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Since learning he won the Hilger Artist Project Award last December, Clifton Childree has been hoarding discarded wood, ornate headboards, piles of fabric, and sundry cast-off junk from the curbs that line the homes on the outskirts of Miami's Design District.
"I live a few blocks from Churchill's," he says, referring to the legendary Second Avenue bar, "and every Monday I drive my truck around the neighborhood, looking for old wood and stuff in the bulk trash people put out for pickup."
The 37-year-old visual artist and filmmaker has become a celebrity among the scavengers who troll the area on makeshift three-wheeled rigs, rifling through piles of refuse for recyclables.
Click here to view a clip of Clifton Childree's Something Awful.
"They wave when they spot me," he says, laughing. "I've stopped garbage [trucks] on occasion to fish out chunks of rotting wood. Also a lot of poor people west of Miami Avenue toss out some of the antiques I use because they consider them to be old hand-me-downs and worthless."
For a while, the junk choked his back yard, which began to resemble the set of Seventies sitcom Sanford and Son. But Childree has plans for all the castoffs. He's making "a decomposing adult amusement park." It will include "mechanical wooden automatons that visitors to the rotting arcade might have screwed," he gleefully informs, with "a turn-of-the-century vibe."
On a steamy July morning, the scrap lines the entrance to the alternative art space Locust Projects — the Wynwood nonprofit that will host Childree's fantasia — and spreads out in a jumble inside the 2,000-square-foot gallery. In addition to the scrolled Victorian headboards that Childree prizes — he uses them to make signage and add architectural flair to the smutty carnival rides he's building — the artist has added the occasional grandfather clock, gumball machine, and gramophone, as well as an antique toilet he grew up using, to complement the trashy mélange. He says the commode also features prominently in one of his many short movies.
"I feel like I'm more of an artist," he explains. "I also create the sets for my movies, do drawings, make sculptures, props, installations, play music, and take photographs."
Childree began making films in grade school, using a Super8 camera to emulate the black-and-white horror classics he watched at home. "Mom used to screen a Super8 reel of The Return of Dracula during all my birthdays when I was a kid," he says. She also regularly showed Creature from the Black Lagoon for her friends. "It was funny to walk into the living room and watch Mom and other adults cowering with blankets tucked under their chins. Mom was just obsessed with that movie."
The artist continues hauling his dumpster booty to Wynwood. "I'm still trying to get all of the stuff here to Locust to use on the project," Childree says. "But there's a beehive inside the mess now and I can't get to all of it."
In the early Nineties, Childree founded Broward hipster magnets The Mudhouse at Progresso Plaza in Fort Lauderdale — "a freak sanctuary coffee joint" — and Theatre 1225, where he spooled art and horror flicks. Theatre 1225 was open less than six months before Childree was nearly killed in a car accident and left convalescing for almost a year.
After closing one night, he was driving his Jeep when a drunk driver blindsided him, launching Childree 40 feet and severely injuring his business partner. "I remember the guy going into a convenience store and stuffing himself with Twinkies to get the liquor off his breath before the cops came."
His friend's ear and nose were torn off, and he suffered internal injuries. Childree ended up with more stitches than a baseball on his head. "It took me a year to recover my memory." He began work on The Flew, his first feature-length film, after he healed.
"When I was a kid, I used to have these fever dreams, during which an energy ball floated into my room and made me sick. I had the same dream about 10 times. When I asked my mom what it was, she said it was 'the flu.' Instead, I understood 'the flew.'"
Thus was born a silent black-and-white movie that evokes the same bizarre atmosphere as David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). The Flew unspools the hypnotic story of a mechanical man, Otto (played by Childree), who's smitten by a creaky carnival ride called the Wooden Embalmer at a shooting gallery outside his bedroom window.
"In the movie, Otto becomes a beekeeper and is conflicted by a giant beehive, which is a substitute for the glowing energy ball I used to dream about," the artist explains.
Like the majority of his films, the experimental flick was written, produced, directed, shot, and edited by Childree, who also starred in it. A few friends appeared as background players. He labored nightly on a tiny budget while working as a maintenance man for his stepfather, who owned several hundred apartment units in Broward County.
"I would be in pancake makeup and in costume when I would get called out to unstop a toilet in Section 8 housing," Childree gripes. "Once I had to drop everything in the middle of filming and rush over to a party where some older black folks were dancing and listening to soul music. I walked into the house dressed like a clown and holding a plunger. When I finished working in their bathroom, there was a dead silence. All I could hear as I rushed out was the record player's needle skipping on the record."