The documentary, MAKE, is an intimate journey into the lives of four American self-taught artists: Prophet Royal Robertson, Hawkins Bolden, Judith Scott and Ike Morgan. Isolated and struggling with the disabilities life has dealt them, these artists all find their most powerful voice through art. Using the simplest of materials, they each produce work that is both sublime and at the same time completely their own. Primarily driven by scenes of the artists creating, their interwoven stories are told by the artists themselves as well as through family and friends whose lives they have touched. Vintage footage, quiet moments to reflect upon their work, and commentary by scholars and art historians help to round out the film.
From morning until night, Ike Morgan spends almost every waking moment creating art. As he often says, “it helps to pass the time away.” Over the years, he has produced thousands of haunting paintings depicting the United States Presidents, the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper. While the sources for his imagery may not be new to us, the manner in which he renders them most certainly is. George Washington’s face, while still recognizable and iconic in form, becomes a webbed grid of bold paint strokes sitting on top of dense, jagged black outlines that cover the initial ballpoint pen drawing he started with.
In a similar manner, Royal Robertson covered every inch of his Baldwin, Louisiana home and yard with hand-made signs and apocalyptic paintings. Visitors of this self-proclaimed Prophet were greeted with large, weather-beaten signs warning “NO DIVORCED WHORES ALLOWED” and “ALL CRAZY PERSONS KEEP OFF LOT” before entering into his home. Once inside, shrines to his both beloved and despised ex-wife, Adell, came into focus amid poster board renderings future cities, space autos, couples engaged in sex, and detailed calendars chronicling his daily woes. Referencing sources as disparate as the Bible, science fiction magazines, pornography, and cheap tabloid newspapers, his work manages to graphically illustrate the daily concerns that occupied his mind, both real and imagined.
In the case of Hawkins Bolden and Judith Scott, there is absolutely no concept of self as artist. When asked if he was making art, Hawkins Bolden briefly looked confused and then said, “These things here? They’re to scare the birds away.” The scarecrows he pieced together with objects most of us would have thrown into the trash are both otherworldly and at the same time ominous. Their striking appearance is only heightened when you venture out into his back yard where these tall totems and abstracted metal faces full of hollow eyes and leather tongues outnumber the plants they serve to protect. With Judith Scott, we will never know exactly what or why she was creating. We can only guess at the motivations behind her entwined, wrapped creations concealing objects stolen only to be hidden away forever beneath layers of twisted yarn and string.
The making of this film was a true labor of love. Director, Scott Ogden, started filming for this project almost twelve years ago with no clear idea of what he was undertaking. He first spent a week visiting and shooting video of Ike Morgan at the Austin State Hospital and then shortly after met both Judith Scott and Hawkins Bolden. It was quickly evident that something special was happening. These artists’ stories were not only gut-wrenching, but at the same time redemptive. Convinced of the power and emotion behind this footage, Malcolm Hearn agreed to edit and co-direct the film with Scott. Traveling the country together, they collected more interviews, repeatedly visited Ike Morgan, and even made one last pilgrimage to Royal Robertson’s house ten years after his passing. Later, while editing the film from a leaky loft in Brooklyn, they reached out to several of their musician friends. With contributions from Sufjan Stevens, Marc Bianchi, Jim Guthrie, Oneida, Tommy Guerrero, Au Revoir Simone, and several others, they suddenly had a stunning soundtrack.
The public life of MAKE mirrors the protracted making of this film. After several underground screenings and home-burned DVDs being passed around, the word started to get out. The film was featured in the New York Times under the headline “Communicating Across Barriers Few Could Imagine,” and shortly after emails started pouring in to the filmmakers. Sufjan Stevens declared the film “a beautiful and insightful look at the sublime task of making art when nothing will else do.” He then went on to create the album, The Age of Adz, which not only featured imagery by Royal Robertson but also used Royal’s life story as a springboard for the album’s narrative. And through some friends of the film, David Byrne of The Talking Heads eventually received a Sharpee-enscribed copy of MAKE. His reaction:
“Here is a real testament to the power of MAKING art (or music, for some of us) – how that process not only heals and energizes, but the results move me as a viewer as well. They’re touching something deep, as any artist should. There’s a little bit of all of us in this work. This is as high and as fun and beautifully primal crazy enlightening as it gets.”
The next chapter for this film is the official release by Asthmatic Kitty Records on June 21, 2011.