MasterMinds: Matthew Posey, Joel Hester and Karen Blessen Are Winners in Our Inaugural Creativity Awards

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Artists will make art even if they don't make money. With a few dollars, however, they can make more art, bigger art and even take some time to teach others how to make art. For our first MasterMinds competition, which awards three grants of $2,000 to local artists, we were hoping to find among the nominations a good sampling of Dallas art-makers from a variety of media.

What we got was a crazy-great list of more than 70 nominees, many of them submitted not by the artists themselves but by patrons and friends who wanted them to get some overdue recognition (not to mention some no-strings-attached cash).

So what exactly constitutes a MasterMind? Like that old Supreme Court quote about defining porn: We know it when we see it. We didn't want to hand out lifetime achievement awards or hold a popularity contest: The goal was to honor the cutting-edge work of local visual artists, performing artists, artisans, filmmakers and arts advocates.

From the nominees, a panel of Dallas Observer editors and critics narrowed the field to nine finalists. (See "One Tough Choice," page 15.) We picked the winners after several rounds of impassioned discussion about who should win and why. That it was difficult to choose only three is proof of how many truly fine and deserving artists live and work in our community.

In a ceremony at our first Artopia, a celebration of art, fashion, food and music on November 13, we'll award the prizes to our 2010 MasterMinds. They are an inspiring trio, each dedicated to his or her medium and working at it all day, every day. One writes, directs and stars in avant-garde theater; one is a designer and builder of one-of-a-kind furniture; and one is a visual artist bringing art lessons to children in hopes of creating a kinder, more peaceful world.

Next year these winners will help choose the class of 2011. Now meet the MasterMinds of today.

Matthew Posey actor,director, playwright

Next to Fair Park, in a 1,500-square-foot storefront space that used to be a dry goods store, next door to what used to be a brothel (about 90 years ago), actor, playwright and director Matthew Posey, 52, lives and makes plays in the tiny theater he calls The Ochre House.

He creates his innovative productions from scratch, writing scripts based upon intensive research into such cultural icons as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (for a play called 14 Death Defying Acts) and Beat Generation poet William S. Burroughs (Bill). Posey played the lead in those shows and in six others he wrote and produced over the past year. Into each performance he weaves elements of video and live rock music written and performed by collaborator Ross Mackey. For Bill, the most recent Ochre House production, Posey played the title character as half-man, half-puppet in a style of Japanese Bunraku puppetry he uses in many of his pieces.

Strange? Yes. Provocative? Always. There is no other theater in Dallas like The Ochre House, which opened in November 2008. Shows happen on a 10-by-12-foot wooden platform stage raised just eight inches off the floor. The 50 plastic orange chairs for the audience were picked up by Posey for a buck each at a rummage sale. Every $15 ticket includes free drinks and the chance to hang out with Posey and his cast members and musicians after the show.

This is Matthew Posey's spookier version of Pee-wee's Playhouse, a dark, whimsical world of imagination crowded with puppets, oddball paintings, taxidermy-stuffed birds, curb-find furniture and bookshelves stacked with volumes about religion, mysticism and alchemy. (Posey, a graduate of Texas Tech and the American Film Institute, was also a seminary student in the 1970s.)

"I try to make spectacle happen on this small stage," says Posey, who lives in the back rooms of the yellow-walled Ochre House with his Boston terrier mix, Walter. "It isn't easy. One reason we use puppets so often is because the space is small. Puppets give the illusion of a larger stage. With them, we can make characters fly."

This is low-budget, sometimes no-budget theater, supported by contributions from a few anonymous patrons and by residuals Posey receives from the more than 90 film and television roles he's done over the past 25 years. He was in JFK, Places in the Heart and Lonesome Dove and played trumpeter Harry James in a TV biopic of Frank Sinatra. During a decade spent acting and producing in Los Angeles, he snagged a string of eccentric character parts that show up on IMDB as "Psycho #1" and "Inmate."

Back in Dallas since 2001, Posey's never stopped auditioning for film and TV work. This fall he played a bartender on The Good Guys, the Fox cop series shot in Dallas. He had key scenes with star Claire Danes in the Emmy-winning HBO film Temple Grandin. Next he'll be seen on the big screen opposite Nicolas Cage and Mad Men's January Jones in the crime thriller The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, filmed in Louisiana and scheduled for release later this year.

Income from those jobs finances the relatively low overhead of his no-frills theater space and helps cover the $500 stipend Posey pays actors to be in his shows (generous by non-union Dallas theater standards). It's a close-to-the-bone existence being impresario of a theater whose offbeat productions, Posey admits, don't appeal to a mainstream crowd. "Most of our audience has never been to a play," he says. "Our audience base is a lot of first-timers who live in the neighborhood here in Exposition Park and hang out at the bars around the corner, plus a few people who've known my work since the 1980s."

From 1983 to 1991, Posey's experimental Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, founded with now ex-wife Carla James, was a bold, exciting upstart on the Dallas arts scene. Inspired by the work of The Wooster Group and its Performing Garage in New York City's SoHo, Posey's company, heavily subsidized by National Endowment for the Arts grants, reinterpreted classics by Shakespeare and put new twists on 20th century plays. Actor Kurt Rhoads still recalls the Theatre Garage production of St. Ella, Posey's deconstructed version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

"It was brilliant," says Rhoads, now living in upstate New York but back in town recently to play the title role in Dallas Theater Center's Henry IV. "It had arc welding and women with lactating breasts. Startling imagery. Matt played Stanley Kowalski. The testosterone on that stage was incredible. Matt doesn't mind shocking people. When we see his work, we feel like we've lived through something. The Ochre House is definitely in the same evolutionary line as what they were doing back at the Theatre Garage. He's not interested in developing a subscription series audience with an Agatha Christie festival. He's a fringe kind of guy."

At The Ochre House, without a locked-in annual subscription schedule to adhere to like most theaters, Posey can write, direct and open a new show in as few as 12 days. He says he's never sure from month to month what play he'll be doing with the core company members he calls the "Ochre House Boys" (some of them are women). This fall he was talking about writing a play about artist Frida Kahlo, then became obsessed with the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who fatally flew too close to the sun wearing the wax wings his father Daedalus had made. Posey's play based on the myth, Umlauf's Bicycle, opens in early December and will feature Balinese shadow puppets and actors on bicycles suspended from the ceiling.

After that, he says he might add a new chapter to his series of X-rated fables based on a grotesque puppet character called Coppertone. Working a life-sized figure formed from a discarded lawn-chair cushion, Posey portrays the rude, primitive, wisecracking creature who so far has journeyed to a bar, an asylum and several levels of hell (entered through a female-genital-shaped portal). "Coppertone gives me permission to do low comedy," Posey says. "He travels to the bawdy side of life."

The variety and complexity of the material Posey stages and his willingness to work with young artists with short résumés have made him a mentor to new playwrights and eager actors struggling to find a way to break through in Dallas theater's crowded and competitive landscape. Lately Posey has welcomed improv comedy groups such as Curtis Needs a Ride to the stage for late-night performances on weekends. In 2009, The Ochre House hosted the debut of former Dallas playwright Matt Lyle's comedy Hello Human Female, which has gone on to be produced in larger venues in Dallas and in Chicago (where Lyle lives now). "Any theatrical community needs a place to do and see wild-assed theater," Lyle says. "As a playwright, I know there aren't limits to how far I can go if what I'm writing is going to be done at The Ochre House. That's very freeing."

Fringe-y and freewheeling, it is, but The Ochre House is on the radar of artistic directors from most of Dallas' major professional theater companies. They attend Posey's shows to scout for talent and just to absorb the weirdness that's always a hallmark of any Posey production.

"All of us who work in the larger mainstream theaters need artists like Matthew to continue to push at boundaries of style, form and content," says Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty. "His provocative work forces us to constantly reexamine the theatrical experience, both in what and how we communicate. Matthew is a true artist, creating work that is singular, personal and challenging. Of course, all artists attempt to achieve this in their work, but many shy away from truly following their impulses and vision to a complete realization in their art, relying instead on creating copies of work done by others. Matthew is a source of inspiration for all of us."

Posey responds to such praise with an "aw shucks" shrug and a long draw on one of the 30 Camels he smokes every day. "Theater is the best thing I know how to do and I've been involved with it since I was 14," he says. "Who's to say how theater will survive? You've got to do what you know and trust that it's going to work. I have no idea where theater is moving in the future. There's a lot of great theater here in Dallas, but something new and exciting is needed out there to inspire a new audience. I guarantee you this: What we do at The Ochre House will always be intriguing."

The Ochre House, 825 Exposition Ave. 214-826-6273. theochrehouse@gmail.com

Joel Hester

furniture maker

Before the sun is up most days, Joel Hester has unlocked the doors of his one-man furniture workshop, The Weld House, turned on the radio to his favorite sports talk station and started wrestling with huge sheets of rusted steel. Hester, 39, creates custom-made, one-of-a-kind tables, bed frames, armoires and consoles from reclaimed pieces of junked cars and trucks.

For more than five years, furniture-making was Hester's side job. He spent weekends in his garage, fabricating four-poster bed frames out of shiny new steel, using the welding skills he'd learned as a teenager and selling the items on Craigslist. Then last July 4, tramping around a junkyard in hair-melting heat looking for usable metal, he had something of an epiphany. "I turned around and saw a 1970s Cadillac Coupe de Ville," Hester says. "It was beautiful. I looked at the colors and the rust patterns on the hood and saw a table in it. I knew right then that this is really what I wanted to do, what I should be doing. I've been chasing that rush ever since."

That day Hester decided to quit his day job at a printing press to go full-time designing and building furniture from recycled automotive steel. He rented a 600-square-foot workspace tucked into a cluster of small warehouses off Interstate 30 and started putting in 12- and 14-hour days, only taking breaks to have lunch with artist-wife Kathryn and their baby son, Fritz. In the months since he started The Weld House, customers from around the country have found his website—search for "modern steel furniture" on the 'net and the Weld House site pops up—and kept him busy filling orders (prices for tables start around $850 and he ships most projects in eight weeks or less).

Hester's first car-table customer was Matt Giese, an advertising agency account manager looking for unusual contemporary furniture to decorate his downtown Dallas loft. Giese says he'd seen some of Hester's earlier pieces in a booth at the Main Street Arts Festival in downtown Fort Worth and liked them. At first Giese wanted a coffee table made of old metal beer signs, but Hester dissuaded him from the frat-house furnishings idea and instead took him out to his favorite auto junkyard in South Dallas. "I remember we had to pay a dollar to get in, and it was really hot out there. My wife was with us and she almost had a stroke," Giese recalls. "We walked around and around, up and down the junkyard for a couple of hours and didn't find what we wanted. He went back out there the next week and sent me photos of cars to pick from."

The long coffee table Hester made out of an old Caddy hood, with its teal-colored paint streaked with orange-brown rust from several decades of exposure to the elements, sits in Giese's living room in his "soft loft" in the old Dallas Power & Light building. "We've designed the rest of the room around it. It's an awesome table and very functional," Giese says. "It will probably last forever. And I always love telling the story behind it."

Hester can point to any of the beat-up car and truck hoods, roofs and doors he's salvaged from junk lots around Texas and tell you tales of how and where he acquired them. Huge 50- to 60-pound swaths of old metal hang on hooks from the walls and ceiling of The Weld House, waiting their turns to be transformed into sleek furniture for buyers who, so far, live mostly on the East and West Coasts, where industrial-chic furnishings are in greater demand than in Dallas. Hester's partial to hoods and rooftops pockmarked by hailstones and to doors and trunk lids etched with graffiti put there by wild kids who hang out in rural junkyards and take out their frustrations on the wrecks. He found a smashed-up low-rider with an Aztec warrior painted in a mural on the hood and turned it into matching end tables. Faded paint and imperfections are left as is, with the finished product covered in a protective automotive clear-coat.

Artist Valerie McGovern, who wanted some tables for her Craftsman-style home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, now owns three Weld House creations, including a large table made from a '73 Chevy hood and a pair of end tables welded from the remains of a yellow school bus. "I didn't want what was on display in all those furniture stores. I wanted something different," McGovern says. "I'm from Detroit, the Motor City, so cars—awesome. I like bright. I like color. I e-mailed Joel and he was really good with me. I asked a lot of questions and he never seemed to mind." She also wanted some furniture her 2-year-old nephew could bang into without him damaging it or it damaging him. "There are no sharp edges on Joel's tables," she says. "You can put your feet up on them. If you dent them a little, that's OK." To her, the furniture is functional as well as a work of art. "I love that he has that vision to see something else in what most people see as an old car graveyard. He pulls some beautiful artwork, usable artwork out of it. I would call him an artist."

"No, I don't call myself an artist," counters Hester, a soft-spoken man with arms flecked with burn scars from years of holding a welding torch. "I guess I'm a craftsman. When people ask, I just say 'furniture builder,' and it usually stops there."

It takes about a week, between 40 and 80 hours of work, for Hester to make one table, depending on its size (the 11-foot-long, 500-pound "community table" he just finished for a Miami Starbucks took longer). The process starts with using an angle grinder to separate the "skin" of a car hood or roof from the reinforcing layer underneath. The flatter the original steel, the better. "There's no part of a VW Beetle I can use," he explains. "It's all curves." He designs each piece "by eye" and says the metal itself dictates what type of furniture it wants to be. Hester is a perfectionist about the final product. Joints have to be welded velvety smooth. Legs must be perfectly straight—"If you get the metal too hot on a welded joint," he says, "one leg could become a bit of a wanderer." Hester even finishes out the bottoms of his tables, attaching Vehicle Identification Number plates from the car or truck he used to make it. The tables are disassembled for shipping, with instructions for the new owners on how to match the legs to the correct corners through a pattern of raised dots.

Hester is always looking for raw material, taking time every few weeks to visit salvage yards where he has to "hike hoods" one at a time, often hundreds of yards back to his truck for transport to the shop. From his hours among those acres of dead autos, he's become an expert on the weathering and rusting patterns of specific makes and models. A 1980s Chevy pick-up offers the biggest single piece of metal with a minimum of side creases. Certain years of the Mercedes 240D were painted a blue that over time turns the color of the Mediterranean. Some Ford trucks from the 1970s sun-fade to a bright turquoise and then develop pretty polka dots of deep red rust. The roofs of 1960s Chevy Suburbans make excellent conference tables. At a gas station one time, Hester paid a guy $100 on the spot for the rust-speckled hood of the ancient truck the man was driving.

"As I'm working on pieces, I often think 'I wonder what all that truck has seen,''' Hester says. "In really old trucks out in the yards, I'll find calendars still clipped to the sun visors, scribbled with notes. As I read them, it's like traveling through time."

Stockpiling pieces of the heavy steel used on American-made cars in the mid-20th century is now a race against time for Hester. Junkyards are filled mostly with wrecks from the 1990s or later—stuff he can't use because the paint quality is too good and the steel quality doesn't pass what he calls "the thump test." "Most of the cars I would want to use have already gone to the crusher," he says.

There is that one near-mythic junkyard out by Azle that Hester has seen from the highway, sprouted to the horizon with rusted junkers of the right vintage. The owner is a bit of a hermit, though, maybe even a hoarder, and he won't let Hester in to pick the bones of the rotting cars. "Maybe someday," Hester says. "I'll get in there someday."

For now you'll find Hester at his Weld House, working long after dark, hammering rusty steel and sculpting it into heirloom-quality furniture that will outlive him. He works alone, welding mask pulled down over his face to protect him from the heat. When metal melts to metal, his welding torch sends off showers of sparks. In the dim light of the shop as evening turns to night, they look like shooting stars.

The Weld House, 469-371-3243, weldhouse.com. Mailing address only: 3015 Bryan Street #1F, Dallas, Texas 75204.

Karen Blessen

artist, peace advocate

She didn't hear the gunshot that killed the stranger on her front lawn in Lakewood late one night in 2000. But for the next three years, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen thought of little else but the murder of 26-year-old David McNulty. She immersed herself in chronicling the effects of that random act of violence on McNulty's family and friends, and on those who knew the perpetrators, including the killer himself. She wrote about all of it in a long article titled "One Bullet," published in 2003 in The Dallas Morning News.

After that, Blessen says, she needed a way to heal from those "three dark years" and turn her creative energies in a different, more positive direction. She began a meditation practice she still follows that requires memorization of lines of sacred texts. No more Law & Order episodes before bedtime; in fact, no more TV at all. More exercise and a healthier diet brought even more clarity.

In 2006 came what Blessen calls her "creative burst." Over several months early that year, she built a series of shoebox-sized sculptures—"happy collages," she calls them—she would title 29 Pieces. A collection of tiny assemblages and script-covered tableaux amid swatches of cloth, pieces of twig, glass, beads and wire, they contain bits of writing by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. There are lines from Psalms and from prayers in Lakota Sioux language. The first piece says this: "If the very world should stop...."

That phrase, which came to Blessen in meditation, was her cue, she says, to reevaluate everything in her life. Was she where she wanted to be spiritually? Artistically? Personally? "The art and writing just poured out after that," she says. "It was as if a portal had opened."

After 30 years as an illustrator and graphic artist (her Pulitzer in 1989 was for work published in the Morning News), Blessen, now 58, says she "put down the colored pencils and started down a different path." Having seen the effects of violence on her own doorstep, she became an advocate for peace and for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. She is the co-founder, with her friend Dr. Barbara Miller, of a nonprofit organization called Today Marks the Beginning, which uses art to promote peace and to raise public awareness of social issues. This fall the organization received $30,000 raised at the annual Art Conspiracy event.

Within Today Marks The Beginning is a program Blessen created and still directs called MasterPEACE, which sends volunteers, including artists, musicians, actors, writers and yoga masters into eight public and private schools in Dallas to teach lessons on peace to fifth-graders. Students learn about "Heroes of Peace," including Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and others, and they're guided through studies in the meanings of love, empathy, consequences and harmony, which they then translate into art pieces using simple tools and found objects. Blessen has helped get students' art displayed publicly, including an exhibit at the Dallas Public Library. Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center will host a show of 30 student-created MasterPEACE artworks reflecting "love" in February 2011.

Janet Perera, counselor at DISD's L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary, says the MasterPEACE program has had a profoundly positive effect on her school's students over the past four years. There are 1,000 kids enrolled at Hotchkiss, many of them children of recent refugees from African and Asian countries. More than 30 languages are spoken in the school.

"Many of these children have been highly traumatized in their lives," Perera says, "and Ms. Blessen's creative programs help traumatized children feel better about themselves and gain coping strategies." In addition to art, the children do yoga lessons, garden and develop relationships with volunteers. "They've just come from refugee camps, many of them," Perera says, "so it just makes them feel good that people care about them."

Former Hotchkiss principal Lea Beach says she believes MasterPEACE could have great impact beyond Blessen and her organization's art lessons, "though they are phenomenal in their own right." Beach would like to see Blessen's program expanded beyond the few elementary schools where it's now being used. "Our society is going through a huge change," says Beach, who now works with a nonprofit after-school program called HeartHouse Dallas. "With immigrants moving into our communities, it's going to cause a cultural shift. We're going to have to learn to get along together. I have seen refugee children learn ways to stop bullying and teasing through this program. But many children, not just refugees, are dealing with horrific situations and they could be helped, too."

At Parish Episcopal, a private school in North Dallas, counselor Vicki Millican has invited Blessen to teach several MasterPEACE sessions to middle-schoolers. The goal, Millican says, is "to help our students gain a deeper understanding of empathy and learn to find more peace in their lives....I am quite certain that their participation has made an indelible impression on them that will lead them to think and act more peacefully throughout their lives."

And that's precisely the point, Blessen says. "We're showing children how creativity can help us slow down and make some better choices. The very act of creating brings children to a calmer state."

That's the same effect making the 29 Pieces had on Blessen, after all. "When the murder happened, I knew something had changed," she says. "For three years I listened to people affected by one act of senseless violence. It had been a blip on Fox news, four paragraphs in the paper. But it just touched me deeply to discover the value and cost of one life. After those years of exploring things that were disturbing and dark in the world, I suddenly had a profound and transcendent experience that I expressed in the 29 Pieces. Now I want to share that."

In her cozy studio in Deep Ellum, Blessen has been working on a long-term project to expand the 29 Pieces to larger-than-room-size multimedia installations. With an estimated budget for the sculpture of $3.5 million, the super-sized 29 Pieces will become a traveling exhibit, or, if she can find the right building, a permanent installation similar to Donald Judd's massive Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

"It's time for artists to work on a larger scale," she says. "Art is going to manifest in ways we can't even anticipate yet."

Today Marks the Beginning, P.O. Box 140962, Dallas, Texas 75214. E-mail: kblessen@todaymarksthebeginning.org.

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