing me the original Xerox copies of Optic Nerve, they're showing me John Porcellino's King-Cat. And I was hooked. I dropped all superhero comics and got completely into alternative comics.

"And with these two guys, who ended up moving away about a year later, we managed to put out a whole bunch of stuff. We did an anthology comic called Velvet that was terrible. I made zines about dancing; they made zines about the stories they wanted to tell. And, for like a year and a half, we didn't have any friends outside of our crew. We'd just go and hang out all night at the Kinko's nearby and scam the shit out of them. We'd walk around ~ we weren't doing drugs, we weren't drinking beers, we weren't even smoking cigarettes ~ we were just straight nerds. None of us had girlfriends; none of us could talk to girls. We just sat around and listened to college radio and the Velvet Underground. And we made videos, these weird documentaries that we made about ourselves, just shot them in their room, making shit up, making stories up.

"And so I completely immersed myself into zine culture. Because I needed that. All my social skills, everything that I learned about being friends with people, came out of writing letters. Every day I'd come home from high school and I'd look at the mailbox and there'd be four or five zines waiting for me. And I'd send mine out in trade. There was a magazine about zines, called Factsheet Five. And Porcellino used to run a distro called Spit and a Half, selling minicomics and zines from his house. And at one point he was distributing our zine, and I discovered all sorts of people because of Spit and a Half. That's how I discovered Ron Rege, how I discovered a guy called Al Burian, who's been writing this book called Burn Collector for years. My whole world was opened up because of zines.

"And then I found punk rock and got really involved in music for a long time. Me and my friends ran a booking collective in Houston called Hands Up, and that lasted for four or five years ~ and we brought hundreds and hundreds of shows to Houston that weren't coming before. And then I got burned out on that and got a real job and finished school. I'd kind of fallen out of self-publishing for a few years, had no real desire to share what I was thinking about with anyone. And I decided that if I was ever gonna do that again, I'd only do it for my friends ~ because your friends are the only ones who care about it anyway, so you might as well just stick to what you know."

[At this point ~ and you may think that your reporter is pulling your leg; you may suspect this is some sort of orchestrated, Paul Auster-like coincidence of plot; but, no, it's true, this is exactly what happened ~ David Allen, the sculptor, walks into the back room with two cold bottles of Stella Artois: It's a surprise! Etchen introduces us, and there's much cheerful huzzah and hands being shaken and fists being bumped all around. Allen takes a nearby chair, Etchen and he crack open their crispy Stellas, and the three of us get to talking about the Mary Kelly piece and about Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell and about the genius of Alan Moore in general, and about plans for future projects. And then Allen leaves, and it's just me and Etchen again, and it's time to ask about Domy itself.]

"I worked a regular job in Houston for three years," says Etchen. "And then, my girlfriend at the time was working for Magda Sayeg, who's the wife of Dan Fergus, who owns Domy. Magda had a store called Raye, and I was hanging out there a lot ~ and at Brasil, the cafe that Dan also owns. And one day Dan was like, 'Look, how can I get you to work here? I have this extra space, and I don't really know what I want to do with it. I know how the food industry works, but I don't know retail.' And I said, 'I don't know how business works, but I know what I'd stock.'

"I could see the whole store in my head. And I knew all the places to go to get the stuff, because I'd been sitting on the information since I was 15 ~ the things I was accumulating, the knowledge I was gathering, I was like a sponge. And I couldn't really share it with anybody, either ~ because, out of context, it's just a bunch of nerdy stuff that very few people care about. But when you can actually put it in their hands and talk to them about it, it totally changes everything.

"I think about those first few moments in your adolescence, when that first thing clicks, the first time somebody does something, introduces you to something ~ whether it's a record store employee or you see something in the back of Spin magazine. Whatever that moment is, where, suddenly, your world opens up a little bit and you're just blown away. Like, 'Oh my God, I didn't know this was out there!' Those moments are so sacred to me, and I wanted to replicate that experience for other people. I wanted to get kids into the store, but also have a place that was gonna appeal to a hardened, jaded consumer or art collector, a person who's seen it all and done it all and is kind of looking for other things.

"So, along with Patrick Phipps, who also runs the Menil bookstore, and my friend Seth and the owner, Dan, the four of us opened the Houston store in four months. And we just celebrated the four-year anniversary on April Fools' Day. And this year, this shop is coming up on two years in June ~ June seventh. And we're doing great. We're not raking it in, some months are better than others ~ but we're paying all our bills, we get a lot of great artists in here, and a community is really developing around the place."

[Congratulations are offered there in the back room, where the ghost of the latex model of the last woman who was killed by a surgically skilled maniac in London in 1888 might still haunt anyone who saw last year’s grisly circa-Halloween installation. And Russell Etchen, the tall ginger proprietor in jeans and an untucked button-down, grins ~ because the store's success is no small matter to him. Because, to him, the store is … what?]

"Domy Books is a place where I can share all the things that I'm obsessed with," says Etchen. "Even if I'm no longer interested in some of them. I had my moment with them, and it's done, and I can talk about it. There are some things that I'm interested in that I don’t share here, because I'm still exploring them for myself. But, yeah, it all pretty much goes back to Mad magazine for me. Cartooning, comicbooks, and punk rock. I will forever call myself a punk; I will forever claim that ~ because that's how I feel. Because being a punk isn’t about fucking shit up; it's about, you know, being open and willing to try things out that you wouldn't normally try."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

isn't blind to the beauty of braille.

She isn’t blind at all, in fact: The artist sees quite well, thank you ~ even better without glasses than some of us do with glasses. Her deep blue eyes have successfully watched her dominant hand guide a paintbrush for many years, have observed and abetted the creation of works ~ in acrylics, in encaustic wax, via lithography, with gold leaf and aluminum leaf and more ~ that have improved the walls of Gallery Lombardi, Arthouse, Women & Their Work, Studio2Gallery, and San Antonio’s Galeria Ortiz. It’s just that, especially in recent years, Jacqueline May has used braille to enhance, to complicate, to inform those works.

                                                          THE WORD MADE FLESH

“I’ve always been interested in secret-code type things,” says May, over java and a piece of rich sweet cake at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery. “But what got me interested in braille, specifically, is that I was doing volunteer work at the Recording for the Blind center on 45th Street, and I was seeing all these braille things in my immediate surroundings. And it sort of clicked over, like this is another thing, this is another secret code that some people can read and other people can’t, like another level of meaning that’s embedded in our everyday reality. A stealth thing. Like those ancient photographs that have been exposed by some arcane process, that tell us a secret or something about our environment that we wouldn’t otherwise know.”

Brenner: What was the first piece that you used braille in?

May: It’s been a while, but I think I started out by using cut-out dots on some drawings. Then I got intrigued by these sheets of clear dots that I had, that are for sticking on the backs of paintings. I had sheets and sheets of them, so my paintings wouldn’t scuff up the walls. And the little dots had their own existence ~ they were pretty little things, all rainbowy in the light, looked like drops of water. And I started sticking them on my studio wall … and, uh, a movement was born.

Brenner: A movement that involves braille and … fish?

                                                         CHARON'S FLOCK

May: I shot this video in Chinatown, in San Francisco, when I was traveling. I was going through a lot of internal stuff about reuniting with my birth family, and some of that came out in the video as looking around at my surroundings. There were these fish, swimming around in a tank at a fish-seller’s stall, swimming back and forth. And it just struck me how they were fated to die. Like seeing the human condition, how we’re all here, swimming around, waiting for our ultimate demise. And here’s this fish-seller on the other side of the tank, and you order from him ~ “That fish right there!” ~ and he takes your fish and dispatches it for you.

So I shot this video, and as I’m shooting this fish tank that separates you from the fish-seller, I pan around, and there’s this long row of skyscrapers on either side. And you get the sensation that you, yourself, are in a fish tank.

Well, I don’t know if too many people got that out of the video, but it was my private story that I was making for myself. And that’s where the painting Charon’s Flock came from. And because I’d started doing the braille work at the time, it seemed like a natural progression to drill holes in the painting and install lights behind the holes. And the holes are the braille version of a quote from Walt Whitman:

Whoever walks a furlong
without sympathy walks to
his own funeral drest in his shroud.

So there’s this poetry that occurs because there’s light coming from the holes, but, for someone who’s blind, they’re never going to see that light. And it’s like a marriage of complex flavors, like when you sip something that has a really complex taste: It’s a visual parallel to that. And I’ve used braille in lots and lots of other things since then, it’s become a standard.

                                                                       THE FLOW

Brenner: Have you had feedback from people who are blind, who’ve experienced any of the braille that you’ve used?

May: Yes ~ and they really enjoy that somebody has thought about them in creating artwork. But I can’t say, to tell you the truth, that the foremost thing in my mind was “Let’s go and make artwork that’s accessible.” That was secondary to the initial concept.

But, at the same time, as a person who has a heart, I do care about people having access. And it also opened the door for me, to some opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. In July, I’m going to be in Norway, in Christiansund, doing a braille installation there. It’ll be in between the health center and the public library, there’ll be rainbowy dots on the wall … and I’ve been talking to a couple of friends about the possibility of throwing in some runes for craziness’s sake.

Brenner: Jacqueline, have you made any art recently that doesn’t incorporate braille?

May: Well, I’ve been doing some video artwork lately ~ although I’m throwing some braille in that, too, as a sort of frustration factor. It’s just a funny, quirky thing. People see these dots scrolling across the screen and they think, “Oh, a pret-ty lit-tle pat-tern,” and it’s just an inside joke for me and my two best friends. Of course, now I include you into that circle.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Whatever you do …

                                                 PHOTO BY DAVID JEWELL

Really, steampunk is the wrong word.

Because the steampunk impulse springs from a desire to embody a fictional existence within the context of our putatively duller reality, to engage in a sort of retro-cultural cosplay ~ regardless that it's a form of cosplay both less specifically derivative than most genre-based costuming and more often on par with inspired pinnacles of mainstream craftwork.

And that's not what Steve Brudniak is doing.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
"I wonder if ~"

No, steampunk is the wrong word. Because what Brudniak is doing is another thing entirely. He's not forcibly regressing modern tech toward some brass-hinged Victorian aesthetic for the delight of those who might yearn for a brighter, more mechanized version of (mostly European) days gone by.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
"I wonder if my denial of steampunk ~"

No, nevermind the steampunk. What Brudniak is doing in his Bouldin Creek studio that's equipped with drill presses and table saws and arc welders and industrial-strength angle grinders … what he’s doing in that workspace where the walls' shelves are chockablock with thick lengths of molded aluminum and iron, with copper tubing and johnson rods, with lenses and lasers and antique tiles and porcelain fixtures and dismantled apparatus that looks ripped from the guts of a Decepticon … what he has been doing there for almost three decades is using salvaged scientific and industrial equipment to create eerie structures that embody a timeless, ur-technological style. He's constructing machinelike (and painstakingly machined) objects that often serve as thick-plated frames or repositories for more fluid and personal … things.

It's a completely different motivation.


"I don't know," says the artist over coffee at the Green Muse Cafe on Oltorf Avenue,
where several of his scientific-looking sculptures are installed. "I wonder if my denial of steampunk might, ah, come back and bite me in the ass someday."

                                                  THE VAGUS LEVIATHAN

"I started out working with found objects in about 1982," says the artist, tearing hungrily into a thick Green Muse sandwich. "Which makes it, what? Longer than time is supposed to be. Twenty- eight years. And I just fell right into it, too. I started with some clay and went right to a neon-sign transformer after that. I was … 22?

“I was a bit of a science nerd, starting out. I think I just found the transformer at a neon-sign dump, and it said, on the side of it, that it would put out 15,000 volts. And what comes out of the wall is 110 volts. So I thought, hey, I'm gonna see what this does, and started playing around with it. Because you can take the two electrodes and you get a two-inch spark going like bzzzzt! between them."

"Like a Jacob's Ladder?" says your reporter.

"I actually made a Jacob's Ladder with coat hangers," says Brudniak. "And I had a landlord who worked for the electric company, and he said, 'Oh, transformers like that, you can't even get near them, a spark could just jump out and kill you.' And I didn't realize that he was talking about the big transformers up on the lightpoles. So for the first month of me playing with this neon-sign thing, I'd get a broomstick and poke it with that. And I started experimenting with fruit, cutting a banana in two and sticking the halves on the ends of coat-hanger wire. And electric sparks started jumping between the two halves of the banana ~ because, y'know, there's moisture in a banana, so the water conducts the current. And I ended up making my first sculpture, which was a carved wooden banana and a little angel from a Dungeons & Dragons set, a metal angel that's holding a staff, and the banana comes down, and there's ~ bzzzzzt! ~ a little spark that jumps to it. And it's all in this glass case, gilded, in stained glass. You can see it on my website."

"From the start," says your reporter, munching a few Zapp's salt & vinegar-flavored potato chips that the artist has kindly offered him, "you've set your works up as parts of an exhibition from some giant, gorgeous museum that doesn't actually exist. With the glass cases and the gilding, as you say, with the frames and all. What made you decide to do that, as opposed to just 'Okay, I've finished this object, now I'll move on to the next one?'"

"I've always had a real fascination for science museums," says Brudniak. "Since I was a kid, I've loved the displays in science museums ~ and art museums. Just the fact that something has been made precious by being surrounded by glass, in a vitrine, or framed and on the wall. Like, have you seen the photograph, the World's First Photograph, at the Harry Ransom Center? It's got a booth of its own; and then you go into the booth and there's a glass case; and in the case there's another case full of nitrogen; and in the nitrogen case is the photograph ~ inside a picture frame. And there's something gorgeous about that.

"So, yeah, almost everything I do has a central, ah, focus. Like a window or a tube or a case. Something that's being held, behind glass. And some of that relates well to the human, ah, psyche, you know? How there's this whole body that we've got that ages ~ it gets older and starts falling apart, gets gray … but inside there's still that little seven-year-old kid, you know what I mean?"

"Sure ~ it's preserved," suggests your reporter. "Like with the reliquaries you make, right? With your mentors' blood in them … ?"

"The blood reliquaries, yeah," says the artist.
"They're over at the East Side Show Room right now."

"And what got you started on that, on putting human fluids in with all this mechanical stuff?"


"Well," says Brudniak, "I'd been using biological things previous to that, too. And I'd seen a Catholic relic called The Blood of St. Genarius. It's this pole that the Pope or a bishop or somebody holds. It's all fancy, and it's got this glass bowl or jar at the top of it. It's this giant wand that the bishop uses. And what's in it is the blood of St. Genarius, and it's coagulated. But the bishop does a ritual, and starts to move the pole, and the blood magically becomes fluid ~ supposedly. And I saw that, and I thought, wow, what an awesome idea. Because, what is it? It's a relic. It's a relic that's been framed and put into a context where it's on display ~ and so it's a reliquary. And the Buddhists have their reliquaries, too, like the bones of their saints. So I thought I'd just use my own saints ~ or people who had affected my life."

Brenner: Which people in particular?

Brudniak: I went all the way back to my best friend in fifth grade, who was like the guy who pulled me out of my early nerd-dom. He'd be like, "Steve, let's jump between these two buildings!" And we would. And another friend who, later on in life, was one of my spiritual guides and teachers, in a way, who taught me a lot about Letting Go. And my parents are in one reliquary. And a good friend of mine who taught me a lot about how to laugh and be optimistic. And another one is an ex-girlfriend who taught me about benevolence and giving. There could've been a lot more reliquaries, but those pieces take a long, long time to make.

                                                    BODHISATTVA SETTEE

Brenner: Do you draw the blood yourself, or do you have a dedicated phlebotomist
that you work with?

Brudniak: I have two doctors who help me. And, oddly enough, my friend from fifth grade had always wanted to be a pilot, and I hadn’t talked to him in twenty years, and when I finally got in touch with him through the interwebs, he was like, “Hey, I’m actually a pilot now.” And I told him about the reliquary project, and I was like, “Can you do this?” And he goes, “Well, you know, I happen to be flying to Texas tomorrow.” And I go, “Oh, really? Where you going?” And he goes, “San Antonio.” And I’m like, “Guess where my doctor lives.” And so, the next day, my doctor’s drawing his blood.

And I have a psychiatrist friend who’s also collected some of my work; he did my parents. My dad’s like, “Steve, why the hell do you wanna use my ~ why couldn’t you put flowers or something in there, something that’ll sell?” It was tough, getting my parents to give it up, but they did it.

And then my friend, my guru buddy ~ who’s actually dead now ~ I had to go to Oklahoma to get his blood. But I couldn’t find a doctor in Oklahoma, so I went to a hospital and went to the supply room, and talked the guy there into giving me the phlebotomy kit. I’d seen it done enough times ~ I’d been a guinea pig at Pharmaco, so I’d had my blood drawn, like, eight million times when I was in my late twenties. So I did my first and only blood draw, ever. Luckily, this friend of mine had huge veins. And I did it perfectly: he didn’t even flinch! So I got his blood, and that was fun. Fun and scary ~ because I’m real squeamish about blood, so it helped me get through that.

There was one point, where I was filling up one of the reliquaries ~ and you have to get a syringe and squirt the blood in, and you have to have an outlet for the air ~ and I filled it up too far and some of the blood just ~ psssshhhhh! ~ it sprayed out onto the wall. And I remember getting really dizzy. I almost passed out working on my own art.

Brenner: What about that arrangement with game designer Richard Garriott, where you got some reliquaries taken to the International Space Station? How’d that come about?

Brudniak: I met Richard a long time ago ~ back in the Eighties. And he had a Tesla coil, and I had made a piece of art with a Tesla coil ~ the San Antonio Museum of Art owns it now ~ and I’d kind of met him back when we had a science museum here: Discovery Hall. I didn’t get to know him very well … but there’s a group of artists called The Robot Group, real sweet group of people who are doing some neat stuff and bringing technology to kids, and another group called Jumpstart, and we got city grant money to do science workshops with kids at schools. And I think it was through one of the guys in The Robot Group that I got Richard’s number. And I sent him some photos of my work, and he eventually got back to me and said he wanted to buy a bunch of it. And he did; he bought a few pieces from me.

And a few years later, he came over and bought some more work. So we began kind of a dialogue, and once in a while we'd chat online, and I got a tour of his awesome house. And then I heard him on the radio, talking about going to the space station. So I emailed him and said, "You know, I have this idea. If I make a piece of art, and you take it to the space station and bring it back, I'll let you keep it." And he was like, "Well, that's a great idea, I'm gonna be bringing up some of my mother's watercolors … "

But he told me that the artwork had to be very small and not be able to crack or break and so on. And I'd been thinking about doing little blood reliquaries, but Richard said it couldn't be anything that could potentially contaminate the air in the space shuttle. And his father was an astronaut, so I got a clipping of Richard's hair, and a clipping of his father's hair, and got these little Cartier watches from the Seventies ~ these were fake Cartier watches ~ but they have a cool little window, kind of square, and there's tiny screws all the way around. I happened to find two of those at a thrift store and I'd been wanting to do something with them. So I pretty much ground everything off the watch until there was this perfect little window, and I took the guts out, put a little velvet in there, and stuck some of their hair in each one.

My plan was that I would keep one, and Richard would keep one. And he didn't really do an art show up there, but I have a video where you can see him doing a demonstration with some tennis balls on the space shuttle, and the watches are stuck on this bulletin board behind him. He put Velcro on the back of them ~ everything he had was literally stuck on this bulletin board. And I was watching the video, and I was like, "There they are! There they are!" But Richard's plan was to keep both of them. Which he has, so far. But, fortunately, I have two other pieces of art that I borrowed back from him …

                                    HEIROPHANTIC APERTURE (SAMSARA)

Brenner: So by now you're making a living from your art?

Brudniak: It's always now.

Brenner: You … uh, you've always made … a living from … ?

Brudniak: No ~ it's always now, Brenner.
It's always now. This is the moment.

[Nota bene: The wry grin, the Zen sparkle in the artist's eyes. Nota bene: The frown, the flow-thwarted frustration in your reporter's eyes. Nota bene: He's a sincere man, this Brudniak, a decent man; but he will fuck with you.]

Brenner: No, I mean ~ look, at some point ~ at some point ~ including now ~
you started making a living by selling your art. Is that right?

Brudniak: I've always made part of my living selling art, because, eventually, I sell every piece that I make. But some of them take a while ~ like that very first piece, with the wooden banana: It was a very good piece, but it took twenty-some-odd years to sell. And I'm just now getting prices on my work where I can ~ I mean, if I sold everything I made, immediately, I couldn't quite make a living at it. Because, in a good year, I can only make two or three large pieces a year, with another five or so smaller pieces. In my best year, I think I made nine pieces of art. The piece I'm working on now, I've been working on it since last October, maybe earlier than that. And hopefully somebody will buy it and I'll get close to $20,000 or so for it. But it's a tough sell ~ somebody's got to want a weird-ass thing, and they have to have room for it. They've got to be rich, pretty much. I certainly could never afford …

Brenner: To buy your own art?

Brudniak: Yeah, you know? The really sad thing in the art world is that, if you go 25 or 30 years and you're still selling your big pieces of art for a thousand dollars, people are gonna be like … well, the collectors want to buy valuable work that's valuable, you know? So I raised my prices a couple years ago and was still able to sell stuff. But it's a slow process. I rent out space, part of the property I own, and last year was a really good art year ~ so my income was split about fifty-fifty, between the art sales and the being-an-evil-landlord sales. But the only reason I bought the property and turned it into rentals was so I'd have time to make art and not have to worry about whether I sold anything. Because the market is so unpredictable.

Brenner: And times are hard.

Brudniak: And people have different tastes ~ everybody buys for different reasons. You might buy a, like, a Jeff Koons because you can invest with it later or something, you know? There's a lot of people that are infected by the Emperor's New Clothes virus: Ninety percent of the art world is.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Tim Doyle
in the World of Limited-Edition Prints


He’s not a robot, no.
He’s not made from the same material
as those giant Transformers he enjoys so much.

But Tim Doyle, ladies and gentlemen, Tim Doyle is a fucking machine.

That’s why the man was able to run three different comic-book stores at once. That’s how he could take the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Mondo Tees store and guide it to become the successful, internationally acclaimed graphic-design venture it is today. And that’s why, post-Alamo, he’s achieving the same thing with his own Nakatomi Inc. while helping his wife raise their son and infant daughter and ride herd on what seems to be a constant flood of stray and/or adopted cats.

Because the short, hefty, raven-haired and quick-witted artist, curmudgeon, and serial entrepreneur is a machine.

“Brenner,” says Doyle, shaking his head, scooting another cat off his busy drawing table. “I’m not a machine. Dude. I’m just as human as you are.”

“Tim,” I tell him. “Metaphorically, Tim.”

“Brenner,” begins Doyle, but … is distracted as two more cats, appearing as if from some eldritch portal, grab hold of a still-wet paintbrush.

Of course it’s not just the drive of this man that equals success. No, Timothy Paul Doyle had a lot of raw talent to begin with, yes, he could do certain things with marks on paper, things that resembled the real world at least enough to be recognizable. But that foundation only led to more effort; even that advantage was met with further diligence. Doyle honed his talent over time, producing numerous acrylic paintings of, e.g., Vespa scooters and oldschool telephones and personal friends and pop-culture icons … writing and drawing a daily journal in three-panel comic form, covering every waking day for two years … creating those first movie-based posters when he started at Mondo Tees.

And then came The Interglactic Nemesis.

Jason Neulander’s old-timey sci-fi radio serial, performed live by a sharp cast of voice talents (and featuring Buzz Moran on sound effects), was a cornball throwback to the ripping yarns of yesteryear. It was also, Neulander figured while plotting to spread the goofy hit across as many media as possible, perfect for adapting as a comicbook series ~ with the comic-book further adapted as a quasi-animated slideshow, to be projected on a giant screen behind the internationally touring cast.

The adaptations would require hundreds of new, full-color images, dozens of pages of sequential art hewing to the mutated script, and all of it on a tight schedule with deadlines harder than, oh, I don’t know, adamantium?

Doyle was offered the job; he took it and charged right in.

Accommodating that much illustration under those conditions, turning out seven complete issues of around 28 pages each (in addition to collateral graphics) in one year ~ all while making sure Nakatomi remained a viable business ~ was the creative boot camp that pushed Doyle’s drawing and page-composition abilities from yeah, that’s pretty good all the way to Okay: Doyle, Pope, Cooke, Los Bros, ah, I suppose it’s just a matter of what sort of thing one is looking for at the time, y’know?

Seriously: Just look at the pieces included here;
or at the greater variety on that Nakatomi site.

Impressive? Certainly. And yet another reason
for me to shut up and let the man himself do more of the talking …

                                                      Vietnam on Wheels

Brenner: So, above this sentence, that's what I first saw in the Bicycle Prints show at Gallery Black Lagoon: the Vietnam on Wheels poster that seems a bit more, ah, subdued? More subdued than the work you usually do. Tim, what can you tell me about that one?

Doyle: I was really happy with the way it turned out ~ it looks different from anything else I’ve done. And I picked the 16 x 20 size, too, because it’s a size I haven’t worked in before, and it forced me to make a couple of different compositional choices. It’s not out of my wheelhouse as far as the drawing method, but the subject matter is.

I’d just finished a poster for Apocalypse Now, and a couple months before that I’d done a poster for Full Metal Jacket. And I really like the way Vietnam looks, so I was doing a little Googling around, and there’s this Flickr group called Vietnam On Wheels, and I was overwhelmed by all the scooters and bicycles and the different forms of transportation, the three-wheeled motorcarts. And there was an artist out of China, actually, who did this amazing print of Chinese street life, and I was like, “Oh boy, I really want to do that.”

Because I do a lot of cityscape stuff. Like that Reservoir Dogs print, there’s Harvey Keitel and the car and the blood, and it really looks cool, but I’m really into drawing the trainyard and the telephone pole in the background. I just really like city junk.

And Asian countries ~ Vietnam in particular ~ it looks like it’s still on planet Earth, yeah, but it’s just weird enough, y’know what I mean? None of the signs are in English, obviously, but they’re still using the English alphabet, which I guess is from the French influence. But what really gets me is the way their electrical grid is put together, like everything is bolted on and thrown onto these buildings? Like, in America, there’s powerlines everywhere, but we go out of our way to make them not so obtrusive? But looking at the Vietnam streets, it’s like, now that is an electrical accident waiting to happen. And it’s really appealing to me.

Brenner: How has doing comics, sequential art, influenced your compositions
for a single-panel work?

Doyle: A lot of the stuff I do, I kind of try to capture a scene in a story. And when you’re doing comic-books, you have to leave a lot of room for the lettering? Which means you have to make compositional choices about all the breathing space in the background. Like, it can’t just be close-ups of faces, or else the lettering bubbles are gonna wind up on everybody’s forehead. And I think that influenced me a lot, working on Intergalactic Nemesis and having to put in a lot of, I mean, it’s a wordy play, in many regards, so you have to leave a lot of space for word balloons. And when you get away from that sort of thing, you’re like, “Oh, wow, what do I do with all this extra space back here?” And you start drawing the trees and the surrounding environment. And I’m obviously influenced by Geof Darrow ~ I love his stuff so much. And no matter how much detail I put into a panel, there’d be still another detail that Geof Darrow would have put in. His stuff is like a fractal: The closer you get, the more there is to see. A lot of poster artists take the easy way out and just do big portraits, you know, a big essential image. But I’m more interested in setting an environment.

                                             The Sea Also Rises: King Crab

Doyle: It’s graphic design versus illustration, is what it comes down to. I like to think my posters are well graphically designed but still drawn. Something I’ve learned by looking at a lot of comic-book art is that most comic-book artists are not good graphic designers. They can tell a story through art, which is important, but they can’t … like, there can be a guy who does amazing interiors but he can’t draw a cover to save his damn life. Because the cover has to hang together in the way a single panel doesn’t. That’s something I’m learning more and more as I go on.

Brenner: So you’re running a successful business; you’re creating your own works and selling them; you’re commissioning works by other artists and selling those; you’re making original illustrations for some pretty high-profile galleries and venues; you’re making a living doing what you love. Why don’t all artists do this sort of thing?

Doyle: People get this tunnel vision, y’know? Like “I wanna get my artwork out there, and it’s gotta be this specific way,” and they miss all these other opportunities. In the modern marketplace for art and music, the old ways are dying off, and you’ve gotta get with it or else you’re in trouble.

And the pop-culture silkscreen art game, it’s like I helped build that niche through my work over at Mondo. We built this whole collectors’ community. There was a community that was already into buying rock posters, and we took those same artists and had them doing movie posters, and the appeal was so much wider. Because people were like, “Oh, that’s a brilliant poster – but it’s for Phish.” Whereas everybody likes John Carpenter’s The Thing, so if you can get Tyler Stout, who’s a really good artist, to do his take on The Thing, that’s a home run.

I mean, I’m not saying that I invented pop-culture silkscreens, by any means, but we kicked it up in a way that I don’t think had been done before. And I decided I no longer wanted to be on the administration side of it, I wanted to be on the creation side of it. And here I am now: It’s what I do.

                                                          Apocalypse Now

I’ve got two people working for me. Sean Robb, who used to work for me at Mondo Tees, and Zane Thomas ~ who also used to work at the Alamo. They work part-time, maybe 25, 30 hours a week. Sean, because he’s got a license, does a lot of the errands for me. I can just loan him my truck and say, “Okay, I need this, this, this, and this done today,” and he does that. And when he’s not doing that, he’s printing. And Zane does all the file prep. Like, I do my own color separations when I’m creating a piece, but we do take on print jobs from other artists, so they send the files to Zane and he does all the prep and the printing as well. And Angie [Doyle’s wife] does all the accounting, the customer service, oversees the packing and shipping. And I talk to the artists, make the deals, and do my own artwork.

Brenner: And what time do you start drawing?

Doyle: It varies wildly, depending on what needs to get done. Like, the day before a big release, the day usually starts off with making the blog posts, taking photos, stuff like that. I’ll start drawing anywhere from 7 or 8pm to midnight, sometimes work until 2 in the morning.

I wish I had more time to draw, but there are just so many other details. And I really try hard to promote the other artists on the site, because, y’know, they’re coming to me and I feel I owe it to them to sell the artwork so I can pay them. Which is why I like to work with people who are ~ not that they’re hungry, like they’re poor or they need the money ~ but that they want to make it work. Because there are artists who reach a certain station, where they don’t have to hustle so much? And a lot of artists are pretty terrible at self-promotion. And if they’re not pushing it on their end, sometimes it doesn’t do well.

Brenner: And when it does do well, are you and the other artists ~ how to put this other than crassly? ~ are you raking in the dough?

Doyle: Well, here I am, two and a half years after leaving Mondo Tees, and I’ve quadrupled my income over what I was making there.

And all my deals with artists are 50-50. If it’s something I’m publishing of theirs, it’s 50-50. And I take all the financial risk up front. So if they do something really good, it works out great for them.

But it’s a crap shoot ~ you never know. Like, some of the best stuff I’ve ever done sells terribly. And some of the more mediocre stuff I’ve done sells amazingly well, so I know my barometer is off.

Brenner: But sometimes it’s right on, too, or else you wouldn’t be where you are right now. Which seems like a good place to be.

Doyle: Yeah, well, it’s not that I want to be famous or anything. But it is good seeing people say nice things about me on the Internet, y’know?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

JOHN ERLER is the master of
the Alamo Drafthouse’s Master Pancake Theater,
the singer for Journey cover band Odyssey,
the host of KOOP Radio’s ‘Elk Mating Ritual,’
and he, ah, teaches Latin at Texas State University?

                                                            PHOTO BY JON BOLDEN

Uh, no, actually. At least, not lately.
He used to do all those things, yes, but ~

“I’m not still teaching Latin,” says Erler, squinting as the afternoon sun, suddenly unclouded, reaches through the window to stab his eyes and glint off the side of his freshly shaved pate. “And the Journey cover band Odyssey doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. He shrugs, almost apologetic. “I don’t know if that ruins the whole dramatic structure of your story, but ~”

Well, of course it does, Erler.
The entire goddam arc is shattered now,
the whole narrative is nothing but a sad shambles.

Sweet bleeding Christ, Erler.

No wonder Mister Sinus Theatre, the live version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that you created with Owen Egerton and Jerm Pollet and performed with such fierce energy and hilarious antics that it became one of the brightest gems in the early Alamo Drafthouse Cinema crown ~ no wonder that zany brilliance, wracked by personality conflicts, ended in so vitriol-laden a manner that litigation was necessary and Pollet left for Brooklyn so he wouldn’t have to put up with your dramatic-structure-ruining ass anymore.

And now here you are, Erler.
No longer teaching Latin
or singing & playing bass in that Journey cover band.
Just. To. Fucking. Thwart. My. Story.

I should’ve known.

But let’s just pretend that isn’t the case. Let’s pretend that you didn’t do this on purpose because you’ve always fancied yourself a sort of real-life Victor Von Doom and figured to use me as your own personal Reed Richards here, okay?

Why’d you ditch the Latin?

“Master Pancake was just taking up too much of my time, and I felt I had to devote all my energy to that,” says Erler. “Not just because it pays the bills, but because it seems like more of a calling than Latin. As much as I love imagining that I’m some kind of a Renaissance Man, I just, y’know, I was traveling to San Marcos, teaching at Texas State two days a week to a group of five kids ~ which I loved doing, I love the small class size, everybody gets something out of it ~ but, financially, it wasn’t making sense. And it was a lot of energy driving down there, making lesson plans, all of that. Because I can’t do anything half-hearted. So it didn’t make sense.”

Well, damn, Erler, that sounds almost legit. Listening to you say that as we sit across from each other at a small table in Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery in the heart of Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, I can almost believe that your reasons were other than an attempt at compromising my journalistic integrity. Of course, it does rather force the question of why a man gets so into a dead language to begin with. And I’ll ask you about that, later, and about what happened with Odyssey, too.

But first I want you to notice, please, the young woman who’s sitting at the table next to us. Don’t let her notice that you’re noticing, okay, but check her out. Not because she’s uncommonly beautiful or anything ~ eh, she looks alright, for a kid ~ but because, man, seriously, she’s been listening to our conversation since we sat down. She may look like she’s obliviously nosedeep in that textbook she’s got with her, doing the whole student-in-a-coffeeshop thing, but I swear she’s been following every word we’ve said.

There, you see what I mean? The way she kind of pauses in her reading and tilts her head so that her left ear’s getting more soundwaves from our direction? Okay, great. Just so I know that you know, Erler. Just so we’re on the same page here.

Now let’s talk about Master Pancake. Because after Mister Sinus split up, it was obvious you were going to continue the show somehow. Because, well, you’re amazingly funny, and the show was just too damned good to let die. So you re-named it Master Pancake Theater, and now you and Joe Parsons and another comic or two sit in the front row of the theatre and crack wise about whatever cheesy blockbuster you’ve decided to mock that week. And you do a sort of halftime show, too, stopping the movie at some obvious or random point and performing a relevant comedic sketch in which, more often than not, you wind up clad in nothing but your tighty-whities. Or, ah, tighty-reddies, as the case may be:

                                                        PHOTO BY BEN BARTLEY

Erler: Well, yeah, It started off as me and Joe Parsons and a rotating third member. But at this point Joe’s a very irregular player. About a year and a half ago, he decided that he was kind of gonna settle down, and he took a fulltime job selling insurance ~ God bless him. For some people, that’s the right thing to do, y’know? He still does occasional shows with us, like he just did the Nicolas Cage-A-Thon with us, which was fantastic. But right now it’s just me and two other rotating slots. But the flipside of that is that we’ve been doing Pancake for so long that there’s a pretty big pool of people who’ve rotated in and out, who can fill Joe’s shoes.

Brenner: Are there any plans to allow or start different Master Pancakes in other locations? I mean, now that Tim & Karrie League are expanding the Alamo empire beyond Texas?

Erler: This is an ongoing conversation. My first instinct is that it’s possible to do a local version of Master Pancake in every outlet, but it probably wouldn’t be easy. Whatever weird art it is that we do, in talking and making fart noises over movies, it’s an art that I’ve been practicing for 11 years now. There’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.

What I’m excited about is the possibility of doing shows in other cities. We just went to Houston back in March and had a great reception. We did two shows on a Saturday night, sold out a 300-person room for the first show, got 250 for the second one ~ even bigger than a typical night in Austin, and a big party feeling. And I want to make sure that, as the Alamo expands, we go to all the different places ~ that we go to San Antonio and so on. And if and when they finally get to New York and L.A., that we go there. But the question remains in my mind if we can start up a troupe in every city. And I don’t think it’s feasible to start up a Master Pancake troupe in every single city that the Alamo goes to.

Honestly, even if we wanted to, greater minds and comedic talents than ours have tried and failed to have national chains of comedy troupes. Like Second City, which started out in Toronto and Chicago: A few years ago they tried to have an outlet in Las Vegas and L.A., but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t do it.

I mean, comedy is hard, it’s a hard art, and it takes a lot of not only talent, but resources and money. And it takes the right kind of talent, too. It wouldn’t work in every town. Austin is just such a hotbed of the right elements. People really love movies here, they love comedy, they’re willing to try weird things. I’m not trying to exclude the idea of Pancakes spreading all over the country, it’s just that it’s not something I’m that excited about personally. I like crafting the shows and making sure each show is really, really funny. But, again, if and when the Alamo opens up in a market like L.A. or New York, then I’d be excited to go there and maybe try to train up a troupe and see how it goes – but not in every little market. But I’d like to at least travel to every city on a semi-regular basis and do shows. We have such a great time when we go to Houston, and now there’s a potential that the Alamo might be opening up in Colorado and Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Brenner: And, at present, Master Pancake Theatre continues to pack them in locally. And although you’re not teaching Latin anymore, and the rock & roll powerhouse called Odyssey is disbanded, you’re still doing your "Elk Mating Ritual" show, right?

Erler: Yeah, I’m still there, still doing my thing on KOOP, on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6pm.

Brenner: And how’d you get started on that? It’s kind of a long-running gig, isn’t it?

Erler: The original "Elk Mating" show started in 1998 or 1999 when I was still in grad school at UT, and I started working at KVRX, the student radio station.

I’d done a radio show back in college in the ’80s, at Swarthmore outside of Philadelphia. I had a radio partner, and we’d do these goofy shows, play some classic rock and talk in between the music, do skits and stuff like that, make each other laugh. But we found this whale record, whale sounds recorded in the 1960s, and that was our favorite thing to play. Like, in the middle of “Stairway to Heaven,” we’d crank up the whale noises ~ and we just thought it was hysterical. And it was college, where you can do anything you want, so we’d do all kinds of stupid things, but we’d always come back to the whale noises. And that was probably 1988 or ’89.

So fast-forward 10 years, I’m in graduate school at UT, and I decide that I’m probably not going to be an academic as a full-time profession. I realize that I like it but I don’t love it. I felt like, I’m a performer, I’ve got something in me that I need to get out, and it’s not going to be fulfilled by being a, y’know, Classics professor.

So I started looking for other opportunites to perform. And God bless KVRX, because they were there at the right time, and it’s such a great environment for young kids doing crazy stuff, a fertile melting pot of really fun people. And I was the oldest one there, a grad student, so I started doing radio at KVRX.

But I needed some kind of a hook for the show, so I looked through the CD stacks, and they had this CD of elk sounds. And I put it in and previewed it, and I was like, “Wow! This is a lot like those whale noises back in college! I could probably build the show around this thing ...” And sure enough, that’s what I did.

From the first episode, I just put in the CD of elk noises ~ wreeeeeeeeeeee ~ and played music around it. Back then I was, I think, playing the CD through the entire show. Later I got more selective, and now sometimes I’ll play it and sometimes I won’t. But it started out as the foundation for the whole show, and I’d let it play for long stretches and just let things get real quiet ~ I don’t know if it was contemplative silence or just uncomfortable silence, but, hey, experimental radio.

And I started building little bits around that. And they had a phone line that you could put people on the air with, and I was fascinated with that, the interactivity of it. Then I left UT around 2004 ~ I didn’t get my Ph.D., I got my M.A., but I didn’t finish the Ph.D. ~ and I gave up the show there.

And for about a year I was floating around with no radio show, and then I started working at KOOP, which shares the dial with KVRX, and I finally got a show there. And I was like, “I’ll keep playing those elk noises, call it the same thing, it’s basically the same idea.”

Brenner: So then, following that brief, ah, interregnum ~

Erler: Oooh, nice.

Brenner: Ha ~ a little Latin for ya.

Erler: That’s a whole lotta Latin.

Brenner: And you’ve been doing "Elk Mating" for over 10 years?

Erler: Yeah, 12 years. With a year’s hiatus. So, 11 years.

Brenner: And is the show pretty much the same as when you started?

Erler: The format of "Elk Mating Ritual" has varied from day one. These days, it’s whatever music I’m interested in and listening to, and whatever themes I can find.

On my good days, I can come up with a good theme, and I do a bunch of research and make it really interesting. On a bad day, I’ll just recycle the same old crap I’ve been playing, play them in a different order and hope that interesting people will call up and request something or add to the conversation. The elk songs and the phone calls are the consistent things that are always happening on the show.

Brenner: Do you have regular callers?

Erler: Yeah, and they fade in and out through the years. Sometimes they won’t call for years, and then I’ll hear from them again. There’s one guy who’s an old Austin dude, he lives somewhere around here, who will always call in and pretend to be Bob Schneider, the musician.

Brenner: But it’s not Bob Schneider?

Erler: It’s not Bob Schneider.

Girl at the next table, leaning over: I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ve been listening and ~ that’s my dad.

Erler: That’s your ~ are you serious? Oh my God ...

Girl: Yeah, I thought, oh, I know who he’s talking about.

Erler: That … is incredible.

Brenner: Man, I love this city.

Erler: What’s your name?

Girl: I’m Annie.

Erler: Annie, pleased to meet you.

Annie: I recognized your voice, but ~

Erler: Annie. Craig Long’s daughter. Annie Long?

Annie: Yeah, I didn’t want to, I mean, this is gonna wind up in some publication?

Erler: Yeah, tell your dad to get a copy of Minerva’s Wreck.

Annie: When I heard you, I was like, I know who that is.

Erler: "That’s that guy my dad listens to!"

Annie: And I was a "Youth Spin" kid, so I was on KOOP, and I’d always listen to you.

Erler: I never realized that the daughter of Craig Long was on "Youth Spin."

Annie: I’m sorry if I interrupted ~

Erler: No, I’m really glad you did. This is probably the most interesting thing in the whole article.

Annie: Oh, good, I was worried ~

Erler: No, no, you did just the right thing. And I’m glad you caught me before I said anything slanderous about your dad. But I have to say, his Bob Schneider impersonation is terrible. It doesn’t bear any relation to the actual Bob Schneider, it’s just a different voice than his actual voice. But it’s very funny.

[Brief pause here while mutual farewells are wished and hands are shook
and coffee cups rearranged and so on.]

Brenner: So, then: Latin. Even if you’re not teaching it these days, the idea that Mr. John Erler, the guy who does those smart but wacky Master Pancake shows and plays elk noises on the radio, is also a Latin scholar … well, I was a bit gobsmacked when I heard about it. When did you get interested in Latin?

Erler: I was brought up in a Catholic household, and I think that’s part of the whole thing. And I was a strange, outsider kind of kid from a very young age. In high school I was offered the opportunity to take ancient Greek, so I jumped at that. And I was good at it. I was a really geeky kid, and I did Latin as kind of a side thing, because, as a Classics major, you had to study both ancient languages. And in college I majored in Greek, and I was scornful of Latin at the time. I was like, “Latin is an inferior, barbaric language. Greek is the way to express yourself ~ like all the great philosophers.”

But there was this guy, Reginald Foster, who is a monk who works at the Vatican. He’s one of the people who translate all the official papal proclamations into Latin. They’re drafted in Italian or whatever, and then translated, and he’s one of the guys of however many in the Vatican office.

So I heard about him, and he teaches a summer course to anybody who’s interested in spoken Latin. He’s amazing ~ he’s one of the few people in the world who can actually speak Latin. And I had nothing better to do in the middle of grad school, so I went and took this course with him, and I fell in love with the language. Because of this guy, this amazingly weird, perverse, and charismatic dude.

He’s a round-headed, bald guy with thick glasses, probably in his late 60s by now. He’s featured in that Bill Maher movie that came out a few years ago, Religulous? He’s one of the few religious people who doesn’t come off as a nut in the movie. And he works at the Vatican, but he’s this amazing character. Like, if you ask him his opinion on things, he’s like “Oh, I’m an atheist; I don’t really believe in anything; it’s all nonsense.” But, I mean, he’s a monk. That’s Reginald Foster, and he’s just the best, best teacher in the world, y’know? And he teaches all these classes for free. You can go to Rome and take the classes yourself, all the way from the beginning level to the spoken, advanced level.

So I ended up going to his summer program in 1995, and I went back again the next summer because I loved it so much. And then I wrote a Fulbright proposal based around studying with him, and I got a Fulbright fellowship and I went back again for a whole year in 1998. So it’s been a long sort of thing with Latin.

Brenner: And are there any bits of Roman wisdom, as prescribed by the ancients, that you’ve personally taken to heart so well that you have them memorized?

Erler: Roman wisdom? Well, obviously, the fact that Carthage must be destroyed is always weighing heavily on my mind. You know, Carthago delenda est? [laughs]

That may be a question I have to think about and get back to you on. But, I’ll tell you ~ this may be a little tangential ~ learning Latin is such a complicated thing. Not that it’s beyond the reach of anybody, but you become really familiar with grammar. It’s really a great mental exercise, a sort of cerebral juggling act. And ~

[And here the man digresses into a sort of primer on Latin cases and conjugations, talking about “the nominative” and “the genitive” and “the passive paraphrastic” and so on, going on for a while as grackles prowl in search of dropped crumbs beyond the coffeeshop’s big main window and I note that the spots of coffee spilled earlier have joined on the floor to form what looks like a miniature, silhouetted profile of Abe Vigoda. I begin to make a mental note to check Wikipedia and see if Vigoda is actually still alive, but am distracted ~ and compelled ~ by Erler now comparing the concentration necessary for keeping track of Latin linguistic details to what he does during a Master Pancake show.]

Erler: When I’ve got a microphone in my hand, I’m not working off of notes. It’s like a play, a three-man play, and we’ve memorized all these lines for an hour-and-a-half performance. And not only have we memorized the lines and the jokes, but each line that we deliver is like a little bit of acting. You can’t just say the line straight, there’s always something behind it. You’re either pretending you’re doing it in the voice of Nicolas Cage, or in the voice of Sean Connery, or maybe you’re yourself and you’re taking a wry view of events, or you’re making a fart noise ~ there are all these different inflections you can use to deliver a joke. I’m not a good actor, but I have a basic ability to shade the things that I say with mood or tone. So when you memorize all these lines, you have to remember how you inflect them each time. And if you’re good, you’ll listen to what the audience thinks of the lines you’re saying. You’ll pay attention to the ones that get a laugh and the ones that don’t, and you’ll file that away as you’re doing the show, and you’ll tell yourself, like, “Okay, at the 10 o’clock show later tonight, I’ll say that line a different way,” or “I’m gonna drop that line; I’m gonna trim the bush so that other jokes can flourish.”

I guess I must be anal-retentive or OCD or something, but there are a million different considerations that you’re going through as you’re performing this spectacle on-mic. And sometimes, as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “I’m glad I took Latin and Greek, because that was perfect training for compartmentalizing all these different obscure little considerations.”

But maybe that’s just life, I don’t know.

                                                        PHOTO BY JON BOLDEN

Brenner: And where does the cover band Odyssey fit into the life of John Erler?
Or, I guess, where did it fit?

Erler: You should talk with the two ladies who started the ball rolling, Caroline O’Connor and Elisabeth Sikes. Those two gals were friends, and I knew them ~ I don’t even know how, anymore ~ and the two of them, before I got involved with it, wanted to learn some rock & roll instruments, because neither of them played anything.

So Elisabeth bought an electric guitar and started taking lessons. And Caroline bought a drum set and was either teaching herself or taking lessons, maybe both. And at a certain point they contacted me and asked if I was interested in being in a Journey cover band.

And I was like, “Well, what’s the deal?” And they were like, “Well, we’re teaching ourselves how to play these instruments, and we thought it’d be fun if you came along.” This was like 2005, 2006.

And I didn’t even know what I was gonna do in the framework of the band, so I just sat in on one of their practices. I didn’t even have a bass at that point, I just brought a toy accordion and an acoustic guitar with me, and figured I’d try to fit in. And I realized when I sat in that what the band needed was somebody to play bass. So I went out and I bought a bass. And it was just amazing the way it came together so fast. I’d sung in bands before, but I’d never played bass in a band before, we were all just teaching ourselves how to play.

For a long time it was just the three of us. We’d listen to the records and we’d try to, you know. And I don’t even know why Journey was the group that everybody thought would be a good idea. But the gals wanted to be in a rock & roll band, and they loved Journey, it was their decision.

I never was a huge Journey fan, but I enjoyed the songs I heard on the radio. Who doesn’t like “Don’t Stop Believin’”? I didn’t know any of their non-radio songs. But, then again, they have so many radio songs, there’s probably 20 songs people recognize as Journey songs without knowing anything about them.

So, in a way, it was a great idea. And, in a way, it was a terrible idea. Because, y’know, my voice is like down here; I’m a baritone. And Steve Perry is this classic tenor or alto, I don’t even know what he is, but he’s got this amazing voice and it’s way up in the register. So it was a terrible idea for me to sing, and a terrible idea to do this intricate rock & roll music with people who’d never picked up the instruments before. But maybe that’s why it worked: Because it was a ridiculous idea.

And we put a lot of love into it, spent a long time learning how to play the stuff, and arranging the songs. And we didn’t do them ~ if you’ll excuse the pun ~ faithfully; we did them in our own style. Like “Open Arms,” this classic ballad in three-quarters time. It just didn’t sound good. If you don’t know your instruments, you don’t wanna play a slow song, because it accentuates all your mistakes. So we decided to put it into 4/4 time, sped it up, I was thumping on the bass, and it sounded great. The arrangement was completely different, but it somehow worked. And I’ve always been into covers and fucking with originals and putting accents on different things, so that was perfect. And Caroline got really good at drums really fast, she nailed it in a short time. And that’s what we needed, because she was the glue that held us together.

For a while we’d just play houseparties and stuff, friends would invite us to jam. But I could see, from the very first show … you know how, when you’re doing something, you don’t know how it’s going? You might be good or you might be terrible, but you can’t tell because you’re too deep into it. But you can gauge how you’re doing by other people’s reactions. And people were having a great time, they were smiling and dancing. I still don’t know exactly what it was ~ the chemistry, the fact that it was Journey songs when it was still a little bit uncool ~ I don’t know, maybe it still is uncool ~ but maybe it was that point at which something uncool was starting to feel cool?

And the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. And then we brought my sister along, because we were getting good at it and we wanted to add a little more sound to our sound, so she played on a couple of songs with us ~ on violin. And violin, yeah, that’s totally un-Journey. But it sounded great. And then we did a Journey tribute night at the Alamo and the place was sold out … and things kept growing, and we got more gigs that made money, and word was spreading. And Caroline knew a trombone player, and he came along.

And, again, I mean a violin player and a trombone player in a Journey cover band? But it sounded great, and we had this full sound with five people in the band.

And we just played and played and played. And at a certain point, we just got tired of it. After a couple years, we couldn’t put as much energy into it. And then Caroline moved to L.A., and that was the final nail in the coffin of the whole thing.

Brenner: Ah, people are always moving to L.A. or Chicago or somewhere, aren’t they?
But you just bought a house.

Erler: Yeah, I’m not going anywhere.

Brenner: And you’ve been here for a while, right? Since the early ’90s?

Erler: Well, I was born in Austin, in 1968. I spent my first 12 years here, went to Bryker Woods Elementary, O. Henry Junior High. And then my parents moved to New York. But first they moved to Dallas, so I lived there for a year, then spent my high school years in New York City, in the Bronx, for four years. And then I went to college in Pennsylvania, lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and moved back to Austin in ’93 for graduate school.

Brenner: Why’d your parents move to New York?

Erler: Well, my mother, to her credit, got her act together at the age of 40 ~ my parents were living a sort of slacker lifestyle here in Austin ~ but she hunkered down and finished her Ph.D. and started applying for jobs as a professor and got one in NYC. It was great for her, but no fun for us who had to be uprooted. We loved Austin. And we spent this weird, purgatory year in Dallas. I can’t even explain what the rationale was behind that, because we knew we were moving to NYC, but my dad had a job in Dallas. So Mom went to New York while we went and lived with Dad in Dallas for a year. And Dallas after Austin, it was ~ you know, it was terrible.

Brenner: And then New York, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, and grad school here.
And then, of course, there’s no way in hell you could leave, right?

Erler: As it turned out. But Austin wasn’t really my first choice of grad school ~ I would’ve rather stayed in the Bay Area. But, well … God had a plan. [laughs] I’m not religious, but I just saw The Sound of Music 40 times in a row ~ because we’re making fun of it ~ and they keep saying “If God wills it” and “God’s plan,” y’know?

So the universe wanted me to come back here and, yup, I never left.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

LAUREN LEVY makes Intricate Sculptures
out of Wire & Buttons & Fabric & Generally Brings
Uncommon Beauty to Life's Enriched Pageant

The first time I saw Lauren Levy's work, it was part of a group show at D Berman Gallery back in 2001. I don’t recall what else was in the show ~ and there must have been much good stuff ~ but those objects, those small dresses and houses built from layer after layer of colorful buttons and wire, have never left my mind.

In 2001, I was still married to the playwright Molly Rice ~ which I mention because she was with me at the show and she’s got fierce aesthetic sensibilities ~ and she was also stunned by Levy’s work. We looked at the sculptures, then looked at each other, and our thoughts were somewhere along the lines of: “Wow, these buttony creations are as deeply evocative as they are well-crafted and visually beautiful; this is important work by an accomplished artist.”

Well, accomplished, certainly.
But by no means, contrary to what we’d assumed, established.

“I was part of a group show at Women & Their Work in 2000,” says Levy. “I just applied. The woman who worked there as the assistant director encouraged me, and I think she was largely responsible for me getting in. So I was in this show, and it was like the biggest thing in my life. And David Berman immediately asked me, because it was also the first night for his gallery, and he called me the next day and asked if I wanted to be in his gallery. And I said, uh, I don’t know from galleries. And he said, well, neither do I. And it was perfect, we just kind of went along together.”

This was followed, over the years, by more shows at D Berman, and several shows ~ alone or as part of a group ~ in other Texas venues. Culminating, at least buttonwise, in the 2009 “Beneath the Palm of My Hand” solo show at D Berman, in which Levy’s sculptural work morphed from 3-D into more 2-D arrangements of buttons on fields and lengths of fabric: No less intricate or compelling than those dresses, those houses, those horns.

But also, rather suddenly, uh-oh, 86 the buttons.

“I got sick of doing buttons,” says Levy. “People called me The Button Lady, and I hate that. It sounds so kountry-krafty, so hot-gluey. I don’t like it when people can’t see beyond the material.”

Brenner: Well, sure. But, hold on ~ how’d you get started with buttons in the first place?

Levy: I went to art school at UT in the late 80s, and I had absolutely nothing to say. It was a time, generally, where all the painting was more or less abstract. The figure hadn’t really come back into artwork yet, so the painting at school was abstract, the art ~ not all of it, but a lot of it ~ was very conceptual. And being kind of a process-oriented person, I couldn’t connect with anything that was going on there. At the time there was this big difference between craft and art. And, y’know, I was a cool person, I didn’t really want to be associated with the pot-makers and the turquoise-ring-makers, so I went into nursing school almost as soon as I graduated. And then, when I was in Portland, I found my voice doing metalsmithing. I was making not so much jewelry as small objects, and I just became possessed by it. I finally felt like I Have Something To Say, and it was just electrifying.

And when I came back to Austin, I was seven months pregnant and it was a really depressing time. Because I was just burning up inside with stuff to say and things to make, but when you have a baby, you’re kind of in prison. I’d had real unreasonable expectations of what babies were like: I figured they just slept all the time. But, no, they don’t.

And I was an avid knitter at the time, and I’d collected all these buttons. And I guess I started with wire ~ wire that didn’t need to be soldered, that I could just bend it all around and make what I wanted. And somehow I got the idea of stacking the buttons up one by one, as an equivalent to stitches … so I started making little articles of clothing out of wire and buttons, in lieu of the knitted things I was making.

Brenner: What fascinates me is that a million people could do that,
but what they did would look like crap.

Levy: Really?

Brenner: I don’t know about wire and buttons, specifically, but when people take typical crafting materials, they tend to do stuff that looks like, if not crap, then like what somebody’s non-artistic grandma did when she had spare time between issues of Reader’s Digest. Kitschy craft or crafty kitsch, or whatever. But then somebody, one in a million or whatever it is ~ you, in this case ~ can use the same sort of materials, and it results in, well, it looks like some of the finest art there is.

Levy: It’s a fine line sometimes, isn’t it?

Brenner: Well, I’d say that it’s more obvious sometimes, that ~

Levy: Well, not about myself so much, but, yeah, I guess you can immediately tell ~ like with abstract painting, for example. Everybody looks at it, like at a Franz Kline, and a lot of people would think “What’s the point? My kid could paint that.” But it’s really the most difficult, thoughtful, not-process-oriented painting.

Brenner: So you started out by using buttons to make these articles of clothing, dresses and shirts. How did that transform over time?

Levy: Now that I think about it, they kind of transformed from the inside out. They were shirts, and then I started filling them with things, to express something else, and then the thing that was being expressed through the garments was the thing that I was making.

So the shirts and dresses started disappearing and the narrative dropped away. There came an end to the stories ~ I wasn’t really interested in the stories anymore. And that was kind of a weird moment, when the narrative fell away and I just started making things and then the story would come. It was so exciting to make something without trying to define it, to just give in to the original impulse ~ make it ~ and then it became obvious that of course there was a story there.

So narrative became secondary. And I guess that’s the immediate starting point of how I ended up making the stuff I’m making now.

Brenner: And for a while you completely stopped using buttons?

Levy: Yeah, I packed all the buttons up, stuck them in my various storerooms, cleaned them out of my studio altogether. I had to leave myself open to the possibility that that was done. Because I wanted to start over, to go back to making art in a thrashing-around, searching way. To allow myself to be bad. It was nice to be bad. To make stuff that kind of sucked. But then I’d make stuff out of non-button materials … and I didn’t like any of it. It was depressing.

Brenner: And is that where the drawings came from, those back-of-the-head braids?
Don’t tell me you just recently picked up a pencil for the first time and ...?

Levy: Well, it seems like, when I was really young, I was that person in class where somebody was always saying, “Draw this for me, draw that for me,” y’know? And somewhere along the way, like most people, I decided I Can’t Draw. Like, I just couldn’t do it.

So I quit drawing altogether. I didn’t draw in high school, and I especially didn’t draw in college ~ I didn’t take drawing, even though I got an art degree. Because I was so petrified of it. And I decided, at some point, that I was a fraud. Like, “I’ve been hiding this deficit, this inability from the world.” So I decided that I would take a year off and just draw.

This was around the end of 2006, right after that D Berman show. I was kind of burned out ~ putting that show together took a lot of time. And I wanted to give myself the opportunity to have one of those exciting kind of moments where you realize “This is it: This is where I take off, and now I look for the boundaries within this.” And I drew all the time, I drew and drew and drew. And I read, and I looked at drawings. I’d get stacks of books on drawing and I’d stare at drawings. And I got really educated about drawing in general. And nothing ever came of it, really, although I have suitcases full of drawings.

And then I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood, and it was Big Garbage Day. And I walked by a house where this person had just put something out. And it was an old 19th century box, like a shipping box from some sort of military suppliers, and in it was this family’s photographic history going all the way back, from the 1800s, from the first era of studio photographers, going up to the 1960s, and it was stuffed full of these photographs. And there were several other boxes and suitcases, and I had all four of my dogs. And one dog is terrified, and one dog hates the other dog, and one dog is like “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

So I was standing in the middle of the street with all these dogs, and somebody came up and helped me out and took the stuff home. I still haven’t gone all the way through it. But what I did look at, there were these really candid photographs that were obviously family members of the photographer, because they were very animated, not at all like the photographs he took in his studio: They were really spontaneous.

And one of them was the back of this woman’s hair, with this elaborate Victorian hairdo. And I went, “This is what I’m gonna draw.” And I drew it in ink, and in pencil, and the hairdo kept getting bigger and bigger, up to the point where the person wasn’t in the drawing at all. Then it became just a big ball of hair.

And I was posting the drawings on Facebook, when I was first getting into Facebook and reconnecting with people. And I had this sense of time, like how, even though some of these people and I had nothing in common, we had this connection that had lasted through all this time. And so the drawings, the hair, became a kind of metaphor for time. Well, not even a metaphor, it kind of ~ it is time. Isn’t it? Can you say that?

Brenner: Well, it’s ~ as much time as anything else is.

Levy: Well, it embodies time. So that’s what these pieces are: Time and work. And so I’d started drawing again, and I’d made myself ready for the impulse, for whenever it would come. And when I found what I wanted to draw, the skills were there. And I looked back at all my older drawings, and they’re obviously like student work ~ but it’s nice to see the struggle.

And what I’d regarded as a lack of drawing talent … well, talent’s overrated, really. It’s just work. If you work at something, and it may take a lot of work, yeah, but even people with talent really have to work at it. Because, if you don’t, it just goes to waste. So I worked hard, and in the end I made drawings that I liked, that I felt were more than the sum of their parts.

Brenner: But you’ve also gone back to using buttons again?

Levy: As I was doing those drawings, I realized “This is where the sculptures are going.” So I started making long vertical pieces ~ like long twisted braids made with buttons ~ and I love them. The ones I’m making now, it’s really strange: I’ll get a piece of cable ~ industrial, galvanized cable ~ and pull it out, cut it when it feels like the absolutely perfect length, and they’re always as tall as me. They’re always my exact height. Isn’t that weird?

Brenner: That’s kinda weird.

Levy: It’s really weird. It happens every single time, and I’m not even pulling the cable out vertically. But I’m gonna do them even bigger, gigantic, and they’re not going to rust. That was the thing about the wire ~ it rusted and drove me crazy.

But, yeah, here I am again, using buttons, and I know I’m running the risk of being The Button Lady, but, y’know, that’s just where it is. And there are drawings to go with it, too, these really obsessive, process-oriented drawings. So I’m back to time-consuming, obsessive-compulsive kind of stuff.

Brenner: Obsessive-compulsive ~ or maybe just really giving a damn
about what you’re doing.

Levy: Yeah, maybe.

Brenner: You don’t think so?

Levy: Well, I don’t know.

Brenner: Is it a thing that, when you do it, you feel like you’ve finally scratched an itch?

Levy: Kind of … but it’s also nice to go on automatic, you know? Which is something that knitting taught me, through the process of just doing something over and over and over.

I can remember one time when I was in metal-smithing class, and I made something that was really time-consuming, and I went, “Oh, I’ll never do that again.” And the woman I was taking the class from said: “Why? Make a ton of them.”

And I realized, yeah, that’s just kind of what you do.