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September 5-11, 2007

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The Nutzle Enigma

A portrait of the artist as an invisible man

By Stephen Kessler

A few miles southeast of Watsonville, across the line into San Benito County, on a side street behind the bakery in San Juan Bautista, is a little antiques and collectibles shop called Fool's Gold. The shop's proprietors, Halina and Bruce Kleinsmith, live nearby in what used to be a truck or tractor barn, a cavernous space with steel beams in the ceiling, divided by an adobe wall into living quarters and an art studio.

The artist in residence is Kleinsmith, better known to old-timers as Futzie Nutzle, at one time the most widely known visual artist in town. From the late 1960s into the '90s, Nutzle's drawings, paintings, cartoons and posters were practically everywhere in the Santa Cruz and even San Jose cultural landscape, especially in the various newspapers that came and went during those years. Nutzle's distinctive, spare, fine black ink line, set off against its stark white background, was uniquely unmistakable for its minimalist clarity, sophisticated wit and nutty originality.

At a time when the area was rich with talented cartoonists—pungent pens like Karl Vidstrand, Tim Eagan and AWest among others—and when the local press was daringly creative in its violations of journalistic convention, Nutzle's images were a revelation to readers and an inspiration to other artists and writers. From 1975 to 1980 a Nutzle drawing graced the letters page of every issue of Rolling Stone, and from '85 into the late '90s his work appeared continuously in Tokyo's Japan Times, further internationalizing his visibility. In the South Bay, in the early years of Metro, his drawings often appeared on the letters page. Then he pretty much dropped out of sight, at least as far as most of the world was concerned.

Last year, I received an unexpected announcement of a new Nutzle exhibition at the Aromas Public Library: plein-air oil paintings of the San Juan Bautista Mission. Such a show was news to me not only because I hadn't heard from Nutzle in many years, but because the subject matter and style of the pictures was such a departure from the cartoonish surrealism of his earlier work in oils, let alone the surreal cartoonism of his drawings. But in several visits with the artist over the last year I've come to understand how his effort to master a more conventional genre fits a lifelong pattern of "cutting new ground," moving beyond any comfort zone he may have created in whatever medium. As evidenced in the course of our conversations, Nutzle has evolved into what could be called a pure artist, one who works not for a market or a career but for the satisfactions of his own sense of discovery.

Ambitious yet with no taste for self-promotion, unafraid of silliness yet deadly serious, uncompromising yet not too proud to publish almost anywhere, inhabiting an ambiguous zone between cartooning and fine art, Nutzle is a paradoxical character, sharing affinities with such diverse artists as Otto Soglow (creator of The Little King comic strip of the 1940s and '50s), Salvador Dalí (plumber of the unconscious), James Thurber (master of the simple satirical line) and New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg (imaginative improviser extraordinaire and Nutzle's acknowledged model for genre-defying flights of visual invention). His drawings, while often jokey, are at the same time mysterious and enigmatic. In an age of blatancy and exhibitionism, Nutzle deals in subtlety, inviting the viewer to slow down and look at his images for a clue to what's really going on.

His silver-white hair pulled back in a ponytail, intense gaze shaded by formidable eyebrows, a tiny triangle of Chinese whiskers gracing his lower lip, Nutzle at 65, still trim and physical, has the severe demeanor of a hipster-philosopher who brooks no nonsense. His deep voice resonates with conviction rooted in experience. His studio has the feel of a funky loft or garage-museum shaped by the artist's eclectic eye. The barnlike space boasts dizzying collections of old-time movie-cowboy memorabilia, toy cars, old books, crates of LPs, shelves full of movies on videotape, miscellaneous tchotchkes, a manual typewriter, lots of paintings and of course a vast archive of original works on paper. He has no computer—he threw one out the door in a fit of techno-exasperation—wedded as he remains to old-school notions of manual skill and unplugged self-invention.

Nutzle's model of "a real artist" is his friend Phil Hefferton, who in the 1950s was rising in the ranks of young New York painters only to abandon that path and turn up in Santa Cruz, where they met in 1968. In subsequent years Hefferton, according to Nutzle, "concentrated on creating his own language," single-mindedly devoting himself to painting.

"He's the person that actually got to the painting; he's got miles of paintings, and they're so provocative, and so otherworldly, and so connected with his own spirituality, and the path of his thinking in philosophy," Nutzle says. "And it includes his family and the world. Paintings with real paint quality and paintings that are interpretive; but he arrived at the paintings, the paintings dictated what he needed to do to arrive at the finish of the painting. So he's a real painter."

Such a rigorous, almost monastic idea of the commitment art requires runs counter to the stereotype of Santa Cruz as a laid-back place where anyone's personal effort at creative expression can be called art. "This is not an art town," Nutzle declares—"people don't need it; you can go down and look at the ocean." It's the uglier places, like Cleveland, where he comes from, that demand of the artist a fresh vision of reality. "The only kind of art that I felt was needed here was humor."

But in Nutzle's exacting judgment, even many New York artists have lost touch with the fundamentals. "Sometimes I think of some of this crap that comes out of New York that they're selling for $100,000—I mean some of those guys need to go out and look at a tree or something," he says. "They don't even know what a source of light is; they have no idea."

The rise of conceptual art in America since the late 1970s and '80s is a trend he regards with even greater disdain: "Let's light this room in an interesting way and call it art. Well, it's lighting, it's not art. It's lighting.

"And you see, I didn't fit because I don't have that mentality. To me," says Nutzle, "art is something from the practiced hand. Somebody practiced for years to be able to do this—whether they're a Chinese pottery painter, whether they're an Eskimo carving his ivory, whatever—it's the practiced hand that creates art. And I'll go down in flames protecting that idea, because I can't see it any other way."


Free Time

Asked his definition of artistic success, Nutzle replies: "Somebody asked me that 20 or 30 years ago, and I think my answer's the same: it's free time.

"I've always had a chip on my shoulder about my own personal slavery. I think we're all slaves to a degree, but very early on I worked for Ford Motor Co. in a factory, and had these jobs that were basically slave-labor jobs, which I think inspired me, not only in content but also kind of pushed me away from that whole idea of not being free—free enough just to think about what I want to think about and not having any interference with that."

Born in 1942, Nutzle as a small child lost his father in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge and grew up in the blue-collar town of Fostoria, Ohio, about 100 miles from Cleveland. His mother, an orphan with good looks and an artistic intelligence but not much luck, remarried a local man, an Irish Catholic from a large family, "basic street-fighter kind of guy," as Nutzle describes him.

"My stepdad started working in this foundry in town when he was about 13 years old. Here's a town of 16,000 people that manufactured two brands of automobiles; it had a spark plug plant, a slaughterhouse, the foundry, three or four other major industries, so basically everybody in town was employed, everybody was a blue-collar worker. And when I saw the model, I rejected the model."

Little Bruce Kleinsmith started drawing when he was 3, and was a dreamy child from early on. "I was born with this thing of tuning into something," he says. "I'll show you a photograph when I was little and it's me staring out into space, and it was always, Hey Bruce, yoo-hoo, wake up—and I'm like, Wake up to what? This is what's really happening."

Still, he acknowledges that as a teenager hard physical labor had the effect of sharpening his senses. "By the time I was 16, 17, I was driving a dump truck and shoveling iron and sand, and actually melting iron. And I have to say, as an artist, the baseness of the job was beautiful. We'd take the iron dumped from the foundry and put it in this smokestack and melt it, and then the slag would go off on one end, and I would tap the hole of clay on the other, and pure white iron would shoot out into these black sand grooves that I'd made by hand; so they would just come out, and then they would turn orange, and then they'd turn red, and then they would turn lead-color, and then I'd break it up with a sledgehammer and throw it on a truck—and that was my job.

"But doing this at sundown, these colors, the indigo sky—I mean I had to watch that I didn't burn my foot off—but it was fantastic, and I didn't mind the labor. The esthetic of that was better than any Hopper painting."

Nutzle's definitive revelation about working for other people, corporations especially, came a few years later, in the early '60s, when he was employed by an advertising agency in Cleveland, "and seeing the torture, the torment and the absolutely brutal approach to commercial art. And these guys, by the time they were 30 they were alcoholics, they were so stressed out by running across Cleveland with their portfolios—if you can picture me with a portfolio, flying on a private plane alone into Detroit to take this portfolio to General Motors that had the brand-new Cadillacs, in full color, drawn perfectly," he recalls. "And here's General Motors and I'm running up the steps and it's 12 o'clock noon and I've got the portfolio, and I'm thinking, 'What in the fuck is this?' And then I get back to Cleveland and these guys are getting fired because they put a photograph crooked or something like that. So I ditched everything."

After a spell working for resorts in Florida and then a casino in Lake Tahoe, he found himself in Santa Cruz in 1965. At that time it was a sleepy little town of surfers and retirees, invaded on weekends and in the summer by working-class tourists from over the hill looking for some fun at the beach or the Boardwalk. But UCSC was just opening and beginning to infuse the city with fresh intellectual life. What we now call "the Sixties" with its wide-open experimental ethos was just getting going, and it was easy to find a cheap place to live.

"Santa Cruz to me was like discovered Paradise," says Nutzle. "When I landed in Santa Cruz I just thought, 'This is it.'" Without much more than a pen, a pad of paper and a sleeping bag to call his own, he rented a little turkey shed on empty land across the street from what is now Dominican Hospital. "It was at that point I realized that I was nothing and I had nothing, and I was going to design my own life."

Teaming up with young cartoonists Spinny Walker and henry humble, Nutzle and his friends started a little cartoon newspaper called The Balloon—really more of an art paper or folded broadside than anything resembling today's comic or alternative tabloids. Nutzle calls it "a printed sketchbook, a place to learn. We were developing our individual styles, working together on the principle of making each other laugh."

By this time he was starting to publish and show in galleries under his real name, but his first encounters with the art world gave him the creeps. "I felt there was a mystery that I wasn't getting that I wanted to find," he says. He wanted to discover "what makes some artists great and others not," and had no interest in the struggle between artists and gallery owners and promoters and critics and museum curators over who controls art—the politics of art, the business of art.

"When I hooked up with Spinny and henry we decided to go underground and we invented our pen names in 1967," around the time of the Monterey Pop Festival. "That's exactly when it was happening; that weekend was like the pinnacle, for me, of shifting gears into this new world and new identity and new work. And seeing how things were going psychedelic," Nutzle says he thought to himself, "I'm going simple while everybody's going psychedelic."

The Balloon crew started out intending to do traditional cartooning, with panels and characters, Nutzle says, "so I came up with something about a railroad, and Futzie Nutzle was gonna be the clown kind of railroad guy and Uncle Flap was the other character, and we were trying to come up with pen names, and I saw the Z's in Futzie Nutzle, the Z's and how it popped off the page, and it was phonetic—so I ripped off my own character."

By the early '70s the Balloon artists were increasingly visible, and Charles Atkins, director of the public library, gave them a show. "Charles Atkins at the library," says Nutzle, "I have such respect for him—he gave us the whole library. I remember Spinny taking down this traditional California landscape and putting up his Jesus Christ on a Bicycle painting, and people are standing around just going, 'What the hell?' That was the first show at the Santa Cruz library. We did it. And it was fantastic and everybody loved it and there were no problems. And then we met Charlie Prentiss and Nikki Silva of the Natural History Museum, and they supported us and we started SCAMP [Santa Cruz Artists Museum Project] downtown."

The anarcho-democratic premise of SCAMP was that anyone who wanted to show could show; all they had to do was walk in with their art and demonstrate a degree of competence. The project lasted scarcely a year, due to the artists being artists, not art administrators. There was no business model, much less a plan. The space was on the third floor above the bank downtown. "It was a beautiful space—it had those turret kind of windows, it had hardwood floors. We painted all the walls white. We were all maintenance men; nobody was the boss. We just thought that once we had it set up people would help us."

But help never arrived. "I think it scared people off," says Nutzle. "It was a little bit out of the box because before that there were just a couple of landscape galleries in town."

Jazz Lines

The spontaneity of SCAMP was a natural extension of Nutzle's improvisational method. "I don't have ideas," he says, "I have no ideas at all. I don't use white-out. I don't use any pencil. That was my discipline, to train myself, because then every drawing would have a value. I guess it's like building a drawing, instead of having an idea. I could never draw a character more than three times.

"So what I'm getting at is, I'm not really a cartoonist. My lines are kind of funny, and sometimes I come up with something, but you know, my method of working is not a cartoonist's. That's my association with jazz, it's improvisational, I can only do the drawing once; if it doesn't come out I throw it away and start another one."

After years of practice in the local fly-by-night papers, by the mid-'70s Nutzle's mastery of his medium and a sequence of serendipitous introductions earned him his coveted spot in Rolling Stone. "That was my opportunity to really get sharp, because I knew I would be in the public eye," he says.

But he'd been trying for ages, without success, to place his drawings in The New Yorker, which he calls "the pinnacle of cartooning—at least until 10 or 20 years ago." Accustomed to inhabiting various seemingly incompatible worlds—hanging out with surfers, musicians, hippies, poets, drug dealers, manual laborers, artists and academics, but never belonging to any particular camp—he saw no contradiction between his outlaw lifestyle and his desire to be a part of the nation's most prestigious mainstream magazine.

"When I went to New York in '79 and met the New Yorker cartoonists—not all of them but some of them, over lunch—it was really interesting because they were into one-upmanship," he remembers. "Cartoonists really are square, but these guys were ultrasquare, and they were looking for a one-liner that's gonna crack up the whole table. We're drinking martinis, and I think this was a Wednesday afternoon; they all go down to this bar after they've been critiqued at The New Yorker and they're like little puppies with their ears back, but after a few martinis they're really rollin', and they're chesty, and they're comin' up with all these one-liners.

"And I'm going, 'Is this what it's like? I can't be an artist with The New Yorker, I can't do this!' I really liked some of those guys. Anyway, I pulled out this huge joint, from California, and I said, 'Would any of you guys like to try this?' And they looked at me like, 'Oh my god, narcotics! Jesus Christ!' It was like, 'Holy shit, put that away!'"

Finally, he says, "they got me so mashed on martinis, they had me so whacked, they literally tied my briefcase to my wrist, because I had all my drawings in there, and I thought, I'm so mashed I'm gonna lose all this stuff if they don't tie it to my arm. Man, those guys are too much. They were still slammin' 'em down when I left the bar."

Disillusioned with New York and its peculiar customs, Nutzle returned to California and various jobs as a laborer, a smuggler, an auction-house worker, an antique and junk dealer, a cemetery groundskeeper and gravedigger, all the while continuing to refine and extend his skills as an artist, drawing and painting, now doing a lot of pastels. When his run at Rolling Stone expired due to the magazine's five-year policy for certain features, he kept publishing locally and showing where he could, eventually landing what he calls his dream job at the Japan Times, sending off piles of drawings from which they would select whatever they wanted. As he gained a whole new audience abroad, his visibility here was gradually decreasing.

"The earthquake of '89 was another turnaround," he says, "because I was going to show at the Art League in Santa Cruz, which was where I was teaching. I was going to have a big kind of retrospective at that point, and after the earthquake I just decided I didn't want to do that, and I retreated to my cabin."

After meeting Halina in 1991, Nutzle moved with her to Marin County, where they were married. He was hired by a computer company to develop a CD-ROM with a team of other artists. Two or three years along, the project was killed for no discernible reason. This experience only served to remind him once again that he had no place in commercial or corporate culture. So they returned to the cabin he'd kept in Aromas.

Nutzle and Halina have now lived in San Juan Bautista for about a decade, with Halina managing Fool's Gold, their shop. As they were being evicted from their cabin, they saw the "For Rent" sign on their current residence. After cleaning it up and hauling away 4 1/2 tons of junk, the artist couldn't wait to get back to work. "I was so stoked," he says. "I mean to have a real studio, it was fantastic. I'm friends with my work. I could literally just work around the clock, every day all day: get up, coffee, come into the studio and start working. So that's why I'm here."

"Honestly," says Nutzle, "I think the hardest thing for me has been being at least two different personalities: like the third-dimensional guy who has a little shop and goes to the flea market, and then the artist guy who nobody really knows—and nobody really knows if they want to know him—in his little hovel doing his thing."

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