By Anna Weltner
Josephine Crawford is lying inside her large-scale art piece The Big Bang, clad in scraps of torn linen and not much else. She’s surrounded by ripped pages from her diaries and by pink and red roses, slightly wilted in the afternoon heat of photographer Steve E. Miller’s studio. In a rather macabre touch, Crawford’s grinning face has been painted on the bag over her head, the handiwork of fellow painter Lena Rushing. Miller and his camera crouch above her on a borrowed scaffold.
We’re not sure yet what sort of statement we’re making in this shoot, the second of four photo experiments for New Times’ annual Autumn Arts issue. But it’s a loud one, whatever it is. Like a deaf woman screaming.
The images vacillate between morbid and whimsical. A mummified painter inserts herself into her own mixed-media piece. A graffiti artist, high on a rickety ladder, teeters on the edge of disaster. Dancers balance, impossibly, upon the head of their choreographer. A jeweler grasps the sun in a garden of her own creations. All of them lie prone on the floor.
You know how you can start repeating a word until it starts to sound really weird? That’s what I was doing with the word “autumn,” in the hopes that an idea for the season’s special arts issue would come out of it. When nothing happened, I tried the much more versatile synonym “fall,” which produced the interesting and unlikely mental image of an artist somehow falling into his or her art. The idea slowly morphed into the concept for the photographs on this page: an artist lying on the ground, appearing, through clever camera work and set-design trickery, to be standing up. For this we needed artists willing to play. And after much inquiry, we narrowed that group down to four subjects.
The aforementioned Crawford was the first to jump aboard the Autumn Arts train, and her gleefully dark, racy ideas (the half-naked mummy was all her, as was the face-bag) made art direction unnecessary. After an initial meeting to brainstorm ideas, our excited e-mails flowed.
(Crawford writes e-mails like e.e. cummings would. An excerpt:
“wondering what to take for ‘wardrobe’ i have a long black simple dress, or an orangy/red sleeveless shift or naked or...????
or what if it was a naked man(who?)with the bag with the face... hummm ....wrapped like a mummy? well let me know? what you think.
A presentation at the Paso Robles art powerhouse Studios on the Park yielded several candidates, which were gradually whittled down to graffiti artist Derek Brown and jeweler Debra Jurey.
Choreographer and Civic Ballet Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio doesn’t balk at bizarre projects, so I enlisted him and his dancer entourage.
“I like how you’re taking a 3-D art form”—dance—“and making it flat,” Silvaggio laughed over coffee.
He doesn’t get what’s so novel about 3-D these days, anyway, he said. He’s been performing in three dimensions for years.
I hadn’t thought about it that way.
So the art victims were all lined up. But the concept, I soon realized, required our photographer to shoot his subjects from directly above, and at a remove of 10 feet or so. We needed a big, raised platform, Miller insisted; ladders and tall trees were not going to cut it. So after an enormous delay caused by a search for scaffold (thanks, David Thayer, for saving us!) the project was underway.
‘I really had a fun time’
Paso Robles jeweler Debra Jurey’s gorgeous wearable art evokes sparkling flora and buzzing insects, so we thought it fitting to create a garden setting with her jewelry “growing” in it. Using spare fabric, Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach and I began creating a backdrop of sky, clouds, and rolling hills. The weather was ferociously hot that day, and Miller’s studio was like an oven. By the time Jurey arrived with her jewelry, we were all looking kind of wilted, especially Miller, perched as he was on a platform near the studio’s metal ceiling.
Jurey, who has a bachelor’s in art and has been creating jewelry for about eight years, describes her process as very intuitive.
“It all depends on something I saw in the yard that day, or the environment around me,” she explained.
The changing landscapes she witnessed while traveling in Europe and Japan, as well as numerous road trips in the Pacific Northwest, provide her with a wealth of new ideas.
I felt dubious about asking Jurey to put her nice jewelry on the ground, and more so about asking her to lie down with her head resting on a can of paint, but she was obliging.
“I really had a fun time doing it, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again,” she insisted when the suffering was all over.
‘I just sort of waft along’
Crawford’s piece The Big Bang emerged out of a frustration with the amount of clutter her collection of journals, sketchbooks, and dream diaries had created. Unable to throw away the collection, which dates back to 1955, but annoyed with its dusty presence, Crawford got the idea to incorporate the pages into an art piece, and The Big Bang was born.
“That’s another thing I’m fascinated with, this Big Bang business,” she said.
The theory may satisfy some intellects, but Crawford ponders: “Well, all right, but who started the Big Bang? There’s no answer to it. I’m really sort of glad that it’s this mystery, because almost everything else, I can find out about, if I try hard enough—and I kind of despise that.”
It’s a strange work, at once familiar and foreign. The piece is made of elements that are very uniquely Josephine: the large roses, the outline of a figure, the red roots going into the earth, the pile of golden eggs, all cherished motifs of hers (“I think they’re so fabulous and mysterious,” she said about eggs). The pages of her diaries are even in it! It’s all very her, and yet as a whole, The Big Bang is quite a departure from the paintings Crawford is known for.
“Like all my work, I don’t really know why I do it,” she mused after the shoot. “I don’t really know what it’s about. I just sort of waft along. And frankly, I do art because I don’t want to do anything else.”
But the image of her lying within her own outline, surrounded by roses picked in her garden and diaries from decades past, adds yet another dimension, one she certainly didn’t have in mind when she started documenting her life at 16.
Crawford arrived at the studio with a bucket of flowers, some linen, and three journals—one of which has led a very unlikely existence.
“It was my very first diary,” she said of the red leather journal.
The London, England, native began writing in it while living in Italy, later bringing it with her when she moved to America. When her home burned to the ground, it was one of the few things she saved.
“I managed to save a pair of black underpants and my red journal,” she later explained. “Kind of racy, really. Black Italian underpants! And that’s all I had left, really.”
I was already aware that Crawford, having been a model and dancer, was perfectly comfortable with the role of the human body in art. The subject of nudity—with carefully placed bits of linen, of course—had playfully cropped up in our last e-mail exchange. But I really wasn’t sure if she was serious until the moment her shirt was going over her head.
The resulting images were, as one can well imagine, more than a little unusual.
‘I went a little crazy’
When the Paso Robles graffiti artist rolled up to the studio with girlfriend Cori Rudio and her daughter Sophie in tow, he was feeling a bit tense. He was running late. We hadn’t met before. He hadn’t seen the space he agreed to paint and be photographed in.
We’d spoken many times over the phone, and I was familiar with his work. We’d agreed to do a shoot for which he’d tag the floor, pretending it was a wall, and then something bad would happen—like him getting caught or falling down.
He had listened, and I noticed he doesn’t say, “Yeah” or “Alright” when he agrees. He goes, “Correct.”
My concept was that the graffiti would look like a work in progress in the photo, something Brown initially had trouble dealing with.
“At first, I was fighting with myself,” he said after the shoot. “It was really hard for me to accept that I have to do an incomplete piece—in my eyes.”
Brown paced, thinking of the right thing to paint. Miller put on a CD from a group called Fleshgod Apocalypse and proceeded to delight the 2-year-old Sophie with his headbanging. (Brown also has a biological son, 3-year-old Devin, who wasn’t at the shoot.)
“As soon as I heard the music, and let it flow, and accepted the fact that it needed to be an unfinished piece, it turned out to be an awesome experience,” Brown said.
He got to work, Sophie ran around crazily, and the grownups sat around watching, cracking cans of Coors. When the artist came up for air, we talked.
Brown became a graffiti artist in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was stationed in the military for a total of two years, though not consecutively. Inspired by the German approach to street art, one that embraced, he said, “more detail, more 3-D space, more contrast, more color,” he began to dabble in the exhilarating, illegal genre himself.
So emerged an interesting dichotomy within Brown: the good soldier, dutifully following orders, at odds with the elusive street artist, always on the run from the Polizei.
Between his two stays in Germany, Brown was stationed for 13 months in Baiji, Iraq. Large-scale graffiti art on the base became his weekend diversion, a way to hone his craft, he said, and “forget about Iraq, and the war, and getting shot at, and roadside bombs.”
When his service in Baiji concluded, Brown returned to Germany, picking up his artistic vandalism of the country’s buildings and underpasses right where he left off.
“I went a little crazy,” he admitted.
Graffiti became an addiction, he said, his way of “regrouping after almost being blown up five times.”
Upon his return, however, he discovered that his prolific style had made him somewhat infamous among local law enforcement agents, and that there was a ?20,000 ($27,588) reward for his capture.
“I had some really good German friends,” he recalled. “They could have made a lot of money turning me in.”
But they didn’t.
Eventually, though, the law caught up with him. Brown was arrested one evening while leaving a bar, fresh paint still on his hands.
“I forgot that I had my graffiti markers in my pocket, and I was drunk, so I didn’t look for any Polizei,” he lamented.
Brown remembered that the policeman who took him into custody produced a several hundred-page booklet containing photos of his urban artwork—a damning, albeit impressive, portfolio.
Brown affected the man’s clipped German accent: “He said, ‘So you have gotten better, ja? You have learned; you have progressed, ja?’ He was calling me out and complimenting me on it at the same time. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Eventually, though, Brown’s other side would save him.
“I got out of it because I was a good soldier,” he said—although he still had to clean everything up.
Brown’s graffiti kick, however ill fated, made him realize he wanted to do expressive, large-scale art, something viewers have to step back and take in.
And step back we did, with the help of that 10-foot scaffold. The night’s shoot yielded an image revealing Brown falling from unknown heights, gas mask askew, his art momentarily cradling him in its curved design, like a compassionate tentacle. His finger on the trigger of the paint can, he makes one final fighting stroke on his way down.
Drew Silvaggio and entourage:
‘I will tell you when Steve is about to shoot’
Ballet dancers always look so poised and elegant and beautiful. Who knew they could be such a raunchy bunch? Hang around them, and you find your lexicon inflated by strange new words like “shart” and “fupa.”
Heeding the call of choreographer, Civic Ballet artistic director, and their personal hero Silvaggio, dancers Holly Hartley, Kaytee Canfield, Dana Lossing, Jenna Lee, and Jane Selna turned up at the studio late one Wednesday afternoon to make impossible things happen.
The shots varied from goofy to sublime. For every well-staged shot Miller took, he seemed to snap one completely at random, often catching his giggly subjects in ridiculous poses. Thus began the following running joke.
Hartley to Silvaggio, all annoyed: “Can you tell us when Steve is about to shoot?”
Silvaggio, in that voice of his: “Okay, I will tell you when Steve is about to shoot.”
None of this is evident, of course, in the actual photographs Miller produced. Silvaggio, lying on his back—but sitting in a chair—supports a writhing mass of arms and legs, like a tree with so many branches. The dancers, granted weightlessness through trickery of perspective, are having a fantastic time. They leap from the imaginary ground. They fly through the air. They fall from the imagined ceiling. They all stack themselves onto Silvaggio’s head. And when they get done acting out the evolution of man, we call it a day.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is calling it a week. Send cosmos to firstname.lastname@example.org.