Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Art Meets Music: Tony Bodtmann

The other evening, I was lounging about in yoga wear (without actually doing any yoga), when I heard a chainsaw next door.  No biggie--our neighbor, Gordon, was probably pruning the sea-grape tree that died back in the last freeze.  Next thing, the Patriarch comes inside and says, "There's a guy next door carving Tikki gods with a chainsaw."  How Promethean. 

I grabbed a little point-and-shoot and moseyed over to take some photos, for the sheer novelty.  What I found standing in Gordon's driveway was Anthony F. Bodtmann III, whom, despite his protestations that people will think he's a serial killer, I have started referring to as Tony Chainsaw.

Tony's saw had just broken, so we got a chance to speak a bit while I snapped away.  He was friendly and communicative, and I liked him right away--a gut impression that proved well-founded.  In his mid-forties, Tony is a musician, artist, father, writer, and home re-modeler--a true Renaissance Man with a gift for combining his varied interests and life experiences into a symbiotic whole.  What he was carving out of all that live oak, in fact, turned out to be the body of an upright base in the shape of a giant head.  A cocktail of Tikki and Mississippi Mud Pottery, with a dash of Picasso, it's a companion piece to an earlier instrument, titled "the Red Drum," inspired by one of his own paintings.  In a year's time, when the body is finished seasoning, he'll polish, string, and tune it, and then meet the music.

I requested an interview a few days out, and he graciously agreed.  (Gracious, indeed, as I didn't so much ask for anything but informed him of my intentions.  "I want to do a blog post".  "I've decided to interview you."  Plus, insisting on driving and paying for coffee.  So, Tony, when you read this, er, thanks for indulging a bossypants.)  We eventually sat down at a 24-hour-Starbucks (!!!), he with a cappuccino and me with a chai latte, and as they say, got down to business.

ME:  When did your interest in music start?
TC: I've been playing drums since 7th grade.  The flute for seventeen, eighteen years or so.  When I was around 25--the same year my oldest son was born--I started carving faces into a log that I carried around in the back of my truck.  I'd carve on it, add to it, show it to my dad.  People would say, "Tony!  Go get the log!" and I'd fish it out, throw it back in, carve some more.  I carved my first drum when I worked at a sign shop, and later at Creative Arts, a friend of mine was leaving, and he had it tucked under his arm.  I'm like, "Where are you going with that?" and he said, "Oh, man, I love this thing.  I'm taking it with me."  So I carved another one to swap out with it, but I ended up liking the second one better!  Which was a good thing, because like that log, the drum was left outside on a porch, and it rotted away.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
I love primitive art, especially African, Renaissance artists, and modern sculptors like Rodin. In college, I gave an art history presentation while dressed as Donatello. Da Vinci is awesome; his inventions are inspiring, and I get ideas for contraptions like a four-person bicycle--but wait, I don't want you giving away all my secrets!  I love Picasso, Van Gogh--Van Gogh could really just see inside of things, all of the pain and beauty.  Picasso also loved African art; he felt that children are unmarred by the world still, and he was always trying to get back to that.  He said, "I paint because I feel I have to earn my existence."

So would you say you relate to that--that there's something of the tortured artist about you?
(laughs) Yeah, maybe.  I think it's because my father was so influential in my life.  He spent his whole life living in the past.  He was depressed a lot, especially about the state of the world, and he sort of instilled that brooding in me.  We'd be walking, and he'd point to some trees, and say, "See those trees?  They're not going to be here in twenty years."

Do you think you'd tend toward that yourself if it wasn't for his influence?
Oh, no, no.  My dad was an inspiration.  He inspired me to pursue art; he used to say, "You're a great artist, and don't even know it!"  I kept going because of his encouragement.  He passed away last January.  I really miss him; he taught me so much.

Like how to be on time to things?
(chuckles) Yeah, I'm late, I'm sorry.  I am the slowest man in the world.  I've always been that way.  When I was a kid, I missed the school bus every morning.  My mom drove me to school, which was about ten miles away.  One morning, my father put his foot down and said, "NO.  Your mother isn't driving you.  You're walking."  So he booted me out the door.  It turned out to be one of the best mornings of my life.  After a while, I met a guy a few years older than me; we walked, talked, kicked cans, and eventually parted.  Then I met an old man who offered me a ride.  I got there at the end of the school day, but there was a play happening, so I got to stay and watch that.  As a kid, you know, I just thought that was the best day ever.

You showed me a piece earlier that you painted to try and capture the "feel" of the music that inspired both the Red Drum and this upright bass. When and where was that?
In my late twenties, some friends of mine would go out to Pier 60 in Clearwater--before the crowds and all that, there was nobody even out there.  We'd play for hours, just the water and the flutes and the rhythm of the drums.  One night a small crowd gathered around us, which was unusual, and we played and they listened, and everything flowed.  It was magical.  So I went home and immediately started doing this painting, to try and captured the feel of that night.  Later, I made the Red Drum.

Do you play anywhere now?
Only occasionally.  I had an embarrassing night with a guitarist friend a while back.  He tunes his guitar 1/2 step down, and it took me till the end of every song to finally figure out what he was doing and play in key.  Most of my musician friends have moved away.  My best friend is an amazing drummer, and he's currently in New York, playing with Bakithi Kumalo, Paul Simon's bass player.  He keeps asking me to move there.

Do you want to go to New York?
Eventually.  I want to take my sons with me.  I was supposed to go this summer, but  it's looking like maybe next year.  My friends have an empty barn at their disposal in Long Island that I could use as a studio.  And there's a lot of demand for the kind of work I do.

Speaking of work, what's your day job?
I'm a home re-modeler, especially kitchens and bathrooms.  I'm a perfectionist--as an artist--so I really like to take my time, get everything pristine; I've been at one job site for a year and a half.  I custom carve a lot of doors, do stonework.  Remodeling pays the bills--but honestly, I hate it.  I'm exhausted all the time, and I don't have any energy left over to dig into my art like I want.  You should see my house; it's just a mess.  Cleaning is not a priority.

Typical artist!
Right!  There's always something more interesting to do.

Any shows coming up? Is there a website in the works?
There's a show coming soon that a fellow artist and friend of mine, Oanh Do, is getting together for us--hopefully sometime this summer.  She is an origami artist, and does the most amazing sculptures and lamps out of paper.  Several more drums will be ready by then. And there's not a website yet--although there should be! I had the opportunity years ago, but I didn't realize the importance of marketing back then.
Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
Hopefully, if I live to be eighty, I'm gonna do do some things I let go in the first half. I've never really given art a chance to support me and be my life, and I'd like to transition into that.  And I'd like to finish my music degree.  You know, when I was going for my degree, I cried every day on the way to classes, because I was so filled with joy that I was finally doing exactly what I was supposed to.  I'd also like to travel more, maybe go back to China.

When did you go to China?
In 2006.  I was going through a divorce, and I joined one of those dating websites.  I started getting letters from all these Chinese women--like hundreds of them.

"Green card, please!"
Exactly, that's what I thought too.  But there was this one woman; we chatted for 3 hours a day, every day, for 6 months.  She's a wonderful woman, very smart and spiritual; a good person.  I went and visited her for a month.  The trip changed my life; flying there, across the other side of the world, made me feel like I could do anything.  While I was there, we went to a mall, and there was a store that sold all these bamboo flutes.  I started trying them all, and the proprietor came up and showed me a flute that sounded exactly like an Erhu, which is the probably most beautiful instrument in the world.  I came back later and played that flute, and a woman in the store started accompanying me on a string Guzheng, which is a giant zither, and it was beautiful.  A crowd had gathered and applauded when we were through, and I finally felt that I was doing what I was meant to.

The highest points in your life as an artists seem to involve an audience.  Do you think that you have an urge to be acknowledged through your art, and not just make it for its own sake?
Yes, I would say that's true; I need to communicate the feelings involved.   Although once I'm inspired to make something, and complete it, I feel satisfied.  My process is very slow and deliberate.  The Red Drum took a year to make, and I must have looked at it every day during that time.  I have lots of drums I've kept in storage that will never be finished, because they were failures; it's like a graveyard of drums in there.  I put my entire soul into my work, and if I can't do that, I feel like I'm selling myself short. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New In Town (Again)

So . . . I just moved back to the St. Petersburg area last year after a decade-long absence.  Frankly, when I lived here before, I didn't have much of a life.  (In the grand tradition of all college students, I consistently proclaimed my schedule "sooo busy" and "crazy" and "stressful."  Oy, I think. To have that much free time now.)  All this to say.  I'm ready to get some.  Life, that is.

The best discoveries are serendipitous.  Well, all discoveries are technically serendipitous.   Point is, keep your eyes open.

I was walking on Central Ave with Bro and Sisil and debating whether to go into Crowley's or not (We did; the owner is the nicest guy.  And the food will bring me back), when I spotted an a-frame sign on the sidewalk for Little Brooklyn Vintage.  A chalked-in bluebird held a disembodied hand pointing to a plain wooden door, sandwiched between two bar-and-grills.  Feeling rather intrepid, I opened the door and walked up some very old, very creaky wooden stairs to a gallery of closed doors.  Yet another sign proclaimed Little Brooklyn a "Lush Parlor."  Interesting.

 Inside, we found the best little vintage shop I've ever seen.  (Plus, you can get your hair done in an old salon chair.)  Housewares, clothes, accessories, luggage, art, all crammed nicely and displayed adorably.  But what amazed me were the prices.  Sisil scored a mint tablecloth for only $12, and got a free silk scarf to boot.  A vintage boutique you can actually afford to shop at?  Twist my arm.

Next week I'm going back to LBV to snag more stuff.  Next post will be about Tony, a local musician whom I found wielding a chainsaw in the neighbor's driveway.  You'll never guess what he does with that thing.