What was tattooed on my soul before I was born, has been revealed to me over a lifetime of unseen influences dissolving the boundaries between my conscious and unconscious mind and between my art and my life. I came from a family of eleven children in Kansas and like Dorothy in the musical fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz, I made my way out of the ostensibly black and white, superordinary world of the plains of Kansas to the cinematic, Technicolor world of Southern California. I now live in Normal Heights, teach in the School of Arts at Cal State San Marcos and continue to reveal through a hybrid, nomadic art practice what was indeed tattooed on my soul many treetops ago.
I did not arrive here to Southern California by way of a tornado as Dorothy did when she was bonked on the head by a Kansas twister which lifted her up out of her black and white world—house, dog and all—spun her around and dropped the whole shebang magically down into a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Technicolor movie set in Los Angeles. I arrived in San Diego rather prosaically by car in 1997. Like Dorothy, however, I have traveled the unavoidable, perilous, musical, beautiful, mundane, bizarre road of the hero’s journey out of childhood and into adulthood. I could have never guessed from the start of this journey at the age of five or six when I began showing a vivid aptitude for drawing, where this path would lead me today.
All along the way and quite emphatically my “soul’s code” has given me clues and has insisted that I follow a meandering nomadic path away from the center and out to the edges of experience. This path has transformed me from a traditional, realist painter into a performance artist, video maker, shaman/trickster, poet, bio-art maker and the unofficial mayor of Normal Heights. I did not receive this path or the directions on how to follow it from my culture but rather I have received it from an unknown, unannounced muse writing instructions in archetypal code directly onto my soul. Along with this sacred text/code, I have received warnings that there is hell to pay if I don’t pay attention to these fully formed artwork downloads to my psyche.
So what happened between growing up in the breadbasket-bible-belt-tornado-alley of Topeka, Kansas and now, where I live in a highly contested, ethnically diverse west coast border town in a neighborhood enigmatically named, Normal Heights? For sure, lots of art and life happened in that span of time. All through undergraduate school I had been painting realistically and toying with abstraction but became increasingly aware and agitated in my subconscious mind and dreams that I would not be a painter all my life.
My first real encounter with the demand to authentically read the code tattooed on my soul was my first year in grad school in the Art Department at Kansas University in Lawrence. About three months into the program I stopped painting, dabbled in making conceptual art jokes for a semester and then began a high dive into the world of performance art, industrial noise music, poetry slams and the literary scene in Lawrence. What tipped the balance for me away from painting and into the video, writing, music and performance art were visits to campus by the performance artist, Laurie Anderson, the benevolent trickster and avant guard music composer John Cage and the beat writer, William S. Burroughs. It was my encounters with Burroughs, his writing and his moving to Lawrence in 1981 that set me unconsciously but squarely onto the path of hero’s journey for many years to come. This journey has involved among other things, devil’s bargains, multiple dark nights of the soul, art lawyers, fussy literary agents and two attempts to make art out of Burroughs’ DNA.
After undergraduate school and to this day, I continue down my chosen path of the artistic nomad, not settling definitively in one artistic medium but rather developing trans-media, time-based, solo and collaborative works that take on the urgent but frisky conversations of our time. Like a nomad who is compelled away from the center and out to the nervy edges of town, I have become a trickster compelled to street level to scramble genres, to put things where they don’t belong and to playfully blur the all-too-serious line between art and life. I have had the good fortune over the years to explore the edges of experimentation in many places nationally and internationally–Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Ireland, Japan, Canada, Germany, Mexico, among others. Hands down, the most transforming experiences have been at street level, right here in the Normal on Adams Avenue at all times of the day and night.
So what about that Burroughs DNA and making art out of it? This is where my hero’s journey and my soul’s code took me to places in my psyche and artistic career that I could never have imagined as an introspective, quiet, young painter from Kansas. So here we go! In 1996 I attempted to get the writer William S. Burroughs’ DNA sequenced and make art out of it. Then in 2010, I once again attempted to make art out of Burroughs’ DNA. In both these attempts, the muse and/or author of my soul’s code arrived as usual unannounced in my subconscious mind in the middle of the night in both 1996 and 2010 to deliver these two fully formed artworks to my psyche. The question is, where did these ideas come from? This question remains one of my great inspirations to continue making art because it cannot be logically answered and therefore can be fully trusted as the creative way to go. And go I did at top speed.
I came close to pulling off both these attempts to make art out of Burroughs’ DNA, but especially in 2012 when my bio art collaborator and I extracted two vials full of Burroughs’ microbiome DNA at a genetics lab at the Kansas University Medical Center. After extracting the DNA we stored it in a minus 80-degree freezer for use later in an interactive art installation in Kansas City. We were getting set to create a transgenic mutation or if you will, a genetic cutup by shooting a BIO-RAD Helios gene gun loaded with Burroughs’ microbiome DNA and nanogold dust particles into the nucleus of umbilical cord cells. But, as is typically the case in a hero’s journey, a dark night of the soul and/or devil’s bargain took hold of the “Mutate or Die” project and it abruptly ended.
Like Dorothy and her posse of misfits stumbling their way to OZ through Dorothy’s own dark-night-of-the-soul woods, I eventually made it to the other side. But along the way, I encountered the equivalent of shape-shifting good witches and bad witches, charlatans, hybrid beings, wayward alchemists, black magic and a seemingly endless circus parade of edge workers. Ultimately I failed to deliver, as Burroughs would say, these two “immortality blueprints”.
What remains of this part of my hero’s journey are these stories, a few bizarre artifacts and a film I am now making about my attempts to launch Burroughs’ genetic code into the future. The stories and the film will become part of a three-act, operatically enhanced live cinema performance entitle “Mutate or Die”