Mark Mothersbaugh — after being presented the key to the city of Akron, his hometown — made a joke only Northeast Ohio fans could appreciate.
“I feel like Mr. Jingeling,” he said Saturday, using both hands to hold the giant gold key wrapped in red fabric. A crowd of more than 200 at Akron-Summit County Public Library welcomed him home with laughter and applause, appreciating his reference to a local TV Christmas icon.
“This is the place where I come from, this is where I’m identified with no matter if I’m in London working on a film or if I’m in South America with a band that is playing,” he told the audience. “People think of us as Akronites and from Ohio and so this is really incredible.”
Mothersbaugh — perhaps best known locally as the founder of rock band Devo, but also a prolific artist, children’s TV personality and film composer — talked for about an hour Saturday in the minutes leading up to the opening of Myopia, his art exhibit, which is divided in two locally. The visual half of Myopia is at the Akron Art Museum and the audio half is at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art.
His works, which the curator of Myopia described as exploring the tension between the playful and the perverse, may not scream Akron to many.
But Mothersbaugh, 66, described an artistic journey deeply rooted in and around his hometown: From wondering what record labels were when he lived at a house off West Market Street near St. Vincent Catholic Church, to trying to make sense of the world during the Vietnam War while attending Kent State University, particularly after the 1970 campus shooting that killed four students and wounded nine others.
It all started, he said, at a local elementary school.
“I had the very lucky experience from going all the way through first and second grades without seeing anything,” Mothersbaugh said. “I could not recognize anything unless it was a few inches from my eyes.”
His world changed the moment he got glasses, something he still wears today and an accessory that has become his signature and that explains, at least in part, the name of his art exhibit, Myopia.
Standing on a hilltop overlooking his grade school through eyeglasses was a revelation, he said, because he could see for the first time what his school looked like.
“That day, I was drawing trees because I’d never seen the top of trees before,” he said.
A teacher noticed.
“She said, ‘You draw trees better than me’ ... and that set me on a path,” he said. “That night, I remember dreaming that I’m going to be an artist.”
Fascinated by art
By the time he started Kent State in 1968, Mothersbaugh was fascinated by art created between World War I and World War II. That included the movements that grew out of the period — the idea that traditional instruments could no longer represent music during the industrial era, when fog horns and sounds from other mechanical devices seemed more appropriate to some, or that man thought he was conquering nature through technology even though he wasn’t.
Mothersbaugh, his brothers Bob and Jim, future Devo band mate Jerry Casale and other friends didn’t see a difference between music or visual art.
“We were just trying to be Akron’s clearing house for ideas,” he said. “It was an amazing place to call ground zero.”
At that time, traditional print shops — which had long depended on artisans to carve images of pot belly stoves or trees or tires or whatever they needed to print — were modernizing, throwing away hand-carved designs, he said.
Mothersbaugh collected thousands of the wooden carvings, picking them out of the trash behind the print shops in downtown Akron.
At the same time, Mothersbaugh began creating daily postcards, 4-by-6-inch pieces of art, many of which he mailed to artists he admired because those artists sometimes mailed postcards they had created back to him.
“I was 19 or 20, an unknown kid … and when an artist reached out, that was a really validating feeling,” he said.
Soon, however, he realized he was mailing away potential Devo lyrics or images the band could use for album covers. So he began collecting his work, storing the postcard art in $3 binders that held 100 artworks each.
When he had filled 12 or 13 binders, Mothersbaugh said he realized he should begin labeling and dating them so he could keep them in order.
“I was looking the other day, we’re at 389 [binders] with 100 images each,” he said.
Mothersbaugh calls the books of images “a sort of diary.”
But Adam Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and curator of Myopia, said the thousands of small art pieces are really a peek into how Mothersbaugh’s brain works.
All are on display in Myopia at the Akron Art Museum, along with scores of Mothersbaugh’s mirrored images, sculptures of headless ponies and the world’s largest ruby, which Mothersbaugh has carved into the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone that Devo fans might imagine looks a lot like a swirled, smoothed-edge version of an energy dome.
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or email@example.com.