Archive for the Artists who fall through the cracks Category

Loretta Bebeau, a Minneapolis-based artist, emailed her thoughts recently (quoted below) in response to my post on What Artists Are Thankful For and my paean to Grizzled Art Warriors. She started by explaining there’s a “story” waiting to be written about her friends Marge and Ed Bohlander.

Marge is one of the few women who did air brush in the 70s/80s/90s. Ed is/was a fantastic metalworker. We have a friendship that goes back to Hopkins and the early arts activism in that town. (In fact they called me and asked me to show.) It’s not the big, hot space like Flanders or T.Barry, but it is a friendship and they know their art. (They’re from the same era as T. Barry.)

Bohlanders went to NYC for awhile and returned to Hopkins, MN. After a successful stint there, they bought the building on 36th Ave. South. Here’s where we pick up their story. After a string of health problems they are now returning to their orginal career goals……….. this is what happens to artists as they go through life. Should we prepare the younger group?

…We ask “where are all of those art students after the age of 30?”

Additional topics:
Where do the older artists show when they want to develop new work? new audiences??
Why is it so awful to be showing from a studio? especially when “galleries are pulling back” due to budget problems. Who is creating “chatter” to build public awareness of visual arts? Who sees the artist as someone over 30?
Does the mature artist exist “out of” academia??? Why should we be proud of them???

Let’s compare visual art with the music world. The enthusiasm of Elvis cannot be recaptured, the Beatles represented the 1960s, and visual arts also represents a time period that cannot be regained. Therefore, earlier, older art still is valuable and continuous chatter about visual art creates awareness of the value.
Let’s compare the athelete over 30 to the artist over 30. Where do the old ballplayers go? Better yet, where are the UofM musicians from Bob Dylan’s era??? Let’s compare them to the local visual artists from that era.

I don’t need responses to the above questions, my purpose is to get something stirred up…. brainstorming…was the old term. During the down times, visual artists have always created a new “drive” for community attention. The drive also raises community spirit and health, aimed at a community pride in their artists.
It’s the time for the 40 year olds…

Then she shifted to explaining the hard realities of her artistic life.

I just read the tales of the “Grizzled Artist.” So, you have it. Onceuponatime I could just skip into a corporate file/admin/secretary job and pick up cash. But this no longer happens over age 50; bright young 30ish people rule the world.

Hey, I have children in that group and want them to do good, but the reality of food and shelter is reality. Also, painting was a habit that sustained me during that nurturing part of life. Artmaking is/was a basic part of my daily thinking. What do we replace it with??? Should I rock back and forth in a chair, or sway to imagined music?

Now the medical community mentions that creative arts keeps the mind from falling into Alzheimers and dementia.

Do I continue to spend amounts of time and money making art that no one wants to see, or do I actually fix the plaster on the kitchen wall and buy paint for it??

I thought now would be a good time to check back in with Gabriel Combs, the artist whose descent (into homelessness, substance abuse, and near-incarceration) I have covered here and elsewhere. Fortunately, Combs keeps a MySpace page, on which he has been updating his blog fairly frequently of late. Below are some interesting tidbits from his blog:

Date: August 16, 2008
Post title: sepulchral beatitude of a heartstring fugitive
it was a love story first, now a tale of unending loss. sometimes i don’t want the day to end, as i don’t want to face another night alone. sometimes the night seems more fruitful in its suffering dread. got to this point giving away my heart to fools and liars. i always believed and was so dedicated. so in love and so blind, regardless of my mistakes and short-comings. so in love with the world, a world i now cannot find…two stories, one loving and one hating, one living and one dying.

Date: August 20, 2008
Post title: narcissism prevalence; prima donna persona non grata
i hear there is a handbasket suitable for my transport to hell. …i checked in to the ER for many, many problems exactly three weeks ago to the day. they ejected me several hours later as i had no “actual plan to commit suicide”

i have a fistful of friends, lets call them friendly pariahs. outsider is still alive like a cultural stitch will mend a fashion trend. i harp on this issue like an instrument with passion…

…slowly reading lord jim, as after a maddening push on reading am suffering a maddening push on art making. all you generations are xyz, fool. its already been established and if you can’t follow the patterns you needs to back the fuck up because its all old news…

i’m looking for my lee krasner but i want her to be lee bontecou…

Date: August 27, 2008
Post title: Alcoholic Altruism/Augean Artiface
twelve pack goes down like gravity. falls like an anvil, falls like autumn. i can feel it heavy, more than last year. dropping further and faster. another day passes, un-named and unknown. got up half dead today, morose and numb. nose numb and red. i love how it feels to have that haze. saves me to live another day on the slow suicide savoring how i die. one with a perpetual death but still lives to tell about it. there is no pre nuptual to marriage with this ritual. i’m not sipping, just stammering and stuttering under lifes’ trauma. i don’t seem to die regardless of my planning. i wish i had some advice for someone to not end up here or to alleve some friends concern i’m too far gone. you see, i don’t have hope to make it anymore and so i have’nt a care in the world. i don’t expect to live and i can’t seem to die. i slit the wrists but the blood just keeps coming. i’m going to go lay down in the gutter amongst my filth…its an empty round in a full chamber game of russian roulette and i wear the crown of shit. hands down, quit askin questions. i got an answer for your suggestion. i’m sweatin while you’re restin. calloused while you’re guessin. curse everyone while i’m blessin.

Date: August 30, 2008
Post title: minnesota mediocre; fair game midwest manifesto
five months homeless now. sold everything just about. i think i can make six months. trying hard to set shit up to go back to ohio (cue pretenders song) for a minute after september. wur um frum, lotsa folks in graves there. never seen my moms grave yet. might find where abouts some other family, down in kentucky, virginia, ect. back in them mountains…when a fly comes in my studio my tendency is to maim it and offer it to my pet spiders. i did so today but busted it open and it fell thru the web and the maggots came out and consumed the corpse. i imagine they began to die and there was like one fat one left in the end. i did’nt bother to observe the end of it. reminds me of the art world.

i’ve enjoyed the recent thoughts of mr. fallon, for the record. at times the thoughts stray from the track i’m on, but we seem to converge here and there as i do with a number of the other under rated minds around here. i like the new thousandth word vicious guest article. funny how the consensus is growing that this art scene needs to change and one needs to talk about this *shit*, or it will stay in the hands of those that need to *go*. get out now, or get kicked out hard. i gots boots fool. …

i know exactly who i am in my time and while i’m actually still alive. just like those before me did. fall down drunk and don’t get paid for the art i do but you gotta make prints to get out as much work as i do. 85 or so pieces sold in the last sixty days plus a couple give aways. this is’nt ego this is the facts. i’m just building up, still humbly following the tracks of pollock, van gogh, ect. those that went to fucking hell for this shit without a flinch. i’m not leaving it for you to decide. hell no, you’ll tell me piss in a jar is it.

Date: September 4, 2008
Post title: troubled water torrent/noli me tangere via tantalos
woke up on the sidewalk the other morning. i lose days here and there. if you’ve seen the jackson pollock moving picture the scene where he wakes up on the (as i remember it) cement platform underneath a window with some kids looking at him. dirty and deranged. i was in a block that was mostly a school, lying on sidewalk that was paralell to black asphalt. i remember drinking with a couple of guys from tibet. learned a thing or two before the blackout set in. things about my thinking and spirituality while speaking with a buddhist. (one guy i think was not speaking english and was deaf anyways) …sold the engagement ring yesterday, took it off my key-ring. got ripped off for gold but freed from a trap of sentiment. being in my mind is being a cat herder. i keep up and multiply ideas like bacteria. beneficial parasites. yo, you got the sun in your eyes in this show down and am i an artist or a writer. leave you guessing as your eyes narrow and mine grow wider.

bring it to fruition, notice i’m quiet but my knuckles are swollen and scarred.
cut my eyekon teeth and my art comes up in you rough and hard…

you ignored the artists like us in the past and now we are aware. you’ll wait for us to die like vincent but we will teach you like hoffman.

you fucking a hole.


On my Minneapolis-based arts blog, The Thousandth Word, I recently collaborated with Minneapolis artist-warrior, Gabe Combs, on a piece called  “Dried Blood and Dandelion Wine.”  It reveals, in the artist’s own words, much about the raw details of his present life (as an artist recently made homeless); here’s a sample:

Being an artist is not a fashion statement that passes with the season; it’s not something that hinges on gas prices. Art is something that combines with the culture to establish roots that intertwine with and break up the cement of society so the wildflowers can grow.Art breaks up a false foundation and replaces it with dirt. I wonder if it’s really possible to make dandelion wine…

Regular readers of CAFA will recognize that I have been following Gabe’s story, as best I can, since just before he was made homeless in March. You can read about the early stages of this artist’s self-destruction here, here, and here.

Also, here’s an informational post that tells you what’s up with this new Thousandth Word blog on I suggest you visit this site often (perhaps nearly as often as you visit the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America) to read more such stories by me and five other capable and informed local arts writers.

Just to check back in, below is pasted the most recent online forum post by Gabriel Combs, the artist who self-destructed (and went homeless) a few months ago.

Note: I haven’t seen Combs since just before he was evicted from his apartment. He was not particularly pleased with what I wrote about his experiences, so I don’t imagine he’d have any interest in meeting with me again. Therefore, unfortunately, the only way I have of knowing how well the now-homeless artist is doing is by reading the scant words he writes on this online forum. (And these words don’t paint a pretty picture.)

i sold my soul for a bowl of soup, and there was a fly in it.
cuts don’t heal
slow seeping blood
its death and it creeps

testosterone and adrenaline mixed with alcohol
my senses have gone animal. survival explicitly dictates it. its a fine line from here to hell, and i’m aware of every instinct, sight and smell. dreams are theatre and threatening and nostalgic nightmare with beauty and godpleasesomeonehelpmeplease. sleep face down arms crossed in a coffin with the process of suffocation. radiate light in the day, solar cell (prison) becomes anemic until after midnight shadows confiscate lack of contrast.

an ideal balance of alienation and abstracted nostalgia.

“i don’t care about my bad reputation
never said i wanted to improve my station…”

choooke…. my body is afflicted with this heartttttt…… brokenbreakcrookedandstraight

“runnin through the field where all my tracks will be concealed

and theres no where to go…”

nothing is making much sense. i don’t know where i am.

here are three 3″ x 4″ statik kinetic tortoise, now up on ebay for only .99 cents. i gotta get out of here soon…

(posted on by Gabriel Combs, May 18, 06:35 PM)

Documentary filmmakers have been delving deeper into the phenomenon of artistic failure of late. I have seen three such films (which I will describe in a future post) in the past three months myself. And this Toronto Star article, generated by the 15th annual Hot Docs festival, describes an additional four such movies:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a film about a Toronto-based heavy metal band that has long avoided superstardom, or any kind of stardom. The filmmaker, Sacha Gervasi, follows the bad on a disasterous European tour. (Did I hear you say Spinal Tap?)

The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger: One Man’s Search for the Half-Truth, by Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Gallagher, concerns an amateur auteur named Marshall Sfalcin. Sfalcin, who has created a series of Twilight Zone-like episodes for a local cable station, has long been attempting to film the life story of his grandfather, who was ahead of his time by creating a fast food burger, the titular ”grumpy burger,” for the defunct chain of Hi Ho Restaurants in the Detroit/Windsor area long before MacDonald’s arrived. The film document’s Sfalcin’s inability to complete his film.

Nik Sheehan’s Flicker, is a flim about Brion Gysin (1916-86), a Canadian artist and mystic and close friend of novelist William S. Burroughs. Gysin invented the flicker machine, a device with a bright light inside a rotating cylinder with patterned holes that is said to boost alpha wave-stimulated creativity and transcendence (because the lights supposedly correspond to alpha waves in the brain). The film records the failure of Gysin’s device to find its way to the mass market, leaving Gysin permanently embittered.

Alison Murray’s Carny is about a strange and oft-overlooked subset of the creative class–fairground workers. In particular, the film follows one carny worker, named “Bozo Dave,” as he deals with the highs and lows of his profession and his eventual decision to quit his job.

As a follow-up on my previous post about artists hitting inevitable career/existential hurdles, I’m posting an email from an artist I don’t really know. She got my email address from the Art Happy Hour! site (that I run as a counterweight to all this Artistic Failure gloom and doom), and she sent me a copy of an email she had written to an exhibition coordinator voicing frustration about being rejected for an art exhibit at a hospital in Minnesota, suggesting for some reason it would be grist for conversation at the happy hour.

(The message is included below, with identifying details X’d out for purposes of confidentiality and privacy, because it provides an interior glimpse of the wounded psyche of an artist hitting an artistic hurdle.)

Subject: RE: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2008 08:57:03 -0500

Thanks XXXX,
I’m going to keep this rejection letter as evidence of how difficult it is to show work in Minneapolis. The pieces were exhibited at Augsburg in 2004, and since that time I’ve had them stored in my studio. NO one wants them because they do take visual and physical space. New York art critic Eleanor Heartney juried one into a competition at the Plains Museum in Fargo, she liked the work. But otherwise, I still own it and store it, which costs me money.

The galleries in Minneapolis have responded with the same words that you have used. They note passion…but no thanks.

I fully understand your position and have other work, but this was a strong emotional period of my life that really demanded healing my heart. What does an artist do with it? My colleagues wonder why I’m not showing, and the answer is I’ve tried.

The full insult is when galleries look at a resume and assume that the artist has not tried to exhibit because other galleries have rejected the work. I do find that my ideas fit better on the coastlines of our country, but that demands shipping expense. If I behave myself and frame it under glass, then I’d have that additional expense, but that doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
You see my point??? Coffee shops won’t even show the work. I truly need your prayers.

best to you,

Subject: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2008 12:18:56 -0500

Dear XXXX:

Thank you for your interest in participating in The XXX XX XXXXXXX exhibit at the XXXXXXXXX XXX Health & Healing. I received many submissions, and was struck by the quality of work I saw.


I regret to inform you that your work has not been selected for inclusion in this exhibit. Your images are strong, the description of your experience moving, and I honor the healing that is a part of the artistic process for you. However, I had to make difficult decisions as I worked with issues of space availability and the desire to create a cohesive group show.


I thank you again for your willingness to share your work with the patients, staff and visitors of the XXXXXXXXX and XXXXX XXXXXXX Hospital. We very much appreciate artists, and the ways in which art helps to create a healing environment within our clinic.


Blessings on your continued artistic journey.





XXXXXX XXXX Program Coordinator

Meeting Gabriel Combs again after nearly five years was a shock. All the former young-punk anger and wiry strength that I had seen when I first met him was gone, replaced by frail deliberation, lumbering gentleness, even a kind of solemn grace. “Can I offer you some coffee?” he asked apologetically when I arrived at his small apartment in the rough and densely populated Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. He seemed unwilling to look directly at me, turning his back to the sink of his tiny kitchenette. “It’s fairly fresh. I just need to heat it up.”

I demurred, and held up the bag of Middle Eastern food I had picked up on the way over. “I can’t drink coffee this late in the day,” I said, “but I am hungry. You guys want to eat?” (Another artist named Ray, who has long spread an itinerant life between an old RV and the couches of friends, was also present.)

They accepted the food without thanks, like prisoners do, and ate mostly in silence. I swallowed pieces of spinach pie and chattered nervously, trying to get conversation going. I mentioned I was specifically interested in their artist careers, and how had art had perhaps let them to their current stations. This got them both started on a littany recitation of the slights, insults, and the past treacheries they’d endured in their lives, jobs, art pursuits, and so on.

I didn’t take careful notes (I wasn’t thinking of this as a journalistic visit), but I learned a few indelible facts that I record here. Combs had been supporting himself by selling art on eBay for more than two years–ever since he’d quit a job at a photo processing place, supposedly because of “some bitch” coworker who was blaming him for things that had gone wrong at work. In a typical month, Combs makes 25-30 small art works to sell, working in series to save time and reuse colors between images, thus conserving supplies. He couldn’t say exactly why he started selling art on eBay as a “survival thing.” It just happened “by chance,” he said, as he was applying, unsuccessfully, for job after job to replace the one he’d left. “I saw some others doing it on eBay, and I thought I’d try. I just put it out there. I weigh it against all the jobs I’ve hated, and I like this much more. I just need to figure out all of the marketing strategies.

“I feel like I got pushed into this… but I’ve made a pretty good run of it,” he said of selling his art at $10-$20 a pop, mostly to collectors from Europe.

While Combs luck seemed to have run out finally, it lasted awhile. And his art got sent out all over–Germany, England, Spain… “A bunch of people in Spain have my work,” he said. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to France or Spain. The street art there is just incredible.” But Combs doesn’t have money to get to those countries, let alone to sustain himself for any length. He hadn’t paid his rent since November, and in the weeks leading up to his call-for-help blog and forum posts in early February he had been dealing with the heavy-handed mechanisms of the legal system.

Prior to ending up at the photo processing place, Combs had attended school in Minneapolis for graphic design. I can’t recall which school he attended, as there are several for-fee schools here that purport to train the next generation of working designer. I don’t know the details, other than Combs left school with a degree and a sizeable debt, but he was unable to find work in the field. “I really liked graphic design,” he said. “Really. It just was impossible to find a job doing it.”

The littany of blame, excuse-making, and self-demurral tossed out by Ray and Gabe against all the people in the art and professional world who were keeping them from success reminded me of some recent blog-writings about work and creativity of another Minneapolis artist who seemed to have hit rock-bottom of late.

I’m making no money on music. I can’t get a gig. I can’t find a decent job. And I don’t have a social life because I’m too broke to do anything, and besides, I should be at home recording anyways… Taking a chemical won’t change who you are. It won’t change your brain. It definitely won’t make your life situation any better. It can only promote change. So I’m trying to see what I can change and how I can help myself. I’m just afraid that the answer is to “find a job.”

Any job that fits my qualifications does not fit my skills or personality, and vice versa. That’s the trap I’m stuck in. I’ve gone after jobs that “fit me,” and I don’t get hired, usually because someone more personable is just as available. I was able to slip in to jobs only to get treated passive-aggressively, and sometimes even used as a scapegoat. If I’ve ever had a job that did not fit this profile, it was low pay and small hours.

EVERY employer wants a “motivated, team-oriented, self-starter,” which I can be if I were running a gallery or something. I can’t be that while answering bitter emails from dissatisfied Target customers. And I can’t pretend I’m going to. What the fuck is the point of that?

I’ve always known this about myself and that’s why I fight against the odds and work my ass off in my spare time, making music, making art, promoting the arts, volunteering, running a zine fair, etc. hoping that it will pay off down the line. The fact is that it WILL NOT pay off…

Based on former experience, the best case scenario is that I will settle for something that will pay me to simply maintain my human existence. If I save anything, it’ll cover the hole that I create when I get pissed off and quit. My only life, it seems, is a flat line. It also seems my creativity has been dwindling since I stopped getting student loans and switched to paying them. I made a huge mistake. I invested in myself. I thought being educated would get me somewhere. I didn’t realize that you’re more prepared for the workforce as a high school graduate than as a college graduate.

Anyone who sees the way Gabriel Combs interacts with and approaches the world would quickly know that the root of his problems–his inability to keep a job, to market his art, to get along with others in a position to help him–likely lies solely within himself. It is a case where a person’s voracious creativity not only creates conditions for alienation and isolation, but makes the person blind to the reasons why he is shunned.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good thing to see a person lose his vibrancy and vigor in this way–particularly when it’s a result of a voracious creative drive. Combs, compared to his old self, is a zombie now–diminished, hungry, lacking any spark of joy. It was vastly preferable to know him when even the smallest slight would provoke a shitstorm of rage and spew, when you were afraid that he might explode on you just because you looked at him wrong, and when you knew he was only seeing the world as a canvas on which he could make marks, literally and figuratively.

It was sad to see him like this, even if he told me he was hopeful and optimistic for the future, proud of his petty art sales, and eager to keep making art work. In the course of conversation, Combs brought up several times the name of Van Gogh, citing something he’d read in his letters to his brother Theo or talking up some aspect of his life. He also mentioned he had recently seen the Schnabel film about Basquiat. I wasn’t sure if he was identifying with these famous artistic failures, or if he was just acknowledging those who had previously traveled the path he was now setting off on.

“All things considered,” says Combs, “I’m a happy guy. What have I got to complain about?… I literally have nowhere to go. I could couch-surf, but I have no permanent place to go. If that’s what it is, then so be it.”

The latest updates on one of Combs’ websites suggest he was scheduled to hand over the keys to his apartment to a court representative on Monday–yesterday–at noon. Below is a picture he posted as the last image from his studio, just before it must have been carted away:


Today, just a few hours ago, Combs posted the following on the mnartists forums:

i’m close to kmart on lake… i have’nt been on since friday, so i missed about the painting on saturday. officially without a home now, having handed over the keys yesterday at noon. anybody know how to get a dvd out of a macbook drive? i stuck the last harry potter movie in here and it does’nt know its there and won’t let it out… i hope it does’nt mess this thing up. i got a ton of drawing done, as i’d been holding back from it for quite a bit. lots of thumb nails for paintings to do. have to get back to painting i a little bit here, but had to check the net. ramen noodles and bread… spring should bloom nicely this year. gotta run…

Before I complete my thoughts on one Minneapolis artist who is currently skirting the abyss, a few more words on the topic of how poorly Minneapolis treats its arts community and its less fortunate despite its entrenched self-image (and deep amounts of supporting propaganda to support the image) as a place particularly enlightened and progressive on these issues.

A few weeks ago I quoted a local artist who had blogged that Minneapolis was not all that friendly to artists. After my post, the blogger responded with this: “Minneapolis shouldn’t feel bad about not supporting artists. Lots of places can’t support their artists. But Minneapolis should stop making out with itself in the mirror and take a look at itself instead.” He also wrote: “I think this place is a fine spot for a middle class, well adjusted, creative person with a descent backup plan to get a good start. I believe that I have personal issues that keep me from realizing my goals, specifically in this place.” And he vowed to leave Minneapolis soon: “Come 8/31, there’s nothing keeping me here. Unless I start a fun dance band, or find my calling in middle management, or give myself a labotomy, I’m moving.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her exposé about the working poor in America, Nickel and Dimed, famously exposed Minneapolis as being among the least friendly places for people without money. In Minneapolis, the ”living wage” was calculated to be $11.77 an hour, and Ehrenreich got a job at Wal-Mart paying $7 an hour. Because of the poor layout of the city and the inadequate public transportation, she had trouble getting to work on time (she went carless for the duration of her experiment). And because of the lack of affordable housing, she could not find a decent apartment and had to stay in a barely adequate rattrap motel—like many of her co-workers. While she wondered at first how her co-workers could even think of paying $40 to $60 a day for a dive of a room (totaling up to $1500 a month), she soon realized that low-wage earners had to deal with a double-edged sword—they could not afford to pay the large sums (a full month’s rent, plus a down-payment, plus bills, etc) needed to rent a more cost-effective apartment and so had to live in more expensive, less suitable conditions.

Earlier today, meanwhile, the artist Combs made final preparations for walking away from his modest apartment—writing on an artist forum: “i quit existing on paper soon. hidden place in which to land and radiate art, incognito in society, unseen and silent… i feel like moving like a shadow down between the cracks of society and back again. lost and unlost. whole and broken hearted. pulling something out of the self that has craved the foreground, albeit bringing a new lonliness with it…”

I once quoted the Minneapolis gallerian Thomas Barry on how he felt about the city after running a gallery there for nearly thirty years: “In general, [local support] is nowhere near what is necessary to make it a vital place for showing and making art….It was better in the Eighties, most definitely. Art was a fashionable thing and people bought into it….But it’s pretty much been flat for a long time now. A lot of talented people can’t continue to make art because they can’t afford to.”

Were Minneapolis a better place for the working poor—be they artists or non-artists—it might be easier to forgive the place for patting itself over and over for its wonderful self-image. But in addition to the fact that the poor can barely survive here, and artists (who come from all over the region to be in the place that constantly extols itself as an artistic Mecca) often flounder here to get established and to thrive, as I described in 2006, in reality, at best, Minneapolis/Minnesota ranks below average nationally as an art center. Among the failings of Minneapolis in the art realm: in 2003, budget cuts of 30-60 percent decimated the State Arts Board, and while much of the budget was restored for the current biennium (after four years of struggle among arts orgs and artists), that money is likely to go the way of the dodo yet again next year—owing to yet another brutal state budget deficit; arts employees in Minnesota are generally paid 30-50 percent less than their counterparts in other places, leading to large rates of job attrition in the arts worker corps; neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul has a cultural affairs officer, a public arts plan (though St. Paul has a modest non-profit public art org), a functioning arts and culture plan, a cultural tourism initiative or plan, or any of the other features of other cities/regions serious about their arts community; and, of course, all of these factors trickle down and lead to continuing despair and hopelessness among the artists on the ground.

When I saw that Gabriel Combs’ situation had spiraled down to the point that he was facing eviction and out of options—likely to end up in a shelter, alone and doomed—I debated what I would do.

On one hand, despite my ambivalence about his art but because of a history of being serendipitously “connected” with him, I was terribly curious about what sort of life he was leading, and would lead, through this personal, art-driven disintegration. In a way, I thought, it’d be a kind of window-view into the life of a modern-day Van Gogh—as, in many respects, Combs’s life seemed to mirror the life of the Dutch icon of the quintessentially unrealized-genius/failed artist. After all, like Van Gogh, Combs is remarkably prolific. By perusing his website, scanning through the mnartist forums, and his eBay seller ID, anyone could see he is compulsive about producing art (some of it derivative, some of it rather empty of any meaning, but much of it remarkably inventive and facile in rendering). Further, like Van Gogh, Combs speaks a severe dedication to the act of art-making; it’s all he really wants to do, nothing else—and in fact he had done nothing but art for the past few years.

If Combs had the intellectual discipline to match his hand skills, he could have been, like Van Gogh eventually proved to be, a great artist—he’s that visually inventive. Instead, as with Van Gogh, Combs seems just another angry young (tagger) artist trying to go legit, who, by striking out at everyone—in bar fights, through substance abuse, or by taking offense at every cross word (as he has often described on the forums)—dooms himself to failure.

did’nt sleep much last night. something about 3 liters of wine, mushrooms, and speed. oh, and some whiskey too. and i may have to fight tonight but its not my fault she was left neglected. i will likely lose this fight too, but one never knows. only a little half done with an american tragedy. i like dreisers style alright, but hes fairly long-winded and makes errors. i think i’ll pick up some joseph conrad after this, and may have to read the heart of darkness again first. time passes and certain texts come off a bit differently in going back over them. i am currently morose, confused, and solidly self-destructive but its nothing new and tomorrow will bring new scars to earn. what difference does it all make? to twist out of that moribund shit, here is something cute. hide your fishes… (G. Combs, forums, February 12)

I debated going to visit Combs’s studio/apartment not only because of our history, but because I knew I’d end up accused of “exploitation”—taking advantage of one person’s (in this case an artist’s) dire situation for my own gain, or to get my sick jollies, or for revenge. It’s a conundrum and a fine line. On one hand, one could see this sort of writing as very vulture-like—a feeding frenzy on the dead or dying carcasses of artists. On the other hand, the most compelling stories I tend to write, the stories that get the best response and attract the biggest readership—to this (uncommercial) blog and to my (commercially) published writing—are the personal stories of artists who are teetering, or falling over, the edge. These stories, strangely, are what people seem to want to read, and, despite the inevitable accusations and questions about my motives, I continue to write these stories (without seeking them out), because I think they serve an important and useful purpose. They make people, generally speaking, more aware of the life-realities (and dire struggles) of working artists today. Vultures, after all, serve a very useful function as a warning and spur, for those who are still well-fed and healthy, not to set off on the dry gulch pathways.

So, despite my hesitation, and recalling the Artistic Failure mission—to a record the “struggles of myriad failing and failed artists across the communities of this country, as well as the failure of the “entire structure that supports artists and arts viewing… so that we somehow, someday may collectively rise up and fulfill our national creative promise”—I continued wondering if I should visit Combs, see his work-live space, and get a brief glimpse of what was at the heart of his personal dissolution. My intention was I might (or might not) write about him specifically, but that I would at the very least use information about his situation to feed a large essay about the great make-or-break, career-crushing hurdle that every artist seems to face at some point in life. Still, I continued to have serious misgiving about whether visiting Combs would be worth the inevitable frustration to me, and, likely, to Combs.

I had very nearly decided to back off, let my curiosity die, and ignore Combs’ obvious cries for attention, but then he posted the message below on the forums:

i cannot believe how crazy last night was, and how it was an extension of the days before that. tonight threatens to be worse. i am officially out next friday. things are more fucked up than i can remember them ever being. if you live around stevens, look for random art on the street, as i’ll be setting odd boards and panels out in the next few days. if i don’t get killed. walked right into a crack den to tell someone what was up, like ten people in there. the guy who is evicted today that lived there laying naked on the bed except for his underwear, with the place full of people smoking. landlord “uhhh, just what happened in your apartment last night?” all hell. i’m carrying a hammer with me as i might need it to hit someone (s). mopping up blood thinned by liquor. let it all come, i can take it. heres five drawings i did awhile back. sold the lot for 99 cents to a guy in germany. one of my worse sales lately. got some better prices from a series of people from spain, which makes spain the foreign country i’ve sent the most work to i think. i’m to about $500 a month on art, and maybe 25+ pieces to make that. so desperate today, and out of my mind… (G. Combs, forums, February 15)

That same day, I wrote a hasty email to Combs and to one of his forum friends, and I waited to find out if he would let me visit.


Note, below is a representative sample of Combs’ most recent work (originally posted by the artist on the forums).
Combs has been supporting himself exclusively for the past few years—ever since he quit a job at a photo-processing company (something to do with the politics of the place and some evil fellow employee)—by selling his paintings/drawings on eBay. These paintings typically sell for $20-$30 a pop, though occasionally a bit more.

You can support Combs directly by bidding on the work he sells on eBay.


Sorry, fans of Failure, that I’ve missed a few posting days this week.

Part of it is I’ve been swamped 24-7 of late putting together a fundraising event for the little art organization I direct as my day job. Don’t let anyone ever tell you (ever) that fundraising, no matter for what amount (even for small-town nickels and dimes), is easy… Oh man, is it anything but easy.

By the way, the auction we’ve put together is pretty awesome, in a small-town Minnesota kind of way (with at least two world-renowned artists)—in case you happen to be one of the rare people at present in this country who are flush with cash.

The other part of my absence is I’ve been following the self-destruction of a young artist here in Minneapolis named Gabriel Combs. Combs has known for a number of weeks now that he’s going to be evicted from his drug-den urban-core apartment in the infamous Stevens Square section of Minneapolis. Here’s what he wrote (unedited) to a local artists’ forum back in early February, during the coldest part of what has amounted to the coldest winter in Minnesota in the past 15 years:

looking into renting a weekly room for awhile. luck seems to have run out. was inevitable i suppose. strange how i can’t get a job. i’ve always been curious as to what my character would become reaching complete desperation… what i will be reduced to doing, simply to survive a little longer… my instinct to survive is mercenary at rock bottom.

I should back up a bit.

I first met Gabriel Combs in 2003 or 2004. I had been writing for a website in Minnesota run by the Walker Art Center and funded by the McKnight Foundation called, which also had—in an effort to connect the local community of artists—established an open forum for artists. I, of course, with my interest in community affairs, my Gen-X lack of online savvy, and my infernal optimism, have been a regular contributor, participant, and watcher of the Forums since they were mounted.

I also, in 2002, founded a local arts writer association called the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota, and, around 2003, I set up with the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a lecture series called the Trialogues, in which we connected a local art critic/writer with the artists exhibited in each of the MAEP’s exhibitions.

Long story short, I met Combs at one of my favorite venues (a bar) after an early Trialogue event—back when I was pushing the events to any and all comers. I remember him as being smallish, but strong and wiry, full of the angry energy of a disciple of the Juxtapoz movement, and I’ve had a kind of ongoing “connection” (for lack of a better word) with him through the online forums ever since. As I recall, he had brought a small drawing (of a techno-beetle done in graphite on paper), that he made a point of passing around the bar table to see how the critics would react. (I kept my cards to my chest, as I was the nominal organizer of the event and had to remain political; but let’s just say here and now that I’ve never really been much of a fan of the acolytes of Robert Williams…)

Needless to say, Combs and I haven’t always gotten along. Let’s face it, I’m an opinionated arts writer, and he was an artist struggling to get noticed in a market overflooded with artists. It was inevitable that I’d eventually be the target of his frustration—if only because I stupidly kept myself in proximity. At one point, after something I wrote that only indirectly concerned him ca. 2006, Combs wrote the following gut-clenching diatribe against me on the mnartists forums (which I post primarily because it reveals, I think, something essential about the artist):

I think you need to be called on your shit. So far, i’m up to Sam Spiczka, Ben Olson, and John Grider whose comments could’nt be posted on your blog, which you say you did’nt pull down in a hissy fit, yet I think we all know better. The hypocrisy of how you complain about artists whining about not being noticed is sad, and at times a blot on the (or clot in the) scene. In contrast, a general rule i’ve heard repeated over the years has been that it takes around ten years for many collectors to acknowledge artists. Judging by the time you arrived in MN, got in the MIA’s foot in the door show, and then bailed from showing your visual art, you are what? At one third of that time? Another example of your long history of not getting what you want and getting negative. I would’nt bring these things up, but you insult other people who refuse to give up. You speak of artists harassing you for attention in your columns, which I have personally witnessed, but you asked me for images from the Inkala, Grider, and Combs Caffetto collab show, at which I was first hesitant, but gave in on your *second* request. You proceeded to hack it up in reality, again dismissing the “Juxtapoz” movement, which you’ve been unable to correctly set in history in any way, raising suspicions of yet another acidic kickback from your weaknesses. Your bashing of Olsons’ work was pathetic, (especially in contrast to the glowing and truthful review by Mark Wojahn on, (and you are both VACUM)) with an even more pathetic attempt at tying into a supposed overall flaw in art history. I would call it basic disrespect. Insult without a backup. Your blog came down again after a criticsm by myself, and a statement made by Spiczka on forums that was dismissed and dodged. True, you have given your hand to some decent (not great) writing on the arts the last few years, but also have undermined your own work better than any artist “attack” could by your general bitterness laden with venoumous hypocrisy, child-like behaviour, and your thinly masked pen-names. You’ve alienated the audience, the core peoples who would back you up.

Without you, we exist.

Without us, you do not.

There were worse comments along the way about things I’d written in print. I didn’t take offense (after a locally well-known and respected printmaker wrote, in a letter to the editor, that he’d like to smash my head in with a brick, I long ago stopped caring what local artists say about me for what I’ve written as a critic). I never responded. So why, you wonder, would I even care about such an erratic and unstable artist now—now that he’s about to be out on the street, primarily due to his own choices?

Well, if I don’t care about the self-destruction about one lowly artist in one insignificant American backwater town, then who will?…