Friday, January 11, 2008

Michael Howell, Part VI

The first issue of Real Change appeared in August 1994. The second issue came out October 1, 1994, and featured a two page article on the art of Michael Howell. It crammed a full 25 of Michael's drawings in together with a half page article describing Michael Howell's art and Michael Howell -- by Michael Howell. He didn't want anybody else interpreting him.

Meanwhile, the other gallery members were meeting regularly with Barbara Brownstein to prepare for a rededication of the gallery under a new name, StreetLife Art gallery, as a genuine cooperative art studio/gallery. Michael Howell was invited to all the meetings, but refused to attend, because his position was that he was in charge of the gallery, therefore decisions made without him had no force. Our meetings were just an opportunity, he thought, for us to exchange so much hot air. The gallery was what he made it. What we said it was meant nothing. If we wanted to change it, WE had to meet with HIM, not HIM with US.

The Archdiocesan Housing Authority, the Dominican Sisters, and A Territory Resource saw it differently. They were funding a cooperative gallery, not a Michael Howell gallery.

Without input from Michael, the other members voted to change the name, reorganize the gallery, put out a book featuring art and biographies of all the artists, and hold a public reopening. The date was set for December 8. Michael didn't make it.

[Above: The StreetLife opening, as pictured in the next month's Real Change.]

About the same time, though, Michael found a reason to get back on speaking terms with me. He wanted to apply for a bus shelter project. He didn't think he could get one on his own. So his idea was to repeat the success of the gallery idea: make a joint application with 2 other artists. The idea was the 3 of us would represent homelessness better than one could. We would offer 3 different kinds of art combined on the same bus shelter.

For the 3rd artist, Michael wanted our poet friend, Stan Burriss. It was the sort of sly choice I'd come to expect from Michael. He knew Stan would only get a small plaque for a poem or two, leaving the rest of the shelter to Michael and I. He got me to agree to do only the bottom third of the shelter, around the bench, while he did the upper two thirds. My incentive was that my share of the money Metro paid us would not be reduced by more than a third of a dollar. Stan and I would each get $333, Michael would get $334.

Getting a design approved was a nightmare. The man in charge of the shelter art program was Dale Cummings, who always seem to me to be on the verge of pulling his hair out in response to talking to us. I didn't blame him.

Michael wanted to use his wall projector to duplicate twelve of his small paintings on the fronts and backs of the six panels he would have. Stan, who, ever since his homeless days has always written his poems on napkins and paper cups he picks up at cafés and meetings, wanted Metro to create plexiglass cases to house cups and napkins so people could see them as they were written. I wanted to create a semi-abstract linear piece that would illustrate the words of one of the poems that Stan submitted.

Mr. Cummings objected, first of all, to the lack of cohesion these plans had. We had very tense meetings in which he basically said, "You guys get together and integrate your design plans, or we'll cancel this project." He objected to Stan's proposal on grounds of cost and practicality. The cases would be one-of-kind, so if they were damaged the cost of replacement would be too high. Stan was told he'd get the same kind of case that holds bus schedules, for copies of his peoms. Those would be easily replaced and cheap.

The biggest objection came when Michael presented the 12 paintings he wanted to use. Dale Cummings wanted women, minorities, and youth. Michael painted older White males, almost exclusively.

Cummings finally gave up on the cohesion issue, but never gave an inch on the demand for diversity of images. He kept reminding Michael that he understood that Michael has to have his own personal vision as an artist, but Metro is paying for this shelter, so Metro has a right to demand that the content be something that reflects well on it.

Michael became defensive. he felt he was being charged with racism. He made the point that he painted old White men because their wrinkles stood out. That was really what his art was about.

He was a landscape artist in effect, not a portrait artist. But he couldn't say it that way because he had spent years promoting his art as portraiture art. His whole rap was that he was depicting the "real" homeless. So Dale Cummings said, by only showing old White men and saying that you're depicting the real homeless you're implying that only old White men are real homeless. That homeless women and homeless Blacks and homeless youths and homeless Native Americans, for examples, aren't real homeless.

I thought it was great. For the first time someone speaking to Michael Howell about Michael's art was really taking it seriously. He was talking to Michael about what his art really was about.

Michael hated it. But after one long tense meeting after another he finally realized that Cummings wasn't going to budge. Michael caved and we went ahead.

[Below: The shelter was originally placed at 7th & Olive. From a photo accompanying a June '95 article about the shelter project taken by Karla Manus.]

No comments: