It’s Saturday afternoon, and I am Christmas shopping with Paul Wilson. We’re mostly visiting thrift stores, pretty much the only place Paul can find the sort of gifts he plans to put under the vintage silver Evergleam Christmas tree in the front window of his maniacally stylish mid-century home. So far he’s scored a child’s upright piano for his guest bedroom, which is decorated entirely in half-scale, so that visitors appear to tower over the room’s furnishings. Earlier in the day, he found a pink ceramic ashtray and a tiny plastic cactus as gifts for Lee Harvey Oswald, who looms large in Paul’s life these days as the centerpiece in his latest series of 3-D installations, and in the terrifically offbeat house he calls home.
Paul Wilson is not like you or me. He does not wear jeans, preferring a vintage sport coat and pleated trousers, regardless of the weather or time of day. He does not carry a cellphone or own a flat-screen TV (they’re “unsightly”); has no cable bundle, iPad or iAnything, for that matter. He listens to records on a blonde wood hi-fi.
“iPads, iPods, none of that makes sense to me,” the artist, 52, reminds me for the hundredth time. Paul and I have been friends for years; I know his nuttiness better than most. “I tried having a cellphone but I lost it the second day.”
His diet is just as peculiar. Paul won’t eat a vegetable on a bet, dining instead on toaster pastries and peanut butter pretzels. In his kitchen, the pristine vintage oven and stove are never turned on.
Paul, who makes his living designing theater stage sets, was born in 1964 and has lived his whole life in Phoenix – a Phoenix that resides mostly in his dazzling imagination and in the Westside ranch-style house he has carefully fashioned into a kinetic time capsule of the year 1957. His coffee table is a blonde boomerang; his high-color sofa and chairs are upholstered in nubby nylon; his walls are hung with kaleidoscopic Turner prints. His ’50s-era Crosley Shelvador refrigerator is stocked with neatly arranged, period-correct fake food; the real edibles are hidden in the vegetable crisper. Paul’s aesthetic rule is singular: Excess is best. Why have an ice bucket when you can have seven? A polka-dotted throw-pillow is nice, but a dozen of them are better.
Recently, a security system salesman visited Paul’s place. He eyed the rubber chicken in the oven; the cardboard cutout of Patty Duke in the guest bath; the field of plastic flowers growing in the yard. “Do people actually live here?” he demanded.
Not necessarily, I would have told this man. But Paul Wilson does.
Television producers and magazine writers have rhapsodized for decades over Paul’s zany lifestyle. He’s appeared on numerous cable shows (including HGTV’s Offbeat America and Fox Movie Channel’s Cult Culture) usually as “that crazy 1950s guy.” Home and garden programs especially love Paul, whose hyperactive interiors are designed, after all, to be photographed.
All this media attention has led to a lot of misunderstanding about my friend. People who can’t imagine living with stacks of carefully arranged Melmac dishware or a bathroom with a ’60s tampon dispenser and a stenographer’s station in front of the toilet sometimes write Paul off as mentally ill. Artists and curators often assume Paul’s house is an installation project; that his life is an ongoing performance piece. Visitors who notice the 27 different vintage chrome Maid-Rite toasters in the kitchen dismiss Paul as a hoarder. People who haven’t met him guess that Paul is just looking for attention, or that his whole life is some kind of whacked-out marketing ploy.
I suppose there’s some truth in each of these theories. I’ve known Paul longer and perhaps better than most of his smallish circle of close friends, and have grown weary of trying to explain him to others. I usually mutter something about how Paul lives his art. It’s as good an explanation as any.
I first heard about Paul on The Tonight Show. Kirstie Alley was telling Johnny Carson about how she’d shot a movie in Phoenix in the early 1990s, and there was some guy there who did paintings of her husband, Hardy Boys heartthrob Parker Stevenson, being abducted by aliens. I did some poking around, found Paul, and wrote a magazine article about him. I was stunned by his devotion to his craft, and surprised by his warmth and good humor. We became friends, and I learned to be comfortable with his often over-the-top artistic fixations. I witnessed his trajectory as an artist, and learned of his curious past projects.
As a boy, he became obsessed with director Irwin Allen’s 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, staging “capsize parties” with high school friends willing to re-create scenes from the movie about an overturned ocean liner. At Arizona State University, he made a name for himself with paintings and drawings of Stevenson in various states of distress, usually accompanied by extraterrestrials or a family of barn owls. In the late ’80s, Paul’s focus shifted to mid-century Americana and the atomic age, which he brought to life in a series of propaganda films and painstakingly produced photo montages, all starring the fictional Kimble family, each member played and photographed by Paul himself.
(Until recently, Paul made his montages by meticulously cutting up photographs he’d taken, pasting them together, then drawing and painting over them. Today he uses a graphics program called Windows Paint to create assemblages.)
Paul returned to his Poseidon obsession in the mid-1990s, this time with a full-scale, 93-minute remake of the film in which he played every one of the story’s 13 characters. More recently, he’s turned his attention to alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. What would the world be like today, Paul’s Oswald series seems to ask, if the man had become something other than a notorious gunman? The result is a series of paintings, fashion dolls and photo montages in which Paul re-imagines Oswald as a pop music star, a male model, a sweet-natured employee in a toaster factory. In one memorable piece purchased by Scottsdale art dealer William Lykins, Paul painted Oswald as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“Paul’s vision of Oswald as something other than one of history’s most infamous assassins was difficult for me to grasp,” Valley artist Jeff Falk has said of the Oswald series, which Falk has shown locally. “I remember that sad day when JFK died, but I’m not offended by Paul’s revisionist take on Oswald. I find it humorous and endearing. But was it art? If so, was there a message? Maybe Paul Wilson was just a crazy man. Or just maybe he was crazy like a fox.”
As Paul and I wander the aisles of Goodwill, our third junk shop in less than an hour, I ask him if recasting Oswald as a benign heartthrob expresses a desire for the return of American innocence. It’s a notion I forwarded in an exhibition of Paul’s Oswald work I presented several years ago in the first of three solo shows at my gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art.
“I know you like to find deeper meaning in my art,” Paul says with a patient sigh. “But I’m not trying to make a bigger point. It never occurs to me that anyone is even going to see the things I make. I’m trying to actualize how I want the world to be, for me.”
How he wants that world to be is cheerfully chaotic – a dadaist version of the real world Paul mostly disdains. It’s easy to reduce Paul’s artwork to its most sordid inspirations: assassins, schlocky disaster movies, atomic warfare. But there’s a recurrent optimism in his deliberately skewed depictions of our world, an insistent humor that masks the horror just below the surface. In one of Paul’s most popular montages, the impeccably groomed Kimbles pose in their picture-perfect living room; in the window behind them, a mushroom cloud blooms. A subsequent montage shows the family, clearly suffering from radiation poisoning, cheerfully redecorating their bomb-ravaged home.
Paul’s fixation on the year 1957 is both an homage and an admonition: “Didn’t everything look cool back then?” his high-color ’50s depictions of pristine interiors seem to ask. “Look how happy everyone was before the Cold War!” his video series about venereal disease demands. A closer look reveals Paul’s wicked commentary in each of these presentations: That spotless Leave it to Beaver kitchen is crawling with cockroaches; the woman in that VD video has run off with the neighbor, leaving her baby nestled into a cook pot.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art associate director Sara Cochran, a longtime champion of Paul’s work, believes him when he says his primary interest is in realizing his own fantasies. But she’s not buying the notion that he doesn’t give a thought to his audience. “Paul’s work is very theatrical,” she says. “He enjoys orchestrating moments for other people to experience. Some of them know that they are participating in Paul’s art, and others do not. His work plays with that edge of comfort and discomfort, but his personal warmth and charm puts people at ease. He’s like Tom Sawyer, making his universe appealing so we all want to have a go at playing in his realm of good fun and fantasy.”
Paul won’t cop to commentary in his artwork, which has been seen at both Phoenix Art Museum and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and in numerous Valley galleries. He chuckles when I ask what he thinks people see in his art. “I think people just think I’m crazy,” says Paul, who’s never been diagnosed with anything clinical that would explain his obsessions. “When I was doing the Kimble series, or dressing as Shelley Winters for Poseidon, people thought I was a drag queen,” he reminds me. “Dressing as a woman was a part of my work when I was doing those projects, but a lot of people couldn’t see past me in a dress.”
It’s always been that way with Paul, according to human instincts theorist Kathy Kolbe, who’s known him since he was a boy. She hired Paul to create products for Resources for the Gifted, a program she founded in the 1970s that taught critical and creative thinking to public school kids. He was in high school at the time.
“Even back then, he was just amazing,” Kolbe recalls. “His thinking was 30 years ahead of everyone else’s, in terms of avant garde art. His humor and unique ability to bring to life an idea, his visual creativity were all beyond anything I had seen in a young person. I kept thinking, ‘I have to find a way to package that.’”
Wilson on carpet duty in his half-scale apartment.
But packaging Paul has always been a problem. While we’re driving to Lenny’s, a local greasy spoon that serves Paul’s favorite french fries, I remind him of the time a museum curator came to his house to look at his artwork – the perfect example of someone not understanding his work. “That was the stupidest waste of time,” Paul says with a laugh. “I set up all these dioramas, showed him the Kimble videos, the montages. He just kind of sniffed. Later I took him into the room where I stashed all the costumes and props I used in my photo shoots, and he went crazy. ‘This is what people need to see! This is your art!’ No, it wasn’t. It was a pile of costumes. I couldn’t wait for him to leave.”
Paul, who genuinely likes people, often can’t wait for them to leave. Nothing about our fascination with his unusual world is as fulfilling to Paul as creating that world, making it “real,” crafting it in 3-D displays that please him. Raised by permissive, kindhearted parents, Paul was encouraged to indulge his unusual artistic interests as a child.
“Roger had no idea what to make of him,” Paul’s mother Joan told me a few years ago about her late husband. “But he sure got a kick out of everything that boy came up with. You never knew who or what was going to come out of his bedroom every morning.”
At the hamburger joint, Paul tells me about the time he agreed to travel to Houston with his brother and sister-in-law. Before they departed, Paul’s brother, who owns a llama ranch in Campe Verde and is 15 years older than Paul, asked if he would please not wear his trademark brightly colored vintage sport coats. Also, would he mind not eating Pop-Tarts (a Paul Wilson diet staple) in the hotel room, or ask to be taken to thrift stores? These things made Paul’s sister-in-law uncomfortable.
In an attempt to be agreeable, Paul wore nothing but black during the Texas trip. He spoke only when spoken to. He didn’t complain at the nautical museum (where he was bored) or the seafood restaurant (the thought of eating fish gives Paul hives). “I basically wasn’t there,” says Paul, whose feelings were clearly hurt by his brother’s requests. “I was a non-person. They probably thought it was just more performance art. ‘Oh, look, Paul’s wearing all black and not talking.’”
How, I wondered, had he coped? “I was OK until the third day,” he confesses. “We were at another restaurant where I couldn’t eat anything on the menu. But I’d noticed an amusement park next door.” Paul slipped away after his entrée – prawns, which horrified him – arrived. At the amusement park, he rode the Ferris wheel for a full half hour. There was a breeze up there. He could see for miles. It was nice.
What, I couldn’t help but ask, did his family say when he finally returned to the table? Paul sighs. “Nothing,” he shrugs. “They never noticed I was gone.”
We’ve finished our shopping, eaten our cheeseburgers. Back at Paul’s house, he’s placed his gifts under the aluminum Christmas tree and is showing me his newest work. It’s a series that brings his career full circle. As with his early 1980s Parker Stevenson paintings, these new pieces depict Lee Harvey Oswald being abducted by extraterrestrials.
“The aliens go through his wallet, and they tickle him,” Paul explains, flipping through a stack of photo montages. “Then they have a party. It’s kind of a nicer version of what the police did when they arrested Lee in real life.”
I notice other new work, created by Paul since the last time I visited him. In one corner, a life-size barbershop quartet featuring Nick Wilde, the animated fox from Disney’s Zootopia, and two outer space aliens stand before a microphone, ready to perform “Good King Wenceslas.” Nearby, there’s a Fisher-Price version of Paul’s house, in which wooden peg versions of Paul and Oswald enjoy some Christmas Eve eggnog. Several feet away, Paul is painstakingly assembling his vision of a tiny attorney’s office, circa 1957.
“If the Phoenix arts community is like a family,” Jeff Falk told me, “then Paul is the eccentric, wild brother of the bunch. We’re all waiting, wondering what he will come up with next. Whatever it is, we know it’s gonna be fun.”
Paul Wilson will be delighted if people find his new art “fun,” and happier still if we find it slightly disconcerting. Ultimately, though, he doesn’t care what we think of his work. In many ways, Paul’s life really is a private performance piece, as some have gathered. It’s a live-in installation honoring a time he never knew, featuring people he could never have met. His artwork is a way for Paul to step outside and ride a Ferris wheel, staring down on the world but seeing it very differently than the rest of us.
I want to ask Paul about this – about whether his work looks down on its viewer; if he’s laughing at us rather than with us. But I’ve known my friend for a very long time, and I know he’s not thinking about perspective, and wouldn’t dream of mocking anyone who took the time to look at his art. While he fusses with the gifts under his tinseled tree – a ceramic llama for his mother, a vintage box of laxatives for his brother – I like to think I know what Paul Wilson is thinking. He’s thinking there’s no point in waiting until Christmas. He’s just going to give Lee Harvey Oswald that pink ashtray right now.
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