Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Origin of the Zism

In the spring of 1983 the Biograph Theatre's owners, based in Georgetown, could see the bad trends from a hundred miles away. The growing impact cable television was having on repertory cinemas, nationally, was depressing. Baby boomers in their 30s were moving out of the Fan District. Plus, the general deterioration of the commercial neighborhood surrounding the theater was not helping, either. 

In mid-May the owners almost sold the Biograph to a chain. When the potential buyer refused to accept responsibility for all of the Richmond Biograph's debts, the deal fell apart. While it only seemed for a few days that what I'd been dedicated to for nearly 12 years was disappearing, let's just say during that time I flinched.

As I remember it, I told no one about my anxiety attack. Instead, I acted like all was fine. Nonetheless, while the owners were my friends, I knew they could also see that I had lost a step, because I had. In the past, I'd been able to come up with a festival, a midnight show, or some sort of gimmick, to turn slumps around. That spring my well of creativity was dry.

After the scare ended, I stewed in my juices for a couple of weeks. Then I lurched to the decision that continuing to be terrified of losing my job was intolerable. For the first time, just walking away from the Biograph began to seem to be my best option. My divorce had just become final and my then-girlfriend, Tana, thought I had gotten stale keeping the same job too long.

In spite of how crazy it seems now, having no plan for how to make a living scared me less than staying on. Thus, for reasons good and bad I took the plunge and resigned. The two principle owners, Alan Rubin and Lenny Poryles, tried to talk me out of it, but by then my mind was made up.

Sitting at my drawing board in my downtown apartment on Franklin Street I created a three-page, hand-lettered resume, with cartoons for illustrations. Cartoons! Then I mailed off a batch of them to apply for jobs that looked attractive to me. In some cases they just went to organizations I admired, without applying for a particular opening.

Awaiting all the new opportunities, I seriously set about making some new art -- stuff that would have nothing to do with selling double features or midnight shows. Deciding that dreams were a classic resource for any artist looking for inspiration, I began working on depicting what a couple of recurring dreams in my childhood looked like.

At this time I was acting as the art director for Throttle (a local counterculture tabloid) and I hosted a weekly show on Color Radio (an offshore-like radio station) Neither of those time-eating responsibilities paid a nickel. However, I also sold and produced advertisements for both entities, which did bring in a little money.

Very little. Thus began the process of shrinking my lifestyle: the selling off old collectible stuff, cool objects I had acquired in fatter times.

Naturally, it was disappointing when the offers I was sure would come my way from sending out those goofy resumes never happened. As the summer passed I drew some comic strips, made a series of paintings and put together a couple of collages. In the doing of all that I designed a logo-looking doodle to depict movement through time and dimensions. I thought it suggested both spontaneity and structure. The zism's look was inspired by the 1920s constructivist movement in the USSR and 1930s American cartoons, especially those created  by Max Fleischer -- Popeye, Betty Boop, etc.

Still, as I then considered doodles to be my most natural way of drawing that meant the zism was also about truth. At happy hours I told people it was the symbol of the inevitable final system of beliefs that would assimilate all the previous isms in history. After all, what my zism just as chock-full of mysterious hokum as any of them? 

The first published zism, along with some gesture drawings of little dancing pairs, appeared on the cover of Throttle's December 1984 issue. Eventually, I had to draw zisms on handbills and put them up on utility poles, just to see what would happen. In the spring of 1985 I posted a series of “Zism” handbills. They featured cartoons, photos, off-the-wall questions and sayings … and zisms. I liked drawing them. The handbill pictured below was No. 2.

Maybe that little project was just more proof of how unhinged I was in this period. And, speaking of unhinged, a dislocated ankle put me on crutches and ended the handbill series. It also made me concentrate on writing during the weeks that followed the injury. So I designed the first issue of SLANT, a 16-pager. I also made four large collages on plywood panels. The largest of them was installed in the 3rd Street Diner (I wish I knew what happened to it). 

Then, in the spring of 1986, I started stapling issues of SLANT -- this time front-and-back, two-page handbills -- to selected utility poles twice a week.

In part, that was done to protest the City of Richmond’s renewed crackdown on fliers. I also wanted to establish that a periodical’s legitimacy could be in the eyes of the beholder. In the course of that oblique mission I fell in love with publishing. Then SLANT came down off the poles to go through several changes in format over the next eight years, or so.

The doodle-like drawings of couples dancing made a comeback in 1986. By then I had named them Dancing Doodles. They were used to fill the variable small space that remained open at the end of the pasting up of an issue of SLANT. The space to be filled was usually about an inch or an inch-and-a-half tall. In printer's parlance the Dancing Doodles were used as dingbats.

Drawing them was the fun part of the paste-up chore I always saved for last. They were done quickly without a plan; each mark was simply a reaction to the last. After a year or so, I stopped putting the Dancing Doodles in SLANT, as the 'zine matured and got tighter in its layout. I was surprised when people told me they missed seeing them.

Remembering that readers had liked them, in the mid-1990s I made a few paintings of dancing couples. Maybe a half-dozen.  These pieces were larger and more involved than what had come before. A few prints of them actually sold, then, needing to make more money I put them on the back burner again.

Dancing Doodle No. 3 (approximately 8" by 10"), seen below, was part of that series. Maybe I should have kept doing them, but I didn't ... and so it goes.

No comments: