Professional obligations aside, natural inclinations toward solitude and anonymity hold sway over me. So when a local creative luminary offered a chance to step on the other side of the artistic process, I hesitated for years.
William G. Nolen-Schmidt sent word through a mutual acquaintance he was doing a series on Mobilians’ heads and wanted to use my closely shorn pate as subject matter. Trepidation arose.
It was one thing to observe members of Mobile’s arts world, to deliver news or reflections. It was quite another to become part of the matter at hand. Excuses came readily.
“That’s a transgression of ethics,” I told myself. “Don’t make yourself part of a story.”
I knew Nolen-Schmidt’s fondness for provocative work. Though his widely palatable studies of blue crabs, frogs and dragonflies are local favorites, he’s also capable of much more.
Nolen-Schmidt supposedly ruffled feathers with a piece at the Centre for the Living Arts a decade ago, something that resulted in a rumored ban on frontal nudity. Then there was the furor when he submitted a piece to the Mobile Museum of Art (MMOA) that highlighted violence against women in a blunt and shocking manner. The waves over that one made the TV news.
The artist didn’t give up on my recruitment. His wife contacted me, asking again and I finally relented.
When I pulled into his back driveway, it was the first time I’d seen Nolen-Schmidt since the Christmas tornado of 2012 nearly took out the portico of his historic midtown manor. Thankfully, the calamity didn’t wreck his two-story studio/gallery in the back.
We wandered into his gallery as a black-and-white tuxedo cat scampered across the backyard.
“My wife and I feed all the neighborhood cats,” he explained as a Siamese lolled at the base of some stairs. Inside the gallery, we laced through the accumulating projects, partially built wooden encasements, a female torso still in the process of “becoming.”
I recognized the face of former MMOA director Tommy McPherson inside a framed box, surrounded by mirrors and matched by a similar portrait on the other side of a divider. Above the heads was the word “CUAL,” roughly translated from Spanish as “which one?” Each portrait was surrounded by mirrors and when I stuck my head into the box, a look in every direction revealed an infinite number of the faces.
Nolen-Schmidt talked of his fondness for the former director. He also regretted the ebbing presence of local artists in MMOA exhibits.
Out of the gallery, he climbed the stairs to his studio. He beckoned me to follow.
“That’s Lisa,” he said as he pointed to a grey tabby napping on her back and unlocked the door. “I belong to her.”
The inside was packed floor to ceiling with work. One massive piece near the door was overwhelming.
Nearly 15 feet tall, it had separate wooden panels hinged together and painted with phallic symbols, injured infants, the words ‘abortion thoughts,” a woman in bloodied rags and eggs throughout. Near the top was a white bulge with a small sword through it.
“That represents not just an egg but also a pregnant woman’s stomach,” Nolen-Schmidt said. He talked of pieces so big he couldn’t get them into the exhibit space.
I leaned in to admire his tedious technique, the measured impasto in lengthy rows. I didn’t bother asking the time it took for completion.
Down a crowded aisle was a painting of a naked woman beaten, wounded and tied to a chair. If she wasn’t dead, she wasn’t far off.
“That’s going to be called ‘Snuff, Snuff, Snuff,’” the artist said. “I’m going to have ribbons of film on there and then a can of dipping tobacco, too.”
“These are what I’m going to use to paint you,” he said, holding aloft a pair of long canvases. My vanity hoped their shape would at least thin my middle-aged image.
Camera in hand, he ushered me out the door. One fear dissipated as there would obviously be no painstaking sitting involved. Just a few clicks and I could be on my way.
In the shade outside the gallery, he erected a tripod and directed me. My flat cap on, I held my arms out to the side, press pass in one hand and reporter’s notebook in the other.
“When my wife and I were in New York, we saw ‘The Fantasticks,’ on stage,” the artist said. They also caught a production of “On the Town” and both experiences proved inspirational. He asked if I had any experience with playwriting. I denied as much as he rotated the camera and had me stand with both arms down at my side.
“I’ve got an idea for a musical,” he said. “It’s going to be set in Mexico. In the end I’m going to have Frida Kahlo give the coup de grace to Pancho Villa then slowly rise into the air to become Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
It was obvious the guy’s mind never stopped moving. His creativity wasn’t just a tool but an aspect of his existence.
Done in a moment, I reached for my phone and gave him the name of a local composer who might be game for his stage collaboration. He followed me to my car and quickly snapped another set of photos as I stood with keys in hand.
My anxiety proved unfounded. Instead I was allowed a glimpse into the local talent that lurks unheralded in our ranks, the dominoes of inspiration and the creativity that lives in the process.