I thought of this as a pilgrimage, in the late sixties, early seventies, to visit Clarence Schmidt and the tumult of his demesne in Woodstock, New York. He was the chief “outsider” artist, famous all over the country, his life and work a living spectacle of barely organized debris. The house and his assemblages festooned four acres on a hill outside of the town. Going there was to visit a chaos that was bearable in contrast with the unbearable chaos, violence, and deceit perpetrated by our government throughout the Vietnam War.
Clarence’s welcome was always huge and physical. The great Kodiak guy of Woodstock engulfed you in big arms, pulled you into his heat and smell. Anything that moved, he hugged. He pulled your face into the thickness of his yellowing beard. You carried the reek home, pleasant as Liederkranz. His story, as I knew it, was that he was a stonemason in Queens, though some say he was also an architect. In his early thirties he inherited four acres of land on Ohayo mountain outside of Woodstock, and soon moved there with his wife. After he worked on several houses around Woodstock as a stonemason, his brain shifted into a different modality. He started laying stone walls in abstract patterns against the hillside on his acreage, and he started to build a house. Soon his wife left him and moved into a trailer on a lot above his place and rained down her garbage down off the cliff onto him. I don’t know what his emotional response was, but physically he received the stuff with grace and enthusiasm, and began to incorporate it into his project. That was how the place he called Journey’s End began.
He started building his first “House of Glass,” seven stories of stone and tar and old windows and doors, around a large beech tree, against the side of Ohayo Mountain. Spreading out from the “mansion” he developed shrines and totems out of tin plates, empty jugs, plastic flowers, product wrappers, broken dolls, discarded prostheses (a nearby prosthetic factory delivered their discards to him). The dolls limbs and heads made certain nooks in the scrap-scape downright spooky. Ranks of broken dolls, some of them dressed, some cracked, burned, pierced, distorted, some with hair of straw attached with tar, looked like a three dimensional, even wackier version of a drawing by that other outsider, Henry Darger, though Clarence’s inventions seemed more sinister than Darger’s playful, erotic fantasy wars. One time when I was there someone delivered two large broken demijohns, useless to everyone but Clarence. Clarence was amazing with his pleasure at the gift of these waste objects. The next time I came the cracks were healed with tar, embellished with limbs of dolls and plastic flowers, placed as if at the entrance to a cave. “What Egypt took centuries to build—” he spread his arms from his tar stained blue coveralls, his eyes spiraling with apotheosis, “—I have made this in less than a lifetime.” He swung his arm as if he were perched on a camel swaying across the plain of Giza.
I tagged along with Greg Blaisdell and Bill Lipke, who went frequently from Ithaca, New York. They were trying to document the accomplishment, and eventually published a book about Clarence. The place resisted photography, and the shots in the book are much less coherent than the experience of being there, though coherence was never as pertinent a value as energy and invention. Kathy Porter, a brilliant painter, and revolutionary spirit, often came with us. She was related by marriage to Stephen Porter to the family of the photographer Elliot and the painter Fairfield Porter. Clarence loved to hug her generous body. One of the great elements of her abstract paintings and drawings, is the power of her impatience. Her work barely contains her expansive energy. Perhaps Clarence’s work reinforced in her that feeling of momentum in stasis. His place threatened to bust loose if you turned your back on it. This intimidated most people. Clarence was their boogy man, and they feared his effect on their property values.
His preference for highly flammable tar as a binding material caused his “mansion” to burn down in 1968 and then again after he rebuilt it. Sometimes when I visited he wasn’t there. I’d smoke a joint and relax. Without his intervention and guidance I felt submerged, swimming through a strangely breathable liquid realm. It was like entering a Blakean world, a visionary other place. All around the discarded world of detritus, of garbage, floated in an immeasurable equilibrium. Sifted through his mind all this was made possible and gorgeous. My own relatively bourgeois attempts at writing were shocked into a lesson in artistic freedom, although I also understood that free as his art seemed, Clarence was not a free man, but tightly wound in tentacles of his own neuroses.
Clarence once offered to let me stay overnight in one of the “rooms” of his mansion. This was a cubbyhole, a tubelike space similar to what I’ve seen advertised as accommodations in cheap Japanese hotels, but his was slathered with tar. He had embedded a TV tube in tar at the foot, and another on the ceiling at the head so lying on your back you might watch it. I doubted they were hooked up but didn’t stay to find out. It felt cowardly to refuse the hospitality, though I don’t think Clarence even noticed me gone.
Clarence’s fans wanted his place preserved, turned into a national treasure, but we were in a minority. Many of his neighbors despised him as they looked to their property values. Despite Woodstock’s reputation as an open liberal place, it had a persistently bourgeois heart. Clarence’s wild looks and recycling survival strategy was too extreme for the town’s population. Vandals often attacked his place. He was tossed into the hoosegow in Kingston once for defending his art from three men who were tearing down the “junk” in his backyard. He whacked at them with the butt of a rifle. “This fateful day is a day of infamy,” he wrote in his Bible while in jail, “shrouded within a dark cloud of bereavement and deeply rooted in the regretful act of vandalism thrust upon my hopeless art. Art is the only clean thing on the face of this earth except venerable holiness. Art may err but nature cannot miss its everlasting beauty, and dust is for a time only.” Bill Lipke said that Clarence didn’t think of what he did as art until several people introduced the idea, then he locked onto it like a barnacle onto an oyster.
He wrote in his Bible from the rest home he was put in after could no longer maintain his life at Journey’s End, and was found sleeping in doorways, “…lost in a deep sea of bewilderment, quandary, hoping upon hope of my successful pulling myself up and out of this travail maelstrom of dire circumstance that has so vilely engulfed me somewhere out of this impenetrable darkness of suspense and untold anxiety that completely surrounds me, holds me captive, and so subject to the emanation of the gods of fortune and judgment sentenced upon me, inconceivably powerful forces, of my mind, carries & graciously transports me along, a flower strewn path of hope, fortified by the blissful sphere of righteousness to guide me in my desperate pursuit of happiness, via my creative art…” These notebooks have pages of this overblown rhetoric of despair, always redeemed by his luminous visions of art.
As Clarence succumbed to diabetes and other health problems his place quickly deteriorated, reduced to rubble by 1974, nothing left there anymore. It would have taken a devoted establishment to preserve his accomplishment. Everyone was too willing to forget about him. No one wanted to do the work. Perhaps it was fitting. Garbage back to garbage. Rubble to rubble. Thirty years after his death someone found his ashes, forgotten in a corner of a Woodstock mortuary, no one to mourn for him, no one to celebrate his passing.
What is left for me is worrying the idea of what he meant for me at that time. Whatever miseries I conjure and embrace for myself, I expect to be redeemed by art. The artist and the pursuit of art seem some of the few elements of sanity available now in our society so grotesque with greed, ignorance, selfishness. Clarence was outside all controlling establishments, including the art establishments. Including the comforts of family. From that I took enormous reassurance and inspiration, struggling against each tentacle of the establishments that squeezed myself. We live on our planet both overwhelmed and undermined by our own garbage. Clarence seemed to provide an antidote to that. He was the septic superman. It wasn’t absolute freedom. He was perhaps more trapped than the rest of us by his own mind, but he dealt deliriously with whatever was thrown at him, with his own visionary panache.
Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.