Monday, June 12, 2017

Artist Talk | Closing Party | Priapus and Rain Fall

Jack Ficher asked me to give a closing talk for our show, Priapus and Rainfall, and frankly, I don't like to explain my work, so instead I gave some personal history:

            Me, I could always draw better than my brother Rand, but he could trace better. One of the things he could trace was girlsbodies. Hed use girls from comic strips: Wolf Gal from Lil Abner, Blondie from Blondie and Dagwood, most any girl from Terry and the Pirates. Placing a piece of drafting tissue on top, hed copy them––minus the clothes. He seemed to know what gitls looked like naked.
            I told my friend Jeremy Steel and some other guys about the drawings, acting as if Id done them, and they said they wanted some. I was only seven and I dont know how I got my brother to give them to me, but I did. I took them over to Jeremys house and I thought: Im gonna be so popular! And I was. At first. But a couple days later, the guys said they couldnt play with me any more because Jeremys mother had found the drawings and said I was nasty. “We don’t like that kind of stuff,” Jeremy said. And all his friends, standing behind him, agreed. I protested, “But you asked for them!” I couldnt admit I hadnt actually drawn the pictures because earlier Id lied. I turned and walked home, worrying what would happen if Mrs. Steel told my parents; and more importantly I worried I might be alone the rest of my life­­.
            Because this was not the first time this kind of thing had happened.
            The first was when I was even younger but Ill never forget it. It was when Dad sent me to live with my grandparents in the country, after my brother Millard got polio. I was only five. On the farm there was no one to play with except Grandma and Grandpa and the animals––and I was afraid of the animals. I was so lonely. I missed my mom and dad, I even missed my horrible brothers. Some days Grandpa would take me to his job in the cemetery and while he dug graves or mowed the grass hed let me climb on the windmill. “Better to play there, than in the grass,” hed say. “Too many snakes in the grass.” Then hed chuckle. So Id stay by the windmill because it had a concrete base where no snakes could hide. Some days Id climb it. Most often, I wouldnt climb that high, except once when I climbed clear to the top and thought I saw all the way home, to my brothers and parents back in Omaha. But that was impossible––Omaha was a hundred miles away.
            What's important is, there were no kids to play with at my grandparentshouse.
            Except two girls down the road: the Courbeilles. Marie and Francine.
            I didnt know them at first, because at first I stayed on the front porch, swinging. Until the wasp stung me. Then I started playing further out, for safety, in the front yard. Eventually I worked my way down to the fence that divided our farm from theirs and they saw me and said why dont you come over and play? And even though I was kind of shy, I ducked under the fence and went into their yard where they had a sandbox, and on that day, small sheets of paper on which they were drawing.
            “You draw, too,” Francine told me, and she and her sister started laughing. Thats when they showed me their drawings. They were of a man and woman, naked, and the woman was lying down and the man was standing on top of her, peeing into her mouth. I didnt understand why someone would want to do that. Anyway, they wanted me to draw pictures like that, too––but I wouldnt. Suddenly a storm came up and they said, “Come into the barn and well pull down our panties if you will.” And when we got there and theyd pulled down theirs, the thunder clapped and the rain began to fall, and I turned and ran. And I hadnt pulled down my pants. Not one inch. But I kept thinking about it the rest of the day and all through the night, until the next morning, when I walked over to play with them again.
            Their mother, Mrs. Courbeille was in the yard, hanging clothes. When she saw me, she went over to a coffee can sitting on the steps by the back door and pulled out the drawings. They were pockmarked with rain, the lines had run and there was sand on them. She marched over to me with an angry look on her face and screamed: “You drew these dirty pictures! Dont you ever come back here. I should tell your grandpa, I should tell your grandma!” I wanted to argue but I couldnt because I was only five, and just then I heard Francine and Marie and I looked up at their bedroom window on the second floor to find them jumping up and down with no underpants, laughing and making faces. But their mother didnt see them, she was too busy breaking a branch off a bush, and she chased me off their property, swinging it like a switch.
            So I didnt go back. Instead, I played by mysel––and hated Mrs. Courbeille. I kept thinking: “Its not fair!” And in my head I kept telling her, “I didnt do anything. Marie and Francine did.” I even thought about telling her: “Marie and Francine pulled down their underpants.” But I knew she wouldnt believe that.
            Time went by and I was lonely and the girls were still the only ones near enough to play with. So one day, though it scared me, I approached the fence. I could see them playing in their backyard and they waved and soon I was with them, playing again, and their mother came out to get something and saw me and she didnt do anything so I figured I was safe. And I was. As far as Mrs. Courbeille was concerned.
            A couple days later, Marie and I were playing in the backyard. Marie got an idea to make me into a swami and she wound me up in a blanket and put a towel on my head and I walked around like a Hindoo. When Francine came out, Marie told her I was Wards twin, a real swami visiting from India! And though Francine shouldve known it was me, I was such a good actor I fooled her and that scared her because for some reason she decided that the real Ward had been kidnapped. We were trying to calm her down when Mrs. Courbeille came flying out the back door. She was crying, yelling, and she ordered Marie and Francine into the car. She rolled down the window and screamed at me: “Go home, get out of here!” Then she sped away.
            I stood there, towel around my head, blanket over my shoulders.
            Then the back door opened and out lunged Mr. Courbeille. He smelled like beer and he was staggering. He clomped over close and almost fell on top of me. He was an ogre of a man, a giant, one-hundred feet tall. He glowered and snarled, “Who are you and why are you dressed like that––and aren't you the one who drew those dirty pictures?”
            I tried to answer. I whispered, “My names Ward Douglas Schumaker and I wasn't actually the one who drew those pictures.” But he paid no attention. Instead, he leaned over, almost fell again, and grabbed me. Then he picked me up into the air. 
            “Wardy-Wardy-Wardy,” he growled, “how'd you know to draw such dirty pictures?” He asked it scary-like, as though he thought I was trying to hide something. His eyes were huge and rolling and wild and I thought he was going to pull my pants down. I dont know why I thought that, I just did. But then he dropped, or threw me––I don’t know which––onto the gravel driveway and it really hurt and I tried to escape but couldnt because I was tangled up in the blanket. Above me, Mr. Courbeille fumbled and swayed, finally falling and rolling onto his side, grabbing at me, cussing, sputtering, saying all sorts of things I didnt understand. 
            And then, I dont know exactly how, I escaped. I can still feel myself flying from him, across the yard, under the fence, and I didnt stop till I was inside my grandparents house, in the dark of their fruit cellar. For a long time I lay on the cold dirt floor, catching my breath, and when I finally dared to move, I crawled to a pile of potatoes and hid behind it. I was so afraid hed come after me. And get me. And do I don't know what. I curled into a ball, scared to death, and waited. 
            After a long time, my grandparents came home. “What are you doing in the basement?” Grandma wanted to know. I came up but I never told them (or anyone else) what had happened. And I never went back to the Courbeille's. I just hated and hated and hated them. Soon after, Mom and Dad showed up in the car and took me home and later I heard Grandma say the Courbeilles had divorced and moved away. But I can never forget them. Mrs. Courbeille is the person I most hate in this world and Mr. Courbeille makes me feel the most frightened. To this day whenever I think about him, I hear him clomping down the staircase to get me in the basement­. Its a horrible noise, impossible to stop. I have to shake myself, wake myself, even when Im not sleeping.
            Of course, everyone has similar, uncomfortable experiences while young, and perhaps I would have forgotten all about it had not something else similar happened years later.
            In 1965 I was twenty-two and I had just one semester more to get my degree, after which I planned to move to New York and become an artist. Only problem: I had used up all my savings and didn't have the $400 tuition for that last semester. But walking through the halls of school, I spied a poster taped to a wall. Actually, I felt as if it spied me, that it was twinkling, winking, and calling me over to read it: $400 Purchase Award, it read, for first place in the Nebraska Governor's Art Competition. I knew immediately that I would win first place. I knew it deep in my heart, as if it were something planned, something destined, long ago and far away.
            Still, at the time I was painting one-color canvases and I realized that sort of thing wouldn't win in Nebraska in 1965. So I painted my first figurative works and entered them into the show. To make a long story short: judges awarded me first place. But when the governor and his wife previewed the winning work, they were aghast: "the dirtiest thing you've ever seen," was how the wife described my winning painting.
            It wasn't actually dirty. I had painted one figure, doing nothing much but floating across the canvas; they saw three figures, doing sexual things to each other. Not everyone saw what they saw; one reporter complained he didn't see what was dirty about the piece and was told "if you don't see what is dirty about it, then you don't have a dirty mind."
            I was offered the choice of being prosecuted for pornography or accepting $425 for removing my work from the show. I took the money, finished school, and moved to California where I became a paper salesman. From time-to-time I painted but I showed no one. Later, however, at 35, I became an illustrator––close to being a painter, but not dangerously so. Then when I was 60, at dinner, my son suggested I tell the story of the Governor's Art Competition to my new wife, Vivienne. Afterwards, she asked: why don't you start painting again? I cleared the dishes, covered the table with newspapers, and began to paint.
            That was 14 years ago and I feel very fortunate to have been given shows by gallerists I respect. But before the opening of each show, I experience nightmares: will the Courbeille sisters show up at the opening, or the now dead governor of Nebraska with his accusatory wife?
            It is exhausting and debilitating to live in fear. But if you've got the name, might as well have the game: So I decided to face my detractors, once and for all, and create the most outrageously sexual show I could, the show you see here today: Priapus and Rainfall. Priapus is, of course, the demigod weighed down by a permanent erection. And rainfall, to me, is the embodiment of everything female and helpful, sensual and enticing. Now let them say anything they want: because yes, this show is all about sex and it's obvious, unhidden, in-your-face.