Art in the Family

My dad directed plays ? and showed me what art could be

| Arts Extra Special


WELCOME to Utne's Arts Extra -- our first-ever special issue. It's devoted to the arts, to the energies that artists release in us and the questions they inspire. Helping it come into being has been more than a great gig; it's allowed me, in good Utne fashion, to weave together some important strands in my own life. For nearly two decades now, Utne editorial director Jay Walljasper and I have been enjoying an ongoing, probably unendable, conversation about the cultural monuments and movements that mean the most to us: Iowa-bred novelist and leftist icon Floyd Dell, vintage jazz, surrealist prose, vernacular architecture, Goethe, installation art. We've put many of our cultural obsessions into the regular bimonthly Utne. But what a gas it's been, at last, to work with Jay to create a whole issue about arts and artists! Collaborating with another old pal, writer and journalist Joseph Hart, has been a lot like play. Our friendship is positive proof that a tattooed Gen Xer who used to play guitar in a punk band and a balding baby boomer who used to play drums in a Herb Alpert cover band can get along famously. Joe's not just cool, he's got a great crap detector, and did a splendid job winnowing the overwhelming mass of art- and culture-making that goes on in today's world, looking for the stuff he really loves and believes in. And then he went off and wrote 25 articles for the issue, barely raising a sweat.The day-in, day-out artistic conscience in my life is my wife, Laurie Phillips, a public artist with a talent for putting her sense of wonder and her tender heart into the service of very sophisticated art ideas. Laurie makes no small plans; her projects have required her to interact with bureaucracies, fly to distant cities, hire scaffold riggers, and, on one occasion oversee the installation of four metal grommets into each of 850 collages made on vinyl scavenged from defunct billboards. I can only watch Laurie with awe and love as I learn more and more about the heavy lifting that lies behind the 'magic' of art.But the person who taught me the most about what artists give and get was my father, Sydney H. Spayde, who died this year, four months after his 94th birthday. After studies at Northwestern University and Chicago's Goodman Theater (during which he supported himself by playing piano in one of Al Capone's speakeasies), Syd got an MFA in directing at the University of Iowa in 1932 and gave himself to the community theater movement, a fusion of the Little Theater movement of the Twenties (which gave us Eugene O'Neill) and the populism of the New Deal.

In films like Waiting for Guffman, Hollywood portrays community theaters as dumb little clubs of talentless but star-struck rubes putting on laughable shows in high-school gymnasiums. The world my dad moved in was very different. He directed in theaters in the Midwest and South that were venerable civic institutions: the Cleveland Playhouse, Le Petit Th??tre du Vieux Carr? in New Orleans, the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, the Grand Rapids Civic Theater in Michigan. In Cleveland he worked with Marta Abba, the actress wife of the great Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, when she was a refugee from fascism; in Pittsburgh, he taught scene design to a kid named Andrew Warhola, who was soon to drop the a.

So when I was growing up, I didn't know from rubes and gymnasiums, and it never occurred to me to think of New York as the only real culture town in America. Syd's actors were serious people, some of whom went on to distinguished stage and film careers. Syd's shows were beautiful and energetic examples of the organic method: Every decision he made came from some inner necessity he saw in the text or in his actors. Although he thought war was crazy, he would never do Hamlet in military uniforms merely to comment on militarism. But he might do so if the actor he cast as Hamlet was athletic, and he wanted that athleticism to permeate the show. In an age whose art is often top-heavy with good ideas like identity and social justice but light on mystery and depth, Syd's insistence that real art requires a deep fusion of the intellectual, the physical, the emotional, and the aesthetic has been my touchstone in the arts I do and enjoy.

My dad's shows always made sense, but he himself was a paradox. Doing art was how he worked on, and with, his powerful emotions; but his own art rarely made him happy in the feel-good sense promoted by today's creativity industry. Sitting next to him in the audience during one of his plays was an ordeal: His legs twitched and his head bobbed as he tried to make the actors get the blocking and the timing right. He was never content with his work, and he had no patience with any artist who expressed self-satisfaction. And yet he could laugh and sing and clap like a child when he saw a show or heard music that he loved.

I see that weird and beautiful combination of drivenness and openness, of a push for impossible perfection and a radical readiness for enjoyment, in every artist I admire. It's what I love about the tribe of artists as a whole, and it's what has made contact with them invigorating during the creation of this issue. I hope that the choices that Joe, Jay, all our collaborators, and I have made in these pages will inspire you to love that paradox in the art you explore and in your own life.