Clifton Childree's Craziness
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.
"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."
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.
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."
During summer vacations, Childree roamed the 'Bama shoreline barefoot, catching crabs and collecting driftwood with a gaggle of cousins. "It was sort of like Huck Finn. There was about 20 of us. We would wake up early and go fishing or would scoop up clay from the bay to make sculptures that dried in the sun."
On one such outing, his grandmother's glass eye popped out and fell through the cracks of a pier and into the bay. "Us kids had to fish for it," Childree chuckles.
The artist peels back his lips with pride in his family's waggish streak when he mentions the moniker — Skip Reasonover — saddled on the older cousin who pawed through the muck to find granny's missing peeper.
Today Reasonover lives in Jacksonville, where he works as a hospital food manager. He fondly remembers the ruckus. "Grandma used to take that eye out every night and kept it in a glass jar near her bed. She was very careful with it because it had slipped out before and rolled down the stairs. When it fell in the muddy water, I was the one who found it," the 44-year-old confirms.
Reasonover shares Childree's fascination with family lore and is just as quick to tell an outlandish tale. He says, for instance, their grandfather had an odd habit of making them wash ice cubes and recycle toothpicks.
"He would make us wash our ice cubes after we finished our drinks and put them back in the refrigerator because we didn't have an ice maker. He would also reuse his toothpicks, and I thought, Wow, why would he do that? He said it was because he could still use the other end."
Reasonover says the ancestral homestead came to be known as "The Funny Farm" or "Cluster Fuck." During holidays, their grandpa toted in beer kegs, and 13 was the "legal drinking age," he says.
He nonchalantly relates that when a great-aunt died in her seventies, the family was left dumbstruck by a revelation of her autopsy. "She had the skeleton of a twin fused to her back that no one knew about."
Childree informs that when he grew up, his kin organized a hootenanny every Fourth of July. His mother and uncles Bubba and Harry jammed on the clarinet, a washtub bass, and a banjo. "It was magical," he says. "The entire family would perform, and we each had our own skit or sang songs."
His mother, Barbara Doetsch, played the organ during a four-year stint as a Benedictine nun, when she was known as Sister Mary Pious. Her organ recitals as a nun appear as part of the score of The Flew.
"She kept complete silence for two years during her early twenties," he relates. "After a while, she left the convent because she hated authority and couldn't stand the visiting church big shots who would pull up in a limo and stick their hands out the window for the nuns to kiss."
Childree remembers rambling in the yard while his mom — now known as "Sissy" — involved herself with music and art projects. "I remember her once covering a canvas with black paint and then dousing it with a garden hose to watch the patterns flow, or just doing experimental stuff."
Stimulated by his mother's unbridled support, Childree popped his celluloid cherry in 1981 when he was 10 years old, with The Red Caped Killer, the story of a vampire that stalked the woods behind Childree's home. In middle school, he helmed Shalonka Man, which "was really goofy and had these terrible fight scenes, purposefully awful jokes, and really bad breakdancing. I showed it with my friends at Plantation Middle School. I remember it had this fake 'Death Cereal' commercial with some kid like Mikey who could be convinced to eat anything."
When, during a school assembly screening of Childree's film, the "Mikey" character started puking his guts out, teachers pulled the plug on his epic.
Childree has made 15 films; all of them are silent, typically shot on 16mm black-and-white reversible film using sets he builds in his back yard. He owns his own camera, lighting, and sound equipment, and at a few grand apiece, his films are Green Stamp-budget affairs.
For characters in two of his recent movies — Something Awful and It Gets Worse — he found inspiration in his grandfather. The first yarn turns on a 19th-century mariner who unexpectedly snares a Victorian harlot's butchered buttocks in his lobster trap. It overflows with slapstick japery marinated in heaps of gore. Childree plays the grizzled sea dog, who discovers an eerie connection between the disembodied keister and "Shitty Britches," an arcade game at the local tavern. One of the scenes features the murdered strumpet's disarticulated and putrefying rump discharging turds bazookalike at the numbskulls lining the bar.
The film was co-commissioned by the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and Miami Light Project for the 2006 Here and Now Festival, and last year earned Childree LegalArt's Native Seeds Grant. He says many of its props and themes will be woven into his rides at Locust.
It Gets Worse is a Twenties-style silent horror film, a slapstick Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which two starving, shipwrecked fishermen, adrift on a dingy, are on the verge of delirium as one of them falls into febrile reverie. He remembers cremating passengers — victims of some sort of plague — on the boat during an ill-fated journey to Cuba. The reality is that during the voyage, a band of pirates stormed the vessel, robbing and slaughtering its passengers.
After their nefarious deeds are discovered, the thieves stuff the sailor into a coffin-shaped arcade game named "Wakey Wake." When the sailor's scrotum is slammed in the coffin lid, he transforms into a Hyde-like alter ego reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash, his balls swelling menacingly and his pubes blooming like kudzu. He exacts revenge.
In one memorable scene, Hyde burns his balls in the crematorium and then starts sucking the blood out of his scorched sack.
"I got the idea from a photograph my grandpa snapped while visiting Brazil a long time ago," Childree explains. "It was of a man suffering from elephantiasis whose nuts were so big he had to push them around in a wheelbarrow."
Childree films scenes out of sequence and often shanghais friends into playing bit parts. "They are all amazingly committed," says dancer and performance artist Nikki Rollason, Childree's girlfriend. "They show no fears when Cliff asks them to do these ridiculous things. No one sees a script, scenes are filmed out of order, and no one is sure what's going on except Cliff."
During the filming of It Gets Worse, Rollason was hijacked to play a character named Monkey Boy.
"There was this arcade game called the 'Master Baiter' and I played this little Monkey Boy with clown makeup and facial hair. Cliff gave me a penis after the fact. I didn't know I was going to end up ejaculating into a hot-dog bun," she giggles.
Childree also teamed up with Rollason for She Sank on Shallow Bank, the surreal tale of a dead girl who washes up on the bank of a bay, where her body hypnotically reacts to the flotsam. The movie won a Silver Outhouse for best experimental short film at the sixth annual Outhouse Film Festival in Baton Rouge.
"It was kind of a time-frame snapshot. As a kid, I would sit in a stairwell in front of the black-and-white pictures on my grandparents' walls and combine their histories in my head. That's how I came up with She Sank on Shallow Bank," Childree says.
Reasonover recalls that he and his cousins delighted in the tangles of seaweed, glass buoys, and odd-shaped pieces of driftwood that used to wash up on Mobile Bay, and never knew what they might discover there. "I'm glad those experiences show up in movies like Shallow Bank," he says.
Rollason mentions that while they were filming It Gets Worse in their back yard, their Haitian neighbor's children sat along the fence eating popcorn.
"It was like they were watching a movie or something," Childree laughs. "I think the mother might have freaked a bit about the guy with the big nuts, though."
On a rainy Friday afternoon in August, the heaps of bedraggled wood beams and snaking coils of orange extension cords that recently littered the floor at Locust have disappeared. Childree's project is beginning to look like a throwback Hollywood Western ghost town. He says that will change once he begins slathering his structures with buckets of obscenely garish "carnival-colored Home Depot reject paints."
Childree stops sawing and burning wood with a blowtorch outside. As the drizzle becomes a downpour, he shepherds New Times on a tour of his creaky rides. A solitary fan buzzes like a hornet smacking against a screen door. He pussyfoots through the remaining mess to a funhouse that includes a narrow maze, tunnels, and a plastic slide for an exit.
"It's called That's Nuts and is all about having your nuts tied up in different type of knots. I'm interested in old naval knots," he grins. "I recently made a slapstick movie where a sailor sits on a commode arcade game and someone reaches up through the plumbing and stretches the guy's balls until they drag on the floor. It gave me the idea it would be fun to tie nuts up for this attraction."
Childree hopes one dark ride, Sour Puss, will curdle the senses much like the brooding horror films Val Lewton produced for RKO Pictures in the Forties, such as The Body Snatcher. Those movies were "extremely low budget and preyed on the imagination. They really allowed the audience's fears of the unknown to become part of the experience."
The ride is hemmed off by a menacing snaggletoothed picket fence. Victorian-era gaslights abut the entrance to the groaning structure, which exudes an aura of psychological scar tissue.
"I am going to hang some Victorian dresses with bloodstains in [the ride]," Childree says. "I want it to be set in a bedroom with some film of Dracula or Jack the Ripper coming out from behind the bed. There is something sexually powerful about Dracula that's attractive. And Jack the Ripper went straight for the crotch." Childree's villain will be called "Mr. Sippers, The Tizzy Snatcher."
He says the dresses will be bloodstained at the crotch to evoke menstruating women and legends that werewolves and ghouls were attracted to them.
"I always wanted to make a movie where Dracula would suck the blood from his female victims' crotches instead of their necks," Childree laughs. "I also want to have blood pouring out of the door in this ride and through the cracks on the floor sort of like in a Kubrik movie. I used to have a lot of dreams of streetlamps like the ones in New Orleans that would draw energy from everything around them and then explode in an orgasm."
Streetlights have been a major theme in his drawings, the artist explains, noting that his obscene horror ride will also feature a haunted pillow scurrying insectlike across the murder victim's bed. "Fear fills your whole body with energy. I feel like I have to take a shit every time I walk through a cemetery."
His main attraction, Old Kipper's Widow, is a mechanical whorehouse with a collapsed roof. "This originated the whole thing," Childree gushes. "I've been wanting to do this for 15 years," he says of the ride. "It's about a bordello you put a nickel into with mechanical automatons that have different holes you can poke your dick inside of. It's gross, falling apart, and the roof is caved in, but you still want to enter."
Standing in the corner space where this ride is situated, one finds it difficult to wrap the skull around the artist's seedy vision of a turn-of-the century pornucopia. Suddenly he begins spewing yet more memories of his kooky clan. Some of his relatives sound like the bumpkins from Li'l Abner's mythical town of Dogpatch. Childree is quick to add that his family enjoyed a healthy jibe at one another's expense.
"Granny Mamie only had two front teeth that she used to scrape apples against while eating them. She would stick a gob of wax in her mouth and carve lines in it like teeth to go to church," Childree reminisces. "She lost her dentures while biting down on a cast net she was tossing in the bay."
Swept by a wave of nostalgia, he again holds forth on Grandpa, who sounds more like a sailor on permanent shore leave than a retired family patriarch.
"One of his favorite jokes he told us was about this little kid who caught his grandfather masturbating. He'd ask him: 'Grandpa, you jacking off?' 'No, son, just jacking,' the old man would respond. Grandpa was really nasty."
Childree pauses to inform that "Kipper's Widow" is an old matron who lost her husband at sea and sits at her sewing machine pining for him.
"I'm going to show a film as part of this where the widow's sewing machine is connected to the sail of a ship, which is connected to a dildo in her chair activated by the wind so she can have an orgasm while she's sewing."
Childree says that when his work is finished, he wants the atmosphere of his screwball opus to appear urine-stained, weathered by the ravages of time and creeping with vines.
"This is not a sterile environment. It's raw. To me that mixture is funnier. It's like this could have been a side attraction for adults at a larger carnival and kids would have tried to sneak into it too."
When "Dream-Cum-Tru" opens, Childree plans to perform decked out in washed-up duds while turning the crank on an ancient projector spooling one of his quirky films.
"I'll be playing an old carny who will be very slapstick like my grandfather. You know, it's hard to come to terms with the fact that all these folks are gone. It's still hard for me to believe," he sighs.
Navigating Childree's decomposing theme park, lazily congealing at Locust on a blistering summer afternoon, one feels the spirits of his ancestors as thick as the rolling fog in one of those old Lewton films ... and very much alive.
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