Gary Tanhauser, who illustrated "Two Barmaids, Five Alligators, and the Butcher of Elmendorf," talks about how he approaches his work.
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texasmonthly.com: How did this process start for you?
Gary Tanhauser: Scott Dadich called me and asked me to do the project. Then I got a draft of the story, and I worked from that.
I go through the story, make a lot of notes, and do a few quick sketches. I try to distill the core ideas in the story, take everything down to the lowest common denominator. What I usually like to do is work a little more conceptually and supplement the story rather than repeat what’s in the story.
In this case, this is truth that’s stranger than fiction. Basically, there’s this guy, Joe Ball—there’s some information about him and then there’s a lot of information about him that’s not necessarily factual. What I think it really comes down to is that a little alcohol is involved—people getting hammered all the time, all day long, kind of living in that alcohol-driven stupor, which kind of defines their lives. Of course, it was the Depression, and not much else was going on out there.
So, jumping from the concept to the actual building of it, I basically worked directly from the sketch. The piece looks just like the sketch only it’s dimensional. What I usually like to do is work on a scale that’s really close to the reproduction size. Say, if it’s a poster, I work a little bit larger. If it’s a magazine, I try to work as small as possible because I like to see all the texture and all the moves I make, I like to see them reproduced.
texasmonthly.com: Where did you find the alligator heads?
GT: I got those alligator heads from a place called the Bone Room in Berkeley, California. They sell mounted insects, all kinds of animal bones and human bones, and other things like that. They just happen to sell alligator heads.
texasmonthly.com: The place in Berkeley sounds kind of creepy.
GT: I bet it is kind of creepy when you go in. But there’s a scientific aspect to it—entomologists would want to frequent that place. But I bet you it is creepy—a lot of dismembered things sitting around.
texasmonthly.com: Did you not go yourself? Did you just order from them?
GT: I just ordered two alligator heads, and they have them listed in different size ranges— 3-4 inches, 7-8 inches in length. You can get big ones.
texasmonthly.com: Will you take me through the different objects of the piece and explain what kind of core ideas they represent?
GT: Well, the alligator heads, of course, represent the alligators—they’re the star of the piece. That’s the top section. In the middle of the top section there’s a woman. I gave them the option of two photographs of women. One of them is a photograph of a Greek statue—it’s a nude statue—and the other one is a found photograph that I re-photographed of a woman from the same time period, about the thirties, in a late thirties dress.
texasmonthly.com: This one looks like the Greek lady.
GT: The idea started with using a female figure that was nude, in a real documentary kind of position, kind of frontal with no emotion to it. And I wanted to use it out of focus so I could de-personalize the individual because there’s this aspect of actually dismembering somebody—his attacks were on women—and there’s this sexual aspect to it. That image represents all those things.
texasmonthly.com: Was this just a stock photo you had?
GT: That was actually a photograph I got from an old book that I re-photographed. That’s how I usually use photography in my pieces. I’ll actually take something that’s older so it’s copyright free, and I’ll re-photograph that so I can scale it and use it in the piece.
Let’s see, down below there are the two saws. Those are actually not necessarily the tools that he used, but I’m using them to represent cutting because they have sharp teeth and they have something you can hold. What I wanted to do with the two saws and the way they cross and the rendering of him below was to make a skull and bones, only reversed. So the saws represent the bones, and the head represents the skull. What I’ll do in pieces is make references to things and not necessarily be really literal about it.
texasmonthly.com: Were those just tools you had around?
GT: I bought these two saws that were brand new, and I didn’t like the handles that were on them, so I bought two other tools with handles that I liked—they were actually coping saws. I switched the handles, and then I changed the finish of the metal with chemicals, with oxidants. Basically, what started off brand new and shiny, I changed so it looked kind of old and a little bit rusty and used. So those saws look old, but they’re actually brand new.
I’ll go through some of the other objects. Scott sent me some reference photos that I guess were taken at the time of the crimes, or right after Joe Ball was arrested—photographs of the bar, the alligators, some of the tools he used to supposedly dismember people, shovels and a hacksaw. With the frame that’s around the piece, I wanted to get a feeling like this was wood peeled off the old bar so that’s why I put on the type, “Ball’s Tavern.”
texasmonthly.com: What about the other images within the frame?
GT: The head—what I wanted to do was a portrait of Ball, but it’s kind of loosely based on him because I only had one photograph, one reference of him, and it was taken on a beach or something and he’s in the sun and his eyes are squinting so it’s hard to tell what he really looks like. But I got an idea. And one of the things that was there—and was talked about in the story—was his thin mustache. I wanted to create this image that was a little bit dark and maybe devilish looking, so I painted him red and left his features not-so-clearly defined. And the X’s are references to alcohol, and since I see alcohol as driving a lot of this behavior, I put an XXX on the bottles, and then I put an X on him. And then, of course, I have X’s in the eyes of the alligators because they’re dead. So I wanted to have this reference to death, which is the X’s in the eyes, and alcohol, and the relationship between those two themes.
texasmonthly.com: He seems to be in a box within a box. Why is that?
GT: I wanted him to feel like he was underneath everything, kind of in a layer behind everything. And there’s also a reference to an actual building because I have the wood frame that looks like it came off maybe a house or something and then I have this portal that looks almost like an entryway. The scene that I’m creating is basically this bar he’s inside, or his space that he occupies, and these are all the things that are happening around that space or in that space.
texasmonthly.com: What’s the background? Is that a painting?
GT: Yeah, that’s a painted background—several layers of paint and texturing and scratching. And then the bottles are drawn on with small brushes, so it gives a feeling of dimension.
What I try to do with every piece—if it works—is use as many different mediums as I can. It gives me a lot of latitude because I can choose whatever medium seems to speak to the piece best.
texasmonthly.com: How long did this piece take to complete?
GT: Too long. I don’t know, maybe fifty hours. They take a while.
texasmonthly.com: Do you always shop with intent or do you pick up things when you’re not working on a piece?
GT: I’ll pick up things I think I could possibly work in pieces. Sometimes if I buy something that I really like and I get a job not too long after, I’ll try to use that object in the job. I’ll try to create an image around this thing that I want to use and have that thing work for the piece.
texasmonthly.com: Has this story affected your psyche at all? Did you have strange dreams or anything like that?
GT: No. I’ve done this stuff for twelve years. It’s just another story in a way, although you can’t really treat it like that when you’re working on it. I try to put as much of myself as I can into it so that what I end up with has some kind of weight and is not frivolous. And the only way I feel like I really do that is to put myself in it for a while, live with it.
texasmonthly.com How do you know when a piece is finished, when you’ve got it right?
GT: That’s a good question. It’s a weird thing—you just kind of know. It’s not something I can really explain. If you do something for a while, you end up developing techniques, and you know when you’ve completed your technique. On that level, it’s more like an objective kind of thing—you know when the technique is finished. On the subjective side, it’s just like a feeling you have; it feels like it all fits together, and it feels like it’s in proportion and the colors are right. And a lot of times it takes just working it and standing back and then working it again and standing back. And since I’m working with objects, what I’ll do is assemble everything and disassemble it and assemble it and disassemble it, assemble it, change it, and then put everything back together again. I just keep seeing how everything looks together.