Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dolan Smith's Museum of the Weird

Pete Gershon

[When Pete Gershon wrote Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston's Visionary Art Environments (which we reviewed last week), one chapter dealing with four Houston artists had to be excised for space reasons. Gershon has graciously given us permission to publish the chapter as four separate blog posts on The Great God Pan Is Dead. This is the third post. Please check out the first post about Grace Bashara Green and the second about David David Smalley]

Everything seems pretty normal at Dolan Smith’s house on lower Harvard Street. The cheerful home renovation contractor greets me at the door along with two happy dogs and his wife, Leslie, the creative director in the marketing department at the local university. Dolan is fifty years old but looks fifteen years younger; he seems like the kind of fellow you’d enjoy introducing to your parents.

Dolan and Leslie live in one of the historic, tastefully redone bungalows in the Heights that all the savvy young urban professionals are vying for these days, with hardwood floors, granite countertops and French doors. There are a few edgy works of art adorning the walls, but everything looks picture perfect and clean as a whistle. It’s not quite what I was expecting on my first visit to the man who for eight years turned his previous home into a shrine to the truly bizarre and named it the Museum of the Weird. He offers me a Coke, shows me their well-kept backyard and then invites me into the outbuilding that houses his studio. It’s also where he keeps what remains of the Museum.

Hernia, skull, chupacabra

On all sides of a steep, narrow staircase hang framed artworks, both Dolan’s own paintings and modified thrift store finds, as well as numerous wooden plaques bearing cryptic, handwritten messages, and several small shelves of creepy oddments: jars containing desiccated rats and a wooden skull carved by an inmate at Huntsville State Prison in the 1930s. “This is my hernia,” he tells me, handing me a small jar full of liquid and a shriveled knot of flesh. After a beat, he continues. “Actually, it’s really just a snail. But I had this strangulated hernia, and I wondered, how can I make an art piece about it?” He takes down a couple of other jars from the shelf. The lumpy growth inside one marked “dog cancer” is real, he insists. The shriveled carcass inside another labeled “baby chupacabra,” however, “is probably just a squirrel or something.”

Dolan's studio

At the top of the stairs is Dolan’s studio, bright and mostly empty save for a few large paintings and two chairs where we sit and look through Tupperware containers that hold the snapshots and scrapbooks that tell the tale of his erstwhile Museum. “I was a hoarder,” he explains with a hint of Texas twang in his voice, “and before I put the museum together it was just a big, disorganized pile of crap. I always told myself, ‘oh, you know, I need all this stuff in case I want to use it for my sculptures.’ I could rationalize it that way. Then later I realized, yeah, both my parents did this. It’s some kind of a hereditary thing. I have to work hard to keep things from taking over my space, and because I’m an artist, I’ve tried to turn it into a positive.” Dolan was born in 1962 in Forth Worth, where his father John taught English at Texas Christian University . But it was his mother Lee, an artist, who inspired him to take up painting and sculpture. In 1985 he received his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Texas in Austin, and earned his MFA at the University of North Texas in Denton four years later. Along the way, he took a summer job at a Christian Scientist nursing home and asylum as a way to get to New York City and tour its art museums. He won a couple of awards for his paintings, and joined some arts associations. In 1990 he mounted his first solo exhibition, “Triplets in Uniform – The Circus Show,” at the Annex Street Gallery while living in Seattle.

He grew tired of renting apartments, he says, and property in Seattle was too expensive to buy. Having come from Texas, he knew something about Houston’s art scene, and at the tail end of the oil bust years he’d heard that land in Space City was still dirt-cheap. He settled on a dilapidated 1939 bungalow at 834 West 24th Street, and bought it for less than $20,000 in October of 1993. “It was a falling down piece of crap,” he says, sifting through one of the boxes. “I probably have pictures here somewhere.” The previous owner, and elderly African-American woman named Mrs. Whitehead, was a fellow hoarder and Dolan marveled as he went through her discarded albums of old photographs.

He gutted and rebuilt the place himself, and started his own construction company – he’d always been good with his hands, and it went right along with his interest in sculpture. It was more practical, too. “I was doing these paintings, and they were so personal and horrific, well maybe not that horrific… it just wasn’t very commercial.”

Whether or not his paintings are horrific is up to the viewer to judge. Across from us is a huge canvas that shows a smiling woman in a red dress on horseback, supporting a smaller grinning figure riding along in a little basket. It’s a touch surreal, maybe, rendered in something of a Frieda Kahlo style, but hardly horrific. To our left is The Confirmation of Marie, painted in 1997. It’s another large canvas, painted in shades of grey. In a semi-realistic scene that reminds me of a Magritte dreamscape, a severe-looking woman in a low-cut nightgown hovers over a second lady sleeping nude on a sofa, poised to slice off one of her nipples with sewing shears. Another painting, shown in an old photo of the Museum, shows a mustachioed man whose penis protrudes through his fly to urinate on the head of a groveling monkey-boy.

“Maybe I could have done better in New York,” he sighs, “but they just didn’t sell well here, so I started moving more towards sculpture and construction, that hands-on part of me. And once I started the museum, I started building it out, and making these environments.” It’s the first time I’ve heard an artist use this specific term to refer to his own creation. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I was really influenced by the Orange Show, and I’d spent time in Europe, seen the Palais Ideal and all these crazy environments they have over there. Those are really important for me.” Clearly here’s an artist who hasn’t labored in isolation.

Smith opened his Museum on Christmas day, 2000. Access was granted on an appointment-only basis, and word quickly spread throughout Houston’s community of artists and freaks about its constantly evolving assemblage of sculptures, paintings and found objects. Guests passed the rusty Man of 10,000 Nails (a dead ringer for a sculpture that resides in the Menil Collection’s Surrealism exhibit) to arrive at the front door with its crazy grillwork of welded pipes and scrap metal pieces. If they didn’t get cold feet, they walked beneath a die cut metal sign that warned, “enter at your own risk” and into a foyer covered floor to ceiling with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.

Smith’s living room and kitchen served as the main gallery area. Highlights included the Shelf of Delicious Advertisements, an open cupboard stocked with vintage cans of such delicacies as artichoke hearts and salmon that would occasionally burst and yield forth their fizzing contents. There was the Fantasy Frij, an old refrigerator covered in images of women in various stages of undress. There was a paper mache wasp’s nest and a large model of the human heart. And beside the sofa there was an enormous painted cardboard rendition of the Olde English 40-ounce malt liquor bottle that Smith built in 2002 to wear as a costume for his 40th birthday party. “I got so drunk that I fell down, and I was like a giant turtle flopped on its back,” he told his friend Kelly Klaasmeyer when she wrote up his story for the Houston Press in 2008.

In between were seemingly thousands of curious trinkets, from a Wheaties box (“Breakfast of Champions”) bearing the pasted-on image of a smoking, stubble-faced schlub to a wooden cross inscribed with the phrase “there is no water in hell” to a small, amorphous white figure wearing an alarmed expression. “Like, what is that?” Smith laughs, pointing to its image in an old photograph. “A cloud? Toothpaste? Someone brought that back from Taiwan and gave it to me.”

He transformed the yard out back into a twisted sculpture garden. At its center was an army tank made from wheel rims and scrap metal that shot water into a mosaic tiled, brick walled pool. Sometimes it served as a hot tub; other times, it was a pond filled with floating plants. Old tires were a recurring motif. A neat stack of tires with a tin pail for a head and a drawn face with an upturned nose was affectionately named Pig Boy. Another stack of tires was topped with an overturned sink with a forlorn expression painted on its underside. He bore a painted inscription that read, “Hit Me.” For a while there was a tire Christmas tree inside decorated with garlands and decaying, painted ornaments. But after it toppled over one day, Dolan just cleared away the mess and never bothered to repair it.

There were several tiny outbuildings on the small property, and these were used for the Museum “office” and bathrooms. The women’s bathroom had proper plumbing as well as a “Planet of the Apes” motif, while the men’s room simply had a hole cut into the floor (plus, the amenity of a makeshift shower, should the need arise). In 2003, Smith built a pet columbarium on the yard’s western wall out of lengths of pipe, beer cans, cinderblocks, bricks, and mortar. A bathtub set into the wall vertically became a devotional grotto with the addition of the sculpture of a buxom young woman, her missing head replaced by that of a ceramic frog. Beside it was an old water heater with a propane attachment. “Is this where you cremate pets?” Klaasmeyer asked during her visit. “I’m not supposed to,” Smith responded with some hesitation, “but if the dogs kill something…” Pointing out a flat metal disc atop the cylinder, he added, “That’s where you can set your coffee to keep it hot.”

The Halloween’s eve dedication of the columbarium was celebrated with a costume party that ended badly after a guest released a series of helium balloons carrying flaming stuffed animals. It was a spectacular sight until one of them snagged in a neighbors tree and set it on fire. Leslie, dressed as the blood-drenched prom queen Carrie, burst through the back door and, seeing the flames, began screaming. Dolan grabbed a fire extinguisher and had the blaze under control by the time firefighters arrived, but the police were not amused. The balloon launcher, clad only in a g-string made from teddy bears, was carted off to jail, and Smith was placed on the seven-year arson list. “Whatever that means,” he says, rolling his eyes, then, counting on his fingers, remarks, “Hey, I must be off of that list by now.”

The scar room

By far the darkest feature of the whole place, and certainly the one that garnered the most attention, was the backyard gazebo known as the “Scar Room.” It housed a collection of plaques made from scrap metal and wood upon which Smith had recorded the stories behind 86 scars, both physical and mental, a tragicomic litany of discomfort, pain and strife. They were first unveiled to the public five months before the museum’s opening, in an exhibition entitled “The Scar Show” held at a wood-paneled church-turned-independent movie house called the Aurora Picture Show. “I have many wounds and have wounded many others,” he wrote on an explanatory plaque. “I have wounds that turned into scars and some traumas that will never heal. This exhibition is an investigation into those meanings, and expedition into the land of ones own memory.”

Some of the scars are flat-out comic. Scar #68 (1999) reads: “I contracted scabies from trying on clothes at Target in 1995. My girlfriend was really mad. dolen 1999” Others peel back the layers of his own tortured autobiography. Scar #82 (1999) relates a tale from his Christian Scientist upbringing. Dolan accidentally cut his leg with a new Swiss Army knife and his parents reluctantly brought him to the emergency room. Smith wrote, “I think my father was very disappointed that I did not call down Jesus Christ for an immediate and completely miraculous healing.” Scar #20 (1999) is an attempt to come to terms with his dyslexia: “It took a very long time to read, it took a long time to write corectly. It takes things longer for me to understand what people say. People think I’m not listening. People think I’m stupid. People think I’m crazy cause I jump around a lot when I talk, because I don’t make sense. I took a long time to figure out I’m dislexyc. When I told my mother she said, yeah, I do that too, I switch my words around. When I told my father he said I was just dumb. dolen 1999.” At the center of the exhibit is the scar man, an eight-foot-tall jointed human figure with a terrified expression, also made from scrap plywood and metal. He is a monumental piece of anguished folk art where concussions, hemorrhages, food poisonings, dog bites and broken bones are annotated in their proper anatomical locations. While Smith’s Scar Show was leavened with black humor, the plaques are still painful to read. How could one man be subject to so much trauma, and live to make art about it? When the plaques went up in the Scar Room gazebo at the Museum of the Weird, he added a shelf and a plaque that read, “The Shelf of Scars – Please feel free to leave a scar with us.” Many did, and some were as funny or as harrowing as Smith’s own: “In 1976 I was sliding down the slime in the drainage ditch in LA. Then I hit a dry spot. Smush, my chin hit the cement. The doctor had to scrape the slime from my chin-bone, then he stitched it up.” Another reads: “When I was about 12 my mother started burning the hair off my arms with a candle. She said I was too hairy for a girl.” Dolan’s Scar Room became a kind of anonymous group therapy session.

The Scar Room had other attractions, too. There was The Wheel of Truth or Doom. Dolan’s still got it, so we go downstairs from his studio loft to have a look. A push-button operated wheel turns inside a plywood shell to determine the users fortune. “They’re all bad,” admits Smith, as the spinner comes to rest on “You will spend time in jail. Cherish your freedom.” When the Orange Show came to call on their 2002 Eyeopener tour, one woman got very upset when she received her fortune: “You will drive your car off a cliff.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Dolan apologized, “but the wheel never lies.” He offered her a second spin, and a third. The same fortune appeared each time, and she stormed off in a huff.

strangled baby doll

Almost hidden among the room’s other features was a glass jar containing a baby doll, strangled by a rubber hose and floating in clear liquid. “My first scar,” he says, taking the same jar down from a shelf and looking at it tenderly. He shakes it gently, clouding the water with sediment from the rotting hose. “I was born with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck four times, and I almost died.”

“I’m scared to open it,” he adds, grinning. “This thing would really stink.”

The Museum had really struck a nerve with the local art scene’s fringe element, which voted it “Best Shrine to the Abnormal” in a poll conducted by the Houston Press in 2002. It was written up in the taste making Texan art bible Artlies, and Dolan graced the cover of the glossy Houston lifestyle magazine 002. Meanwhile, the site itself continued to evolve. Smith built a suggestive art car called the Eyegina with a fiberglass and metal sphere; later, inspired by a viewing of the cult film Altered States, he cut off its top and grafted it onto the backyard Jacuzzi to make a sensory deprivation chamber. He turned his own bedroom into a miniature Chinese Theatre that seated six and featured secret compartments from which actors could spill forth.

He married Leslie in 2006, and moved with her into their “normal” home. He held onto the Museum of the Weird for two more years, but no longer able to claim his homestead exemption, the tax burden became unbearable. He considered forming a non-profit and hiring a staff, but friends in the local art scene warned him it might be more trouble than it was worth. “Not only that,” he says, “but I was getting tired of the museum. I didn’t want the hassle; I just wanted to make art. What was I going to do, was I really gonna do this for another ten years? You know the Watts Towers in LA? That guy just walked away in the end. I never really understood it until I got to that point myself.”

Dolan disposed of many of the Museum’s attractions in a blowout yard sale in December 2008, and it was left to realtor Weldon Rigby to sell the place. “Truly unique,” he declared in the sales flier. The asking price was $150,000, the value of the lot itself. In a gentrifying neighborhood, one imagined the house was a tear-down if ever there was one. But Rigby quickly found buyers in John and Kim Ritter, two art car people displaced from their Galveston home when Hurricane Ike punched its way through the coast.

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