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."

With bands such as Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and even Green Day playing at loft openings, crowds of artists and art lovers filled the weekend streets. As scenesters of that time recount it, weekend nights might involve hopping from any of the 20-odd galleries in the Wyman Building to nearby warehouse spaces and then on to the New French Bar. At the center of this milieu was Wormley. "Bill always knew where to go," says Gaard. "He was always calling to ask where the party was, or to tell you about a party."

At the Matchbox, Wormley recalls that time of his career with apparent fondness. He'd graduated from Minneapolis School of Art in the early 1970s, having studied with Gaard and a host of European guest lecturers that the school brought in. His hopes were high back then and, in fact, for a time it seemed he would be a breakout success. Like other artists of the era, Wormley took up residence in the downtown Warehouse District in the late 1970s and found places all over town to show his work, which he describes as old-school abstract with a heavy dada influence. "My stuff is lumpy and bumpy," Wormley says about his paintings, typically declining to explain their deeper meaning. He even finds it difficult to talk much about any personal content in his work. "I'm interested in purity and enlightenment in painting instead of narrative," he says. "I like to leave personal stuff out of it."

In some ways Wormley's artistic aesthetic is frozen in an eternal in-between state. He seems to have completely missed the explosion of the conceptual that occurred in the 1970s, and of identity art in the 1980s and 1990s, preferring to stay in retrograde art-for-art's-sake territory. In general his painting is energetic and filled with unusual color combinations and ironic bits of detritus--small toy frogs, faux fur, old-fashioned hair curlers, toy rings--that are used in such a way that they become intriguing visual elements. In some respects Wormley is a kind of contemporary shaman, a holy collector of the junk that people overlook. In his studio he has barrels full of odd stuff: Christmas ornaments, construction materials, Styrofoam.

At the same time, Wormley's old-fashioned sense of abstraction is not necessarily outdated. Instead, it remains fresh by virtue of his funky and self-aware sensibility, and his willingness to goof around with materials. In fact, a number of playful, young, contemporary artists--such as Belgian-born painter Michael Frere, New York painter Joyce Kim, and local installation artist Charles Lume--seem to be reviving the abstract, love-of-plastic, "materialistic" approach that Wormley has never wavered from.

"I think his work is challenging," says fellow artist Dick Brewer, who graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art in 1969 and, like Wormley, has stayed in town working since then. "It is for the few rather than for the many. It has an abrasive, offhand edge that irritates people. Its radical, edgy qualities make it less palatable for mainstream collectors, but it is greater art for all that....I'm proud he's still alive, still working. It would've killed a lesser man."

"Being an artist is almost like being a priest," Wormley continues against the whoosh of traffic. He is beginning to warm up a bit as the afternoon wears on. "Doing art is seen as a frivolous thing, but only the artist takes time to look at the world anymore, to reach inside himself and dig something up....In certain respects our generation has failed. People are absolutely self-centered now, so attuned to entertaining themselves and buying gewgaws that they've lost the big picture....It's become hard for them to focus on art for any amount of time. It's a drive-thru world, and people only want instant gratification."

Wormley's long, slow aesthetic journey is amazing, especially considering that most of his peers fell off the track years ago. "There's nobody left from when I graduated art school," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the last guy. People just peel off or move away....Now, I'm keeping going just by momentum, I guess."

On the local scene, other artists of Wormley's age are said to be struggling with money and morale. But Wormley seems unique for his willingness to appraise his situation in public. Though, as an artist, he has struggled to maintain his health and financial well-being (and somewhere along the way, lost a marriage as well), Wormley is generally philosophical about the ways his life may have turned out had he given up art. "As an artist you keep going because you have to make work," he says, then adds, "I guess I'm looking for an incredibly rich woman to marry. And if she can show up by next week, that would be really helpful."

 

A few days after our meeting at the Matchbox Café, word comes through the grapevine (Wormley has no telephone with which to tell me himself) of the first show at Acme in more than two years. It is to be called "Painting by Moonlight," a show of Wormley's work as a benefit to get him back on his feet--an idea of friend and fellow scenester Doug Padilla. It is perhaps appropriate for Wormley to reach out now to his fellow artists in town for help. For a time in the 1990s, as the local art market crashed, Wormley's Acme Visual Arts gallery seemed like the only thing keeping the former scene alive.

Testimonials about Wormley's altruism are common among other scene veterans: "Bill's gone beyond the call of duty providing space for artists to show," says Thomas Barry, who has owned several art galleries in town through the past few decades.

"He's put a tremendous amount of energy in getting artist-run venues going," says local painter Melissa Stang.

Says Brewer: "This guy has long been in one way or another the backbone of the local scene. Acme was the only place happening in town for a stretch. He just didn't have enough outreach to the patrons."

Wormley's home studio and gallery is just a block or two away from the Matchbox Café. A visit there a week before the opening reveals Wormley to have more color in his face and a bit more energy in his step. After months of a cancer scare, he has found out that his stomach ailment is (only) a perforated ulcer. The basement where Acme Visual Arts makes its home is raw, with bare stone walls on three sides, a toilet hidden behind a curtain, and colored pieces of carpet puzzled together on the floor. In one corner of the room, a diminutive raised stage is half hidden behind a red velvet curtain. In another corner, a small wet bar juts out slightly from the wall.

Wormley's new artworks are laid out around the room on the floor, not yet hung on the walls. Mostly smallish--at most two feet in any dimension--they exhibit a diversity of styles and approaches. Wormley describes how he worked incessantly to achieve the seemingly spontaneous explosion of color in one larger painting, perhaps four feet by three feet, called "Brain Dragnet." He squeezed paint out of a turkey baster; painted on glass, peeled the skin off the surface, flipped it, and slapped the reverse side onto the canvas; scraped out the chunky contents of paint buckets and attached that to the surface as well; and so on. For another larger painting, Wormley has dripped a clear plastic emulsion called Roplex onto rusted steel beams, peeled up the resulting odd shapes, and tacked the now-brownish-red glittering pieces onto a canvas. "I once tried to come up with a name for this style," he says. "The best I could think of was 'neo-brutalism.'"

Through all the diverse images and experiments, Wormley's oeuvre holds together by virtue of his tendency to play with materials and combine in fresh ways. There was a time, too, when his work made its mark on the art-going public. According to Thomas Barry, who showed the artist's work at the Thomas Barry Gallery in numerous shows in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Wormley was a local mainstay: "I always thought he was a tremendous talent. He had so much imagination for using common objects and surplus stuff that people did not pay attention to....He was a favorite among artists. They loved what he did and were always amazed at what he came up with."

The promise of Wormley's early career was evident in a series of striking local exhibitions in the 1980s and early 1990s that were written up in local newspapers and magazines. For example, one critic, Mason Riddle, lauded Wormley's work in the February 1986 issue of Artpaper, a now-extinct magazine devoted to the local art scene: "No one in the Twin Cities makes art like W.C. Wormley. Maybe not anywhere else in the world (except Zurich in 1916). And certainly not in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where his exhibition "Wormalessence: Extra-Strength Art" made an indelible impression--good or bad--on those adventurous enough to visit Granite City." She goes on to summarize the whole of the show as "a sophisticated vision, teamed with an unpredictable wit...."

Closer to the mainstream, the Star Tribune's Mary Abbe called Wormley "a Minnesota original" in a brief piece she wrote for his 1991 show "Bill State Park" at the Thomas Barry Gallery.

With such reviews, it is no wonder Wormley found himself caught up in the contagious optimism about local art. "I did years' and years' worth of shows," he says of the 1980s. "There was a do-it-yourself kind of ethic. There was no need for grants and whatnot. I was successful for a long time. People actually bought stuff back then."

"The Eighties were so good to artists," says Dick Brewer, "that everybody thought they were going to last forever. However, it all turned out to be a function of trend, rather than anybody's deep pockets. All companies wanted to look as good as the next company. You had all these CEOs saying, 'Get a consultant in here. We've got to look as good as 3M.' Now everything is beholden to stockholders."

Brewer is talking about the Eighties atmosphere that saw local corporations snapping up art from area galleries--acting as an engine for the creative market. But the Reagan Tax Reform Act of 1986 closed some corporate tax loopholes, including one that had encouraged write-offs for art purchases. In time art buying fell off among corporations and the public. Galleries felt an inexorable pressure to close up shop. Soon the Minneapolis art boom had yielded to a bust cycle.

"It's a very difficult business," says Thomas Barry, who moved his gallery out of the Wyman Building in the late 1990s after having been there for nearly 20 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."

"The only way I survive," says Brewer, "is that I have an offshore [art] dealer in Hawaii. It's different from here: There's a constantly changing sea of consumers called tourists. This has saved my life the last couple of years."

Worse yet, the weakness in sales coincided with a period when the number of artists was multiplying nationwide. According to a report released last month by RAND and the Pew Charitable Trusts called "The Performing Arts in a New Era," between 1970 and 1990 the number of people identifying themselves as visual artists doubled. Meanwhile, this growth in the popularity of the practice of art, according to the study, has not brought with it a public demand for what all these artists are producing. So it is that well-trained artists face higher unemployment rates than other groups of educated professionals, and they struggle to compete against more and more peers for fewer and fewer rewards.

Today downtown is all but dried up as an art venue. The Wyman Building on First Avenue North, which once had more than 20 commercial galleries selling work, now has only two. The artists who once had spaces downtown, including Wormley, were chased out by developers. "My [studio] space is a skyway now," Wormley says wistfully. "Those kinds of places just don't exist anymore. They tore all those old buildings down. I don't understand it."

The nonprofit art galleries that have filled the void left by the closing of the commercial galleries take a laissez-faire attitude toward selling artists' work. Places like Intermedia Arts, the Soap Factory, Franklin Art Works, and pARTS are funded almost entirely through grants; they have little incentive--or staff--to concentrate on selling work. Even the magazines such as Artpaper that local artists relied on for publicity and information folded unceremoniously in the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly--considering the artistic diaspora and the economic pressures--the sense of community among artists that Wormley helped foster is now gone.

"People got older and their hopes were dashed," says Gaard. "It was a shame. The PR of the time claimed it was a 'downtown art scene' but, really, the artists were being driven out....A lot of stuff going on pointed in the direction of 'Get the fuck out of Dodge.'"

Back in his basement, Wormley appears hopeful as we walk through and he speaks of the 40-odd paintings he intends to display. "It's getting there," he says of the show. Then he talks of work he needs to do around the apartment that has long been neglected--primarily fixing up a wall upstairs that is stained brown from rainwater and is crumbling in large strips. He also seems nervous about the clutter in his living space. Coffee cans of tools and hardware cover the tables, paintings lean here and there against walls and furniture. I wonder if his bed is buried somewhere, but he corrects me. "I sleep in the meat locker," he says, and points to a cabinet-like space high up the wall above the clutter--a remnant of a long-ago tenant.

I ask about the title of the upcoming show, and he explains it goes back to his days as a student at MCAD when he created his own course. As he spent most of his time painting at night anyway, he decided to call his class "Painting by Moonlight," and take advantage of his habit. Now, after many years, he seems poised to find some of the youthful optimism that got him started in the business.

When I ask if he ever considers his artistic life a futile one, he pauses for a long moment and stares off into a middle distance. "Every day," he answers. "I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?"

 

The show opens on a Saturday night at the end of July. By ten o'clock, most of the parking spaces within a three-block radius of the gallery have been taken. Sirens fill the air of the neighborhood, and spotlights shine over the trees in the direction of downtown, to the south. Women dressed in pink and orange party dresses, and men dressed in orange or red dress shirts mingle outside the gallery or wait in line to get inside.

Downstairs, the opening is in full swing. It is incredibly warm in here with the accumulated heat of the 50 or so people who stand and sit around watching the show. On the stage in the corner, a man in a Stetson sits on the floor playing a keyboard in a manner partly resembling Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds and partly resembling a Berlin cabaret lounge act circa 1930. In that latter mode, singer Tulip Sweet, a dead ringer for Liza Minnelli, vamps and sings breathlessly confessional songs, swinging her orange-red dress and bobbing her blue-wigged head as she dances.

At the bar, the woman from the Matchbox Café serves drinks to the people who crowd around as though she were a lifeboat captain. Wormley, for his part, wears a pink shirt and a tan jacket, and he sits next to his daughter Camille, who is 15 years old, in the back corner of the room. He seems self-conscious in greeting people as they enter the space, and he shrinks into his seat, scarcely moving from it throughout the stage show.

I do a quick survey of the exhibition and find no surprises. It is much the same work that Wormley showed me a week or so before. Taken together, the paintings look good, hung from the ceiling on blue wires. I notice that Wormley has attached hand-lettered signs to each piece with very reasonable prices--most in the $150 to $300 range. I notice too that seven of these small signs have small orange dots attached to them, indicating that Wormley stands to pull in about $1,500 in sales so far for the show, or about two-thirds of his outstanding debt.

For a time I speak to several artists who praise Wormley and the show and then inevitably begin talking about their own problems--the lack of opportunity to display work, the difficulty making a living as an artist, and so on. The Tulip Sweet performance ends promptly at 11 o'clock, and people begin filtering upstairs with an air of reluctance. Young people begin talking about what is next on the evening's agenda.

I bump into Wormley as I am leaving. "The show looks great, don't you think?" His voice is a bit nervous as he says this, and he laughs awkwardly. "Thanks for coming."

Wormley tells me that he'll get in touch with me in the next few days, but the call doesn't come. Acme might be back in business but, for now, Wormley still doesn't have a phone.

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