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From Fine Art, Millennium Issue 1999-2000

Wavy Gravy — The Blues Period

Somewhere along the way of his colorful transit through life, Wavy Gravy came across this quote by collage artist Kurt Schwitter: "My palette is the wastebasket of the world." The same axiom can be readily observed in Wavy's own excursions into collage, which draw upon the rich palette of cultural and spiritual experience compiled over the course of his lifelong journey as poet, improvisational humorist, Merry Prankster, Hog Farmer, Voice of Woodstock, humanitarian, environmentalist, political activist, clown, philosopher, Seva co-founder, Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor, and folk legend of the American counterculture embraced by successive generations ranging from the Beats of the 1950s to the cyberkids of the 1990s.

The interest in collage goes all the way back to the Greenwich Village days, Wavy explains, way before B.B. King ever gave him the name 'Wavy Gravy", when he was still Hugh Romney, entertainment director at famed Gaslight Café, pioneering his own brand of improvisational social humor called "jip tongue dancing". "In the early 60s I opened for Peter Paul and Mary at the Bitter End, where the whole wall was a gorgeous Max Ernst collage. I guess I started around that time, when I lived above the Gaslight and Bob Dylan wrote A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall on my typewriter. I would always do them for my birthday." When he moved to California in the early 1960s to perform with The Committee, he continued exploring the craft: "I started doing refrigerators for the stars — people like John Phillip Law, Peter Fonda, Barry McGuire. I’d take old Life Magazines and wet them and put them in the oven and bake them and when they came out yesterday’s photos would look 1,000 years old."

At the time, Hugh Romney was opening for Thelonius Monk on the club circuit. His manager was Lenny Bruce, the most influential and controversial comedian of the age. "Lenny wasn't just my manager – he was my friend. On the day Kennedy was shot, I was in a law library in LA looking up words like 'futz' and 'putz' for his trials. He was being crucified...I was with him the day before he died...My Lenny collage just created itself. It's all black and whites and grays because that's all he saw due to some eye condition. He was colorblind, did you know that?"

About ten years ago, Wavy began taking the art form much more seriously. Even though his life was filled to overflowing with cause-related projects like the benefit concerts he puts on to raise money for the Seva Foundation, he was hungry for additional creative outlets. "I had a lot of energy I needed to move. It became especially useful for me after the death of someone I loved and revered, like Jerry Garcia or Allen Ginsberg. A haiku or collage can really help me move through the anguish of the loss."

Working in a small room located above the Berkeley office of Camp Winnarainbow, the circus and performing arts camp he's run for the past twenty five years with his wife, Jahanara, Wavy began embracing the great musical legends he had always cherished since his Village days, combining them in startlingly creative ways with spiritual iconography from traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, among many other things. "I thought it would be funny to have a Blues Period, like Picasso's Blue Period. I had always loved the music." His collages of Bessie Smith are a perfect example. "She's one of the prime innovators of the idiom and I've probably done more studies of her than anybody else. I was listening to a lot of her music, going through all the old blues books. The way I work is, I begin to assemble a palette, and just like any creative process, I get into a flow with music and various breathing practices and once I'm in a certain state, I just get out of the way and let it occur and the pieces just fall together, and you look down and 'Wow, did I do that?' What I love is that it's really the muse that does it – and everything that I've ever seen or felt or heard is relevant. It's big fun!"

Likewise, his Joseph Spence piece reflects a lifelong passion for music. "I was first introduced to him through the 'Goodnight Song' which was done by the Incredible String Band and later the Grateful Dead. I thought, what an amazing song, where does it come from? And that was how I discovered him. He was like van Gogh – played the guitar like nobody else in the world. I think he was a messenger from God...He was from Bimini, so there's a lot of heat in colors I used for the piece. I have no idea why Leadbelly and Professor Longhair are in the piece, but there they are, making cameo appearances."

As more people become aware of the work, the demand for the collages has risen accordingly. However popular they may become, Wavy insists on making them obtainable. "I especially enjoy the ones I can shoot down into laser prints because almost anyone can afford them. It's important that art be accessible to just regular people who don't have a lot of money."

This year the work will be featured in a major documentary being produced about Wavy called Saint Misbehavin’: The Life and Tines of Wavy Gravy.


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