What The River Brought

For years, a man who called himself Badger lived in an old broke-down van while creating a monumental work of public art. Then, something went wrong down on the Mississippi.

It didn't work. Nothing did. He drank himself into a stupor. He tried to hang himself. He landed in a psychiatric ward, where he was prescribed antipsychotic medications that made him sweat and feel even crazier. He laughs bitterly at the memory: "After a while I said, 'To hell with this. Get these nasty little tablets away from me and let me smoke a joint.'" Finally, he moved to the Twin Cities, got a job with the St. Paul Parks Department, and came out as, in his words, "the first radically, openly queer man" in the department.

Still, he didn't feel like he fit in. While with the parks department, he quit drinking alcohol for four years and started to cultivate his artistic talents. He began by fashioning jewelry and sculptures from found objects--pieces of scrap wire, rocks, broken shards of glass, animal bones. Around the same time, his political beliefs grew more intense. He objected to the drug war, to the criminal-justice system, to American military interventions overseas. As a taxpayer, he figured he bore some responsibility for all this. So about 12 years ago, he quit his job, loaded his dog and his art into an old Dodge van, and lit out for the territories. He declared his life to be an act of art.

"I hit 35 different states and set up my sculptures in installations, usually while I was tripping on acid," he recalls. "I called it 'Fighting for Truth and Justice and the Un-American Way with Art and LSD. This Is Not Just Art, It's War." He planted marijuana around some of the installations. The reason? "I figured if I got away with it as freedom of speech, then people who were dying of cancer or AIDS could actually grow their own medicine."

Soon, he was building large-scale projects in some strange places. In 1994, he erected a sculpture garden on a levee in New Orleans's French Quarter. He relied on the materials at hand: lots of driftwood, bits of mooring rope, rocks. While scavenging on the river one day, he found the papier-mâchè representation of a black man's head. Then he fashioned a scarecrow from a rotting camouflage jacket stuffed full of seaweed; that was supposed to symbolize environmental racism. Dubbing the site Freedom City, he and a band of other homeless men squatted around this creation for a couple of weeks.

When the police came, Badger told them, "This is federal land and you have no authority here. I'm an American artist and I'm living a political cartoon and you cannot mess with me, or the old drunks for drinking, or these people for sleeping here." Not surprisingly, it didn't work. He was chased off, and Freedom City--like almost all of Badger's big projects--was razed.

After New Orleans, he traveled to Austin, Texas, where he built a stone maze called The Temple of the Giant Snail. When visitors came, he told them the story. It went like this:

The revelation came one day that the world is not a giant turtle after all. It's a giant snail. When she gave birth all her children oozed out over her shell. In the slime of their trails grew all things good. Man, in his insanity, has fucked them all up, captured or destroyed them all in a giant snail called freedom to whom I was building a temple. It was from the slime of freedom that the ganja grew.

Badger lived in the Temple for 10 weeks. Then he got busted.

In Gainesville, Florida, he constructed a Nest-like structure along a stream bank that he called "Badgerville." It stood for about a decade, a favorite crash pad for travelers and homeless folk. A year ago, he ran into a young wandering couple who told him that it finally burned down.

In Asheville, North Carolina, he created a piece that employed several hundred tons of waste concrete left over from a bridge demolition. That one was called Rearranging the Furniture.

Badger didn't confine his art to physical crafts. Sometimes, he did performance pieces. In 1993 or '94--he isn't sure which--he caught wind of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Texas. He knew the event called for something special. So he showed up in an old wedding gown and a headdress he fashioned from a pair of military earmuffs left over from his days in the Marines, an alligator head, antlers, wires, and bells.

Like most Klan rallies, it was a tense scene, with hundreds of Klansmen, anti-Klan protestors, and cops facing off. With a wand in one hand, feathers in the other, Badger, who had dropped a hit of acid before arriving, "danced blessings on the crowd" for two and a half hours.

"Everybody was so grim and hateful. Then they would see me spinning through and they'd break into grins and smiles," he recalls. "I even got one of the boys in the Klan to grin. Beautiful boy. Must have been 18 or 19. Blond hair, blue eyes. Rosy cheeks and all that shit. And he's standing there with his little Klan sign, and I said, 'Hey you, yes, you. What are you doing after the show?' Ah, the miracles of LSD."

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