A Story All Its Own
Dave Archer © 2001 --- All rights reserved.
A Story All Its Own
... or, more
than you ever
wanted to know about
Dave & Ron's refulgent careers, including
how once, we "burglarized" the De Young Art Museum,
(and) said No to peeing down a million volt hole in the floor
I met Ron Cushing --- known later as Ron Russell --- in the mid 60's, when we were in a group painting show at Beat painter Harold LaVigne's gallery, the Joker's Flux, on Fillmore Street, in San Francisco. This was four or five years before we teamed up to explore reverse glass painting. Actually, we did not meet at the opening, but because of Harold's show, were introduced a short time later by mutual friend and wine maker, Martin Van der Kamp. The meeting took place in Ron's studio, a barn next door to Robert de Ropp's ashram on Sonoma Mountain Road near, Glen Ellen, California, at what is now the site of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Ron was studying the Gurdjieff work under de Ropp, the author of "Drugs and the Mind," the book I'd read while "experimenting" with Deadly Nightshade* in the "earlier" 60's. Later, as fellow members of Alex Horn's Gurdjieff group, which began at the same location, we started our true friendship.
*Note: Deadly Nightshade is exactly that. Never take this lethal herb in any form, whether the black berries my mother pointed out to me as a child, warning, "never eat these David, they will kill you," or abusing asthma medication as I did in the early 60's. Timothy Leary was quoted often as saying he had never heard of anyone ingesting nightshade more than once. He hadn't met me yet. Later, when I told him about it, Leary was dumbfounded. I know, you're thinking, "Carlos Castaneda did it with Don Juan," bla, bla. Yes, in a centuries old recipe as (one) ingredient among many which we have no idea how to make, or take. There are plenty of good reasons never to take it. Even Hartz Mountain witches only rubbed it on their bodies. Chiefly, "belladonna" or "Beautiful Lady," is a powerful respiratory relaxant, and just a "titch" too much will stop autonomic functioning, specifically breathing, permanently. And here's the trick --- we don't know what a "titch too much" is. I took belladonna because I was a gravely mentally and emotionally disordered soul who thought he was supposed to seek out hallucinations of the Salvador Dali, "burning giraffe" variety as part of my artistic job description. We were callous rangers. See, we didn't have rock videos back then. We had black and white "art" films like: "Last Year At Marionbad," need I say more. Just don't: okay? I did it for you. Email me.
Ron Russell Cushing was no doubt born with the psychic sensitivity of a European male. Barrel-chested, a handsome mesomorph, a lover of women, with some indefinable substance I ached to have in myself, yet could never quite figure out, or imitate even, that --- of "owning a room," so to speak, yet never intruding. By comparison I would sneak in one end of a party, completely invisible, then drink too much, and end up clomping around like Mr. Ed on heroin until I was thrown out the front.
Ron's hair was a tangle of dark coils crowning a great forehead and dramatic eyebrows: animated sumi-e brush strokes really, over warm, alert eyes: trained for art. He was always ready with sly laughter, life for my friend being too serious to be taken "too" seriously. Avid student of the world, part teacher / part preacher, curious about everything, his stories and inquiries always shaded toward some deeper meaning or impending discovery. Beneath all, the man was an earnest seeker of esoteric knowledge --- willing to follow ripple, rivulet or river to the watershed of any interesting call, idea, or mystery.
In early 1970, after we had both left Horn's group, Ron persistently called my welfare shack in Boyes Hot Springs near Sonoma, California, attempting to convince me to join him in the study of reverse glass painting. He was making good money as a Teamster, yet longed to paint full time.
In those days I held two jobs, both of which demanded complete commitments. One, under direct orders from some demon drill sargent, I was marching hard, day and night, toward the unenviable goal of drinking myself to death as quickly as possible, and two, because it interferred too much with the first, vainly avoiding even one more night in the Sonoma jail. (Clueless as Inspector Clouseau, I was in fact stumbling toward sobriety of sorts, about to fall face-first through the swinging doors of recovery, which I did many times before finally "getting it".) Anyway, I wasn't in much of a mood to hear about Ron's new painting idea, that's for sure. The poor man would almost beg, "David, you should let me put my Teamster money into a studio, where we can experiment together". Adding that we could sell our pieces at art festivals and street fairs. I'd say, "Aw, naw, I quit painting forever". He even suggested I work in the studio alone during the week, while he continued driving truck. Now, right there see, that almost sounded attractive, because if there's one word any alcoholic truly loves (and hates) it is the word, ALONE. "Working" in a studio, I could be away all day, plus half the night, from my long suffering wife Michaelle, drinking like the professional wino I was meant to be. Something to think about. Even so, I was reluctant. After all, had I not packed away my art studio? (a couple of cigar boxes full of paint tubes and a few brushes) And did I not intend to never paint again as long as I lived ... which wouldn't be that long? How could I break a vow as stupid as that and still be a real man? Imagine Sarah Bernhardt on a couch with an ice pack on her head, sighing, "Ron, Ron, yes, we could do that, but as you well know the Artworld is so cruel my friend. Nobody cares about greatness anymore, or truth, or justice, or even the American Way ... I say let's get drunk and listen to George Jones ..."
I did though, very much look up to Ron. I really did. For me his work represented the artist as shaman, which pulled at my deepest sensibilities. A few years before his calls, while working on a canvas in oils, he'd been using a piece of window glass for a palette, and one day, rather than clean it, decided to toss it out for a new piece of glass. Approaching the garbage can, the artist in him chanced to flip the palette over, only to notice how a random mix of colors had fallen together on the back, forming an impressionistic likeness of a Geisha girl dancing in a flowing kimono. The shaman then, placed the palette on a shelf among some bones and stones. Then some months later, the artist trimmed an uneven edge to make the "picture" fit a small frame Ron had lying around, and put it in a local, "Art and Garden," show in Santa Rosa. And best of all, the shaman entered the piece in the "mixed media" category --- and won the first place blue ribbon and ten dollar check for his palette. Even I had to admit that that, was very good.
Ron would call saying, " ... there's something about glass painting David. I mean, if my palette won first prize, maybe we should find out what that something is ..."
When I sniveled about "affording" glass Ron urged me to ask for the scrap in the trim-box at the local hardware store. Finally, to get my friend off my back I promised to try one piece --- and one piece only. The hardware store gladly gave me their whole scrap box, about fifty small pieces, which I accepted, (so I wouldn't seem like some ungrateful drunk that had just staggered in for a handout). Then, as Ron had suggested, I squeezed a little paint onto the tips of three or four fingers --- red, yellow, blue, straight from the tube, and rubbed the paints around on the "back-side" of a glass shard, while watching from the "front". My first attempt was a halfway decent scrawl of the sort done by famous zoo animals. The second, yes, the second, ended up being a sort of a bowl of fruit ... well, I dipped the top of an ink bottle into some black ink and used it to stamp some circles on a 2" by 5" piece. Then added acrylics with my fingers, only to have the ink circles ooze together for a nice pile of rotting oranges. Um.
Later, my mother actually bought the same piece from us for $2.50 (hey, I wasn't Elvis, okay, mom had to cough up the $2.50 like everybody else) at our first official show, a vacant-lot art fair in Pismo Beach, California, called the Pismo Beach Clam Festival. Yes, clams. Big ones. Clamp ... clamp, clamp. Our first display stands were made of burlap covered cardboard and kept blowing away in the wind. We made 60 bucks. Not much you say. Well, our prices were mostly around 5 dollars, so actually it meant we'd sold quite a few pieces, as well as visited with a lot of interested folks. A prophetic sign indeed, for our first public outing. We made some clams, we ate some clams. Thus began an intense three year project working together in a series of studios.
Art that engages my kinky eye always evokes some sort of manic obsession. Painting and sculpture --- trained or naive --- it must have an obvious: hand / eye / heart / soul connection, showing the Artmaker to be some sort of Windsor "Fig" Newton alchemist bent on transmuting gross-neuroses to finer. Works of the driven and the borderline especially attract me. Most likely because I am a driven borderline myself, obsessive to the core, two "figs" over of a basket, the most dangerous count of all. Things you might see in a Ripely's Believe It Or Not Museum appeal to me. Like a model of Captain Nemo's submarine made of Q-Tips. Or the art of schizophrenics and criminals. Painting of the obsessed. Van Gogh. Hieronymus Bosch. Edgy stuff. It may be aesthetically beautiful, still, one way or another: it bites. And to that end, I have lived since childhood amidst an ever growing collection of folk and tribal art, magic masks, sculpture, sacred objects, most of feral eye, fang, tooth, tongue, and talon. Put it this way. My rooms have always looked like your better Halloween stores.
Therefore, when Ron "tricked" me into working again, the magic of glass painting was absorbing. Never before had I encountered an art form that held more potential for both the sublime, and the utterly dreadful: in the same piece. That is, artistically magical on the one hand, barf-bag kitschy on the other. Many moderns had experimented on glass. Duchamp and Kandinsky for two. Perhaps none before Ron and Dave though --- well, except the Croatian primitives --- had painted on glass with such a single mindedness of purpose, that is: the Croatians being peasant country scenes, ours pure experimentation. And some of the Croatian work, especially that of its noted leader, Ivan Generalic, had True Bite for me. "The Stag's Wedding" (below) for one, not to mention, "The Scarecrow," a reverse glass painting of a crucified rooster. Eek ...
In our three years together, we devoted countless hours to experimenting, trying every art material and technique imaginable. After five years or so, (and on our own by then), when people asked what I thought I was doing, I always answered, "Northern California, high-tech, psychedelic folk art ... early 21st century". In jest of course, but true. That is: (a.) reverse glass painting --- aka: "eglomise" or "verso" painting --- has deep roots in folk art, no question about it. (b.) I paint with high voltage high-tech machines". (c.) I stepped into the 60's as a 19 year old "beat ranger". And (d) nine foot long lightening bolts will "bite" your butt off brother, believe it.
Every art technique has pleasures and problems all its own. Reverse glass painting is like working in a vacuum. Art under glass, instead of pheasant. For one thing, the eye-candy-color is so jazzy it can have all the allure of a Tijuana velvet painting, running a kitsch quotient say, from florescent Pop Rocks to Hersheys with almonds. Hey, and I even like Tijuana velvet paintings, especially if they're Hersheys with almonds. As a working surface though, glass is intransigent, nonporous, and unforgiving. You scratch it --- no patch it. You break it --- no re-make it. Aside from all the technical difficulties, which are legion, in some sense, a finished piece has no "surface," therefore seems something else --- not a painting --- a pool of water, a witch's scrying mirror, a window. Then too, "space painting" went against everything Ron and I had done until then. (Ron had experimented with glass painting some, after his palette won first prize.) Still, at the time, taking up glass painting together was about as probable as forming a banjo rock band.
We'd both come to painting by way of unique circumstances. Mine through the personal torment of child sex abuse, Ron by way of an earthquake. My friend had graduated from a Catholic high school in 1955 at age sixteen. In those days bright students were moved forward as quickly as possible. By 1959, the year I graduated from high school, his interest in medicine had already led him to Peninsula County Hospital in San Mateo, California, where part of his work was preparing bodies for the morgue. One afternoon Ron was in the San Mateo Public Library seated at a table reading a magazine on British antiques, when an earthquake hit. Plaster dust rained from the thirty foot ceiling in the old building, as books tumbled from shelves, and people took off screaming, running for the doors. Ron slid from his chair to a position under the heavy table, and continued reading, in an attitude he now laughingly refers to as, "my youthful arrogance," glimpsing flashing legs, flying shoes, furniture sliding and acoustical tile falling to the floor. When the shaking stopped, he returned the magazine to the "dishevels," then drove to the seismograph at San Francisco's Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, about forty minutes away.
Standing with others before the scientific instrument, suddenly then, there hit a powerful after-shock, sending the pen zig-zagging over the page, even spattering a little ink. People ran to the seismograph, pressing in. As Ron related to me years later, he left the building that day, "swept into state of detached awareness ... "one where I profoundly recognized as never before, and perhaps since, the underlying temporality of everything". Within weeks of the earthquake, Ron Cushing quit his medical studies to become a buck private in the Beat Generation, on the road, hitchhiking to New York to be a painter.
We had these lustful awakenings to change and action back then. I don't know why for sure, that's just how it was.
I consider Ron Russell to be nothing less than a genetic giver. Along with inspiration, the man gave me a place to work, put groceries in my cupboard, patiently endured my horrendous drinking bouts with patience, kindness tolerance and love, and literally supported my wife and family while we studied glass painting together. If we all stand on the shoulders of others, and we do, my great friend, self-effacing to the core --- who always referred to his philanthropy as, "enlightened self-interest," --- simply gave me my art career. How do you thank someone for that? Here's how. Thank you Ron --- from the bottom of my heart --- thank you. That's how. And you try your best to give to others who are deserving, which I do with mixed reviews.
This was around the time then we changed names for the first time, combining our middles. We had been: Ronald Russell Cushing and David Archer Nelson, now we would be con artist: "Russell Archer," signing all works with "his" name, or "RA". This gave us distance. Strangers spoke right out when they thought we were "mere sales guys". In fact, they said a lot of rotten things right in our faces, which we took as "gold," smiled, and learned from every time. Well, and we were collaborating on the pieces too, so the name change made sense for that reason.
Some 70's clown wearing clown shoes would walk up, you know, leather pants, silk shirt open to the navel, dunce hat and say, "Hey, did you do this"?
"No ... Russell Archer did that. He's a hermit living in the Sierra. We just sell for him".
"Well, I kinda like it, but what the hell's it supposed to be --- Jonathan Livingston Penguin?"
"Yes actually, it is ... and today, for you, it's only fifty bucks".
We began making what we called "squishies". These were accomplished by painting on another piece of glass, wood, or linoleum first, then "squashing" that onto the backside of another piece of glass. We made scenes including dreadful seascapes as well as abstracts. Ten years after our three year collaboration I had dinner with Ron in his studio. After the meal, he rose from the table, grandly announcing, "and now my friend ... just for you, a special treat indeed ... yes ... a little walk ... down, memory lane ..." Then, from the shadows beneath a work bench the comical man dragged a cobwebbed carton of unframed glass paintings into the light. Leafing through, his back turned, musing, "let me see here ... no, no, oh no, that'll never do ... heaven's no, not that beauty ... ah, here we are, a masterpiece for sure". In mock ceremony then, Ron "unveiled," for my eyes only, none other than Russell Archer's avant-smerde from the early 70's, a small picture titled, "Hitler's Mother," a mess I'd completely forgotten (by the grace of hard liquor). Ron gave me, "Mom," that night, and over the years I've come to like her quite a lot actually. She hangs in my studio now, ever chumping away at the back of my neck, "so, Mr. Big Shot, remember me?"
Our first studio was the barn of artist, friend, Homer Davis, in Sonoma. With holes in the roof, winter was out. Temporarily though, it was fine, if musty and dark. I liked it better than my favorite saloon because I got to be the bartender, and the customer as well, thus saving a good deal of money. We loved the place. Ron joined me there on weekends, both to work, and to see all the weird stuff I'd accomplished during alcoholic blackouts. Here we did squishing, smudging, squashing, squirting, splashing, sponging, splodging, and smooshing. No space pictures. The bulk of these experiments ended up a few years later in the Sonoma County Landfill. I remember the two of us standing on the back of a truck surrounded by hundreds of swirling sea gulls, engaged in an Olympic frisbee contest of major proportion, sailing tens of dozens of "paintings" into an ocean of trash. A guy driving a bulldozer would chug past us every now and then, impacting the landfill with a heavy cylinder covered with "sheep's feet," and whenever he crushed our pictures we would jump and wave, cheering him on.
Our second studio was the tiny ex-storeroom of a laundromat in Boyes Hot Springs, a couple of miles from Sonoma. While not exactly the funky big toe of Sonoma County, Boyes Springs in those days was at least the ingrown nail. With the exception of Mary's Pizza Shack, home of the best Italian food in California, and Juanita's, the rest of the place was strictly border-town with no border. Our studio was ten by ten, with a private entrance, and room for one table. We painted on the floor too. The laundromat still operated. There was a door separating us from the washing machines, always locked, with a three inch gap at the bottom of the door. So, every now and then, when someone over-soaped a machine --- a glacier of Lemon Fresh Tide came foaming and roaming into the room. Ah, but the rent was good.
Physicists say the Big Bang created space by ... banging BIG. Do you buy that? John Holmes ala-cosmic-ka-ka-rooomba, eh. From what though? Antispace? Utter density? Just asking, because in a universe of dualities, wouldn't there have to be a lot of space around all that "density" in order for: (a.) the density to even "be" in the first place or how could you label it dense? and (b.) in order for the Big Bang to have a really BIG place to bang big in? Or could it have been some sort of giantocious schmingularity that blew itself into all this double trouble we're in today? Well, whatever it is, I don't like it a bit.
Ah ... which is why I'm an artist and not a scientist. Okay, weird science ... Chupacabras. Clones. The tiger spots on Michael Jackson's silk purse. When I was a kid I wanted to be a garbage-man-wino with a big red nose just like Mr. Rizzolli (Bizzolli to me), then I wanted to be a weird scientist, then a jewel thief, an oceanographer, a powerful magician, never an astronaut. Eventually I compromised and became a drunk painter / magician, and one who scuba dived the world. But the Space Shuttle --- never. For one thing, it's a flying clog shoe with fins. For another, I suspect it has that National Park smell I remember hating when I was a kid. That campground restroom smell --- ten sinks and ten stalls, in the morning around 9:30, after seventy people have shat and spat, and fussed and brushed all those hundreds of teeth, and washed and squashed all those double dozens of chins and grins, and combed and flipped that giant hair ball flat, geeeeod, I can't bear it. Trapped in a flying Winnebago two hundred and fifty miles above Kuwait with eye boogers and squeeze-food floating around the cabin (sticking to your cheeks) is about as attractive to me as being on a party boat for two weeks and the dive master says, "Okay, who beside Dave hasn't buddied up yet? Jimmy good? Dave, you know Jimmy Swaggart, right?".
I suggest reading Apollo astronaut, "Rusty" Schweickart's, infamous NASA paper: "Defecation in Zero-G". (Available free from NASA) That was enough for me. Hey, and after you read it, you can use it.
"Space Happened," for us in the back room of the laundromat and our Big Bang was one hundred thousand volts of electricity. The first electric paintings we did together, led to space paintings. And talk about weird science, if anything, our first attempts looked more like clumps of turnips yanked out of wet soil with lots of hairy roots and globs of dirt hanging on the roots. Albeit, damn colorful globs.
One day we did a piece (above) with a burst of dark "roots" radiating from the center of the glass. Ron made a choice move then, spraying the center white. Viewed from the front against black paper, it "wanted" stars, so we flicked some white specks into the mix and the piece became our first official reverse glass space painting.
Ya! You betcha!
Discovering electric painting was serendipity. A friend of mine named Lee Byrd constructed a small Tesla coil for experimenting with what he termed New Age "alchemy". Then Homer Davis, the artist friend who'd loaned us his barn, and Martin Van der Kamp, the wine maker, founded an annual party they called the Bootlegger's Ball. In grape growing regions there is a lot of brandy being made on the sly. Illegal coils hiss and gurgle in barns and outbuildings, and the brandy-makers are proud of their work. The Bootlegger's Ball was conceived as a combination: subversive social and kickass contraband party. Of course, drunk driver that I was, I made sure I was on the steering committee. (MADD's please don't email me over a joke. I'm dry for decades now. I'm a strike anywhere match. Okay, jeeze). The Ball featured bawdy entertainment. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks played the official music every year. Among other acts was a "strong man" dressed in faux leopard skins lifting 1000 pound boxes on a broom stick, along with a stripper with a huge pink bird on her head, "flamingo dancing".
Because Lee had a small electric coil, Homer talked him into being "Argonus El Mesmero and His Famous Indoor Lightening Act". The idea being, Lee would wear red tights and a WWI army helmet painted silver and decorated with jaggy yellow electric bolts. The "act" was simple enough. Lee lit a hand-held light bulb and screamed like Salvadoran police were pounding a railroad spike through his foot. The crowd loved it. Even though the machine only produced twelve inch sparks, Argonus El Mesmero was the hit of the evening. I should say, after the "Wet Brain Award," a quart jar on a three foot length of chain. The jar contained a sheep's brain from the local butcher shop "preserved" for the evening, in rubbing alcohol. I made a label for the jar reading, "Wet Brain Award - Bootlegger's Ball - 1970". The award went to the first person who passed out, and was padlocked around their neck on a chain, then the key was thrown out the door into the bushes.
Quite early in the banquet, to the horror of his then wife, one of our esteemed brandy makers "went to sleep" in his plate of chicken Kiev. When he came too later the fellow was quite proud of winning the award, wobbling around the banquet showing off the hellish organ to anyone who would look. After sun up, when he'd finally made it home --- and good Italian boy that he was --- our winner actually ate part of the brain for breakfast with scrambled eggs. A little later then, Homer called him, both to find out if his wife had let him into the house yet, and if he didn't perhaps need a bolt cutter for the chain. Hearing that he'd eaten part of the brain, Homer said, "oh Jesus man we got that from Helen over at the hospital ... that was a human brain ..."
" ........., ...., ..., " click.
After the show, I was helping Lee pack up his electric machine when he suggested, "You know, you ought'a try painting on glass with the coil". Thank you Lee. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.
The next day we set up. I balanced a piece of glass on top of the coil, and Lee turned on the juice. Instantly arching electricity flowed over the glass while I "Pollocked" ink from an eyedropper. Weird effects happened immediately. The glass made a good insulator, the waterbased ink, a good conductor. The arcs were actually attracted to the ink, which became energized like Frankenstein cancer, and started sending out hairy branches all over the place.
"It's alive!," we shouted, limping around, "It's alive!"
A week later Lee had the great idea of rigging a ground wire to part of an old wooden fishing pole. Now we had "hand control" of the arcs, dubbing the pole the, "Lightning Brush". Even with the wand though, control was scant --- high frequency arcs do pretty much whatever they "feel" like.
Soon our income increased, allowing my family to move to a place in Marin County, with a two car studio for Ron and I. Michaelle was pregnant with our son to be, Forest. My young daughter River loved the place. Okay back off, Forest and River ... sure, we were semi-hippies, okay. Not full-hippies. At least we didn't name the kids Earth Shoe and Tree House. Technically I was Beat, and Michaelle was a "goat person". That is, when I met her she had goats and milked them every day, okay. That's a goat person. Jeeze, do I have to explain everything. Anyway, the house was idyllic, surrounded by redwood trees. Our son was born there, in the "Wolf House," named for its location at the foot of Wolfe Grade. And no, we did not crawl under the rose bushes and eat the placenta like a couple of civet cats, a "New Age" practice in vogue at the time. To be fair, (although I can't imagine why I should) I believe the correct procedure in those days was to "steam" the placenta with vegetables, then dine by candle light (with a gallon of Red Mountain burgundy I hope), like your better cannibals. We did neither, thank you. Well, I drank the wine of course.
The reason publicity around our endeavor had a sideshow quality was because I had learned self-promotion on Broadway, in the topless clubs of San Francisco. This was mostly at a place called, "Big Al's," where in the mid sixties, Tom Yates and I did such insane things as sending "Batwomans's" bra, live, (I mean "live" as in, right off her chest) tied to a weather balloon, from the Coit Tower parking lot, and managed to pull in every TV station and newspaper in The City. We got great un-coverage, so to speak. It worked. The bar was jammed the next night and stayed that way for a couple of weeks. You might say, "business bosomed".
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, Big Al, the Leader of the Mob is proud to present Batwoman and her Naked Dance of Love!!!," translated for me into:
"And now, Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only ELECTRIC PAINTER IN THE WHOLE FRICKIN' WORLD --- yes, THE AMAZING DAVE --- WILL RISK HIS LIFE tonight for ART --- by holding more SUDDEN DEATH in the PALM OF HIS HAND, than the entire Texas Electric Company at PEAK SEASON!!!"
If I'd known some other way I might have tried, but by the time I started painting on glass, my longing to be part of the so-called upper echelon Artworld had dulled in me, to something, I don't know, "quasi-vestigial," like an inflamed appendix throbbing ... throbbing, with occasional flare-ups of shooting pain bringing me to my knees screaming. Let's face it, Picasso's, "Blue Period," was over before I was even born. Hell, the man hogged so many "Periods" by the time I was eight years old, they were all used up. Basquiat wasn't even born yet. Okay, I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, but I was never going to be a dead black heroin addict who painted graffiti pictures. By the time Ron and I teamed up, Andy Warhol had turned every super market in the country into a major art museum. Brillo was huge. The Whitney was showing cinder blocks wrapped in duct tape, and whole rooms full of dust bunnies. Not to mention the last time Leo Castelli had called was shortly after Buddha thought, "man, oh, man, I get it. Life ... is ... suffering".
So with that first electric spark, "As Seen On TV," began scratching around the limbic loop in my medulla oblongata like a fat green iguana smokin' gooood marijuana, I wanted to call the media immediately. From the topless clubs, I knew TV would "have" to cover our work, period. Ron thought the idea was premature, that we should wait. As he pointed out, and rightly so, we were in the early learning curve of glass painting to say the least. Still, from selling big tits to nitwits, I knew we could get as much TV as we wanted. And for television, Ron's concerns were mostly unfounded. I knew TV shows would have to do stories on us because the electric arcs were flashy, colorful and dangerous ... that's all. They had no choice. And our paintings would be seen because of that. And especially, with time constrictions on the nightly news, or even a show like "Evening Magazine," they could only delve to a depth of an inch or so. The real problem however, took me well over one hundred appearances to figure out --- I'm slower than a three-toed-tree-sloth --- that is, by the early 70's, TV no longer "delved" into the public mind at all, it more or less dribbled over the top of the head and down the neck.
After our first show I'd expected to be inundated with interest. The piece was called, "Jeff Simon in 4 Country," a San Francisco "kicker" at the end of the evening news. Ron and I were showing on pegboard stands at a mall in Palo Alto when it aired, so we watched it in a bar a few feet from our stands. The promoter of the art show was sitting in the back of the place, and when I appeared on the screen, performing my high voltage act, she seemed to have an attack of some sort, a real pee-squeal --- "Weeeeeeee - Weeeeeee - Weeeeee!!!!!!!" Other than that, nothing much happened. Along with telling the audience where we were, the anchor cleverly said the same thing every other anchor would cleverly say over the next thirty years: "Dave Archer intends to electrify the critics and jolt the world of art".
Two or three people came. One to tell us about the si-fi book he was writing about aliens who live inside insects. Another wanted to "hip us" to how electricy would give us cancer. And one blessed dewlap soul actually bought a small original space painting, and for a fairly good price, because she loved it and thought it would go well with her couch. Thank you. From the bottom of our hearts blessed dewlap soul. Thank you.
TV stories were so easy to get, that for a few years it was almost all I did, marking my own John Muir Trail through the wilderness of television channels. And every show I was on, I expected the phone to ring off the hook. And it did, sometimes, but never quite off. Sometimes I made sales, --- sometimes I'd get another TV show, or a magazine. See, what I had trouble realizing was this: Americans had seen way too much TV by then. Vietnam, Manson, the Killing Fields. The National Cortex was clogged worse than the phone lines on Thanksgiving. It got worse in the 80's after we'd all held hands and "gone where no sovereign nation had gone before," that is, LIVE!, up Ronald Reagan's Royal Rectum via hydraulic-butt-cam for a fly-by of the Presidential Polyps. God, remember that! Seriously, why would anyone care about space pictures after something like that. And even though, within five years, anywhere I showed my work, people had seen me on TV, they still asked, "are you the guy with that laser thingy, that spark stick?" --- I am not complaining. The total sum of appearances, coupled with magazines, newspapers, and help from celebrities more than paid the rent. The money I made however was always in the street, meeting people one on one, showing original paintings under pure homo-gen sunlight.
Early on, Ron was showing our space paintings in a Los Angeles mall called Century City where he was approached by an associate of famed rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun. At the time, von Braun was no longer the head of NASA, but working for Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland, as Vice President of Engineering and Development. His associate explained that von Braun's friends were looking for a special gift for his birthday, and purchased a Ron Russell painting.
As a boy I'd grown up watching Wernher von Braun chum it up with "old mouse ears himself" on the, "Wonderful World of You Know Who". Von Braun would stand there with Disney using a stick to point out Saturn 5 rocket trajectories to the moon. This was two decades before Apollo. What I did not know --- and Mickey did --- was that this same rocket scientist had also chummed it up with Adolph Hitler in the madman's private office, using the same frickin' stick to point out V2 rocket trajectories to the British Isles. And that this brilliant moron had in fact tested his rockets on London, killing untold British citizens and terrorizing millions more. After the war, "our guys" grabbed Hitler's best rocket guys, especially von Braun. The line:
"Hey, the guy's a scientist. His childhood dream was going to the moon. I mean, okay, sure ... the London thing was bad. But von Braun didn't want to do that. Besides, if he hadn't bombed the English, Hitler would have killed him".
Not a bad idea. Or you know, he could have slipped out of Germany along with a lot of other great people who did --- not exactly "rocket science" there.
Anyway, carnival-head that I am, I started working on Ron immediately to obtain a letter from von Braun saying anything good about his birthday painting. Soon we received word that the big guy indeed loved it, and wondered if Ron might even do twenty more paintings as commissions, with one addition. The scientist wanted each space painting to include a portrayal of his last project, the ATS-6 Satellite, a communications satellite beaming "educational" TV programs to countries that had never before received them. The unique thing about ATS-6 was that it could be moved from one country to another. That way, on opposite weekends, "Sesame Street" could be seen by Anwar Sadat, then over the desert and through the jungle to Idi Amin's house we go. The fact that Anwar was having people over for dinner and Idi was having people over as dinner was not part of the equation: "our guys" rarely blanching at mere cannibalism. At the time we knew only that the paintings would be sent as gifts to Heads of State receiving ATS-6 programs. Amin and Uganda were never mentioned, although this became obvious later.
Ron turned the project over to me. I made the prototype painting by silkscreening the image of the satellite onto the glass from a photograph supplied by Fairchild, then painted earth and the moon below the satellite. I was pleased with the result, as was von Braun --- or so we were told. That is, just after he choked up one of his lungs and dropped deader than rock, of course coldly canceling critical acclaim for us, kachoo! God bless you. Don't mention it.
Before he died we did get a letter from Old Rocket Pants though, two identical letters in fact. One for each of us. Well, at least they were signed by him. We were instructed to compose a letter to look as if he'd written it. Then his secretary would type it up on Fairchild stationary and der Furer's ol' buddy ol' pal would gladly sign it. And of course, because we wrote the damn thing, I can't look at it without getting something in my eye:
Dear Mr. Archer,
It was with great pleasure that I received your beautiful cosmic painting last week. Your innovative painting of cosmic and space themes done in reverse on glass certainly captures the drama and clarity of our heavenly frontiers. I wish you continued success in your imaginative endeavor".
Wernher von Braun
"Drama and clarity?" ... "Heavenly frontiers?" ... good grief.
Von Braun's signature was shaky as hell, so to speak, no doubt his final act before Charon ferried him over the Styx and dropped the gangplank in front of a sign reading, "follow the yellow line to the stinking pit, you can't miss it".
I knew I was in trouble when I used the letter, framed as a display in my next shopping mall show. Hey, this is America. It's business. A day or so later a British woman said quietly, "Shame on you for hanging this with these beautiful paintings". I mumbled something about growing up watching His Wernherness on the Disney show as a kid. She said, "Wernher von Braun was Nazi rubbish!" Okay, fine, I did some research and quit using him. Look, we were selling in the street. We would have taken an endorsement from Bogger-Wa-Wa. I clean up well. I'm all better now. Back off.
Around this time my coil-maker friend, Lee, was approached by Lanier Graham, the curator of an exhibition called the "Rainbow Show," at the De Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Lanier hired Lee to build a large electric coil for the exhibit. The overall show would be composed of anything, anyone could think of, having to do with Rainbows, with a capital "R". There was a long tunnel tent lit with rainbow colored lights people walked through. Oooo. The enlarged words to Judy Garland's famous song (white lettering on a black background) hung on the wall. Art critics attacked this show with a special venom I'll tell you, one reserved for war. Machetes. Machine guns.
Working on a five hundred dollar budget, Lee proceeded to construct the damnedest coil in international Tesla history. For example, his box for housing the spark gap was pure trog. To save money, not a bad idea considering the budget, Lee made his own boards. I mean he made his own boards like Abraham Lincoln made his own boards in 1840. From a tree, that is, with an ax. Lee's boards were free. The finished box looked like Yoda's footlocker. Not only that, sticky pitch oozed out of the wood, so, naturally, when it caught on fire in the museum, it burned really fast and smoked the hell out of the whole art show. Now that was something. After the fire department left, the museum called no less a personage than Frank Oppenheimer (brother of Robert J. Oppenheimer --- father of the atomic bomb) at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum. He came over and made a list of ten or twelve things that had to be done before the exhibit could be reopened. Ah, yes, those were the days.
The rest of the coil looked better, installed as it was, in a small room at the end of the rainbow tunnel, I've already made fun of, behind a protective wall painted black. The wall had a small window so Rainbow art lovers could safely view the forty five inch spark displays. For an electrical ground Lee drilled a hole in the museum floor and pounded a reinforcing rod into the earth below. The coil was on a timer switch, set to supply: (one) ten-second-burst, every 50 seconds. Then Lee Byrd, the same man who named his son, Birdman --- as in Birdman Byrd --- stood over the ground wire and peed down the hole, calling over his shoulder to me in his best Dr. Science voice, "urine contains salt ... makes a better ground than water ... if you have to go, make sure you piss down this hole, oh, and keep your back to the window". Let's see, fifty seconds to accomplish the deed while people watched me pee all over the floor of a world class museum, then get my weenie roasted like a Ballpark Frank --- "They Plump When You Cook 'Um". No thanks.
As a final touch, Lee Scotch-taped puffs of Johnson and Johnson cotton around the edges of the window to simulate clouds. This of course, was a Rainbow Show, "storm" tie-in. Get it? As mentioned, the critics went berserk. I'm surprised they didn't lob some Molotov Cocktails through the window. Well, they didn't need to, what with the fire and all.
Lee invited Ron and I to the opening, where as soon as we saw the six foot coil crack a forty five inch lightning bolt we wanted to paint with it. Since the show was already underway we figured permission would be denied, so we made a guerrilla raid. Lee's plan was to simply arrive at the back of the museum with all of our equipment, pound on the roll up doors and if a worker opened them, brazenly walk in like authoritarian burglars.
It worked like a heist movie. The busy man who lifted the door barely greeted us.
Lee's coil was putting out such a big spark display we were worried it might shatter the glass. To minimize such a fiasco we used half-inch thick bulletproof bank-vault glass --- extremely heavy and quite preposterous. One piece crammed into the trunk of an Olds '98, two larger ones wrapped in blankets, then bungied and tied to the roof of the car. Each piece was so heavy we needed four men to pick it up. To document the day, we'd brought along a filmmaker friend and a still photographer. Lee led us through the workshop area of the museum, then out into a main hall near the entrance of the exhibit, where a long line of people waited to buy tickets.
"Coming through ..." we called out. It worked. Folks moved aside letting us through, while the ticket sellers smiled, motioning us in. And in we went, carrying glass, paints, movie camera and other stuff down the Rainbow Tunnel into the coil room. Then ... back for glass.
For the first test firing, we were so concerned about the possibility of the glass exploding and sending shards everywhere, we all stepped away to the walls, (about six feet from the machine), turned our backs, and holding our hands over our eyes, bent forward, arses to the wind --- and set it off like a fireworks display. Good luck there.
I'd called the San Francisco Chronicle the day before and just as we started painting a reporter showed up with a press photographer. To say the least, the reporter was old, terse, and obviously seasoned by serial murders, kidnappings, and fires. Ron and I were happy because this would be our first real press coverage in a museum. The next day I scoured the Chronicle, column by column, three times. Nothing. Not a scrap. So I called the paper shaking, and got the same reporter on the line. Quickly he explained that King Faisal had been assassinated and coverage of the King's story had pushed ours out. "Faisal killed your story," stabbed my ear.
"Faisal? Who's that?," I blurted.
"Aw ... some Arab big shot," he answered, annoyed.
"How about tomorrow?," I pressed.
"Your story was today," he answered, more annoyed.
"Couldn't you do it anyway? I mean, it was only yesterday?,"
I said, falling to my knees on the studio floor, beginning to die inside.
"Naw ...," he answered, disgusted.
"Okay," I blundered, "what about ah ... ?", my brain took off like a hamster in a hoop, " ... okay ... yesterday ... okay ... today, ... ah ... tomorrow ..." I couldn't belive there were only three possibilities for time. Then, there was just death silence on the line. Claws seized my throat. Then the reporter let out this long grunting sigh, like a hippopotamus sinking into a river, and hung up.
I sobbed and pounded my fists on the concrete floor of my studio, AND: that is how I learned the difference between a "news story" and a "feature". Screw the news.
"Yesterday," we'd produced three electric paintings, leaving them on the museum floor to dry overnight. The following day, we carried them out of the museum through the back door and returned to San Rafael to complete them. One of the pictures had a whore-mongering "Rainbow" nebula in the middle, where else? We wanted it to be in the show. Impossible, we thought. After all, the show catalog was printed. The exhibition had been running for a week already. I thought it was worth a shot at least, to show the piece to the curator. Lee knew when Lanier Graham went to lunch, and where he parked, so we arrived with the painting tied to the top of the car in blankets and waited. Lanier showed. Lee approached him first. We waited, leaning on the Olds '98, one of those cars well-to-do older women used to drive to the bridge club and the hairdresser. Lee spoke to Lanier briefly, then "walked" him over and introduced the furry freak brothers. We stumbled our words explaining what we'd done. Eyebrows Up! Lanier was stunned we had "broken" into his show.
As planned then, we had the door of the car open so Mr. Graham could easily step up to see the art piece and invited him to do so. Still skeptical, he shrugged a "why not" and went for it. As dramatically as we could then, we pulled back a cargo blanket, slowly, revealing the piece ... an unveiling: "ala cargo-blanketté de la parking lot".
Lanier let out a major ART whoop, saying, "you did this! ... in there! ... with the coil!" Then shaking his head slowly side to side, nearly whispering added, "well, it has to be in the show ... that's all".
Lee said, "We have two more!"
"... like this?"
A couple of weeks later I drove alone to the museum, bought a ticket and sat in the dark room, on a bench across from the spot-lighted paintings displayed under immaculate museum lighting near the window to the electric machine. Every five minutes, staggering over to read the cards fixed to the wall by our artwork. Living proof: "Ron Russell --- Dave Archer."
For the museum, we decided to change our names ... again. "Russell Archer" had been cool for a few of years, and --- except for these paintings --- we were no longer collaborating that much, the time was right. Dropping our last names then, we became Ron Russell and Dave Archer.
At the De Young Museum that day, I hung out for hours, sipping a fifth of
Southern Comfort hidden in my jacket, a vampire sucking on a jug of blood,
swelling with pride when someone paused, especially if they were impressed
enough to read the cards, but oh woe and curses be on thems what never
looked at all.You betcha! This was also one of the only times in my
contemptible life, that while drinking whiskey (or whatever the hell
Southern Comfort actually is) straight from a fifth, I did not end up in
jail. Even approaching the "hairy-fairy" blackout stage, I did not attempt
to tongue kiss a single Rainbow lover, shout obscenities at anyone for
ignoring the work, or even break into my Norwegian stevedore rendition of
Raglan Road, complete with clogging and rump display. Thank you, thank you
very much. Thank you.
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