Every Friday night is Bad Art Night at our house. My wife, Laurie, and I haul up the old metal folding table, set it up alongside our dining room table, and pull four or five chairs around. She gets the art supplies out of our crammed coat closet, makes some tea, and puts some energizing music on the CD player: Angelique Kidjo, John Coltrane, or George Jones. When the doorbell rings, it could be any of a half-dozen regulars, or maybe a newbie drawn by the allure of Bad Art.
Eventually, a chatty group is seated around the table, digging into oil pastels, modeling clay, chalk, colored pencils, watercolors and — a wonderful discovery of Laurie's — fluorescent cattle markers from a farm-goods megastore. The Bad Art Nighters are doing loopy abstractions saturated with color; they're making strange, three-dimensional paper-sculpture thingamajigs and neosurrealist collages. Laurie is working on a drawing of an enormous cat whose body is intersecting with a toucan and a map of Belize. To inspire the group, I am reading from a manifesto by the great and bizarre gay filmmaker and performance pioneer Jack Smith: "If you make perfect art you will be admired; but if you make imperfect art you will be loved!"
Ah, yes, this is Bad Art Night at its best — which is to say, its worst. One of our faithful attenders once asked Laurie why we use the b-word. Doesn't it imply low standards, low expectations, low self-esteem? No, Laurie explained. It implies no standards, no expectations, and very high self-esteem. Bad Art is all about conscious, dedicated badness — in community — as a tool of liberation.
Here's how Bad Art Night was born. Laurie is a public artist who does big outdoor art with light — projects that may involve turning an entire building into a light box, or projecting slides onto vast scrims. Five years ago, she was verging on artistic burnout. She wanted to do some small art for a change, but she hated the claustrophobia of the studio.
So I came up with a simple idea: five minutes of collage at night, before we went to bed. We tore up magazines and the stock-photo catalog books Laurie uses when she does graphic design. After a few nights, Laurie began smiling. She had a nice little pile of collages. But it was still hard. Five minutes before bedtime wasn't much, and there was always that inner perfectionist screeching, "Make a good collage, schmuck!" Laurie began to realize that it was that voice, more than anything else, that kept any art she did, big or small, from being a joy.
Then we read Life, Paint, and Passion by Michele Cassou and Stewart Cubley — a guide to using painting to free yourself from bad little inner voices. Are you afraid of making a bad painting? asks Cassou and Cubley. Then go ahead and make one. Paint an ugly, sloppy mess, and see how you feel.
Laurie and I tried it.
We felt great.
We learned to wreck our paintings as soon as they got careful. The minute I felt that nasty stiffening of the spine that says, "I hope this is going to be good," I would scrawl godawful crayon marks over the whole thing. As ugliness piled on ugliness, I felt a giddy sense of transgression. I would watch Laurie fill her drawings with meaningless little dots and dashes, just to fill up space. "I abhor a vacuum," she said with a wanton laugh.
Soon Laurie was inviting friends. Making Bad Art a weekly social event kept us at it on a regular basis, gluing together weird little boxes, scribbling with cattle markers, sticking down collage pieces that had been ripped, not cut, out of stock books. One attender made fabulously strange little purses our of cigar boxes. Another, a professional artist who was feeling blocked, created wild multicolored, garishly patterned female torsos out of cardboard. (She's now exhibiting regularly.)
For a while Bad Art Night got "hot" in Laurie's vast community of friends. She even moved it to a friend's art studio, charged a modest admission, and paid rent. People came in off the street. The place was packed. Pretty soon Laurie was sick of it. "I don't want to be a facilitator," she mourned.
So Bad Art Night came back home to our dining room. The Friday gatherings are much more than art feasts; they're mini-salons in which the Bad Art Nighters talk about politics, love, spirituality, and their next moves in life. (Nothing gets talk flowing like having something to do with your hands.) We inspire one another; if you're stuck on a prissy little drawing (as I often am) and afraid to make it wild, you can glance at your neighbor's piece, a riot of tropical color slathered over a cereal box, and immediately feel a dizzying sense of freedom. Professional artists, crafts types, dabblers, and doodlers, are all welcome at the double table. Only boldness counts — and, we say, if you can't be bold, at least be bad.
Doing exactly what we want with art from moment to moment, celebrating impulse, defying the little voice by making mad art-gestures, has had repercussions. "I'm much more likely now to dare to be a bad cook, a bad designer, a bad manager," says Laurie. "All that means is, I'm more likely to forge ahead and happily make mistakes and learn wonderful things from them in all parts of my life." And then, with a flourish, she adds even more little dots to the space between the toucan and the map.
Contributing editor Jon Spayde and his wife, Laurie Phillips, live artfully in
St. Paul, Minnesota.