ARTicle Magazine

My arts inspiration: Carl Bland

21 February 2016

Outsider artists, clowns and animals ignite the imagination of the theatre maker whose work includes the award-winning 360 – a theatre of recollections and the new Te Pō.

Ferdinand Cheval

Postman Ferdinand Cheval and his hand-built palace.

Te Pō, Partnered by Te Papa, Tuesday 1 – Saturday 5 March, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, Wellington, as part of the 2016 New Zealand Festival.

My inspirations come from the people that exist on the borders of what we call the real world. These include outsider artists like Ferdinand Cheval, a postman who over 30 years on his daily round collected stones of odd and fanciful shapes in a wheelbarrow. Then in his spare time, mostly at night, he used them to build a strange monumental palace made up of sculpture, mosaics, encrusted stones and grottos.

“People laughed at me, blamed me, criticised me, but as this kind of insanity was neither contagious nor dangerous, nobody thought it worthwhile calling in the mental doctor and so I was able to indulge my passion freely in spite of everything, turning a deaf ear to the scoffing crowd. For I knew that people always ridicule and even persecute the men they don’t understand.” Ferdinand Cheval

There are many other examples of these outsiders who start building these strange and monumental structures. Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Stephen Sykes’s 65ft tower called In-Curiosity or Clarence Schmidt’s seven-story house of 35 rooms.

“Look! Look! Look! Look! God almighty, has anyone living or dead done anything like this? Would you believe I done it all?” Clarence Schmidt

Couldn’t these words by one of these builders be also the words from any clown? Clowns are another of my inspirations. I remember doing a Philippe Gaulier workshop many years ago where he would ask us to be funny then call out to the audience, “Mummy, look at me!” I failed miserably, of course, but the spirit he was looking for was that of a child. Where the sheer joy of doing what to us adults is a very mundane activity has to be shared and acknowledged with a simple request. Look at me, and love me.

The greatest clown I have seen, and maybe I am biased, was my late wife, Peta Rutter. Performing transformed her. Her clown was quite black but its secret seemed to lie in making simple everyday activities like opening a bottle into something so incredibly complex and detailed it became increasingly obscure and strange. And yet big emotional moments were presented simply with great stillness and openness.

Claude Lorrain painting

Landscape with Cattle and Peasants (1629), Claude Gellée, also called Claude Lorrain. Courtesy of The George W Elkins Collection, 1950, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lastly, my final inspiration is from animals. Especially the ones that live in the human world. Claude Lorrain, the great 18th-century painter, often includes these domesticated animals in his paintings. We see a cow, for instance, in a field watching silently while all around him great human events occur. Kings are crowned and overthrown, ships sail towards the sun, or sink into the ocean. Important historic moments are played out as the cow quietly watches chewing on the grass. A silent witness to important human comings and goings. You get the sense that perhaps all these life-changing events are nonsense and it’s the cow that knows the true nature of existence.

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