12th Street and main was the capital of chill. It was the seventh layer of lost souls. The holy land for people seeking their own personal grail. I’ve been told that those who live there are bohemians, dandies, bobos, beatniks and hippies but I don’t really know what those things are. The only thing I can say for sure is that we were orphans of society, highly educated and flat broke. We lived in ghetto rigged hovels, slept outside in the rain or slept under the 12th street bridge. All of which is illegal. Luckily for us so much art was produced there it became one of the hallmarks of the city and they let us be. The cops all turned their heads and we were allowed live life with no regard the traditional social conventions.
There were a set of rules, an unspoken social contract that everyone had to abide by:
- In order to live there you had to be an artist (poet, writer, painter, photographer, actor, musician, director or composer.)
- You must push, bend or break the boundaries of art and society
- Only give constructive criticism.
- Never steal another residents work
- Be dedicated to improving your craft.
And with these 5 we lived. These were about the only thing that everyone would agree with; most of the artists have a problem with authority. The dilapidated city within a city had produced some phenoms. Sally Parkas had lived on 12th street for 4 years before she broke out into the mainstream.
Jonathan Smith was also a resident for a few years. His use of both oil and spray paint started a whole new school of painting that many of the other painters took and ran with. The 12th street review coined the term Urban Realism. He turned painting into more than an art form to a new way of life. He blended the rich color of oil paints together with spray paint to recreate a realistic moment in contemporary urban life. The canvass that he used to paint was the city itself.
He incorporated the classical attention to detail and slow methodical strokes with the by definition artistic outcast that is graffiti. He plied his art from the 8th street subway to the 12th Street bridge. He created portrayals of the outcasts of society; the homeless, the restless young people who are falsely labeled delinquents and working girls and juxiposed them with their “accepted” counterparts. There was the stock-broker with a penthouse on pearl street, the yuppie parents with their private schools kids who were dying to be anything but what their parents wanted them to be, and the Johns in suits that spat in the faces of prostitutes when they were with their wives. His stark, black and white, portrayals of social types hit the parts of you that know what society really is, parts which you would rather forget..
There was also Sue-Ellen Markus; poet, writer and playwright. She broke out of the 12th street after 10 years sleeping under a bridge. Her writing made her the most beautiful woman in the world if who asked anyone. The power and force of her words are unbelievable. She could weave a story so striking that you could live the rest of your life reading it over and over again and die with no regrets. She was also a great teacher; mentoring other 12th street writers (even some who went on to be best selling authors.) She mentored Jung Cunningham, Sally Parker, John Glamour just to name a few. She was definitely one of the matriarchs of the city within a city.
Her books were mostly about human interaction and focused on strong characters. She could write a book in a few weeks when she was up to it., spending hours continuously writing with little to no sleep. She would go around laughing and joking with everyone. She would also read and give feed back on two or three manuscripts in a day. She was something else.
Unfortunately as with many creative people she always crashed after finishing a book. It was almost as if her brain couldn’t function with out an artistic endeavor consuming it. She would go for weeks not being able to write. She would have dysphasia for weeks, unable to express the right word. There were times when her hands were trembling so bad that she couldn’t even cut her own food. It was hard for her to listen because here mind was racing at the speed of light.
After 2 or 3 weeks like that she would crash and land deeper than any of us thought was possible. It was such a severe depression that her friends never left her side, fearing that thought might turn into action. It was during these bouts of depression when she would write her poetry. Her poems always focused on the hope and hopelessness of life. She would explore the depths her psyche and write what she found.
Eventually we convinced her to publish her work so she could take the money and check into a treatment center. When one of her novels hit 1# on the New York best sellers we gave her both a congratulation and good-bye party in her honor. So now she lives in the Rhonda Summer’s half-way house for adults with mental illnesses. She is doing well, but it takes longer to write without her extreme mania but that is the price of genius I suppose, it is hard for them to find their balance.
But the true legacy of the art that we produced was the Ars artis gratia. The people never left because they didn’t need to. They that produced art because it was what they were; artists by birth and craft. They were only whole while in the midst of their artistic process. Those who thought that if one whispered art into the wind it would never stop flying through the hearts of man. Those that thought that art was the fountain of youth because art will live forever.
I can’t think of a better example of this than a man called Saul. I first met Saul in Denver three years go. I had just flown in to visit my parents in Colorado Springs when we accidentally bumped into each other at the airport. He was wearing old tattered, used to be white sneakers, a pair perfectly pressed expensive black dress pants and a white sports jacket with a few tears and tares. That is why he caught my mind. I couldn’t help but ask what series of events would lead a twenty-something to be dressed as he was in D.I.A with a guitar case. I ask him where he was going and he just said “east.” It was clear that he meant exactly what he said, there was no final destination for him; just a direction to travel.
We struck up a conversation as he waited for a shuttle and I waited for my parents. He told me he had been traveling for years now. He had walked, swam, hitchhiked, driven and flown across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His old eyes, travel worn eyes, confirmed his story. He said that he had just flew in from Seattle and he had to see about a girl. He didn’t no where she was exactly but that minuet fact did not seem to bother him. I remember feeling like he would fit in perfectly on 12th street and so I asked him if he was any good with the guitar (which seemed to be his only possession.) He said that he hadn’t played the guitar since high school.
I found it really odd that a man would not use the only thing he owned. Seeing my puzzled gaze he replied “It’s a long, long story.” I was sure it was. He said that his art was generally drawing and writing, which he said he pretty good that. As my parents came to pick me up I told him about 12th street and said he might find a home there. He seemed to be intrigued and I remember thinking that I’d see him there, eventually. I didn’t think that eventually would be 2 years later though. I suppose he had long story to live before he stopped to write.