The NADA Network

The Authenticity Scout: Dealer Kerry Schuss on Discovering Artistic Geniuses of All Ages (Where You Least Expect It)

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The NADA Network
The Authenticity Scout: Dealer Kerry Schuss on Discovering Artistic Geniuses of All Ages (Where You Least Expect It)
The art dealer Kerry Schuss

On Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a tiny storefront gallery, easily overlooked, that has an enchanted reputation among the most dedicated lovers of art. It’s owned and operated by a dealer named Kerry Schuss, who over the past couple of decades has unearthed some of the most extraordinary artists in America. You may not have heard of most of them, but when you do their stories are not ones you’re likely to forget. Some of them are in their 80s, some of them are long dead and just shy of forgotten, a few of them are young and striving, and the overall roster contains some of the greatest names this side of a Pynchon novel: Les Leveque, Birdie Lusch, Jocko Weyland, Pearl Blauvelt, Sadie Laska.  

The gallery’s secret ingredient is the mix of all these richly colorful characters, who evade the leaden category of “outsider” art. Each of them has made art that is urgent, vivid, and contemporary in its grip—even Robert Barber, a 93-year-old emerging abstract painter that Schuss is introducing at the Independent Art Fair this month. 

As the latest installment of our ongoing NADA Network series, spotlighting members of the upstart New Art Dealers Alliance, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein sat down with the dealer to hear about the enriching philosophy behind the gallery, and, most importantly, the extraordinary stories behind the people he shows.

You’ve run your gallery for over a decade and a half now, but before that you were an artist. How did you first get involved with art?

My father designed wallpaper, and I worked with him growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and then, later, as an adult. But from early on I always had an affinity for clay, so I went and got a degree in sculpture and ceramics at Ohio State, which is a big ceramics school. I got very involved with clay there—I even dropped out of school for a year and started making pottery with some other hippies on a farm in Logan, Ohio, in 1973. 

It was pure hippie. I mean, I learned a lot about gardening, this and that. It was a great experience, but by then I had realized I really didn’t want to be a functional potter, and I got more involved with sculpture, so I went back to Ohio State to finish my degree in sculpture. I was fortunate—at the same time I was at Ohio State there was a show of Elijah Pierce’s woodcarvings, and he was an amazing artist, a real folk artist in the truest, best sense.

By that time he was in his eighties, and he had a shop downtown in Columbus where on one side he cut hair and on the other side he had a gallery. I was very taken with his work very early on. So, I got involved with what they called “outsider” art, and while Ohio was not necessarily a hotbed of contemporary art, artists like Elijah Pierce were my entry into looking at how people were making art and living life, with the two coming together in a really wonderful way.

What do you mean about their art and lives coming together?

That’s the beauty of a lot of these people, that their lives and their art are all linked together. Most of us who study contemporary art, we almost have to unlearn it after we learn. With these people, everything comes from within—they just go straight in through the front door. It was a real eye-opener for me—the message from them was, “Do your own thing no matter what,” and I was drawn by the sense of authenticity that these people had. 

A lot of what we now know as “outsider” art comes from the psychiatric community, but this was different. These were interesting people who were born from about 1890 to about 1920 and who were just oddball tinkerers, very true-born artists. Each one of these people had amazing stories, and as a young person I was very taken with them. So I started organizing shows and doing things on their behalf later when I moved to New York.

To step back for a moment, how do you define outsider art exactly?  

It’s a real tricky thing because it’s not a really good term. But I think that, well, usually they’re self-taught—they didn’t go to college, they didn’t study art. But a lawyer who makes paintings may not have studied art and he could still never be called an outsider artist. The people I was involved with were true outsiders, culturally. 

I guess I can define “art” better than outsider art, and I think that that’s doing something for yourself with only your own parameters and taking it out as far as you can stand it, according to your own standards, until you can’t take it anymore. “Design,” on the other hand, would be doing something and tailoring it for an audience where it has to fit an external criterion. Art is doing it for yourself, for your own criterion.

Who were some of the artists that you began working with?

It all started early with Birdie Lusch, around ’75. My friend Mark Davis, who was also an artist, was driving a cab at that time and picked her up and brought her to her house, which was in a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, a funny area of town. She was a strange, little lady, and she had bags of rocks—she was a rock collector—and, although it was dark, he noticed that there were pigeons all over her house, and this giant papier-mâché spider in the window. Mark and I had visited Elijah Pierce, so we were already hip to this kind of thing. He went back the next day, and the whole world was there. 

Who was she? What did she do for a living?

Oh, she worked in a factory. She made art and she was a genius. She wasn’t crazy. Her whole house was an environment—everything in her path, she Birdie-ized. She made the world her own, as she would say. She had a very, very tough life, but she was a brilliant person. She was born in 1903, and I have pictures of some of her work that she made as a child. But when I met her she was in her 70s, and her house was filled with art that still looks good now, because there’s nothing naïve about this person. She was well-read, and I’m still growing into what she did.

At that time, though, people didn’t appreciate that kind of work—they thought their kid could make it, so people didn’t bother with her. But she was also a very funny little woman, and I spent a lot of time with her—so did my friend Mark—and we even brought her to New York in ’79 and organized a show in my loft. 

Later I started to organize other shows for her, and she got into a show at the governor’s mansion. Richard Celeste was the Democratic governor at the time and he had purchased a couple of her pieces. He was probably like 6’5”, and somewhere there’s a picture of the two of them together. So, she went from being an outcast, in a way, to being recognized in Ohio. She died in ’88, but because the work is so interesting and good it lives on. 

What did you do after you first moved to New York?

Well, I came to New York and made my work. But my friend Mark and I also went around New York and found other people like Birdie. He had like a genius for finding them, and I had a nice quality for developing their work. This list of older people that I got involved with gets very long, actually.

Mark found this guy Aaron Birnbaum, who was born in 1895 and lived in Sheepshead Bay, and he was an honest-to-goodness real folk artist. Birdie was a real artist-artist—a contemporary artist dealing with complex issues. This guy lived in Poland and moved to New York when he was 10 and became a tailor on the Lower East Side and developed a nice manufacturing business.

He was a powerful force of nature. After his wife died, he retired and started painting at age 70, and his paintings are true memory paintings of his life in Poland that he did in a nice Expressionist, almost slapdash kind of way. Also, because he was a tailor, he had this ingenious way of using templates or dress patterns to make all his little figures. He’d make cardboard templates and start laying them out on canvas like it was a piece of fabric and pencil around these things. Somewhere along the line, I started collecting his work. I still have those templates.

It’s amazing to imagine you and Mark driving around New York City in the 1980s looking for these incredible older artists, like latter-day Lomaxes. How does one venture out into a gigantic metropolis and find these remarkable, offbeat geniuses?

You know, after you start doing something like this, people start to seek you out. For years now people have been bringing me the odds and ends, and something about growing up in Ohio gave me a taste for the different thing, or the odd thing. So, I started collecting—collecting people and objects—and I got very involved with my collection. I understand what it’s like to be a collector, in that a great collector’s life is going at one angle, an artist’s life is going at another, and then their work is going at another angle, and then they all intersect and it has some kind of profound meaning that marks both lives, in a way. When you go into somebody’s house and see their collection, it’s like a map of their life. 

People are always looking for their ideal audience. When it comes to people who choose such different paths in their lives, it must be extraordinary for them to come in contact with someone like you, who is primed and ready for their work.

Well, what’s extraordinary is walking into someplace where nobody has been before and finding this whole life’s work in front of you. And, there’s a lot of responsibility to that. I became almost like a guard dog, protecting these people, because once you open them up to the world you also have a responsibility to take care of them, because they don’t really understand that system and are very ripe for abuse. Anyway, I loved it. Around 1986, I stopped doing anything else—I decided, well, I don’t want to do any more wallpaper design work, since I had still been doing that for my father to make money. And I had enough objects. I haven’t really had a job now in 30 years. 

How did you make ends meet over the decade and a half prior to opening your gallery?

I started just selling my beautiful little collection piece by piece. I really don’t have a collection anymore, and I really don’t need a collection—there’s so much art coming in and out of my life, and you can only do so much with it. I also had a Swedish girlfriend and lived in Sweden for a year and did a show there, bringing over a lot of American outsider work that had never been seen before—all sorts of big artists like Martín Ramírez and Bill Traylor, plus the people that I found.

My timing was lucky. The first wave of interest in outsider art was in the ‘70s, when there were some artists who got turned on to these people who were just true individuals, working in their own environments. It was a hippie, artist thing. Then the second wave hit in 1982 when the Corcoran Gallery of Art did the show “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” which then went to the Brooklyn Museum.

That opened the doors to New York artists to see this stuff firsthand. So, Elijah Pierce was in there, and so was Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum, Son Ford Thomas, and all these incredible artists, mainly from down South. Outsider art really hit the mainstream with this show, and people would start coming to us, saying, “Hey, I’ve got an uncle—he makes this stuff.” So we tried selling it.

How did you and Mark work with your artists? 

With Aaron Birnbaum, his whole place was totally filled with his paintings, so I started buying them and selling them for nothing and bringing people out there. Well, as we started buying them, he started painting more, and so I started working with him when he was a young guy in his late 80s for about 12 years. It was something else to watch him. When he was 99 he started doing a painting a day, and he used to say the most amazing thing—he’d go, “Ah, if I was just 90 again, the things I would do!” 

After he turned 100, I was doing the Outsider Art Fairs with his work and the New York Times did a half-page story on him. So, all of a sudden, Aaron Birnbaum calls me and says, “Put a zero on all my prices!” You know? What didn’t sell for $250 suddenly started selling at $2,500. Then the dealer Marc Straus, who actually came from the same little village in Poland, got the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum to do a retrospective.

I just thought: for an artist, it’s not over until it’s over. He was still working, and the paintings had all this spirit in them. I saw how if you’re involved in art, or some other kind of self-expression, in a way, there’s no retirement. You can just keep on going. We’ve seen artists get all sorts of disabilities—people have a stroke, maybe—and they just keep on going if it’s inside them, if they’re true artists. I watched how Birnbaum kept on going, and actually it was funny because you saw how he broke into a more expressive style at about age 97, and he was really cutting into some new territory even at age 100. He lived to be 103, and now he’s kind of established. They’re beautiful paintings.  

It’s an old cycle by now—an artist like Monet or Picasso or de Kooning reaches an advanced age, their work changes, and people dismiss them as infirm has-beens. Then a few decades go by and suddenly people realize that this late work is really incredible art. Considering that you’ve worked with artists of all ages over a long course of time, what does the arc of an older artist's work look like?

Well, it’s fascinating because, you know, they know they’re running out of time, so they do it quicker. In Birnbaum’s case, he did these memory paintings, and he didn’t have time to put in the landscape—he just put the figures, so they’re all floating and it’s much looser. It’s not quite as perfect—it’s more Expressionist in a way. 

That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you can teach in art school.

If you go through school, you’re thinking, “Where am I?” You’re looking around so much—you’re trying to absorb the whole of the art world. I think a lot of people get tripped up when they’re making their work from the outside, when they’re looking around too much—thinking, “This could be successful, and I’ll take a little bit of this, a little bit of that”—instead of looking inside. It’s the front-door, back-door thing. I like the people who pull it from within, no matter what their style or age. Because you can see that in younger people, too, who just have a strong belief in themselves—the kind of diehard individual who has to make these things, and who has an internal motor.

I made all sorts of art up until I was almost 50, and I kept slugging away and making all sorts of things with more or less success in different areas, but I never really showed my work. I guess the circumstances weren’t right, but I thought it was all from within me, and it looks good. I’m actually going to show my own work for the first time in 20 years with Mitchell Algus soon. It’ll be conceptual photographs that I made in ’78, and they’re still pretty good.

That sounds like a landmark event. But what you’re saying reminds me of that Picasso quote: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." 

I don’t think you have to unlearn things, but you have to get what’s true to you. And we notice it—when you’re looking at all sorts of work, you sense when there’s a kind of urgent internal need for a person to make something. I’m attracted to the true eccentrics, the born artists who couldn’t stop making stuff.  In reality they’re the people who made this country interesting. 

Like the Reverend St. Patrick Clay. We were driving down this street in Columbus, Ohio, and in the middle of nowhere this guy had used egg-crate foam to build a really goofy cactus on his front lawn and spray-painted it green, so he had a cactus sticking up in his yard. We put on the brakes, knocked on the door, and there he was. 

He was a coal miner who had visions of cactuses—even through he was from Virginia and had never been out West—and everything he made was cactus. It was hilarious. I still have some of that stuff. It was really funky and East Village-looking and bizarre. I had luck with him. We started organizing shows, and I brought his work to Sweden. Actually, his work made its way into the background of Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. 

How on earth did that happen? 

How? I sold some of his stuff in New York City and it got out there—someone who was doing sets for movies saw it in someone’s apartment and rented it.

That must have been an unexpected development for the Reverend. What did he make of it?

He hated it, in fact, because the movie was so profane. Here was this guy whose root was religion, and he thought the movie was awful. There’s stuff in there that a Reverend wouldn’t be interested in. [Laughs] But, I thought it was an achievement. The director even zoomed in on one piece in a scene, and it filled the whole screen. 

Who were some other artists you discovered?

I’ve had a whole bunch of other major and minor successes. Some of them came out of workshops I did with seniors with psychiatric problems from about 1988 to 1994—they were weekly workshops on the Upper West Side that were part of a day program where seniors would come there and get activities and a meal, and one of the activities was making art. There was a whole bunch of interesting older people, and some of them turned out to be excellent artists.

Freddie Brice, for instance, was the subject of my last drawings show. Ray Hamilton is another, and both of them kind come out of the Bill Traylor school—they’re both black, Southern artists, but they came to the city, and their work is very urban with no landscape. Another artist was Frances Montague, and who went by the name Lady Shalimar. She wrote her whole life story for me, and I gave that to [White Columns director] Matthew Higgs, who has begun showing her now, and he made a ‘zine about it.  

At that time, I was still making my work, and my father was dying, and I started to slip into a depression and doing these workshops to help these people who have very limited options compared to mine. I’d go in there, dragging myself in, and I’d come out clicking my heels. I just thought, my God, all these things I could do! I just helped this person. I didn’t think this at the time, but it was very healing for me. I got involved with that and did it every week for years, and I also worked at the women’s shelter. And, a lot of people developed into artists.

It all kind of turned around, and I started making money for them, doing shows in my loft, and then I got this ground-floor loft space on Leonard Street in TriBeCa in 2000 and I turned it into a gallery. It took me a few years. At that time, I only showed outsider art because I was still making my work, and I didn’t want to get involved with having to deal with all my friends who are artists. 

When you first opened your gallery, did you hit the ground running? After all, you had already been selling art to clients for decades, and had a deep reserve of work. Were you profitable?

Well, I’ve pretty much always worked just by myself since opening the gallery, so I’ve always kept my expenses extremely low. When I was on Leonard Street, I lived in the back of the gallery for 10 years. I just keep expenses at a minimum, and, being a kind of hippie potter artist, I got hooked on the whole do-it-yourself thing before that ever was a thing. I very much enjoy wrapping all the packages, I’ve photographed everything myself, I’ve found all the work, and I do all the physical aspects.

So, now all my experiences of making my own art, and putting on all these shows throughout the years, they’re in my body, and they’ve added up in a way where I am the gallery. I’m kind of like my artists, in a way—somehow I’ve made this gallery into a big art project, because it’s very much my self-expression. It’s not my first instinct to start thinking about numbers. I’m more thinking about presentation, and curation, and seeing where it goes. And I still don’t have any employees. I love doing everything myself. I’m a terrible delegator.

At the beginning, you only wanted to show artists 75 or older at your gallery. Over time, that changed. Why is that? 

At first it was a pure outsider gallery, and it freed me from having to deal with everything else, because that was the real thing. Well, the thing about working with older artists is that they start dying, and that has real limitations because you want living people to come to the openings and no one wants to come to the opening of a dead artist. It might be the greatest curatorial show ever, but it’s still not part of the whole living ecosystem, in a way.

I was lucky in that I joined NADA in 2004, and by that time I had already started showing some regular contemporary artists like showed Bill Adams and Jeff Davis, so my first booth at NADA was a mix of contemporary and outsider. I’ve stayed in NADA all these years, and I’m still doing it—it’s kind of a reflection of my life, which is a mix of contemporary and outsider. 

Now you’ve been here on the Lower East Side since 2012, smack in the middle of this crucible of youth and innovation. How did that move happen?

That had a lot to do with NADA—NADA and the Lower East Side are very directly linked. Here I am, 30 years older than most of my colleagues, and it has allowed me to tap into the excitement here by showing young artists, older artists, and people in the middle. That’s the cool thing, to have art of all different types. Go to somebody’s house and see their collection—it’s so cool when they have stuff from this, that, this, that, and it’s all together. That’s what I love. 

It’s funny because, at first, the outsider people looked down on me because I had my own artists and they weren’t internationally traded geniuses like Martín Ramírez, but they’re as real as can be and other people liked it just fine. It all looks like stuff that would appeal to a contemporary eye.

So, there was an outsider-art establishment, and you were outside of that.

I was outside of that, and always mixing stuff with contemporary. And of course going to shows—I never stopped going to shows. I think the problem with the outsider field and the folk art field is it kind of strangles itself by not going for the mix, and I was for the mix from the very beginning. That’s why I don’t do the Outsider Art Fair any more, even though I did about 15 of those fairs. I like seeing this stuff all mixed up, so I freed the work from that limited context just by being open to the whole art world. It’s older work finding a context with what’s exciting today, and it keeps it alive in a way. 

Now your program has an enormous range. You have Alice Mackler, for instance, who is a rising star at 84. You have Les LeVeque, who is an audiovisual art teacher at Bard. And then you have someone like Sadie Laska, who is this young abstract-painting rock star.

Yeah, and Alice Mackler is not an outsider artist—she’s an older person, and she’s interesting because her timing is perfect now. Everyone is suddenly interested in ceramics, and here’s this person who has been making these things for years. It’s almost like she’s pushing all of her 84 years into this clay, and it becomes a vessel of her life—it has a spirit of some sort that people respond to. She’s also very sophisticated in abstraction, and involved with all the highest levels of art. People just love that stuff. It stands out.

Now she’s in a great show at the Jewish Museum. It’s a great show, and, for her, it was a huge achievement being there—she’s been making art for her whole life, and she’s been passed over, and passed over again, and now at this age where she still is young enough to enjoy it she’s getting recognized. She’s not too old—she’s even making better art than ever, and finding a context. It’s very fulfilling for me.

Les LeVeque I’ve known since high school. And Sadie Laska actually helped me in the gallery part-time for a while—I didn’t even know she made art back then—and then later she shifted from music and went to Bard, and she had her first solo show here. She’s just incredible. She’s got that real rock-and-roll spirit in her work. It’s really immediate and wonderful. 

I imagine your influence must have rubbed off on her a little bit. 

Well, maybe. Not my influence, but being around this gallery you have to look at all this stuff a bunch. She only worked for me off and on for a couple of years, and I didn’t really need the help, but I was getting lonely down there on Leonard Street. Then I moved down here to Orchard Street, and I probably wouldn’t be even be in business unless the Lower East Side happened. Miguel Abreu started this block, and then the other dealers came in, and this neighborhood became a thing—a place where small can be beautiful.

The beauty of small things has been my aesthetic from my art all the way through. Well, even down here, you used to see these big-money artworks, and they had to be big to be important. Now people have gotten a little sick of that, and now all sorts of people come to the Lower East Side because it’s so intimate, it’s real, it’s one-to-one, and that can be important too. It's a good fit for a guy like me. 

The prices on the Lower East Side are also optimal, because they just beckon you—these are things that you can actually live with, and generally fairly achievable in price. What is the rough price range of works you show? 

Well, there’s a lot of people coming to the Lower East Side and buying work under $10,000, and I have a lot of work under $10,000. There are some exceptions. I’ve shown Robert Moskowitz four times, and his work is not in that category—he’s a very established artist. I’ve done some other things that are more expensive too. But then you have Sadie Laska’s drawings, which are $900 to start with, you know?

I have a lot of drawings, and I’m very attracted to the immediacy of drawing. It’s funny, all worlds come together on a piece of paper. An artist can be from this period or that period, or be this type of artist or that type of artist, but when it comes down to a piece of paper they’re all on the same playing field. In general, though, the Lower East Side isn’t about about cheap art. It’s more about these direct experiences, where you’re not shielded from the primary person. 

It helps that the artists you show are so gripping, with these incredible stories behind them. For instance, there’s Ele D'Artagnan. Can you talk about him a bit? 

Ah. He was an Italian actor who was in quite a few Fellini films, and he took this name from playing the part in the Three Musketeers. He was involved with the Surrealist, psychedelic scene in Italy, and there are pictures of him with Dalí and de Chirico. He was also a self-taught artist, and apparently he was a little fringe, and he ended up making quite a lot of art.

What do you mean by “a little fringe”?

Well, eccentric. He ended up in a bad place, living in a kind of shack, but still making his art. He had a stand in Testaccio in Rome where he tried promoting his work, and they’re fantastic drawings. He was a really colorful character, with a mustache like Dalí, and they’re wonderful pieces. Anyway, he died, and his work got put into a footlocker and stored it in a wine cave in Testaccio with a letter. Then, several years later, this footlocker was found and made its way back to someone who knew D’Artagnan and was close to his family, and he took it upon himself to do something with this great body of work.

He came to New York with it, and he’s not involved with the art world, so someone gave him a hilariously long list of galleries to try. He started uptown with some of the biggest galleries in New York, and of course none of them talked to him. Then he worked his way all the way down to TriBeCa, and when I came back to the gallery he was just sitting on the step with a portfolio and all these other things. Somehow he had heard about me, and I saw the work, and I instantly got involved. A lot of things I’ve ended up with are things that other people have passed over.  

Now, thanks to you, several of his drawings have made it into MoMA’s collection.

It all started when we did a show around 2003 and Roberta Smith gave it a beautiful review, with a nice picture in the Friday New York Times—then the whole thing took off with a bang. His work made it into the Judith Rothschild drawings collection, and that went to MoMA. It’s wonderful work that still holds up. It doesn’t age.

It reminds me of something very funny that Aaron Birnbaum said once when I went over to his house and was doing my usual curatorial thing, agonizing over trying to pick out the best pieces from the rest for a show. He said, “Don’t worry, they’re not gonna go bad like butter or eggs. These are good!”

And it’s true. When you see an artist who’s a true artist, and they’re working from this true place, usually the whole thing is good. We waste a lot of time in connoisseurship trying to like figure out what’s best, and most of the time I’ve reversed myself afterwards. I initially think something is great and I end up liking something else, but I still like the whole body of work. 

What’s the story of Pearl Blauvelt, the so-called “village witch,” who also entered MoMA as part of the Rothschild collection?

She was just some lady living in this old house in the middle of nowhere in the Poconos, and basically she put around 500 drawings in a wooden box and left them in the house. Well, these were found by artists who bought the dilapidated old house 50 years later, after the house had changed hands several times. Luckily, no one had cleared it out, and when these artists were clearing it out they found this box and opened it up and knew what they were looking at. Then, people found me, and that turned out to be something.

One of the great accomplishments of your gallery is that you’ve been a rejoinder to the fetishization of youth in the art world, which of course is a symptom of the broader culture. So often, we’re trained to see the earliest stages of a creative person’s career as the pinnacle of their achievement, when they’re young, they’re hungry, and they don’t yet know what they don’t know, so they break all the rules. You see this with Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, countless rock bands, and writers from Rimbaud to Fitzgerald. We’re drawn to the precocious genius of these young radicals. On the other end of the spectrum, though, you have these older, wiser practitioners, and it’s a bit like the notion of vieilles vignes in winemaking—older vines may yield fewer grapes, but the fruit is of unmatched depth and complexity. 

I think too much of our culture has ceased to view experience as that important—the focus is more on “What can you do for me now.” So many of us are looking around for this kind of authenticity and reality, and, well, art is slower. But it’s wonderful to be in art because if you keep at it, and you keep it real, it continues to grow and things can add up in a way.

So, actually, early success can be quite blinding, and it can be a problem for people. We’ve seen it many times: someone in their twenties has this genius idea, they break out, and it’s wonderful. Well, that second genius idea is pretty fucking hard to find. The third is even harder to find, and the fourth one is harder yet. So sometimes, before they're formed as individuals, they're blinded by their first success, and very few people can keep on inventing themselves, especially when they’re in the spotlight. Either they stay doing the same thing, or you have what happened with Frank Stella, which is very problematic.

There aren’t many people who have built long careers this way, who keep on being appreciated. There’s more longevity for the person who doesn’t find success, in a way, because they can continue to grow and end up making something amazing on the other side. They can’t take that away from you. It’s inside you. 

Your program must give a lot of older people hope, because there’s a certain solace to be found in the notion that creativity isn’t only for the young. 

Creativity isn’t just for a certain class of people, either. People like Birdie made stuff when they were young, but they’re left behind because they weren’t of a class of people that went to art school, or saw art as a viable career. I do believe talent is sprinkled democratically through society, and true artists can come from the most unusual places. The dilemma is that a lot of people in art school have chosen to be artists—they want to be an artist. Well, that that’s not a good way to be a lasting artist. 

With me, I’ve actually had so many different jobs over the years, and have taken so many directions in the art that I’ve made. At the time, I guess, these could be viewed as failures, because I kept on changing and doing something else before I got successful at any one thing. But, now with my small gallery, these experiences are coming back, and I can use all of them.

I’m going to be 64 in June, and it’s pretty good being old. I got involved with these people at a very young age, and now that I’m a senior citizen, after all these experiences that I admired in them, this has become a real form of self-expression. It’s almost like the tortoise and the hare story. It’s not so bad, being the tortoise.

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