This is one of those simple pieces one does because it's good for the soul.
The video is a portrait of Dan Cleary as much as it's a document of a signature poem by a revered
poet on the local Chicago scene. Many people in Chicago believe Dan is simply a kind Irish fellow
who likes to recite a poem or two on rare occasions. By most appearances, that's all Chicago knows of
him. However, when I got to Dan's apartment, where we agreed to shoot the video, it became clear that
his life as a painter was quite full.
Dan lived in a small, cramped and cluttered flat at the rear of a graystone on Division Street. When I arrived
for the shoot, he quickly had some strong, hot tea ready which we shared as we discussed the video. I took a
moment to look about the apartment. The whole space was dim with a yellow incandescent light: his work
room with half-rendered canvasses and thick stacks of finished pieces, his kitchen, his living room. More
canvasses took up parts of his living room in a kind of squared pile leaning against one wall. People
sometimes think that the stereotypic starving artist's apartment has the requisite and clichéd bare
bulb hanging from the ceiling, but dismiss it as just that: stereotypic. But in Dan's case it wasn't a funny
stereotype, it was a fact of life. He was just barely making ends meet as an overnight security guard
downtown at City Hall, and this flat on a rough stretch of Division was the best he could afford and still be
near the taverns where Wicker Parkers shared poetry in the late 1980s.
His themes as a painter are very basic and essential. He captures friends in social places. He paints for classic
ideas of Christian devotion. The paintings are not particularly naïve, since there is an arc to his craft
over time, but it would be wrong to call Dan an experimental artist. I would say that while poetry is one way
Dan prefers to commit his memory to the material world, painting would be another. Old friends
appear in canvasses over many years, aging visibly, sometimes revisiting in mythical settings which relate to
Dan's cosmology. And being well-grounded Catholic, Dan pays fair respect to religion, so there is the
commingling of living, social friends with figures some people consider more imaginary or mythical, such as
Jesus or the Madonna. The message which emerges is that everyday people can be as heroic as Jesus, and
that Jesus is as humble -- and accessible -- as a good friend. A commonality of plane...
The paintings were intended as a background for his poetry, but I used them as a kind of personal
commentary. Since there was no one involved with this piece other than Dan and me, I pretty much had the
freedom to cut the video as I pleased. While Dan's favorite cat certainly seemed to be a suitable subject of
much of the piece, he was not cooperative. We got candids of Dan. I encouraged him to touch his paintings
if that would not damage them, and he cooperated. I wanted to impress viewers with the commonality of the
image plane, reality and paint being on the same surface, namely the screen. Under that commonality was the
equality of heroic figures and the living. I also wanted to pay tribute to Dan as a personal hero, since his
presence was an inspiration to me in my early years as a Chicago performance poet.
I had Dan recite the poem several times before the camera in straight, dead-on shots.
This unfortunately precipitated a stutter which ordinarily doesn't
happen when he's in mixed company. For many stutterers, extraneous sounds can divert concentration upon
speech just enough to allow it to flow smoothly; blurting out a word or two in the middle of a friend's heavy
stammering fit is often all it takes to let them move on to the next phrase. But in a silent apartment where all
the attention was fixed on him, it was difficult to get a seamless take. While the sound track appears
to be a straight take with no effects, it isn't quite; a little bit of audio editing removed a couple of stutters
from the best take.
This video has become a personal favorite of mine over the years. I like to open presentations with it or use
it as a closing piece for longer reels. It's no-nonsense, witty, and charming, and the perfect antidote for me
when I feel just a little too powerful with electronic media ... too powerful, that is, for my own good!
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