Clifton Childree's Craziness

A filmmaker and genius with a junk obsession talks shop.

After nearly six years of work, Childree completed the film in 2003, and his persistence paid off. The Flew was recognized by Cahiers du Cinéma (the film magazine that launched the careers of François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, among others) as one of the top 50 midnight movies of the past decade.


At his worktable inside the dank bowels of Locust Projects, Childree fingers his ersatz blueprints for "Dream-Cum-Tru," the decrepit adult carnival that's been festering in his mind for more than a decade. He combs through a stack of large sketches, on which the names of his carnal rides are scrawled in block letters. Behind him, a rickety wooden funhouse takes shape, faintly smelling of musty, rain-cracked termite bait.

Clad in a light blue T-shirt and paint-splattered overalls, Childree leans back on his bench, perches his glasses on his pate, and begins rubbing a spot on his nose. His short brown hair looks weed-whacked, his eyes red-rimmed. He appears more like a rural caretaker after a bruising weekend shift than an award-winning filmmaker and artist.

The artist adds a hallucinatory dimension to film using lighting and homemade cardboard pinwheels.
Michael McElroy
The artist adds a hallucinatory dimension to film using lighting and homemade cardboard pinwheels.
Nikki Rollason stars as a menstruating maiden fleeing a mad pervert's clutches.
Michael McElroy
Nikki Rollason stars as a menstruating maiden fleeing a mad pervert's clutches.

Details

Click here to view a clip of Clifton Childree's Something Awful.

Childree folds his arms across his gut. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing," he crows. "For me, the two months working here will be among the best times of my life."

He has been tinkering at Locust for nearly three weeks on the sprawling film and installation project, which will open Locust's 10th-anniversary season during the Wynwood arts crawl September 13. The space has been open to the public while Childree fashions his faux sex-carnival rides and sex-arcade games. In the meantime, he has also made an impression on Locust's staff with tales of his irascible relatives.

"Clifton as a person is both quirky and funny, and this really translates in his work. His video pieces are reminiscent of early black-and-white silent movies and draw on techniques of many of these old-school comedians," says Locust's director, Claire Breukel. "But there is this macabre and really raunchy undertone to some of the video pieces, which, considering the genre, can be quite shocking and surprising."

Childree's recently snagged Hilger Award — named for Austrian-based art dealer and collector Ernst Hilger — earned him the Locust gig and is being presented for the first time in conjunction with the nonprofit. "I thought to myself, Is he actually going to be able to do all this in two months?" Breukel says. "So far so good!"

Childree's worktable, an island of chaos in the raunchy archipelago inside Locust, teems with boxes of metal screws, power tools, empty yogurt containers, and coffee cups. It all fans out like a rainbow around the artist as he drums a colored marker on his dome in a hiccupping beat.

Flipping through building plans with elaborate notes filling the margins, he stops at a carnival ride based on a childhood experience. Choo Choo Train Tootsie Roll was inspired by the bathtub high jinks of John Baker, one of Childree's kindergarten buddies, he explains.

"We were playing in our pajamas behind his house in Plantation and fell in a muddy canal," Childree recalls. "Baker's mom put us in his tub and left us alone. Baker said, 'Do you want to see a choo-choo train?' and started to bend over. Baker pushed his butt in front of my face and squeezed a small poop out," he marvels. "What amazed me most is that he sucked that little poop back in, like he had a real talent."

The artist says his friend motivated him to repeat the feat with his sister a few days later. "That's where the Tootsie Roll part comes in. That's what I called the trick, but [my poop] fell in the tub and my sister Jill left screaming."


Childree's childhood recollections of friends and family sound like crib notes clipped from a William Faulkner novel. The stroll down memory lane, meandering in fits and spurts, transfixes the listener. The stories go down as smoothly as a mint julep chased with a dram of Southern Gothic charm.

The building blocks of his hallucinatory silent movies come from Childree's earliest memories. His zany black-and-white films defy logic; they're a throwback to old-fangled midway nickelodeons or Tinseltown's birth pangs. His slippery narratives are equal parts family history and unsettling tall tale.

"I was really attracted to Clifton's work, as it seems incidental, but you know it's smart and calculated," Breukel says. "He has the exact right amount of wit, naughtiness, and humor, with a little bit of nostalgia thrown in. I love the way he is unashamedly provocative as well.... He relates these wonderful stories of growing up with an unabashed honesty, which I assume is where he gets this inspiration."

Growing up, he spent summers with his grandparents in an old waterfront house on Mobile Bay in Alabama. Childree says they loom large as muses.

His grandmother, Doris Wall, performed in Vaudeville as a young girl. J.F. Wall, his grandfather, was a Navy lifer with a salty streak who "was extremely bow-legged and wobbled when he walked," recalls the artist, describing his gramps as a "slapstick character."

"I don't want to creep you out, but when my grandpa was dying, my family was gathered at his bedside, and one of us called for him to say something. He just lay there before opening his eyes and responding, 'What the hell for?' Those were his last words."

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