Helen Keller was an “undisciplined wild child who nobody could contain, and that’s what makes her heroic,” said Clayton Patterson as he explained the quote in the headline to this story.
I’d heard the unofficial elder-guardian of the Lower East Side say plenty of controversial things like this before, it’s usually part of a strategy of illustrating his radical points– how he disapproves of feminists (for often ignoring the need for the advancement of all women) and gay marriage (also for a reason you might not expect: because legalizing gay marriage does not necessarily signal that all queer people will reap the benefits of mainstream approval). The point with Helen Keller was that real adversity breeds character and makes for interesting art, and that the “wild child” can be a marker of artistic purpose. It’s all connected to how, as an artist-activist, Patterson considers almost everything he does to be both a work of art and an expression of solidarity with the underclasses, the maligned, and the avant-garde. Enter the Acker Awards, a way of recognizing members of the avant-garde arts community for their achievements and influence, happening Thursday, March 17 at Howl! Arts in the East Village.
I caught up with Clayton yesterday at his live-in art studio and gallery on Essex Street to hear more about the Ackers. We sat in the front room where Clayton can keep an eye on the street outside. Painted on a large picture window facing the front hall, is a massive gold-leaf “J,” which stands for Jerry. Helen Keller had come up when Patterson was talking about his artist friend, Jerry Pagane, the person responsible for this intricate, curving letter.
“Jerry was born on Christmas Eve on a church doorstep, his mother deserted him and he had no ears and he’s a runt,” Patterson explained. “And then he spent up until the age of seven in group homes– that’s the hardest life in the world, and to overcome all that diversity it’s like Helen Keller. It’s a heroic story.”
Patterson admitted that the whole “runt” thing might have been “harsh,” but he explained “that’s what separates Jerry from everybody else– I’m interested in exceptional, I’m not interested in the standard or regular, I’m interested in the one-of. Jerry’s not a story, Jerry is the story.” For his achievements as an outsider artist in painting and overcoming a number of tribulations, Pagane received an Acker in 2013, the first year the awards came to New York City.
The Ackers– named for the experimental, radical-feminist, punk novelist and poet, Kathy Acker who Clayton said “symbolizes the radical, outsider, up-against-it, fuck-you kind of person”– were started by the Bronx-born writer Alan Kaufman (author of the memoir Drunken Angel, among others) in San Francisco and Clayton in New York City, where they’ve been held since 2013.
The long lists of recipients over the years include lesser-known, completely obscure (like Pagane), and relatively famous people. “We’re looking for the ideas people,” Clayton explained. “When I came to the Lower East Side from Western Canada, all of a sudden I was in this stratosphere of different kinds of art people.” He listed off filmmakers like Harry Everett Smith and Jim Jarmusch, and poets working in all manner of styles and scenes– the Beats, slam poetry, the Saint Mark’s scene, Nuyorican Poets Cafe. “You had MM Serra with her sexual, abstract narratives, or a guy like Ken Jacobs flashing a light for 20 minutes or something like that. You had this whole multi-layered cultural environment that really sort of fed one. Out of all of that you had these alternative points of view which essentially morphed into the avant-garde.”
This multitude of people, spanning from artists who are loosely connected to one another to those who have acted as close collaborators, are all somehow tied to the downtown scene of yesteryear. Some of the names are well-known, certainly, but others may be totally meaningless to people who have no real connection to that scene. And so the Ackers are a means of not only recognizing the lesser-knowns but of creating an historical register of sorts that is more finely detailed than what already exists (which is actually very little).
Patterson pointed to the example of the Montmarte scene in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century and singled out Picasso as an example of the kind of influences that, as a young artist, are “pushed on you,” but who represent only a very small part of art history, and one that in its popular appeal and safe output, might not even be all that interesting for someone interested in experimentalism and breaking the rules.
“All you hear about is Picasso or whatever, and I’m thinking that’s gotta be bullshit– there must have been a whole variety of people there who made whatever that fed that thing,” he explained. “Because if Picasso was the only one there, that whole thing wouldn’t have happened– you need a reflection on that entire community, and that’s what I’m trying to build.”
It’s not surprising that Clayton sees an awards ceremony as an opportunity for an exercise in historiography– after all, he’s big into people’s histories. See his 1500-page account of the history of Jews on the Lower East Side and his brand new book, co-authored with Jose “Cochise” Quiles, The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side. Clayton’s activist work videotaping police encounters reflects this desire to document, and his outspoken efforts to halt or reverse the effects of gentrification illustrate his respect for the way things were.
The Ackers are also a way to elevate the underdog, at least to a status above completely unknown. Clayton explained how the history of the downtown arts scene is divided into two camps, the Soho crew and the Lower East Side. The former were the well-connected, Ivy League types who found fast recognition from famous artists and plenty of support from institutions, art dealers, and the art establishment in general. Whereas the Lower East Side was full of outsiders, misfits, and people who came from working-class backgrounds. While Patterson said the Ackers “aren’t attached to the Lower East Side per se,” that just happens to be where the true avant-garde artists either started out or stayed.
This year, the winner of the lifetime achievement award is Arturo Vega, the artist best known for creating the Ramones presidential seal logo, who passed away in 2013. “There are probably three major symbols in rock n’ roll,” Patterson said. We agreed they had to be the Rolling Stones tongue, the Ramones seal, and the CBGB banner. “So here’s this original thinker who did something and nobody knows who he is, he’s in the background,” Patterson explained. “And yet he created this symbol that’s so up-front and recognizable.”
Other 2016 winners include John Holmstrom, the creator of Punk magazine; the performance artist Penny Arcade and Bedford + Bowery’s own Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong, of the Nightclubbing series. There are also categories for tattoo artists, folklore, filmmaking, music, and “Visionaries & Creative Inspirers.” Ackers are also awarded to people who do social justice work. “You need somebody who shepherds and takes care of community as well,” Clayton explained. “Having a community is like having a fort, and everybody has to have their position in order for it to work– it can’t be just a king.”
Patterson said he’s often asked whether he’s started to run out of people to give the awards to. The answer is no, definitely not. But he still acknowledged that some day he’s going to pass the Ackers torch to a newcomer in the downtown art scene. He said he hopes that the Ackers will be a sort of self-sustaining organism in that making available information about accomplished avant-garde artists and their work will help inspire a new generation of artists to create their own radical work. But first, things are going to have to change for the better and artists are going to have to find a way to stick around. Even as things are now, Clayton said that so many avant-garde artists are being forgotten and in danger of becoming lost to history. “The Lower East Side is even more obscure, because it’s such a transient place, people leave and they don’t look back,” he said.
Luckily there are at least a few people who’ve stuck around. See some of the winners (below) tomorrow, Thursday, March 17 at the 2016 Acker Awards, 7 pm to 9 pm at Howl Happening.
ACKER RECIPIENTS 2016
Lifetime Achievement – Arturo Vega
Art Criticism – Anthony Haden-Guest
Cartoon Illustrator/Punk Historian – John Holmstrom
Community Gardens and Art Shows – Carolyn Ratcliffe
Community Medical Doctor – Dr. David Ores, M.D.
Community Newspaper Event Organizer – Alice Torbush, Chris Flash, Leonard Abrams.
Cultural Facilitator – Brian “Hattie” Butterick
Filmmaking – Sara Driver
Folklore – Steve Zeitlin
Music – Chris Rael, Samoa Moriki
Photography – David Godlis, Marcia Resnick, Q. Sakamaki, Stanley Stellar, Kate Simon, Robert Butcher
Performance – Penny Arcade
Poetry – Eliot Katz
Tattoo History – Michael McCabe
Tattoo Art – Nick Bubash, Mike Bakaty
Writer – Puma Perl
Visionaries & Creative Inspirers – Dick Zigun, Rev. Richard Tyler, Shiv Mirabito, Zia Ziprin
Video – Pat Ivers, Emily Armstrong
Visual Art – Antony Zito, Curt Hoppe, Ethan Minsker, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook
Lincoln Christopher Caplan
Valerie Caris Blitz
William “Bill” Rice
Fred Rothbell Mista
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy
Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas
Raymond “Raybeez” Barbieri
Dee Dee Ramone
Baba Raúl Cañizares 09
Emile de Antonio
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Alan Kaufman started the Ackers in San Francisco. The article has since been updated to reflect that both Clayton Patterson and Alan Kaufman started the awards in their respective cities together.