– 2021 Gary Ware: Interview with Marci Kwon, pt. 4

Martin, Gary, and Ben, April 1973. Photo by Florence Wong Fie. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin, Ben, and Gary, April 1973. Photo by Florence Wong Fie. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Ben, Florence, and Martin, April 1973. Photo by Gary Ware. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

Back to Eureka, 1973

KWON: Why did Martin decide to leave the city (and the Angels of Light) in 1973, and return to Eureka?

WARE: He was caught in a hard space between his mother and the Angels. He wasn’t living at home at that time, and he wasn’t living with the Angels, either. He got a separate little room or apartment and was going back and forth.

The work that he was doing was all the paintings of the rubber duckies and Easter bunnies and the checkerboard things. When he got up there in [Eureka's] WACO [art collective] for some reason, he started doing checkerboards frames. And inside his WACO studio, he had outlined many parts of the studio in checkerboards, too.

KWON: Where did that come from?

WARE: Martin told me that it was yang and yin. He said the checkerboard was black and white, and we had a talk about that one time. I remember he told me, “This is the universe—black and white. Don’t you know yang and yin when you see it?" Then after that, I looked at it much differently, “Oh, this checkerboard’s really a philosophical statement.”

I know that he did a lot of carpentry work to make the studio to his own specifications. And he outlined everything in checkerboards. There was this long line of checkerboard things around his balcony.

Page 23 from an untitled album of Wong’s featuring Angels of Light Free Theater performances and studio, ca. 1971–75. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation c/o P.P.O.W.
WACO Studio Loft , ca. 1975–78.
WACO Studio Loft , ca. 1975–78.

KWON: And at this time he went back to Humboldt State to teach drawing?

WARE: He sat down with the students and showed them what he thought was an easy way to learn to draw, because he placed a high degree of importance on drawing as the foundation of any kind of representational art. You had to be able to draw first. I asked him, “What do you tell them?” He said, “I tell the students that drawing is like visual tracing. You look at what you’re going to draw. And you’re tracing it with your hand while you’re looking at it. So you’re not paying so much attention to what your hand is doing. But you’re following your eye." He told people that first you have to learn how to draw a circle. It had to be one stroke like Japanese calligraphy, one stroke.

Photo of Gary Ware taking a photo of Martin Wong, 1977. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What about his famous phrase, “Human Instamatic.”

WARE: He had an Instamatic camera and then he started doing those portraits at Chirimoya [Metals and Textiles, the arts space Wong founded in Eureka]. There were two or three times when he got his own portrait done by sidewalk artists down at Fisherman’s Wharf [in San Francisco]. So he sat for portraits. And they were cute portraits. Of course, knowing that Aunt Florence was always taking photographs of everything, and I was taking photographs of everything, he liked the idea of photographs.

KWON: During this period, Martin was also making portraits and scenes of local architecture.

WARE: It was great because I was familiar with all the architecture and places that he was painting. I have been by Weatherby’s [Sea Foods in Eureka] dozens of times. I probably had eaten there myself. So everything that he painted —the big bear that was standing beside the street and all those kind of things—were familiar to me. It was nice to see that he’d shifted gears again. He’d shifted gears away from the prickly, acidy sort of thing to this amorphous, bubbly looking sort of work. I mean, that car in front of Weatherby’s is emblematic of this period. Everything was flowing with round edges, sensual looking, and like that. It was quite wonderful.

KWON: Why do you think Martin made that shift?

WARE: Over the years, he’d gone from one thing to another. When he stopped something, he often just stopped and didn’t go back. He moved forward. He kept moving forward. So when he stopped with the trilobites, it wasn’t that he disowned them. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve done that.” I think he probably may have lost interest—“I can do this.” He did it to the point where he became really good at it and as soon as he became good and fluent at it, it was like, “Okay. Let’s set this aside, and let’s try something else.” So I think he just liked doing new things, moving on to [new] things. Certainly, after he came back from visiting Nepal and Tibet, he was full of that imagery.

Florence and Gary collecting on the beach, April 1973. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.


KWON: Can you talk about Martin’s collecting?

WARE: He knew what he was doing, for sure. It wasn’t random. When he went to Cost Plus, he would walk by all the junk and zero in on [one thing] because he knew this was valuable. He was self-educated, but still very educated, and he knew good stuff and bad stuff. The other thing is that he had great taste. It wasn’t just valuable stuff, it was beautiful things, too. So when he and Aunt Florence were shopping for thumb rings on Grand Avenue, they didn’t just buy any thumb rings. They bought the very best thumb rings, the most beautiful ones. And when he and I were collecting beach stones on the beach in Arcata, we didn’t just pick up any stones. He chose the most exquisite ones, the ones with the most beautiful markings, the ones that you couldn’t take your eyes off of, but they were easy to miss if you didn’t have that practiced sort of eye. Same way with driftwood and stuff like that.

KWON: So it was an activity he and Florence did together.

WARE: Oh, they went collecting together all the time. Especially when he was younger, up through high school, he was collecting with her. And she was a big collector on her own when he wasn’t around. She was always collecting. So when he would come home, his mom would always have all of her new things to show him. He definitely was trained in collecting with her. When they would zero in on something in a shop that they wanted, they were relentless in their pursuit of it. It was just a matter of time before they got it. It might take several trips. It could even take several months, but eventually, they would get it. They’d keep going back and bargaining if it’d still be there. They would do all that stuff.

The Passionate Collector, 1978 © Ellen Land-Weber

KWON: What would they do with the collections?

WARE: Hoard them. It’s like the lunchboxes. I forget how many hundred lunchboxes they had, and they didn’t have just one of each kind of lunchbox. They had several of each kind. The lunchbox collection would be lined up so when you’d pull the one away from the wall, there was another one just like it right behind it, but it wasn’t quite as good. Remember too that Aunt Florence was also a great stamp collector. She collected stamps well before Martin was able to go out and do this stuff. She liked to collect stamps. And, of course, in her relentless way, she had it all organized at home in albums and files and stuff like this.

So he came by it naturally. Florence made an album called “The Artist at Work.” And it was nothing but pictures of [Martin] actually painting. She was like that. She was such an organizer. Everything had to be organized. And everything was dated and wonderfully done.

They collected gold. I used to spend Christmases with him when I lived in the city. And every Christmas he would give his parents—each of his parents—a gold nugget. And they would be kept in a tonsu [Japanese storage cabinet]. So at Christmas, we’d take them all out, put them on the kitchen table, and look at them. After that, back in the container they went until next year. But for years he bought them gold nuggets.

Wong’s photo collage of the Roman Gabriel House.  Courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
Wong’s photo collage of the Roman Gabriel House. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

KWON: What about the Wong family’s purchase of the Romano Gabriel house ?

WARE: I know Martin talked them into buying it. Aunt Florence and Ben had paid for their house by that time and were looking around for something else to invest in since they were being taxed to death. I know that he wanted them to buy real estate because he also encouraged them to buy the art supply store in Arcata. He was encouraging them to buy property in New York City, too. He said, “You should buy this. You should buy these old hotels.” Or something like that. “You got to buy one of these.” As crazy as he could be, he also had a mind for business. And he had a mind for investment, because some of the stuff that he was buying and selling, he knew what it was worth and that things were going to go up. He knew that he could buy it cheap and sell it expensive or something like that. But he definitely had a business person’s eye for real estate and the value that it had in terms of money and stuff like that. People who met him wouldn’t think that he was so savvy about money, but he was. He was always looking for a bargain. I should tell you this. For years, well into his twenties, when he and I used to go out shopping together, he would invariably ask, "Can I get a student discount on this?”

Tibetan Porky, 1975–78.
Tibetan Porky, 1975–78.


KWON: What do you think about Martin’s use of stereotypes in his work?

WARE: I think Martin always had a playful attitude toward stereotypes. He was affectionate about them. When he and Aunt Florence started collecting Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s Rice [figures], it was with affection and appreciation for those things, even though they’re not politically correct and embarrassing to many people.

Look, you’ve got two choices. Either you own it and not be crushed by it, or you fight it, and then it becomes stronger against you. Then it becomes more negative. And he liked the stereotypes. And he liked the generalizations.

KWON: It reminds me of how you described Martin when he got out of the hospital. He would make jokes to try to own the experience.

WARE: Right. He would say, “I’m crazy. I was crazy. I tried to jump off the bridge.” Or “I gave away all of these things.” And he never denied things. Once again, he owned up to everything. And bless him for doing that, because it saved him, I think. If he tried to struggle too much against those things, I think it would have been more difficult.

But people around him weren’t so happy about being stereotyped. People were uncomfortable about it. They felt it was derogatory and that it was condescending, racist, all those things. And it is all those things. Stereotypes are all those things. But they’re not only those things.

KWON: So people were angry at him about his use of stereotypes?

WARE: Oh, I think so. Some of the reviews were quite critical. They looked at it with their eyes, and not through his eyes, which we all have to. I think people need to be reminded to look at stereotyping as not a monolith. Again, stereotyping is a spectrum, a wide spectrum. Everyone is going to face that struggle in their life. Everybody has to come to grips with that because nobody escapes it. I don’t care who you are, nobody escapes.