Brandon McFarland on Monday, May. 9th
MAKE, a documentary from filmmakers Scott Ogden and Malcolm Hearn, tells the stories of four outsider artists (Judith Scott, Ike Morgan, Hawkins Bolden and Prophet Royal Robertson) and the very unique and at times unfortunate circumstances that fuel their livelihood and obsession. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has contributed music to the documentary that he says inspired his 2010 release, The Age of Adz. Now MAKE is set for DVD release on June 21 through Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty. We interviewed both Scott and Malcolm about the film over ten years in the making that took them inside a mental hospital and forced them to hire private investigators.
Turnstyle: How did you find your protagonists?
Scott Ogden: I went to art school at The University of Texas at Austin back in the early 90’s and had a teacher who saw the kind of work I was making and told me that he thought I should visit the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, TX. It took me some time, but I finally made a trip to this small Texas town and was instantly blown away when I saw the types of things covering their gallery walls. Julie Webb introduced herself and started telling me about all of the artists they showed. I really think at that moment my entire idea of what art could be and what it meant to be an artist changed. Needless to say, I was hooked. I started visiting the Webbs whenever I could and eventually began working for them in exchange for art. Through my trips to Waxahachie and poring over various art books from the University, I came across the artists featured in MAKE: Prophet Royal Robertson, Hawkins Bolden, Judith Scott, and Ike Morgan.
Malcolm Hearn: I’ve always believed that it’s important to have art in your life. But I had never come across the artists in MAKE until the first time I was at Scott’s house in Brooklyn. His place is overflowing with art and his focus on artists from the film is almost as obsessive as their own creative process. On their own, the work is enigmatic. But it wasn’t until he showed me some of his early footage for what would become MAKE that I was introduced to the personalities behind the work. I was instantly hooked.
TS: When did you realize you had a film on your hands?
SO: I started filming a short on Ike Morgan as part of an alternative media class while getting my MFA here in New York. Nothing ever really happened with the short, and I was never satisfied with it as a stand-alone piece. But, it did get me filming, and from the very first time I shot video of Ike at the Austin State Hospital, I knew something incredibly special was happening. He was so sincere and completely dedicated to creating his obsessive, haunting portraits of the United States Presidents. Shortly after this, I visited Judith Scott and Hawkins Bolden, filming each of them during these short trips. At this point, there was no concept of MAKE as a movie. It was more just an attempt to document these incredible artists at work and hear their stories and the motivations behind what they were making.
MH: As Scott mentioned, he had been filming for some time and had attempted to put a film together. Meanwhile I had a background in documentaries. One time I was at Scott’s house, he showed me some footage on his computer. I could see that the characters were compelling. Scott also has an amazing sense for framing a shot. On the spot I started editing some images and sounds together. Something just clicked for us and building a narrative immediately seemed possible. Working together was the next logical step. Scott always knew he had a potential film, so we just had to figure out how to make it.
TS: Robertson died in ’97, Scott and Bolden in ’05. To what lengths did you go to find footage?
SO: MAKE has been a very long time in the works. I hesitate to call it a labor of love, as that sounds a bit trite, but it’s definitely the most invested I have ever been in a project. I first filmed Ike Morgan in 1998, and even before this I was making trips to visit Royal Robertson in Baldwin, LA, unfortunately without the foresight to bring a video camera. Luckily for us, many others also saw the uniqueness of his outdoor environment and the apocalyptic paintings that covered his walls and thought to take footage of him before his passing in 1997. It took a lot of legwork, but we were able to track down quite a bit of archival footage of his yard prior to it being wiped out by Hurricane Andrew. The same goes for Hawkins Bolden. While I filmed him in 2001 and 2002, what really brought his story to life was much older footage of when his scarecrows outnumbered the plants they served to protect. And with secondary interviews, we at one point even had to hire a private investigator to track down an individual who was crucial to our story.
MH: It’s a testament to the power of these artists that people were drawn to them and compelled to even film them. They aren’t necessarily part of a mainstream art movement, but they each developed a loyal following. Once we had tracked down archival footage, many people were generous in allowing us to use their footage. The sincerity of the artists has attracted sympathetic people.
TS: Was it hard to get cooperation to tell their stories?
SO: It’s funny, the artists we worked with, outside of Judith Scott who really only communicated through simple sign gestures and through her sculptures, were always more than willing to share their stories, talk about their work, and be filmed. On a few rare occasions, we did encounter people who seemed hesitant to talk about their interactions with these artists. I’m not exactly sure what the reasons for their reluctance were, but for the most part, people who had met these four artists shared our fascination with them and were more than happy to share their stories.
MH: As you can see in the film, the artists are so dedicated to their work that any outside interest or curiosity was met with openness. Independently of that, as a filmmaker, investing in time to gain the trust of people is a valuable tool. As a result, most people could see how dedicated we were and they in turn, were very cooperative.
TS: Where did these investigations lead you?
SO: MAKE has taken me all across the country. I’ve spent time in Oakland, CA visiting Judith Scott, I’ve been to Memphis, TN multiple times to be with Hawkins Bolden, spent countless hours with Ike Morgan in Austin, TX, and I made the journey to Baldwin, LA a handful of times getting to know Prophet Royal Robertson. Each of these experiences not only reaffirmed my belief in the power of art, but also account for some of the most beautiful and surreal moments that I’ve had.
MH: Even though I came into this project after Scott started filming, we needed to take a number of trips to finish the film. We met with Judith’s family in Oakland. Whenever we were in Austin, a trip to see Ike and take him to get art supplies was always a must. We also took a long road trip, a pilgrimage of sorts, to Royal’s old house in Louisiana. I didn’t have the chance to meet him when he was alive so it was important the see where he had lived. Walking through his now derelict house, it was intense to see how isolated he really must have been. Along the way, we had stopped in New Orleans to film an interview. I think it was a year after hurricane Katrina. Houses were still streaked with massive water stains. The amount of destruction and the resilience of the people really echoed events Royal had gone through. Being in New Orleans at that time gave us a better understanding of his character. It also helped us to realize that this was a story of hope. If these characters could find solace somewhere in there difficult lives, then there was hope for the rest of us.
TS: What events in these artists’ lives brought them notice from the art establishment, and how much of that attention came simply because of their disability or in some cases their state of mental illness?
SO: Sadly, these artists are still mostly under the radar. Judith Scott’s work has probably received the most art world acclaim. I think this is because Creative Growth, the amazing art center for individuals with disabilities that Judith went to daily, has worked so hard to promote her work and get it out into the world. I feel like Royal Robertson’s art is also starting to create a bit of buzz. I think it’s definitely a testament to the power and uniqueness of his work, but having Sufjan Stevens’ interest definitely doesn’t hurt either. With Ike Morgan and Hawkins Bolden, I think it’s only a matter of time. They’re both great artists, and in the case of Ike, I think it would be hard to find a more prolific painter.
MH: Despite Judith’s relative success, she is the only artist in the film that is not in the collection of the Smithsonian. Within the context of the Smithsonian, they are looking at a much larger historical narrative that is independent of their disabilities or illnesses. The work stands on it’s own and their stories only further its appreciation.
TS: The title of the 2010 album The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens is a reference to the work of Robertson. Can you talk about his role with the film? What came first… the album or the documentary idea?
SO: MAKE has been an incredibly long-term endeavor, so it came before The Age of Adz. Sufjan has been a friend of mine for some time now and saw Royal Robertson’s work at my house several times throughout the years. I remember the first time; he immediately seemed intrigued by Royal’s obsessive writings, rants, and prophecies as well as his futuristic imagery. The more I told him about Royal’s life, the more he seemed both saddened and inspired by it. Royal Robertson is obviously a complicated character. So, as MAKE began to near completion, I sent him a rough copy and asked if he would create some music for the soundtrack.
MH: It was on the strength of early edits of MAKE that I was asked to work on Sufjan’s BQE film that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November of 2007. Musically, I can even hear elements of the BQE that have grown into The Age of Adz. So the documentary definitely came first and we asked him early on if he would let us use some of his music for the film. This period was a very productive one for him and he is always so busy, that we didn’t know if he would have time for our little film. We were surprised and excited when one day when he gave us a CD from his studio with original music. When we heard it, we were blown away. The music he created is so special, it’s clear he understood what we were going for with the film. The music pushes the meaning of its scenes and together they both move to a new level. All the music, and we so are grateful to everyone who let us use their music, makes the film so much more powerful.