Wormley's Black Period

In the Eighties he was a rising art star on the downtown gallery scene. In the Nineties he was a stalwart of independent exhibition. Today Bill Wormley is sick, broke, and unsure why he should keep painting.

The Matchbox Café in northeast Minneapolis is about as happening an artist's hangout as you will find in town these days. Smaller than most locker-room showers, dark and shadowy and just slightly musty, it is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place, a small subdivided storefront next to a barber shop on one side and the Polish White Eagle Association on the other. As is common on a weekday afternoon, a smattering of artists who live in the area have descended on the Matchbox looking for some artistic camaraderie. Two young sculptors linger over sodas at the one small table just inside the door of the café, looking rather world-weary and mumbling to each other, perhaps about the aesthetic qualities of the goopy abstract paintings hung on the wall behind them. Behind the counter, meanwhile, a young woman with large forearms and a round, warm face talks to the two old-timers who sit on stools. She is an artist herself, and she seems to attract her peers to this tiny place.

One of the old-timers, 51-year-old local painter Bill Wormley, seems comfortable in the more shadowy recesses of the café, blending into the darkness in his gray, paint-spattered T-shirt and glasses with jury-rigged clip-on shades. A 25-year veteran of the local art scene, Wormley is just now emerging from perhaps the most difficult winter of his life. In fact, Wormley says, he's been having a hard time of it for a while now, suffering through nearly a year of dicey finances and ill health that kept him from earning a living. During the long winter he was laid low by a death in the family and by a medical problem he calls "some sort of internal gastrointestinal freakout." He believed at one point that it might be cancer, but he had no insurance and no money to get it properly diagnosed. Also, he had no heat in the gallery--Acme Visual Arts--which he keeps in the basement of his rental apartment and studio, and he was not in the state of mind to do anything about it.

"I was not getting much work done," he explains, his voice flat and emotionless. "I was kind of depressed, wondering if I should move on, if it was worth it to stay or if I should start over....I went through a weird black period in winter and spring. I figured I was a goner, but...I'm not dead in the water yet."

"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts
Geoffrey P. Kroll
"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts

Wormley is a large Germanic/Viking type by nature, with broad shoulders and a round belly. His face is covered with a few days' growth of whitish stubble; his hair is cut close, revealing the shape of his skull. I don't remember Wormley looking like this when I saw him at the opening of the last Acme show some two years ago, and I can't get over the feeling that his stature has been diminished somehow. He seems both worn out and short on confidence. "Getting old is weird," Wormley says. "I look at my skin and it's getting papery. I'm realizing I've got limited years to make art. I have to stop fooling around."

He asks if I want to get something to drink before we sit down to talk. I order a Sprite from the counterwoman, and Wormley pulls a crumpled five-dollar bill out of his front pocket to pay for it before I can say anything to stop him. We settle at a table outside on the sidewalk, where it is noisier but less stuffy than inside. Buses pass every few minutes on the street, drowning out Wormley as he speaks, but he seems accustomed to the distraction. He lights a hand-rolled cigarette and cradles it in his brown-stained fingertips as he keeps talking.

"It's not an easy lifestyle," he says. "Being an artist is romanticized a lot...[but] art is a weird deal. Artists are so used to focusing on something outside themselves that it's hard on the body. Plus, they're always smoking, and drinking, and running around. It's hard to sustain. The strong keep going, and the weak conk out."

Modest as it is, the Matchbox Café serves an age-old purpose for someone like Wormley. Here he is able to find common ground with likeminded folks after spending a day in hermetic labor. "Artists are different from other people," he says. "You've got to be around friends and have someone to talk to or you'd go nuts."

In the 1980s, according to several accounts, Wormley was a leading figure in the downtown art scene that was to be found primarily in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. And though the vibe of that centralized scene long ago dissipated, scattering to all corners of the metro, old-timers often wax nostalgic for what they saw as a better era for artists. "There were a lot of [art] people downtown at the time, in the district," says Frank Gaard, a local painter who taught Wormley at the Minneapolis School of Art (now Minneapolis College of Art and Design, or MCAD). "It was a community. The artists all knew each other....There was a flourishing of activity. Rifle Sport was there, and a proliferation of galleries and art spaces. You could go downtown on any Saturday and see a half-dozen really cool shows."

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