Thomas Manco, an artist from the East Village, commercial painter, and muralist with work at The New York Aquarium and elsewhere, didn’t expect his latest public sculpture to strike a nerve. The piece, a shoulder-high, foil-covered cardboard structure spelling out “FOOL,” asked passersby to attach a Post-It note, copping to a private blunder. Within days, hundreds of replies were stuck to the artwork. They ranged from silly (“‘Sure, I’ll help you move!’”) to sincere (“Moving into an apartment without seeing it in person”) to sorrowful (“Loved someone who never loved me back”).
Bedford + Bowery spoke with Manco, who is responsible for a string of other recent installations in the park.
What’s the story behind the giant cardboard “FOOL” structure?
It was for April Fool’s Day. I’ve been putting out, like, one thing a month since December. So I just needed a theme for April, so I ran with “April Fool.” Originally it was going to be like the “LOVE” sculpture on 52nd Street, and I was going to jam it into the space near the gazebo, but then it changed, it evolved.
How did it evolve?
Originally it was going to be plain cardboard and I was going to have people write on it, but I had some foil tape leftover from another project. I was going to just do the inside of the O’s to give it a little shine, but then I thought about it, and I was like I’ll do the whole thing in foil and I’ll put out Post-Its.
The concept is an interesting one — asking people to share their foolish moments in a public space.
I thought it would be funny. Something “foolish” is kind of vague, and people ran the gamut on it. People made stuff up; people spilled their heart out. But for the most part, when friends were asking what it was about, I was like, “It’s mostly about drugs and marriage.”
What do you mean drugs and marriage?
Most people said their most foolish thing was either about drug use or marriage — that’s what most of the Post-Its were. There were some true gems in there that were fantastic. “I ran my mother’s car into my brother’s car,” that was a good one. I think a little kid wrote “I put my shoes on the wrong feet every single day,” and I could tell it was a kid because of the handwriting.
It was funny — the more responses it got, the more people did it. The first day I put it out I watched this girl — she had a hat with an “A” on it so she kind of stood out in the crowd. She was listening to headphones, sitting on the bench. She got up and she wrote one, and then about five minutes later she did a second one, and then she did it a third time. They were really long, she used the long Post-Its that I have. She wrote a sonnet, almost a monologue, and I think she needed it, she needed to get whatever it was off her chest.
When did you first imagine this series of projects?
The series started in December. I was quarantined with my son and we weren’t really doing much, so we started making them at home. I’ve made a couple before for his school and for some commissioned work, but I’m new at the cardboard thing. I’m normally a mural painter, but I haven’t been doing that a lot. So I made a cardboard guy, and I was going to just sit him out with the recycling, just for a goof. My wife didn’t want him in the house, this big cardboard dude. So a friend of mine came over and said we should put him in the park, and I said, “I’m not going to do that,” and he said, “But it’s Hanukkah.” And then my wife and I said simultaneously, “It’s the Mensch on the Bench!” So I thought that was kind of funny, and we put him out on the bench. That was the one that got decapitated in 24 hours.
Someone took the head.
So that was it for him. But some people took pictures, and it was kind of funny. The Mensch on the Bench! And I was like, now I got something, so I started making, from the legs from the guy that got decapitated, another one which was this coronavirus-looking monster thing. And my son wanted to add a juice box, so we made a giant juice box for it. So I put that out in February.
How do you choose the material? It seems pretty thought through.
No, it’s not thought through at all. It’s the boxes that I have. That’s how I did it. Like the Hanukkah guy, the first one I did, I was cutting up boxes to recycle them. We were getting a lot of boxes because of the coronavirus. So I only use cardboard, I use this Ram Board tape, and that’s it, really. It’s all recyclable.
Do you have any plans for the next project?
The next one I’m working on right now — it’s DJ Mother May. It’s going to be a big DJ. And then June is a hamburger eating a hot dog, which my son wanted me to do. Everybody I’ve said that to has laughed, so I’m definitely going for it. I have a lot of friends that are artists, and they’re really, really good, and I can’t compete with them, so I went the other way. I went goofy.