Talking personas, performance and playwriting with CAW member Heidi Madsen

I recently sat down to a delicious plate of pasta with Heidi Madsen in her delightful home to learn more about her artistic path. Her passion falls at the intersection of art and performance, and this is completely evident in the way she has decorated her living space. She has wonderful collection of clown art, including a portrait of herself done by Joey Monsoon. According to her, clowning is serious business, and it is clear that she is working towards a much larger goal than simply a chuckle. She approaches each new challenge with gusto! Her performance personas span from clown to drag king to Sasquatch. I hope you have as much fun learning about the person behind the performer as I did.

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What changes when you put on a red nose?

The clown nose is the smallest mask in the world. It does not hide you, it reveals you! It doesn’t change [me], it is like an on switch. It is like an on switch for lighting up the authentic self.

Clown school was a bit of a legend to me, but you’ve actually been! What was it like?

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had the same image that other people have of clowns. It was a five-week program about clowning through mask. It was in Toronto so it was based on Richard Pochinko’s clowning who is a famous Canadian clown. Everything was based around making six masks. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it was like doing improv on steroids. I had never spoken out loud on stage, ever, and I had to do that. Basically, I had to turn myself inside out on the stage and doing that consciously is a scary thing. The teacher was a tough love teacher!  She was really good and knew you could do better. It was all about being authentic.

I went to clown school because I wanted to take my performance to the next level. I really wanted to learn new things about performance since I don’t have any training background at all, except for just doing. This was a chance to get some training and the idea of being a clown intrigued me. Going to clown school was my fortieth birthday gift to myself!

Before you were a clown, you were a drag king. What was your first performance experience? 

I had never been on stage before and I didn’t even know there was a stage person in me. Today the core of who I am is a performance artist and I know that at 43 years old, but I did not know that in 1995. A friend of mine had a birthday party and 3 of our friends decided to do some performance at a bar and dressed up like men. We didn’t even know what a drag king was, nobody did. It was so much fun the bar owners invited them back, so I offered to help backstage. My girlfriend at the time told me I should get up there. She said, “C’mon, go up there and do Risky Business or something.” I thought that it looked fun and I could probably slide across the stage in my underwear. Once I was up there, there was some magic that happened. There were no words for what I felt. There was something in me that knew how to do this. I was surprised that it was part of me.

Heidi is staring down a sculpture by Sharon Dorsey.
Heidi is staring down a sculpture by Sharon Dorsey.
Cat meets clowns!
Cat meets clowns!
The portrait of Heidi was painted by Joey Monsoon.
The portrait of Heidi was painted by Joey Monsoon.
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You described drag as a political statement. What do you mean by that?

I am on stage to reveal the absurdity that real men are 100% masculine and are only attracted to real women. And that real women are 100% feminine and are only attracted to real men. I didn’t know this immediately. In the beginning it was fun and was just getting used to my sea legs. During those first years of performing, a bunch of drag kings were in the Women’s Studies program at OSU getting their master’s degrees. They started to talk to all of us about what performing drag really meant. After a couple of years of learning more about what it meant to perform gender, my tendency to want to make the world a better place came out.  If I am good at grabbing people’s attention, then I have a responsibility to say something important. That is how it became political.

Some CAW fans might recognize you as a giant, lovable Sasquatch. What was the significance of that performance?

Over the last three or four years bullying has become a big topic. Obviously it has been going on since the beginning of time, but when you have [the audience’s] attention you can get somewhere new with them. Heidi Kambitsch and I decided to make a performance with clowning and her body puppets. With those two things we created an interactive, anti-bullying performance for kids called Bully Eraser, Love Replacer. The Sasquatch character was about my sister’s story growing up being bullied. She had to change high schools because she was bullied so much. I was a year ahead of her and I didn’t understand why she was having such a hard time. In high school it is all about you and saving face in your grade. A lot of the bullying was emotional trauma, so I didn’t see the bruised feelings at the time. I’ve carried that around with me for years. This was an opportunity to go back and interview her, and then write a story for her. My sister was tall for her age and she hadn’t grown into her paws yet. This one asshole called her Sasquatch so the character is supposed to be my sister. It was my way to say that I am sorry.

Family stories are important inspiration in your artistic practice. Can you talk a little bit about the story of your uncle and the BIG project that you’ve been working on for several years?

Aunt Christine was a Catholic nun for 30 years. In the late eighties she left the nunnery to become a radical feminist lesbian. In the late nineties she decided to transition into Uncle Chris. So the name of the play is called From Sister to Mister. Uncle Chris is a real person who lives in Cleveland. He is a professional nurse and is 71 years old now. He is really important in my life because he is someone who made some really hard life choices. When she left the convent, it was the same time that I was a freshman in college so I felt like we were both leaving home. When she came out to the family at that time, I was also coming out in my mind, so we kind of came out together. When I found that she was transitioning, I had been a drag king for 5 or 6 years and realized that drag could be very serious performance. I really wanted to bring Chris’s story to the stage. In terms of the people in my life who I am really proud to know and can learn from, he is in the top three. I wanted to write a play about his life and I have spent eight years working on two versions of the play.

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There is a performance related to From Sister to Mister that is coming up in October. What is it?

I have taken a three-year break from the play and have been focusing on my performances with Heidi Kambitsch. I certainly want to write the final version [of the play]. This is a life project for me because my uncle is so important to me and I know this story needs to be out there. And I know I am the one to put it out there.

I needed to see the play through a different lens because I was too close to it. Two friends, one who is the manager at the Garden Theater and another who runs a dance company here in town, came up with a project to choreograph dance pieces to local plays. So I sent them my play for consideration. Long story short, they picked it! There are three choreographers, producing three dance pieces, to three plays in late October. I get to be part of the artistic process with the dancers between now and the performance. That will help me figure out what piece is missing in the play. By the way, Uncle Chris’ story isn’t done yet! He just got married last August to a woman in a Catholic church.

What advice would you give a performer just starting out?

It is really important to find your authentic voice. Not only through your voice, but also through your movement, how you look, and especially what your subject matter is. Make sure it is something you really, really care about. Because if you care about it, you will become a mirror for your audience and they will find the things in that mirror that they care about. I have no desire to do any type of performance that does not bring the performers and the audience together to see something new.

Talking about the politics of pink and the power of play with CAW cofounder Stephanie Rond

It is nearly impossible to sum up all the elements comprise Stephanie Rond’s tour de force, Dangerous Impermanence. I caught up with her at her studio where she had just finished framing a huge collection of her mixed media paintings. These pieces now fill the expansive Shot Tower Gallery at Fort Hayes. She gleefully showed me her car trunk that was stocked with stenciled pink girls. These figures were destined to be wheat pasted to buildings around town as the street art component to her artistic practice. She lit up when talking about the private screening of the film project, Tiny Out Loud. All of these elements (and more!) coalesce on September 5th for the exhibition opening and movie screening at the Shot Tower Gallery. See you there!

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What was the piece that inspired your newest body of work for Dangerous Impermanence?

Two and half years ago I exhibited a painting of my niece Sophia sitting in a chair with her back to the audience. I liked that you didn’t know what the story was. You didn’t know if she was being punished, planning something, or if she was part of an audience to something the viewer couldn’t see. The piece resonated with people. I realized that because the viewer couldn’t see her face, they could identify as being “in her shoes.” Every figure in my new series, both in the gallery and on the streets, is facing away from the viewer.  
 
 
It is hard not to notice that all the girls in the street art are pink, and all the canvases have blue girls. Why?
 
I’ve always been a feminist artist. There can be a lot of discussion about gender issues using something as simple as a color.  The street pieces, “Pink Girl Rising” are that color because the streets are traditionally male-dominated spaces. Women have very different public safety concerns so they are intentionally pink in the streets to represent that issue. “Ghost Girl” is blue in the gallery because it is an indoor space, traditionally considered female-dominated space.  The blue in the paintings has a dual meaning as they are the ghosts of the real pieces in the streets.
 
 
Is the experience of installing the street art a fun process?

Oh yes, I love it! I love installing pieces during the day because it gives me an opportunity to interact with the public, which is something I find very rewarding most of the time. One of my favorite interactions recently was seeing a little girl jumping up and down, pointing and saying “Oh Mommy, look, look!”  I felt that I was doing my job by giving her an image that she could relate to. Later that day, a teenage girl came up and we talked more in depth about why I am doing this – to combat the objectification of women in advertisements and media. 

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Street art is so important to you and may seem quite different than your work with S.Dot Gallery. (S.Dot is a pint-sized art gallery set in a dollhouse that Stephanie curates. It has a full exhibition calendar and a wide Internet following.) How do you think about these two ventures?

They may seem different on the surface, but they are both discussing the same broader concepts of feminism and the accessibility of art. I believe feminism is a discussion for all of us. Gender stereotypes are something that can bog all of us down, including men. S.Dot is the reverse exploration of the gender discussion I’m having in my street art. The home is traditionally a female dominated space. S.Dot gallery gives men an opportunity to play and make environments in intimate, enclosed spaces.

Like street art, S.Dot gallery is also a highly accessible venue for art. You can view it from the comfort of your own Internet device, or stumble upon it in your social network feed. The content in both my street art and the approach I take with S.Dot gallery is designed to be accessible for a broad audience. Initially, it feels playful, comfortable and non-assaulting. My goal is for the audience to feel comfortable with the work, then begin asking questions about the meaning and hopefully engage in a dialogue about the issues being addressed.

The connection between street art and miniature galleries is the theme of the film, Tiny Out Loud. When Andrew Ina, Dan Gerdeman and I initially created the Kickstarter mini film, the focus was on the miniature galleries. When we exceeded our Kickstarter funding goal and received additional funding from the GCAC, we realized we were going to be able to create a short film that captures the concepts in both the miniature galleries and the street art and what ties them together. The film culminates with the gallery actually becoming street art.


The idea of space or environment has completely changed with the Internet. This clearly relates to your work, and is very visible with the motif of the communication towers. How would you describe this in your work?

This is why S. Dot exists in the way that it does. Each show [at S. Dot] is a collaboration. There is a story that is told to the viewer to help demystify what we do as artists. The public gets to see the artists installing. By putting the artist and their exhibit on the Internet I create a safe space for the viewer to experience art and even interact with the artist if they want to. It is a full circle community event.

I frequently use images in my work of things that fly, they represent freedom and provide a sense of movement. The communication towers have this similar representation, but provide a deeper meaning of connection and community. They represent the connection between the self and others.

 

How do you think that play factors into your work?

Play is where my inspiration comes from. It creates an amazing feeling of freedom and confidence because you are allowed to make mistakes. Play equates to discovery and growth.

 

You describe art not as a product, but as experience. What do you mean by that?

Art is not supposed to be something that just looks nice above your couch that you don’t pay any attention to. Artists are viable citizens in our community and their role is to make you stop and think about things, whether that is human rights, the aesthetic of beauty or whatever that may be. Art is not something that you can own, rather something that you should experience.

 

The two “pink” images are street pieces for “Pink Girl Rising.” The two “blue” images are “Ghost Girl” works intended for the gallery. The first blue painting is entitled We the People, Yearning to Breathe Free, and the second is Carney Girl.

Visit stephanierond.com to view more of Stephanie’s portfolio.

Talking color, cloth and culture with CAW member Paula Nees

Paula Nees’ two fluffy dogs keep her company in the studio, along with the ethereal figures that inhabit her large-scale paintings. Not one for labels, she works in the traditional medium of oil painting without all the rules and restrictions. It was a delight to see her creative space and hear about her artistic process.

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What did you have to unlearn about painting after leaving school?

I think the time period I came out of you were either a realist or an abstractionist. Really elements of both feed into each other. Neither tag identifies me. That dogmatic approach doesn’t work for me. I see those influences [figuration and abstraction] merging in my work. Also, professors always said start with white. I often use drawing loosely with cattle marker paint sticks as a jumping off point.

You describe yourself as a “materials person.” What do you mean by that?

Paint is just another thing. I am interested in using materials and not necessarily that I am always painting. For example when I dye a work, I am still working with color and pattern.  I can do that without using a stick with hairs on the end of it. I am trained as an oil painter. I love the smell of it and you can fuss around with it, but I find that pastels have similar properties.

You paint on cloth, typically linen, as well as depicting cloth in your paintings. What is the conceptual importance of cloth to you?

When I was first interested in not covering up the linen was linked to my first trip to India where cloth is so prevalent and you see it everywhere. They do an extraordinary amount of design and dyeing. That is where I became intrigued by the idea of dyeing the linen with indigo and using that cloth itself as part of the subject rather than painting it. The dye looks different.

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What is the biggest difference between your work 10 years ago and today?

Maybe the intention and not wanting to stop at a certain point… I love the idea that if it’s not working, I just cover it up again instead of throwing it away. So there are some paintings that have a pretty good thickness of paint on them! Where I guess 10 years ago if [a painting] wasn’t working I would rip it off the stretchers and pitch it and start over again. There is something interesting about resurrecting or not giving up on something.  Maybe letting a little bit of whatever is underneath show the history of the work.

What role does color play in your current body of work?

The color is less about nature and more about temperature. Going back to the influence of India, I think that the color there is more intense. Seeing the color of bright curries and fabrics. I was very struck by how beautiful, bright fabrics were dyed in such dingy environments. That contrast surfaces in my current work.

Mystery Sister, Honorable Mention
Mystery Sister, Honorable Mention
Paula Nees
Jumping through Hoops, Ohio Arts Council Award
Thelma, CAW Professional Award
Thelma, CAW Professional Award

These paintings are currently on display at the Fine Arts Exhibition at the Ohio State Fair. All three took home awards! Congratulations, Paula!

Thelma, CAW Professional Award
Jumping through Hoops, Ohio Arts Council Award
Mystery Sister, Honorable Mention

Visit www.paulanees.com to view more of Paula’s portfolio.

CAW Awards Two Artists at Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition

Thelma, CAW Professional Award

For the second year, CAW awarded two artists – one in the professional category and one in the amateur category. Paula Nees took home the professional award for her stunning oil painting, Thelma. Alec Casto took home the amateur award for his work, Under God. By giving back, CAW strengthens our ties to other artists and the arts community.

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!