|Reprinted from the National Post Saturday, May 10., 2003
The bearded lady smiled
by Timothy Taylors
Kevin House was a struggling songwriter who was obsessed with carnivals. Then a fateful brush with a circus freak turned him into one of the world's hottest folk artists.
Kevin House's portrait subject is not co-operating. The subject's name is Ted. He's a one-year-old Newfoundland-American Bulldog cross, and -- despite the fact that his owner is paying big bucks for House to paint his daughter and the dog together -- Ted will not sit still. He's rolling on his back at the moment, making that garbled, throaty sound dogs use to indicate canine bliss.
"Ted, Ted, Ted," House is calling from behind the digital camera he uses to photograph subjects before painting. "Work with me, Ted!"
Ted's master is dangling a biscuit. His daughter is trying to hold the dog. (She'll appear in the painting, too, flanked by Ted and a circus horse, under the headline: The Dog And Pony Show!) Ted finally rolls over and directs a crazed stare into the camera lens. House takes the snap. "We got it!" he says. "Just like models, only hairier."
This is turning into a regular day at the office for Vancouver artist Kevin House, who is much in demand of late for his very particular variety of portrait. Not just of dogs and kids, either, but of writers, poets, sideshow characters and assorted human oddities, all in the style of old carnival banners.
He's painted dozens of such commissions in the past two years, a period that has seen his banners go up in price from $100 to more than $2,000. A recent assignment was the banner for tonight's Leo Awards, for accomplishment in B.C. film. And House's profile seems set to rise even further. The high-end American dog magazine Bark features a House banner on its Spring, 2003, cover. And, in the next few months, such publications as Time, O Magazine and Elle are planning articles about Bark or about House himself, which will put his work in front of millions of people.
House's success story is even more unusual when one considers how he became a painter of carnival banners in the first place. Never having been to art school, he worked at myriad jobs, from furniture restorer to counterfeit-sunglasses hustler. But he was long an admirer of the carnival, the sideshow and the odd specimens of humanity that might be found there. "I just caught the tail end of the sideshow era," he says. "But I always knew I wanted to be down at that end of the midway. Down where it was a bit dingy and there were the toughest carny guys."
House himself looks a bit carny, with his hobo cap, jeans and suspenders. And in his studio -- amid the stacked paint cans, the half-finished canvases and a 1960s-era Baldwin FunMachine organ -- there is much evidence of his passion for the midway, including books of vintage circus photographs and others showing old banners by such carnival-art greats as Johnny Meah and Snap Wyatt.
House was not a complete stranger to the paintbrush over these years. He'd done some mural and decorative furniture painting. Still, when he moved to New York in early 2001, it was not to pursue visual art at all, but to be discovered as a musician. He'd been a songwriter for more than 10 years, playing gigs around Vancouver, though never really breaking out of the bar circuit. In New York, House got gigs, but they didn't support him. He continued to work odd jobs for sustenance -- renovating suites at the Chelsea Hotel and walking dogs for supermodels. (His affinity for animals would come in handy in future years.) But there came an inevitable point when he had to contemplate a return home.
"It was like a movie," he remembers. "I was nearly broke. Sitting on the steps down near Crosby Street, in Chinatown, I saw this roll of canvas in the garbage. I took it, spent my last dough at Pearl Paint and did a banner of The Bearded Lady."
Why -- besides a lifelong interest in the sideshow -- the bearded lady? House laughs and shakes his head. "Well, I'd just met one on the street. And she smiled at me."
A fated moment, you might say. All at once, House was aware of a great reservoir of possibility stemming from his own personal passion for the carnival. The Bearded Lady. Tattoo Girl. The World's Strangest Baby, onto which House painted his own face. ("I had trouble selling that one," he muses.) He sold these early works on the street, at block sales and flea markets, in tattoo parlours and other places where the outsiders depicted in his art might be celebrated. And, in a second fated moment, at a folk-art fair in Chelsea, House met Rose Fontenella. A long-time dealer in folk art, she specialized in Black Americana but bought several of House's carnival banners on the spot.
"There was something absolutely pure and original about his work," says Fontenella, who continues to collect House banners, several of which she will not sell for any price.
Fontenella became something of a champion to House during the following year, encouraging him and letting him show material in her booth at folk-art shows. During this time, House developed what has become his signature style: portraits done as sideshow advertisements, incorporating text and pitch lines such as the "Alive!" badge, which, at carnival sideshows, traditionally delineated the freaks from the preserved dead things in jars, known as "pickled punks," and all of the work combining what is the faintly troubled nostalgia of the midway with a real sense of sympathy and good humour.
House's palette of characters also began to expand. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Buffalo Bill and assorted early-20th-century crooks began to people his canvases. And characters drawn from the world around him, too. There was the Charming Hostess, based on a particularly ornery waitress at a neighbourhood diner. And a banner advertising Irwin Rose the Hermitman, based on the true story of a recluse who hadn't left his Manhattan apartment in 13 years.
Through all of this, House takes pains to point out that his work is part of a tradition. From the fonts and layouts to the grommets on the corners, his banners are very much a tribute to an art form more than 100 years old. Snap Wyatt, a famous banner painter from the Forties and Fifties, may be the most important name in this regard, but there is also the work of a host of no-name painters working for the tent and awning companies hired by the midways to do their advertisements.
More important, arguably, has been House's growing connection to the contemporary traditions of Outsider Art, the North American term for Art Brut, a term coined in the 1940s by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe the art he was collecting at the time and would go on to create. Encompassing a whole host of subforms including Contemporary Folk Art, Prison Art, Naïve Art, the Art of the Insane and so-called Visionary Art, which stems from mystical experience, Outsider Art or Art Brut is notoriously difficult to define. Critics generally agree on a list of things it is not: intellectual, academic or born of the exclusive gallery system. Others will further agree that it bears a similarity to Primitivism, in that much of what is "Outsider" also rejects classicism and embraces traditions beyond those of Western, European art.
But, while the various forms of Primitivism are generally associated with other cultures -- consider Picasso and Africa, Gaugin and Polynesia -- Outsider Art tends to draw its very non-traditional energy from within the psyche of the artist. From Adolf Wölfli's dense pencil drawings to Simon Rodia's 100-foot-high Watts Towers, in East Los Angeles (completed over 30 years with everything from Coke bottles to seashells), Outsider Art tends to be anti-intellectual. It's art done by people with no formal training, but with a singular vision.
"Outsider Art is not at all like abstract work," Fontenella says. "You don't buy a piece based on the way it matches the house. This is art that says something about what people have actually been through. It's not made up. People relate to it."
These days, quite a lot of people are relating to it, given that Outsider Art is rising sharply in popularity. Increasingly, the selling of this kind of work, especially Contemporary Folk Art, but many other subforms as well, is a big business in North America and abroad. The annual Outsider Art Fair in New York draws hundreds of dealers and artists together. And the explosion of interest, with all the new dealers and artists that this precipitates, is actually making it difficult for an unknown artist to gain access to the fair.
"Last year, I sold my banners outside the Outsider Art Fair," House notes wryly. "But Outsider Art is a dubious term to me, anyway. If I were to define myself, I'd simply say that I was from the school of the unschooled."
"His banners are pure folk art," Fontenella says. "There isn't too much of that around anymore. More people may be trying, but you don't 'try' folk art. You either have it or you don't, and Kevin has it."
But, even though House "had it," and Fontenella recognized it early, success was not immediate in New York. After working the streets and fairs and selling his banners for almost a year, House returned home in the months following 9/11. He hadn't really broken out and, notably, had done only a single dog portrait by this time, commissioned by a couple on the street. "I told them, 'Sure, I'll paint your dog. Meet me on the corner in two days,' " House remembers. "I felt more like a criminal than an artist."
Once back in Vancouver, however, House continued to paint, and his work caught on quickly. At an early show, called Hermits, Recluses, Weirdos and Poets, at Melriches Coffee House, on Davie Street, House sold a banner portrait of Baudelaire to CBC radio host Bill Richardson before the show had even opened. "I was still hanging it up," House says. "I told him to come back when the show was open. He came back minutes later with a cheque book."
Dogs, too, proved popular. One of House's early clients was actor Malcolm MacDowell, who had House do several portraits of his dogs, one of which has proved so popular, people are requesting prints.
It was also back in Vancouver that House met Mark Sloan. Sloan, the unofficial dean of the unofficial field of American carnival-oddity studies, is the author of such books as Wild, Weird and Wonderful: The American Circus, 1901-1927 and Dear Mr. Ripley, for which he was given coveted access to the Ripley's Believe It or Not! archives. Sloan works as an art-gallery curator at the College of Charleston, and is currently at work on Rarest of the Rare, a catalogue of strangeness from the Harvard Museum of Natural History (which holds Nabokov's collection of Lepidoptera genitals). He found both House and his work instantly fascinating.
"I was flabbergasted," he says. "I thought: This guy is a member of my tribe!"
At that meeting, House traded Sloan a banner for a copy of Dear Mr. Ripley. Sloan has since gone on to commission a House portrait of Alexander Patty, the famed cranial jumper (a sideshow performer who jumped up and down staircases using his head like a pogo stick). "I admire his chutzpah," Sloan says about House. "He's really very much like a sideshow person himself. He's got a bit of that promotional juice running through his veins. He's of the same cloth, which I find very endearing."
Therein lies part of the significant appeal of House's work. House is savvy and aware. He is sufficiently motivated to pull a banner out of the trunk of his car for Sloan or to call someone like Cameron Woo, of Bark magazine, and pitch his own work. And he is sufficiently confident to paint the Leo Awards banner as a carnival freak with a bikini-model body and the head of a male lion. But, at the root of it, the work can be recognized as part of who he is. His banners do not emerge from intellectual idea but, like all Outsider Art, from personal passion and obsession. "Kevin brings to his art exactly what he is and who he is," Fontenella has told me.
Outside The Whip, a café, bar and gallery off Main Street, in Vancouver's own East Village, the degree to which people connect to House's passion is easy to see. When a young woman hears House describing the Wormwood Brothers Sideshow, a family-rated assemblage of carnival freaks -- sword swallowers, broken-glass walkers -- for whom he had painted banners the year before, she cannot contain her enthusiasm. Soon, she and House are deep in discussion about performers they have seen or met. Jason the Pincushion. Lola Lush.
"You ever seen the Lizard Man?" House asks, about a performer with a surgically forked tongue who is tattooed from head to toe with a pattern resembling scales. "He does the Jim Rose Circus. I have his card somewhere."
A few moments later, a schnauzer approaches. House stops, mid-sentence, to greet the animal. When the owner (encouraged by the café waitress) begins to leaf through a small picture album of House's work, his eyebrows raise with interest. "Would you like a portrait?" he asks the dog, finally.
"I'll probably always do pets," House says, musing about the future. "It's fun. And people are seriously into it. But I do have plans for other things." Carnival cut-outs depicting Kama Sutra positions are one possibility. And music, too. An album of House's songs, Gutter Pastoral, will be released by Bongo Beat Records in September, 2003. It consists of eight songs recorded in his tiny studio with the FunMachine, a guitar, a couple of mics and a DAT tape recorder. Stylistically, the songs live somewhere on the deserted highway between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Wavery, smokey, innocent words across simple musical ideas. Songs that are a lot like his banners, really.
In the meantime, House has The Dog and Pony Show to finish. Back in his studio, thinking about how he came from sitting on the steps in New York's Chinatown to this, he just shakes his head. "I've always defined success by how much failure you can put up with. I'm sort of the Anti-Tony Robbins that way."
The "Anti-Tony Robbins. Alive!" It might just be the headline for a banner self-portrait.
© Copyright 2003 National Post
| (Siamese Twins)
(Laughing on the outside. Crying on the inside.)
(AGHHHH...MY GOD....YESSS! SOOOO NICE...SOOOO PRETTY..)
A SELECTION OF KEVIN HOUSE'S BANNERS, INCLUDING: "The Lion Lady," commissioned by the Leo Awards;...
..."Beaudelaire," which was purchased by CBC Radio host Bill Richardson;...
..."Rocky Rocket Boy," a commissioned portrait;...
...and "World of Dogs," commissioned by actor Malcolm MacDowell.
(Photo of man.)
(Who Laughed Onece. The Woman Who Laughed at the Man.)
Kevin House Banner Co.
Painted banner portrait commissions of dogs,humans,and ?
For information on size,pricing, etc... contact Kevin House at