Michele Bachmann, Yoko Ono, Billy Bragg: Paul Schmelzer's super odd and amazing signature collection

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono

For over 15 years, Minnesota editor Paul Schmelzer has been collecting signatures from famous people as part of an ongoing art project.

Paul Schmelzer: Signifier, Signed

Macalester College Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center

The catch? Rather than having the celebrity sign their own name, Schmelzer gets the famous person to sign his name. Some of the impressive collection -- which includes Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, and Paul Wellstone -- will on display this week at Macalester College’s Law Warschaw Gallery.

Along the way, Schmelzer has had quite a few interesting interactions. For example, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye included a little piece of artwork with his signature. MacKaye confessed that he practiced a few times before signing the sheet, and appreciated the challenge.

“That was one of the few times that seemed like there was an energetic exchange between the person that was signing and me rather than a rote response,” Schmelzer says.

Some of the autographs he’s collected are by people he greatly admires, like Studs Terkel. The journalist, now deceased, was someone Schmelzer found to be an inspiring.

“[He helped] people tell their histories in a way that most historians don’t,” he says.

While Schmelzer was editor at the Minnesota Independent, he did quite a bit of coverage of Michele Bachmann, who he got to sign his name.

“She has lovely handwriting,” Schmelzer says.

Other people in the news who have signed for Schmelzer include Granny D, an elderly woman who walked across the the continental U.S. on foot at age 90 to raise awareness of campaign finance reform, and Julia Butterfly Hill, who set a record for tree sitting, living on a California redwood for over two years. Both stories Schmelzer found compelling.

Sometimes, the people Schmelzer asks to sign his name misunderstand, and just write their own name. While working at the Walker Art Center, he had the opportunity to meet Chuck Close.

“I asked, ‘Mr. Close, would you be willing to be part of my project? I explained it to him. He said, ‘Yeah, I can’t do it right now, but leave it with me.’”

The next day, a curator brought the monograph the artist had left for Schmelzer. On the sheet: “To Paul” and “Chuck Close.”

“It was just an odd thing to be in the presence of greatness and to be disappointed because he signed his own name rather than mine,” Schmelzer reflects. “I had a thing that actually had value as opposed to something that didn’t, but it was kind of disappointing.”

At times, the sheets come back with his name misspelled.

“I had to have Wolfgang Puck do it a couple of times to get it right when I met him in person,” Schmelzer says.

Schmelzer believes the project is really about an exchange with people, rather than the content. One great exchange? A sheet of paper Schmelzer sent to James Brown. “Please sign ‘Paul Schmelzer,’” it stated. Underneath those instructions was Brown’s own signature.

“I kind of feel like those are a great part of the story as well. It’s not just getting that thing that I sought out to get.”

The idea for the art project came to him in the mid-‘90s, after observing a friend’s son request an autograph from a musician. The musician complied, but the boy complained; he wanted his own named in the person’s handwriting. Four years later, the project was underway.

“It is a little surprising to think back to when [the project] started... and see how my thinking about it has changed,” Schmelzer says.

What began as a critique of the cult of celebrity has turned into an odd kind of self portrait. At first, Schmelzer had an antagonistic view of fame. But as his collection grew, he realized that his signatures weren’t usually from mega-celebrities. Those who responded were often people whose work Schmelzer liked, such as voice actor Dan Castellaneta (The Simpsons), Noam Chomsky, and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco).

“The people that I most cared about were doing it,” Schmelzer says. “Some of these people wouldn’t have incredibly valuable signatures on an autograph market. It ends up being about this energetic exchange instead of critique.”


"Signifier, Signed"
There will be an opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 23.
Law Warschaw Gallery, Macalester College
The exhibition runs through March 29


Paul Schmelzer: Signifier, Signed

Macalester College Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center