Words by Robert Tumas
“Marx was right,” Howard Saunders says one humid night this summer at his girlfriend’s apartment in Williamsburg. When I ask him if he considers himself a socialist, “I mean a lot of people were right, but Marx was right.” It is an apt question, despite the fact that the term communist has become synonymous with outdated and semi-mythical witch hunts, as Saunders describes himself as a propagandist for a labor think tank for the last 30 years, (he was actually being employed as a designer, an educational video producer and illustrator for that same outfit, a difference, yes, but perhaps only in title alone), and truly worked to bring the power back to the working class. At 70 years of age Saunders is fresh into retirement and currently in the process of re-discovering the type of art that he liked to make, or more importantly, discovering the type of art he now likes to make—all his previous work was conformed to the instructions from superiors in the union.
“I don’t think of it as having been an artist, even though I performed as one,” Saunders confides. It is an obvious but somewhat hard shift to understand and make for Saunders but he has started to work through it, and is gaining speed.
Just before his retirement, Saunders saw Gary Panter (the artist responsible for the sets on Pee Wee Herman’s television series Pee Wee’s Playhouse) give a talk at SVA in which the artist compared the work he did for himself and the art he did for a living – Saunders saw no difference in the images on the left and right monitors, and when Panter was asked what the difference actually was, he replied, “One type I do for them, one type I do for myself.” It was a sentiment that Howard Saunders took deeply to heart, “I didn’t know what it meant to be my own artist,” he said of the moment at the talk. It is an idea that has spurred him on and helped him to launch a new career in a crowded art world that doesn’t take kindly to notions beyond the cookie cutter paradigms and prescribed ideals of “high” and “low” art. After a couple of different evolutions, Saunders has settled on a project to kickstart his new career making art for himself. His forthcoming project, Axeman: Who Will Be 70 in the Year 2010, is one part graphic novel, one part autobiographical memoir, and 2 parts historical romp in the vein of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forrest_Gump_%28novel%29″ \t “_blank” Winston Groom’s Gump, only this time, the main character, Axeman, is real. Or at least as real as a man with an axe for a head can be. But whatever you try to classify this project as, do not call Axeman an avatar.
“I hate this second life bullshit,” Saunders says when I try to make the tired and regrettable parallel between current trends in online facades and his book, “An avatar seems like what someone hopes to be, but I’m just creating a voice for how I’ve always been.” On the first page of the rough spreads that Saunders showed me of the Axeman project, the sentiment is one of the first bits of bold hand scribbled lettering that stands out: “If you don’t have a myth, make one. A real one…NOT AN AVATAR!” Though the Axeman project began as a whim when all Saunders had to draw on was old paper bags during a vacation by the sea, it has turned into something so much more ambitious. The project spans decades and touches on important points in history, all through the viewpoint of a man with a wood chopping implement for a head. And though there is deeper meaning to the axe head, when asked about all the anthropomorphizing in the project, Saunders replies, “I grew up on Disney,” referring tangentially, to Steamboat Willy and the rest of those old timey characters, “I just like it.”
Howard Saunders was born in New York City in Morningside Heights to working class parents and a father who was 33-years-old, just old enough to miss enlisting in the draft for the Korean war in 1949. “Axeman was relieved to know his father was no coward,” Saunders writes in the text of his book, and though respectful, he still wasn’t very keen on his old man’s way of life or temperament. His father’s obsession with boxing is scary and foreign to Axeman and only makes him tired when the old man tries to teach him how to box with a schmoo. Later on in the project, Saunders writes, in hand written script over the cover of a copy of The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman, “Once, Axeman’s father broached the subject of his son following in his old man’s footsteps. NO FUCKING WAY!”
Saunders established his rebellious streak early on, even though he was good at hiding it. While preparing for his bar mitzvah AxeMan hid copies of Mad Magazine in his haftorah. Ironically, Saunders would end up creating ads for tires, banks and Realtors to sell their product so he could make money, and it was experiences like this that would help to shape his idea of the working class, and never let him forget where he came from.
“My father was a traveling salesman and we were poor. That’s all I knew about class,” Saunders said of his experiences as a boy. “Today there is a re-definition of working class. There was no such thing when I was growing up in Kew Gardens, Queens.” After taking some art classes and deciding he was not a bohemian, Saunders enlisted in the Navy and got brought on as a draftsman, even though his skills were rudimentary and the Navy never looked at his work. Saunders watched Oswald get gunned down during a watch shift in headquarters but, this was the extent of the violent action he saw as a military man. He was released from active duty in 1964 and went on to study under Manny Farber in California thanks to the G.I. Bill. Farber was tough on Saunders and after some disagreement, Saunders decided to strike out on his own. “I was seeking but I was quitting at the same time,” he says of leaving California. Saunders headed to Aspen where the Axeman character made its first appearance in his life, though he wasn’t really aware of it.
In the book, while chopping wood with an axe, an architect whom Howard had just met remarked, “There are two kinds of people in this world; talkers and doers. You’re a talker!” The moment became a catalyst for AxeMan, and after a trip to Woodstock he headed back to Southern California for his resurrection at the hands of Jesuit priests and a tumultuous and emotional Urban Plunge. Saunders then took to the streets of a post-bohemian San Francisco and after meeting an old Navy buddy whose life he had changed in the service by telling him to grow up, Saunders obtained a lease on a $100-a-month walk up in the heart of North Beach, the “Ground Zero of [Axeman’s] fantasy life.”
“For kids in their 20’s—this is a time I find frightening,” Saunders remarked about trying a similar path of discovery today, “When I did my rebelling it was cheap. It didn’t cost anything!” After starting a propaganda company in San Francisco to help laborers, Saunders forged a relationship with Tony Mazzocchi The Man Who Loved Labor and Hated Work is his seminal biography that would span 30 odd years and would eventually lead to his job in Union Square with the think tank, a job whose goal at least, he loved. It was only after the bureaucracy of the place became stifling that Saunders decided to leave, and even though the format and drive of his work was never truly his, he says of that period, “For 30 years the politics were mine, but it turned its back on me.”
Having stuck it out just long enough to achieve his union pension, Saunders is now poised on the brink of a late-breaking art career that will keep him busy for years to come, and an alter ego that will allow him to attack anyone and any idea at will. Despite the need to downsize his living situation to cut costs, which prompted a move up to Hudson, New York, forcing Saunders to leave his edgier Brooklyn haunts, it didn’t take long for the biting wit of Axeman to appear on the streets of this gentler locale.
Saunder’s first show in the small town (where Marina Abramovich is now poised to start the Marina Abramovic Foundation for Preservation of Performance Art) was a tongue in cheek meditation called Ur-Monumental in response to the pompous categorization of the Un-Monumental show at the New Museum in the spring. After seeing the show in the city, Howard photographed a junk yard with huge T-shirts strung across the entire front and didn’t charge admission, on top of redacting Jerry Saltz’s piece in New York magazine and using the text on the hand-made shirts. The photographs Saunders took became a book that catalogued the event. “I fucked around with the book, but not the installation,” Saunders said of the three days of spontaneous and intense creation, “I like to think of my work now as transgressive. Axeman is a mythbuster.” Using Axeman, Saunders hopes to create a format that will allow him to continue his crusade against the greed and avarice of the corporate world, as well as social convention. It is a task that he feels he is ready for.
“I won’t say of myself that I draw well,” Howard said of his art, “But I draw like I draw. I try to be myself and genuine.”
And as for today’s re-definition of the working class?
“What does working class mean anymore? I don’t know,” Saunders remarked, “But earning a living to support your habits is certainly a version of it.”