Jerry and I walk west from Charles’ studio down Lincoln Avenue through the rubble of a road under construction. We pass beneath a rail bridge and climb over a blaze-orange polypropylene safety fence, treading carefully over jackhammered sidewalks and loose piles of gravel and dirt. When we reach Pre-PAC Produce Distributors, we follow a trail that hugs the building’s easternmost wall. Day-shifters pack potatoes into boxes and eye us suspiciously as we pass by an open garage.
“To make art like he makes,” Charles once told me, “you have to live like he lives.”
Jerry is leading me on a tour of his old haunts, beginning with his camp on the Kinnickinnic River, where from 2007 through 2010 he notched three years into the wall of his life.
“LT built the place, man,” Jerry says of his old camp. LT—Lieutenant Tim—is Jerry’s friend. Jerry claims he is a former Navy Seal. It occurs to me many of Jerry’s friends bear nicknames—LT, Dawg, Railroad John—all of them on the street with stories similar to Jerry’s, stories that bind them in known union. The nicknames, perhaps, are a way of lightening the burden of shared squalor.
As we approach Jerry’s camp, two figures emerge, plodding up the path in our direction.
“Fuckin’ Addie! Leroy!”
“Hey, Jerry,” they say in unison.
Leroy is “fresh outta jail” and Addie is Leroy’s “old lady.” Homeless, the two of them live near LT’s camp. They’re on their way to General Mills and a $7.50-an-hour job they say will soon have them living indoors.
“Did the social workers get a hold of you?” Leroy says.
“Yeah,” says Jerry, a timbre louder than everybody else, the day’s sixth Natural Ice deadening any perception of pitch.
“Oh, good,” says Addie, who then asks for his address in the case she and Leroy should need to contact him again—or should she ever need to get off the street for a night or two. “The week we got all that rain, I was desperate to get inside somewhere,” she says.
Jerry gives his address and says, “We’re headin’ over to my ex-camp.”
“Just … behave yourself,” says Leroy, solemnly.
“No problem,” says Jerry.
Jerry’s former camp lies on the eastern bank of the Kinnickinnic River. A tent—constructed from a gray, heavy-duty PVC tarp—abuts a small ridge and rests between a still of trees. Sealed with a small boulder and a two-by-four, the makeshift home is camouflaged with a bundle of dead branches. Opposite the tent is a canopy made from the same gray tarp, overhanging a small wooden platform and a picnic table with the words Rain Go Away Sharpied on the top. The camp’s centerpiece is a fire pit surrounded by bricks.
“The only thing I miss about the whole thing?” says Jerry, looking around. “The campfires.”
There were times, in winter, Jerry was so cold he surrendered the tent’s windswept shelter for the paltry warmth of his small fire. “You just gotta be careful not to roll in,” he says. “I think I had three, four insulated shirts on, thermal underwear, an insulated work suit, and I still got frostbite.” He shakes his head, the sobering memory of living outdoors swarming his present inebriated state. “Bein’ homeless ain’t cool.”
Today, in the oppressive heat of summer, the camp is suffused with a constant thrum of insects and the thrush of leaves, juxtaposed by a polyphony of outlying traffic sounds: a din of engines, car horns, and occasional sirens. A goose announces its proximity with an atonal honk.
Despite winter’s hardships, Jerry says summer is worse. “I could be an expert on ’skeeto repellent, man. You almost gotta bathe yourself in [it] in order to keep ’em away. Or get yourself right up on top of the bonfire. Because the ’skeetos’ll kill ya. They’ll eat you alive!”
Still, Jerry maintains a modicum of love for life on the Kinnickinnic River—paired with an equal constituent of hate.
“I love it out here. I really do,” he says, swigging his Natural Ice. “Even though I hate it, I love it. You’re on your own, got no one to fuckin’ listen to.” He stops to think, and I watch resentment supplant his reverie. “But then there’s the weather. And the ’skeetos … and the loneliness. Think about it, man. You come out here and you got no way of contacting no one unless you go back out to Lincoln.”
Nothing was lonelier than Jerry’s shabby lean-to, his first official outdoor homestead, built between two buildings beneath a forty-foot-tall white ash tree, a whisper away from busy train tracks. He takes me to see the space where it once stood.
“There’s nothin’ like bein’ homeless, man,” says Jerry. “It’s a bitch. When you finally get some sleep, a train goes by and wakes your ass up. You’re already freezing your ass off. And every time it would rain, freezing rain, well yeah, everything gets soaking wet. You do everything you can to get out of the wind. That was not a good time, man.”
Jerry pauses, visibly disturbed. It’s been four years since he’s returned here. He shakes his head, unzips his jeans, and urinates on the plot of land that once bore his (barely) sleeping body. He sniffs his perpetually runny nose and wipes away the memories welling in his eyes, contained by the thinnest meniscus of composure.
“I never want to be back here again,” he says and staggers past me toward the train tracks and the path that leads out to the road.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Back at the studio, Charles notices the rancor that’s crept into Jerry’s mood and suggests the three of us grab a bite to eat at the Iron Horse Hotel, where some of Jerry’s artwork currently hangs. “My treat,” he says.
Named “Boutique Hotel of the Year” by the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association for the second year in a row, the Iron Horse is a luxury hotel housed in a restored hundred-year-old warehouse in Milwaukee’s 5th Ward. Jerry’s concerned about his appearance, but Charles assuages him by pointing out all three of us are wearing flannel shirts. We climb into Charles’ 4Runner and head over for a quick lunch.
On our way, I ask Charles to describe his inspiration for the series.
“In order to work with somebody for any duration,” he says, “you need some sort of plan of operation. So we did women smoking, with tattoos.”
Most of the women resemble the British singer Amy Winehouse, with hair appropriated from a series of 1950s magazines Charles had collected over the years; their heads draped in biomorphic, boomerang-type shapes.
“Jerry was really good at hair,” says Charles. “His hair just looked awesome, rendered with so much scratching it held the ink, and was jet-black. He would scratch and scratch and scratch. The cigarettes were a natural because he loves smoking. And the tattoos? Again, inspired by Amy Winehouse. I just felt the images needed more. And it was a good way to drag some autobiographical elements into the artwork.”
And then, ten etchings in, Charles unearthed the book that would serve as catalyst for the second half of the series.
Charles recalls how “the very learned couple who lived nearby [were] moving out, so they were throwing all this stuff away. And there was this book in the dumpster.”
The book was Haiku: This Other World, by Richard Wright. Charles suggested they incorporate some of the short Japanese poems into the artwork. Jerry didn’t even know what a haiku was.
The Christmas season:
A whore is painting her lips
larger than they are
“He would laugh at the haiku,” says Charles, “and go, ‘That don’t make no sense.’ I’d say, It doesn’t have to! I mean, they were beautiful.”
Charles wrote the haikus onto pieces of tracing paper and flipped them for Jerry to etch backwards onto each plate. From that moment on, the series earned its name: Dumpster Haiku. On one of the seminal pieces from the series, Jerry has scrawled upon a woman’s neck in unpolished penmanship:
The day is so long,
that even noisy sparrows
fall strangely silent
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The sparrows living in the shrubbery outside the Iron Horse are plenty talkative as we head toward the front door. Inside, we seat ourselves at a table near several pieces of Jerry’s art, a series of carbon-rubbed canvases made from his etchings, each bearing a single comic book frame. We order three medium-rare Branded Burgers, which, at $15 a pop, fall generously out of Jerry’s price range. Charles and I order a couple of Cokes. Jerry orders a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“You still think my shit’s gonna sell, man?” Jerry asks.
Charles nods, saying, “But I won’t allow myself to be low-balled. I’m not going to sell them for a song.”
Jerry would be happy to see his artwork sell for a song—for any price, really. But Charles thinks too highly of Jerry’s work to simply peddle them off. Beyond his respect for the work lies his knowledge of how much effort went into their making. He was impressed by how quickly Jerry learned the craft.
“Jerry worked in a machine shop,” Charles says over the booming music pumping through the Iron Horse’s high-end sound system. “Printmaking became a kind of tool and die job for him. He knew the materials and the sensitivity of the plate. He learned technique and what the print would look like based on what he did. He knew what a fuzzy line would do, what a hard line would do. He learned it. And he knew the language too, the nomenclature of printmaking.”
The whole time Charles and I are speaking, Jerry silently gums his burger. At one point, he erupts in a paroxysm of coughing triggered by an accidental inhalation of meat.
“Don’t die on me now,” says Charles, patting Jerry’s back to help him clear his pipes.
Not only did Jerry learn the nomenclature of printmaking, he discovered the fruits of his labor. Dumpster Haiku earned some public attention and was featured at two separate galleries: First, at the South Shore Frolics Festival of Arts in mid-2008, a juried event, at which Charles displayed Jerry’s work in an E-Z UP portable shelter bought specifically for the occasion. Sparing no expense on frames, Charles chose thick, eight-ply matte board to display the full series of twenty etchings.
Walking through the tent one day, Graeme Reid, assistant director at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, took notice of Jerry’s artwork and fell instantly in love. He arranged with Charles to have Dumpster Haiku appear at the museum as part of its ongoing exhibition called, One from Wisconsin.
Leading up to the Museum of Wisconsin Art exhibition, Jerry was ninety days sober, thanks in large part to Charles—himself a recovering alcoholic, sober since 1993. Things were lining up: Jerry was living and working at the Salvation Army, his artwork was receiving accolades, and he’d even been the focus of a radio interview by Bonnie North, Arts Producer for WUWM’s Lake Effect program.
Then, two days before the exhibition opening, there was a knock at Charles’ door.
“Jerry shows up, blotto, drunk for the first time in three months,” says Charles. “He says to me, ‘They kicked me out.’ ”
Caught smoking a cigarette on the roof of the Salvation Army, they told him, Pack your Hefty’s and go.
“This was supposed to be a feel-good story,” says Charles. “But the feel-good story ended with that knock on my door. So, he’s living at my house. And now it was, like, we’ve got to quarantine the guy because he’s drunk already. He was drunk immediately.”
Silent all this time, here, Jerry finally chimes in: “I felt like a fuckin’ cockroach at that show, man. I just wanted to crawl under the rug and disappear.”
But Jerry didn’t disappear. He kept clean for the duration of the exhibition’s opening, and overall the exhibition turned out to be a critical and financial success (Graeme Reid, in fact, purchased one of Jerry’s pieces for his personal collection).
But it wasn’t long before Jerry was back to old habits, drinking again, reacquainting himself with the camp on the eastern bank of the Kinnickinnic River.
I remember Charles explaining to me that Jerry’s drinking was ultimately the reason he called a halt to their collaboration. Jerry’s drinking never abated while in the studio. He’d sling beers one after the other, draining two four-packs of Colt 45 as he worked.
“The last thing we did together was this huge painting of the letter Q, which I loved. But he was really drunk, and I was worried he was going to fall off the ladder.”
“On a good day,” says Charles, “he was good for about four hours. Anything past four, he was too drunk. He wouldn’t slam beers. But as soon as one was finished, another would be open. So he’s on this ladder, a guy so drunk he’s going to fall, and I’m thinking, Do I want to be responsible for that? It was a point where I felt like working together wasn’t a good idea anymore. Aesthetically, the art was good. But aesthetics aren’t everything.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Jerry drains his PBR, while Charles motions for the check. The three of us head for the door, stopping at each of Jerry’s canvases that line the wall leading to the exit. Charles and Jerry pass memories back and forth like tokes off a Calumet, the memories working their magic.
A self-described imagist, Charles was originally drawn to Jerry because the work the two created together was something he’d never before seen. Whereas Jerry avowed himself to the collaboration as a short-term ticket out of the cold, for Charles it was about end results.
“It was all for the good of creating these insanely awesome images,” says Charles.
But Jerry saw with a different set of eyes. He failed to recognize the quality of his own work and cursed his perfunctory limitations, especially when juxtaposed with Charles’ solo efforts. Jerry craved to be like Charles, to be the kind of artist he is.
“He had this hang-up, where artwork had to be detailed … it had to be perfect in order for it to be artwork. Whereas my perception was: Brute artwork and naïve art is more beautiful than perfect art. He didn’t get that. He’d say, ‘But my art’s not good.’ And I was like, Dude, if you know what I know about your work being good, you wouldn’t say that. Artwork doesn’t have to be a Bouguereau, all detailed and perfect, where flesh looks like flesh and all that bullshit. I’m so sick of that. I want to see exactly how you do it.”
Charles confesses that he found a new artistic courage while working with Jerry. He did things he wouldn’t normally do in his own work, because his work is too honed, too focused on a specific direction—namely, on making a living.
“Working with Jerry, I could be this other person,” he says. “I could be the person I really wanted to be.”
For the two of them, the collaboration itself became its own blank canvas: Charles immersed himself in the freer, simpler style of art he so profoundly desired to create, while Jerry, in attempting to perform at Charles’ level of greatness, capably achieved his own.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Napoleon is asleep on the couch when Charles, Jerry, and I return from the Iron Horse, his shaggy head pops up as we enter the doorway. Before we left the restaurant, Charles slipped a burger remnant and some fries into a napkin for safe transport home.
“Hey buddy,” says Charles in a singsong voice while Napoleon slinks over to gobble the leftovers from his hand, “It’s okay. I’m back. I brought you a little snacker-snack!”
Charles disappears into another room and I point to a framed image hanging on the wall. It’s one of Jerry’s: a pressing from one of the two plates Jerry had melted down at Mill Valley, the one with the “beer-belly horse.”
“So Jerry,” I ask him, “do you regret recycling that plate?”
“Yeah, I regret that one,” he says.
Charles reemerges holding a white plastic grocery bag, the handles double-knotted, sealed tight. “Here,” he says, handing the bag to Jerry. “A pair of shoes and some fresh socks.”
Jerry’s slow hand accepts the bag from Charles, his head dropping to an angle of repose. “Oh wow,” he says, drawing out the w a few extra beats. “I wish I had some socks on now,” he adds, his voice lowered to just a touch above whisper.
Charles brings the conversation back to the image on his wall. “I wish to God I would’ve stopped you,” he says. “I could kick myself. It would have been an amazing installation piece.”
“It was definitely a conversation piece,” Jerry says, stumbling over the word conversation. “I’ll put it that way.”
“Oh well,” says Charles. “C’est la vie, right Jerry?”
Suddenly, a spark ignites Jerry’s eyes: “Could you … is there any way … I mean, is there any way you could … reproduce that?”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Outside, on the private walkway that runs the length of Charles’ studio, Jerry and I face one another, waiting for Charles to fetch Jerry’s bicycle from his studio, where he stowed it for safekeeping while we were out to eat. He wheels the bike toward us and leans it against the brick wall.
“All right, Jerry,” he says, “your bike’s ready to rock and roll. Enjoy those new socks.”
“I will,” Jerry says, “I will,” then mentions he should probably return to that garden where Pietro saw him earlier. “I still got some weedin’ to do, man.”
Maybe he’ll earn another five-spot today, buy another hard pack of Marb Reds, drink some Natural Ice beer. He takes one final swig from the can he’s holding—a partially drained sixteen-ouncer he hid on Charles’ windowsill before we left for lunch—and crushes it, placing the empty back into his pocket.
His bike in tow, Jerry dawdles up the sidewalk carrying the white, plastic bag with new shoes and socks. The late-afternoon sun is throwing long shadows down upon the concrete, as Jerry turns east around the corner and disappears out of sight.
Somewhere in Charles’ studio, in a stack of Jerry’s artwork, rests a portrait of a woman with tattoos smoking a cigarette and bearing an inscription that reads:
Amid the daisies
Even the idiot boy
Has a dignity