Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Michael Howell, Part V

Michael Howell's Homeless Art Gallery was a great success for him. By May 1992 there were displays up for about 7 artists, counting Michael. Michael had half the display space, the rest of us shared the other half. Many more people came in to get free lessons from Michael and ask for space. Michael always said he would "think about it," or he would critique their art, being mostly positive and encouraging, and then end with, "Pretty soon you'll be doing something we can put up." He was a genius at stringing people along with flattery and promises.

He expected flattery in return. Every time I saw him he fished for compliments. When I finished a painting he would always say how interesting it was, or how he liked the use of color, or the composition, sounding quite sincere until the next words out of his mouth were, "So what do you think about the color [or composition, etc.] of this one?" showing me one of his. If my compliment for him wasn't at least as good as his for me, he'd make a sour face, acting offended.

At least he was conscious about it. He freely admitted he liked having me around because I came off as an intellectual and it made him look intellectual to be associated with me.

His desire to be regarded as intellectual clashed with his bigotry at times. An example involved some uncomfortable moments at the Burke Museum in 1993. I was with Michael and Stan Burriss at the U District Burger King. It was after the free meal and Michael had a few hours to kill before an appointment. I told them I was leaving to go to an exhibit of contemporary Maori art at the Burke Museum on campus. Michael decided he had to go to learn what all this Maori art is about. He talked Stan into coming with us.

On the walk over (just 4 blocks) Michael talked about how anything a native can do a non-native can do. It's just a matter of wanting to. I couldn't see any way to argue against that sort of reasoning, but I also couldn't see what the point of reasoning it was.

The exhibit was awesome to me. Two of the artists especially stood out, Cliff Whiting and Manos Nathan. Manos Nathan did beautiful carved clay pots which he allowed to be exhibited for a year and then destroyed to respect the sacred clay they were made from.

Predictably, Michael had no more interest in that bit of cultural trivia than in the art itself. I spent the next hour and a half constantly moving away from Michael to avoid hearing him carp about how he could do better than this or that in half the time, "if he wanted to."

In general Michael was interested in whatever he could trivialize or master. If he could master it, it was genius. If he couldn't, it was beneath him.

By the end of '93 the fact that women at Noel House with clear talent weren't getting display space and growing frustration with Michael's dismissal of crafts (what he called women's art when they weren't listening) led to meetings with Michael and Archdiocesan Housing Authority officials to try to work some arrangement out that would better accommodate the women at Noel House. Michael expressed sharp bitterness about these meetings to me. He told me he planned to stonewall them. He would keep going to their meetings but he would find objections to all their proposals and wear them down.

It didn't work. When he was uncooperative, the AHA simply sent a social worker. Her name was Barbara Brownstein. She was short, thin, darkhaired, energetic, female, and of a suspect orientation. Michael Howell's noncooperation extended to Barbara. He avoided speaking to her as much as possible.

I don't remember how long it took but the next thing I recall is that Barbara and Michael were opening the gallery on different days. I think it was in the Spring or early Summer of 1994. It was maybe a month after Tim Harris came in and told me of his plans to begin a street paper similar to a Boston paper he'd started up a few years earlier.

Barbara took no answer for a yes whenever she consulted Michael about adding members, or rearranging displays, so Michael's sulking noncooperation backfired. By the end of Summer we had a total of twelve artists working in the gallery and displaying, in addition to artists who were old friends of Michael who never had to check in order to get their work displayed.

The new artists included, as I remember, at least 3 women. One of them, Jonna Taylor, had a piece that was an assembly of items on a level board on a table, webbed with string with bits of paper with writing on them. Michael's reaction to it was at first just that it was junk. Then he noticed that one of the items forming the piece was a black dildo. I was watching him when he saw it. His face turned lobster red and he said that it was disgusting, and we had to get it out of the gallery.

[Above Right: Not a good enough picture of it to see the dildo, but at least it conveys how busy it was. Anitra wrote about Jonna when she passed away a few years ago.]

I said I thought it should stay, it's art and it makes a statement. Michael scoffed at that. Then he said, "Well, it has to go. It's offensive to women. Women don't want to see disgusting things like that. The dykes downstairs won't allow it."

He hadn't read the signature. I said, "How can you say it's offensive to women if it was done by one? It was put together by one of the Noel House women. The staff already know about it."

It was true. The staff was fine with it. It was controversial with the residents but the majority liked it. Only two of the residents ever objected. All of the claims that the piece was offensive to women in general came from Michael and from male friends of his he could line up on his side. Michael couldn't get Barbara Brownstein or the Noel House staff to support him in barring the piece.

He could have come in alone after hours and hauled the piece out and trashed it. But he knew he would be the only suspect, so he wanted someone else to take credit with him when the accusations were made. So the next time I was at the gallery he followed me out and tried to persuade me in joining him in a trashing party. I said no.

He became so angry he drew me around the corner at what is now the the Qwest Building at 2nd and Lenora and crowded me up against the wall. A foot from my face he demanded to know why I was supporting that "lesbian garbage." I said I was supporting it because it was art. He said it wasn't art it was offensive. I burst out laughing, as I do sometimes, I can't always help it, and I said, "You know, actually, I like the piece, but even if I didn't I wouldn't trash it." He then told me that I was a disgusting pervert and he would never speak to me again. He was mistaken about that last part.

In the next few days Michael complained to Noel House staff that another of the items in Jonna's piece, a ball peen hammer painted silver (representing Maxwell's) was his hammer. He was missing a hammer, Jonna's hammer looked just like his hammer, therefore she had stolen his hammer.

When those charges were disregarded, a few more days passed, and the hammer disappeared. Michael denied taking it. He convinced staff that just anyone could have walked up and snatched it.

No comments: