A rigorous cameo appearance by "The Toastmaster Space Heater"
Maybe it's the brown spotty leaves swirling around on the sidewalk, or the fact that this stretch of Cherokee Street is dark. It's not that cold for November, but it seems a little chilly inside Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts. Galen Gondolfi is trying warm the place up, and emerges from a back room with a beautiful space heater that looks more like an accordion.
"It's a Toastmaster!" he observes merrily, and plugs it in. As he turns up the dial on the front, the coils begin to glow an infernal orange, and the thing emits an equally infernal sound like a rusted-out Pontiac with bats caught in the motor. This sound would send most people running desperately for the outlet, but Gondolfi is fascinated by it (though he admits he probably paid too much for the heater). As the rest of the core Gondo crew show up Michael Shuh, Bevin Fahey-Vornberg, David Early there's regretful talk about how they wished they'd miked the thing up for past shows, because the noise is far superior to just guitar feedback.
If that sounds like mere art talk, don't be fooled; Fort Gondo was never supposed to be an arts compound, and it's definitely not a track-lit gallery. In July of 2002, when Gondolfi moved into this Cherokee Street storefront, it was going to serve as an office for Pound Pals, a non-profit agency for dogs. As Gondolfi explains, "The dogs are actually number one in all of this. It was going to be pro bow-wow, fuck the arts...we're all about dogs! But that never happened."
What happened instead was this: Fahey-Vornberg liked the way that Gondolfi's building was full of "huge piles of stuff," including "a multitude of toasters, sixty or seventy electric fans, cocktail shakers, and cardigan sweaters." She took some photos, and thought it would be nifty to show them upstairs, in Gondolfi's apartment, in the format of a modest art party.
Enter Shuh, who Gondolfi says "pretty much accosted" him at a Mad Art opening to ask if he could also use the space to show some films. Since they both sported "moppy bangs, round glasses and the same corduroy jacket," they hit it off, and the modest art party became a little more ambitious. Then quicker than you could say big bang, another 15 or 20 people were involved. So last February, the Untitled Arts Collective opened up the doors for their first show at Fort Gondo.
"Of course, Michael has a big mouth," Gondolfi says, giggling a little at the contrariness of this statement, "and he mentioned to the RFT that there was going to be an art show. And they do a little blurb in the 'Night and Day' and 350, 400 people show up." The street that night was parked up with "Saabs and Lexi that's the plural of Lexus" and when one guest showed up in a cab, the driver informed him that he hadn't dropped off anyone in this part of town for thirty years. Was he sure he wanted to be dropped off on that block?
Well, it's true that the Cherokee neighborhood has seen better days. But it's seen worse, too; in the last eight months, Fort Gondo's kept this normally quiet stretch of street continually parked up with cars of all types. In that time, they've done 50-plus events, including live music shows, art shows, poetry slams, live theater, puppet theater and film screenings. They began to work cooperatively with the Wash U. graduate art program in April, and in June, they launched a program called ArtReach, which is coordinated by Fahey-Vornberg. She says that they never set out to do an educational arts program for kids, but when neighborhood children "ran wild" through the first art opening a vacuum cleaner disappeared from the shower and a swing hanging from the ceiling was swung to pieces it became clear to her and Shuh that they needed to find a way for the kids to participate.
"We have so many artists involved in this," she says. "And so the idea was to have a different artist come each week and teach one three-hour class." After procuring a grant from a professor at the University of Illinois and buying art supplies, Fahey-Vornberg solicited students from all over the neighborhood, including a preschool on the corner and a neighborhood church.
"I had between two and 15 kids show up each week," she says, "And we did everything. They did masks, murals, David did two hip-hop classes, we did drawing, painting. I counted it up, and we had a total attendance of over 75 kids. We stopped for the winter, but we're going to start it up again in the spring." The hip-hop class was wildly anticipated, so much so that even adults came by to ask about it. In the end, though, Early stuck to teaching a very sizeable group of kids.
"As a kid you see other people play instruments," he says, "but you never get to hold an electric guitar. It was neat to let them touch things and try that. They got to come in and see how things really work, and play with big kid toys."
By the time he was teaching the finer points of scratching vinyl, Early was also booking all the music at Fort Gondo. Like a lot of projects here, it morphed into something bigger, almost of its own accord. Early asked the Dave Stone Trio to play at the first art show, and within a few months he was booking as many as two live music shows a week, featuring both local and out-of-town bands, including The Cants (Houston), Parts & Labor (Brooklyn), and The Kingdom Flying Club (Columbia). The art component stayed intact, though. When Panicsville came in from Chicago, not only was there art hanging on the walls, but the band was accompanied by two guys in lizard suits who turned knobs and flailed around and tangled their tentacles in wires. Though the space restricted the kinds of bands Early could book, it was all-ages, and soon word on the street was that Fort Gondo was a gangbusters place for shows, reminiscent of the old Way Out.
Meantime, during the day, something equally delightful was occurring: people from the neighborhood were dropping by to say hello, when's the next show, or thanks for letting my niece or grandson come by and paint. Though there's a lot of art going down at Fort Gondo, Gondolfi says that their larger mission is to revitalize the neighborhood. In fact, they're subsidized by Justine Petersen Housing and Re-Development Corporation, a non-profit that assists first-time homeowners in urban areas.
"They're bankrolling the whole thing," Gondolfi says. "I owe all this to them. I owe my paycheck to them." Indeed, in addition to everything he does with Fort Gondo, Gondolfi spends 40 hours a week with a cart and a push-broom as "Galen Garbage," picking up trash off city streets as part of Justine Peterson's Litteracy Project, where he preaches the virtues of clean streets, clean credit, and equity, and that same urban, grassroots sensibility is more than apparent when you look over Fort Gondo's prolific list of completed projects.
In fact, it's hard to believe that they managed to stuff so much benevolent madness into one storefront. The only projects that didn't take place there were a few missions by the Mobile Spectacle Unit, which was basically folks from Untitled dressing in Fort Gondo-issue army fatigues and spreading confusion around the city. They gathered around ATMs to cheer on people withdrawing money, invaded the Gap with a group of 15-plus people to "shop," and drove up in front of last summer's Artica arts festival in a Budget Rent-a-Truck, where they spilled out and performed a guerilla civic ceremony to bequeath the key to the city to the Mississippi River.
"We're not the Fort Gondo Art Gallery," Shuh affirms, "and that's not any knock against that, but there's a certain mold and we don't fit into it, so why try? Why not take advantage of this and do something else, and do our shows everywhere?"
That's where "100 Yards of Chaos" comes in. At the rate Fort Gondo is growing, of course, there was no way they could continue to operate out of one storefront. In October, they hosted the Critical Mass gallery crawl party, where they debuted Art Parts, a refurbished auto-parts warehouse; Low Art, a hobbit-sized basement gallery; and Radio Cherokee, a new music venue housed in a bar that had been abandoned for 15 years all within 100 feet of each other.
"It's all Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts; it's this address," Shuh says, "but it's also out in the garage, the building next door, the next building and the lot behind it, and now up and down the street."
Early now oversees Radio Cherokee, and is pleased to note that they now have the freedom to book all kinds of bands, including rock and roll outfits, such as the two who played the "Ben Franklin Show" a few weeks ago, a showdown between Kansas City's The Electricities and local outfit The Electrics. A giant cardboard Ben Franklin was hoisted into place on the stage, complete with cardboard key and cardboard kite, while both bands set up at the same time. Then they played songs back and forth, trying to outdo each other's Rolling Stones covers.
"At the end, we had an applause-o-meter to see who won," Early says. "They decided it was a tie, of course."
For Art Part's first show, "F," Gondolfi and Shuh cleaned off hundreds of sooty shelves that had formerly held solenoids and mufflers, and stocked them with pieces of fruit. Then they dressed up in animal suits, dubbing themselves "furries," and worked the front counter like otherworldly, proletariat fast-food workers.
"The furries didn't talk," Gondolfi explains, "so you had to point at a picture of the fruit. Then you'd go into the other room and wait for the furry to retrieve the piece of fruit from the shelves for you and give it to you on this little paper plate."
Ah, yes. In the end, it all comes back to the furries. The dogs, that is. The RFT has remarked, on more than one occasion, on Gondolfi's "bad dog" performance at Fort Gondo's first show, where he crunched himself into a dog cage and spilled his water. Perhaps it's true, as Gondolfi asserts, that furries are the ones pulling strings behind the scenes and "playing at some other level of consciousness."
"They did make their way onto the business card," Gondolfi points out. "Right now, there are 24 paws in the backyard. There are lots of bow-wows in the house... this place is as much dog pound as it is any other institution."
Fort Gondo's next art show is "Tie a Ribbon Around the War Machine," a mixed-media installation by Liz Kueneke. The opening reception is December 7 from 6-10 p.m. You can find them in person at 3151 Cherokee, and over the phone line at 314-276-2488. For a full listing of upcoming live music, go to www.radiocherokee.deviant.org.