History: in their own, sensational words

As we gear up for the kickstarter chaos and I head into the final lap of creating the book, I’ve decided to revisit one of the inspirations that lead me to this story in the first place. I’m currently re-reading “History of the New Richmond Cyclone” which you can find in it’s entirety at the Wisconsin History website. Immediately following the New Richmond tornado, a woman named Mary Adeline Boehm (or “Mrs. A. G. Boehm ” as title page confusingly names her) wrote a book detailing the stories of the survivors.

Written in the most lavish, uncensored, over-the-top prose imaginable, Boehm gives us everything from the (now sort of out dated) science of tornadoes, to horror novel-esque scenes of personified fire (not kidding here) slowly approaching its victims, trapped helplessly under tornado debris. There are numerous accounts of seeing the storm forming which all seem to match up and be reasonably factual. But then there are also stories that seem mildly embellished and still more that were probably made up all together.

Published less than a year after the event, it already held the feel of a legend. Without the proliferation of cell phone cameras, hand held video recorders, and 911 calls, the stories of the survivors were the closest thing to coverage of what actually happened that day. Much like the newspapers of the time, Boehm ads literary flourishes that would make any modern writer blush with embarrassment, for example, breaking mid-paragraph to exclaim “Merciful God!” or “Oh! The sights that met the gaze of the survivors!” In fact, there are a lot of exclamation points used in general! More than a modern reader would think possible! More than any document needs really!

The language of it is simultaneously fascinating and totally distracting. It feels embarrassing to read about a natural disaster in this way, because it affected real people and would now be considered insensitive. It’s hard to imagine reading about Hurricane Katrina or the Joplin, Missouri tornado in this writing style. The dead are named and often described as being “burnt to crisp” or “mangled beyond recognition” and even “head severed completely from body”. Then the grisly details are hastily followed by more kindly descriptions: “Mr. Martin was much esteemed by his acquaintances as a congenial good fellow, possessing many engaging qualities, which endeared him to all who knew him.”

Given the intense power of tornado winds, it’s difficult to separate the facts from the tall tales. While it’s feasible that the tornado picked up a three-ton safe and dropped it several blocks away, it’s not so likely that black-haired men had their hair turned white by the horrors they witnessed. Or that a man driving his stage coach down main street was lifted up, horses and all, and deposited safely some distance away, with the horses never missing a step. There are countless stories involving the whereabouts of parlor pianos and iron cook stoves.

The reason I’ve returned to this endearing work of literature, is that it is the voice that I’ve adopted in writing “The Circus and the Cyclone”. It didn’t feel too outlandish to invent my own story here, because the event itself has become a tall tale of its own. The language is topsy-turvy and sensational enough for the two  topics and I’m really enjoying working with both the historical materials as well as the imaginary ones.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Mrs. Boehm. I took this as a personal challenge of sorts when I first read it:

“The bare truth of the New Richmond storm is so vastly superior to the tale of a dreamer that one hesitates to repeat it.” – Mrs. A. G. Boehm, 1900

The Circus and the Cyclone… and its gypsy band narrators

Today, after much folly, I finally finished the cover image for the book. As you can see, it’s pretty complex with a lot of fun stuff going on. And a lot of fun stuff sometimes means more opportunity to mess something up. Which happened. So I started over from scratch and did it right the second time… which was utterly time consuming but totally worth it in the end.

The band members serve as the narrators of the story and I thought it would be really cool to feature them as the cover image. Their look and sound really capture what the story is after, even though they don’t have any songs specifically related to circuses, tornadoes, or moon landings.

It’s hard to describe how, but certain types of music seem to go well with particular images while others obviously don’t. Some of my favorite bands work with specific visual artists to create their album art and posters in a way that truly compliments their sound and helps to identify what they are about. Some of my favorite examples are Radiohead, The Decemberists, Joanna Newsom, Fleet Foxes, and Sigor Ros‘ Takk album. The visuals are gorgeous and identify perfectly with the sound. I’ve always, ALWAYS wanted to work with musicians in that way.

But some of my past band art experiences have been, shall we say, not the best match. However, a few years ago, my husband joined a band that became The Vitrolum Republic. And it turned out to be a great match for both of us. It’s been a rewarding experience to pair my ascetic with their sound and watch everything come together. There’s been some casual talk of doing an animated music video together at some point, so that will be a story all its own!

But alas, dear reader, I get ahead of myself. For the task at hand is planning our kickstarter campaign for the book.Yikes! It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. My circus tornado yarn as an actual, physical book?! Hopefully we’ll be launching by the end of next month. Stay tuned.

 

Lenora’s Portrait and some thoughts on tornadoes

Oh, such a pretty machine! I just finished a portrait of Lenora Lovelle, complete with rusty gears and blushing roses. And those vacant, glassy eyes…

Every week gets me a little closer to finishing the book. I’m excited and a little sad. I think I could keep doing these illustrations forever. Last week we did a photo shoot for a freak poster. The “World’s Only Pair of Conjoined Fraternal Twins!” features two good artist friends, Heather Chapa and Lauren Grudzinski in a role that is not that far from the truth. Then tonight will be another photo shoot with The Vitrolum Republic as the circus musicians who narrate the story. It should be a fun time, as I anticipate many unique hats, things covered in sparkles and feathers, and above all, the music!

As “Water for Elephants” is now in theaters, I’ve just begun reading the book. Between the circus buzz of the movie and the wake of several destructive tornadoes, the timing for this work seems suddenly more relevant. I’ve been struggling this week with the absurdity of my story in relation to the tragedy of the real event, especially as stories from the recent tornadoes come out. For all of our technological achievements, we are still vulnerable to the whims of nature. A column of air that can throw trucks and rip trees out of the ground is horrifying no matter what time period you live in.

A lot of my writing tends to pair absurdity with tragedy, though, now that I think about it. For some reason they need to go hand-in-hand. There is nothing more absurd than the reality of our existence and nothing more nonsensical than mortality. It’s part of why I was attracted to this historical anecdote in the first place. Circus + Tornado = Absurdity + Tragedy.

The Cellar Stairs, OR: where not to hide in this particular story.

In the real life story of the New Richmond tornado, the greatest tragedy was that buildings were not built the same way as they are today. Many people died because they took shelter, which would seem like the smartest thing to do. A larger group hid out in the basement of the town’s dry goods store, only to get pummeled by flying bricks and splintered timbers. I tried my best to portray what I imagine that would have been like. Nothing short of horrifying. The somber colors and diagonal elements are a departure from the other circus-themed works.

Destruction and Chaos, as promised

A new piece is taking shape, slowly. It’s one of those big, crazy compositions with lots of figures and stuff flying around and whatnot. This one depicts a group of people huddled in a cellar under some stairs and behind some wood barrels. The tornado is ripping the building apart and rain and wind are blowing in. Still working on the color choices, but it will be pretty dreary given the subject matter!

Here’s the most finished looking portion of it.

 

The World’s Largest Art’s Themed Attraction!!!

 

Roadside Attraction in Wisconsin (Image used under CC license by flickr user mpwillis)

Well, funding for the Wisconsin Arts Board has been cut by 66 percent and has been merged into the Tourism Department. What more needs to be said? There really is no difference between fine art and tourist attractions anyway, so why the heck not do away with that silly division? In fact, I welcome this change and propose that artists rise to the occasion and do what we’re best at: make something.

Not just any old thing. We need to make the biggest and the best of something. In the whole world. The World’s Largest Installation Piece, or The World’s Largest Bas Relief Last Supper, or The World’s Largest Georgia O’ Keeffe Lily… Or maybe an art history theme park! Step inside the Abstract Expressionist Room, so abstract and so expressive you may experience vertigo!

In all seriousness though, the only thing left for artists to do is to just keep making. Make and make and make until your fingers bleed and the carpal tunnel flares up. It’s the only way the arts will survive here. You stop making YOU DIE. Literally. If artists just throw in the towel then the haters have won. I don’t care if the only supplies you can afford are soda pop pull tabs and zebra mussel shells. I don’t care if the art you make is good or looks like total crap. It’s the “Field of Dreams” philosophy that if you make it, they will come. And we need to make IT and make it BIG and make it LOUD and automatically upon its completion declare it “World Famous”. Then we need to launch a five-state-wide billboard campaign “See the Art Spot!” or “Art on the Rock” or just “Wisconsin Art Trap!”, “World Famous Art Makers in Captivity!”

I could go on being ridiculous and pretending to be sarcastic about all this, but really it’s not so off. In even the most negative news, as a creative person, I try to think about what’s going to happen next, about what my response is going to be in my personal life. The only conclusion is to just keep doing what I do and keep trying to convince others that they should care. And it has been a secret fantasy of mine for a long time to actually make some sort of artistic environment. Like many artists, I obsessively create. I also obsessively collect unusual discarded objects with the intention of making something out of them some day. Sometimes that day is right away, sometimes it’s years later, but my studio partner and I have stash of thrift store finds and stuff found on curbs, old furniture, beat-up jewelry boxes, clocks, and the like. I have this recurring thought of making a chandelier out of old silverware. How is that impulse so different from House on the Rock?

Many of the best shows at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center have been collections of artists who did just that. The obsessive, eccentric outsider artists of Wisconsin have a long history of making breathtakingly beautiful environments as well as roadside attractions. Even in the most destitute conditions, artists continue to make. Even with no funding whatsoever, the urge to create is too strong to be oppressed. So in the wake of this news, that funding is being cut, that art is being relegated to weekend revelry, my only thought is that it does not change what I do. It actually inspires me to create more and now has me considering the question, “Why NOT charge admission?”. If I can make it, they will come. And if I can convince them it’s world famous, they just might pay to see it.

It also doesn’t hurt if we make something cow-themed or that comes with free beer after the tour 🙂

 

“Fezzes are cool.”

After all the craziness of two shows in one month, it’s time to get back to drawing some characters! I’m working on a series of small, oval shaped pictures of Lenora and her bear friend Mr. Pibbles. The idea behind these is to make the bear seem more human, more alive, than the girl. The bear is as fooled as the clowns into thinking the beautiful contortionist is a living, breathing woman. I’m trying to make her look like a doll next to the giant, shaggy bear. Oh yeah, and the bear wears a fez now. Fezzes are cool!

In the Wreckage

Busted my butt to finish this today, but felt it needed to be in the show on Friday! She’s just so sad on her own. She needs to be up on the wall with her friends. The brave heroin of the circus tale stands amongst the chaos of New Richmond after the tornado. Poor, poor Johanna Wyeth! I gave up on this piece a year and a half ago because every draft was worse than the last. Then I found an amazing oval frame with all kinds of etched metal detailing and the only the thing I could picture in it was her. So I gave it another shot and turns out that the insane amount of figure drawing I’ve been doing since my first attempt has paid off. Huzzah! Can’t wait to pop it in that killer frame.

Random!

My esteemed studio associate, Jason Krukowski and I have been working to put together a little group show for Milwaukee’s gallery night this weekend. I’ve been framing up more circus pictures and Jason’s been painting saucy dames and dapper gents! There will also be several other artists showing and selling work as well: Brittney Biggs, Jackie Steffen-Bublitz, Brent Bublitz, Christopher MacDonald, Lauren Grudzinski, and Heather Chapa. Also featuring live music (Friday night) by the Vitrolum Republic!  We’ll be working hard all week to get the show hung and lights set up and ooooh it’s going to be extraordinary!!! I’m hoping to get the band to bring the giant willow tree backdrop I painted for their photo shoot. Spectacular! RANDOM!