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Well Hung

Tom Deatherage lives more of an artist’s life than some of the young talents he discovers.


Tom Deatherage spits out a fleck of tobacco from a freshly lit, unfiltered Basic. It's just after 4 p.m., and he's well into his second pack of the day. Dark rings sag under his eyes, and the pale daylight washing over his face makes him look older than his 62 years.

Though he has made significant contributions to Kansas City's flourishing art scene, Deatherage is barely surviving.

It's almost dinnertime, and he's banging around in his second-floor kitchen. Deatherage's Late Show gallery is downstairs, but there's art on every wall where Deatherage lives and sleeps. A painting of a naked red demon hangs in the bathroom, over the toilet. In the kitchen, an assemblage by the MoMo Gallery curator known only as Mott-ly hangs on the wall -- a small cardboard box with a doll's severed arm rising in front of an American flag. Beside the arm is the torso of a well-toned man. Mott-ly, a longtime friend of Deatherage's, gave him the piece for his birthday a couple of years ago. A note on the back reads "Birthday suit for Tom."

"It means really nothing," Deatherage says about the creepy design. "It's just delightful."

A youthful voice calls from the stairwell. Up steps 18-year-old Kyle Richards, a new artist Deatherage has discovered and is preparing to show in his gallery. Richards, who has long, tangled hair beginning to form dreadlocks, has brought Deatherage a couple of paintings.

For the past 15 years, Deatherage has been searching for fresh local work to display and sell at the Late Show. He prides himself on giving artists their first walls. Deatherage has high hopes for Richards' show, which he says will hang in late May.

"It opens May 13," Richards reminds Deatherage. "I've got to keep it straight for Tom. He'll never remember."

Deatherage rolls his eyes and glares at Richards. "It's written down on the calendar, fuckface," he says, then takes a long pull from his vodka tonic and punches the glass down on his worktable.

Richards doesn't flinch. He sits down next to Deatherage. "It seems like I've known him forever," Richards says sweetly.

Deatherage's lips curl back in a crooked smile. He and Richards met only a month ago, and it's obvious that Deatherage is flattered. He looks at Richards a moment and agrees that the two bonded right away. "That's nice," he says. "I appreciate that. And I am not trying to fuck him."

Deatherage lets out a cackle. He says he has a soft spot for any artist who will sketch him something, especially if it's a penis. On one of their first meetings, Richards gave him a drawing of a cartoon character with an erection. Deatherage fell in love with the young artist's work.

He's unpacking a bag of groceries and begins filling a plastic bowl with a mix of Fritos and spicy Cheetos. He's thinking about skipping dinner tonight. He says he isn't all that hungry. "I might just do drugs," he says in a quiet voice.

"Are you going to put more track marks in your arm?" Richards asks.

"They go away," Deatherage says, then turns the corner into the bathroom to put away a tube of toothpaste and some soap. His voice booms from behind the wall, "Draw me another dick!"

By all accounts, Deatherage was one of the first gallery owners in town to scout and display exclusively local art. Some of those artists have stood by him since the beginning. Yet Deatherage, who occasionally wears an "Art Pimp" T-shirt to openings, admits that his harsh demeanor has driven others away.

"People either like me or they don't," he says in a gravelly voice. "I can't help it. It's my personality. Tough shit. I like me."

Philomene Bennett, who, with her husband, Lou Marak, helped establish the Kansas City Artists Coalition 30 years ago, met Deatherage in the mid-1980s while Deatherage was working as a framer and displaying work at Union Hill Arts. She says Deatherage set out to find artists who were creating something fresh, long before recent national acclaim shined a spotlight on the Kansas City art scene. When she walks into the Late Show, Bennett says, she still gets the feeling that she's seeing something new.

Deatherage opened the Late Show in his Hyde Park home in 1991, when galleries were still scattered throughout the city, mainly in Westport and the West Bottoms. He threw wild openings and partied with a steady flow of guests. Each wall of his house was painted a different color, and art hung on them all. Every room was open to the public, but there was one that Deatherage warned people about before they entered -- his bedroom.

"It was called 'The Penis Room' because I had all these male nudes," Deatherage says. "I still have a penis room. I'll always have a penis room."

People smoked out on the porch, drank beer and enjoyed the unique art Deatherage had found. The shows were a success, and after years of envisioning it, Deatherage was finally running a gallery filled with local artists.

Around that time, curator John O'Brien took the advice of an artist friend, Jim Leedy, and moved his gallery from 39th Street, opening the Dolphin at 19th Street and Baltimore, an ugly, industrial part of town. "I think Leedy had a master plan, and I just kind of jumped onto his dream," O'Brien says. "I made a pact with him that we would stick together."

The neighborhood steadily grew, with Leedy buying buildings and renting out cheap studio and gallery spaces. Today, between 65 and 70 galleries are spread throughout the Crossroads District.

Deatherage, meanwhile, stayed in Hyde Park. He helped launch artists such as Lori Raye Erickson, Greg Eltringham, John Wissler and Davin Watne. Eltringham, Wissler and Watne have shown work in other cities. Eltringham recently was hired as a painting professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Erickson has become a respected name in Kansas City and has been invited to hang her work at local galleries next to New York, Chicago and California artists.

"He really kind of helped start our careers," says Erickson, who has a show scheduled for Deatherage's front gallery in May.

But there were disappointments, such as when Watne and Leo Esquivel left the Late Show to open the Dirt Gallery in 1996. The two artists and a couple of others -- Deatherage calls them "the boy painters" -- wanted full commission for their work. Deatherage takes 40 percent from paintings he sells.

"A lot of artists need dealers because they've got lousy fucking personalities," Deatherage says. "They're human beings, and some of them are real babies. When they're in the gallery, their whole demeanor changes. And it really gripes my ass. It just happens. There's something about the art scene as a whole. It's why a lot of people don't approach it, because it seems snobby."

Watne asked Deatherage for pointers on how to set up the Dirt Gallery, and Deatherage offered his advice. Then the artists stopped calling. They were putting on adventurous and interesting shows, but Deatherage felt like an outsider. "It surprised the hell out of me, because I don't think I fucked any of them. Literally. They just were very cool and indifferent. They got real cliquish."

Watne, whose work has been shown in galleries across the country and internationally and in recent years has been awarded Avenue of the Arts and Charlotte Street Fund grants, says he will always be thankful to Deatherage for giving him his first show when he was a Kansas City Art Institute student in 1993. But as his dealer, Deatherage's lifestyle was at times too much to take.

"He's always struggling," Watne says. "He's got his habits to support. He's crass. He's rough. He hits on you. He's a lovable guy, though."

Watne confirms that he and Esquivel distanced themselves from Deatherage. They wanted to learn from their own mistakes, he says.

"You have to take into consideration he would often show up at gallery openings absolutely blitzed off his ass, cussing at people, accosting people, like, 'Hey, fucker, what's your fucking problem? How come you never call me?'" Watne says.

As the galleries began to concentrate downtown, fewer and fewer people were driving out to Hyde Park to browse the work on the Late Show's walls. "It was driving me crazy," Deatherage says. "It felt futile, the fact that it wasn't being seen."

So last June, Deatherage sold his house and moved to the corner of 16th Street and Cherry. He rented an old building on the eastern edge of the Crossroads, in an area off the main paths that most people stroll on First Fridays.

He spent months transforming the new space, which had been a corner grocery store and a warehouse. He laid wood floors and stripped some of the walls down to the bricks, leaving others with cracked plaster to create a rough, industrial background. He put up corrugated sheet metal to accent other walls and hung lights from the rafters. Then he covered the walls with art.

"He has a knack of putting together a space that is very dark but very beautiful at the same time," Mott-ly says. "His gallery is his art. The way he hangs shows is his art. He's creating an alternative, good space to show work that normally wouldn't get seen."

The Late Show is a contrast to the many galleries in the center of the Crossroads, O'Brien says. The majority of the galleries near Wyandotte and Baltimore are selling upscale art by national artists in more traditional spaces, with plain walls and bright lights. In the Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art, for example, the price of the work ranges from $200 to $80,000. Byron Cohen says he shows a few local artists, including Peregrine Honig (see Deb Hipp's "Panty Raider," April 3, 2003), but 90 percent of the work comes from New York, Chicago and California. "That's where the artists are," he says. "You have to go where the artists are."

When work is shown in only one gallery, Cohen says, it loses value because of the dealer's monopoly. "If somebody buys a piece here and it's $1,000 and the artist is not showing anywhere else, I control the market, which means it's worth nothing. But if it's shown in Chicago and in another gallery in New York and it's $1,000, it's worth $1,000. That's a big difference."

Cohen opened his gallery ten years ago but has been an art collector since the 1960s. Asked whether he's heard of Tom Deatherage and the Late Show, he shrugs. "I didn't know he existed," Cohen says.

Though national art magazines have recently noted Kansas City's growing art scene, Deatherage is never mentioned as one of the leaders who helped to shape it. Yet Sylvie Fortin, editor in chief of the Atlanta-based Art Papers, says a dealer like Deatherage keeps a city's art scene vital. "I think it's important that you retain some artists locally," she says. "Otherwise they are all going to go to New York or Los Angeles," Fortin says. "You need to have some kind of structure that will foster creation and retain it in some way. I don't want to imagine a world where artists are only in New York and L.A. You need someone, a gallery, some kind of local platform to kind of propel you and sustain your work locally."

Watne says Deatherage gets mixed reviews for his role in the Kansas City art scene. "I think he gets respect by artists, but I don't think he gets respect by the art community," Watne says. "I think they all think he's crazy. But he is important in this town. He fills that niche."

Though Deatherage has struggled in his first year on the outer edge of the Crossroads, O'Brien says his timing is good. "I think people are starving for new things in their lives. As soon as they figure out it's over there, they'll start going. The outskirts is where you end up finding the most interesting things."

But art dealing is a fickle business, and with a growing number of galleries in a market of few buyers, competition is fierce. Deatherage is trying to get more framing jobs to help him make it through the slower months. When sales don't come, Deatherage slumps into depression, sometimes thinking he would have nothing to live for without his gallery.

And if he fails, Deatherage knows his hard living will have been a major reason for his downfall.

Deatherage was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 29, 1942. When he was 3, Deatherage says, his mother decided she could not care for him and left him with his grandparents in St. Joseph. He was 8 when he realized he was attracted to boys, which further estranged him from his already distant father, who had been in the Army during the war.

"I knew I liked boys," Deatherage says. "They were cute. They're still cute. But it was the Eisenhower era, for God's sakes, and I didn't want to be gay."

He says his father would grow angry during his occasional visits when he found Tom reading and acting "girly." "Instead of hunting and shooting squirrels, I'd be out digging up wildflowers for my grandma."

Fearing the draft, Deatherage enlisted in the Navy in his early 20s and spent the war stationed on a ship in Long Beach, California. There, Deatherage says, he fell in love with a woman. "She was beautiful," he says. "I couldn't believe she was in love with me, in her way." They were married for a year before he realized his sexual orientation was putting a strain on the relationship. "It was a lousy thing to do to her. I loved her, but it wasn't natural. It wasn't me."

Deatherage says he was honorably discharged in December 1967 and immediately moved to San Francisco. "My life began," he says. "It was like being reborn."

He marched against the war, for civil rights and for gay liberation. His favorite hangout was the Capri, where Janis Joplin and beat writer Allen Ginsberg hung out. But his favorite character was Justin, the head bartender. "Once a month, he would make space cookies," Deatherage recalls with a wheezing laugh. "They were brownie cookies that were laced really heavy with pot. And he'd sprinkle the top of them with meth. It was like, 'Mother's got your cookies,' when you'd walk in -- if you were a favorite. And I was one of Justin's favorites. He would just keep shoving them in your mouth. 'Mother's got the cookies.' It was wonderful."

Wealthy gay San Franciscans liked to hire hippie houseboys, and Deatherage had hair down to his ass. He took housecleaning and landscaping jobs, and another in which he learned a little about custom framing. But most of the time he was at concerts, protests and parties. "It was just a liberating experience," he says. "I liked myself for the first time. It was the first time I liked and accepted who I was."

But by 1976, the scene was getting stale. And back home, Deatherage's grandmother was growing feeble. He decided it was time to return home -- but moving back to St. Joseph wasn't easy. "Here I was, this very up-front, liberated guy. Very up-front. I'm not going to fuck around and listen to anybody's bullshit about being gay."

He worked a couple of odd jobs in St. Joseph until he had to move his grandmother to a nursing home in Kansas City, where she spent the last two months of her life. He worked at a custom framing shop here but was unhappy with the job and with Kansas City's slower pace, so he returned to the Bay area. By then, though, his old group had dissolved, and things had changed. "I went out to San Francisco, and it was gone," he says.

He came back to Kansas City and fell into a deep depression. "I was lost," he says. "I used to cry almost every night because I was lonely as shit." The gay bars here, he says, were "middle class, narrow-minded and closeted."

In 1983, Union Hill Arts took him on as a custom framer. From the back room, Deatherage would peek into the gallery to watch Martha McDermott make sales. He studied her and learned what it took to be an art dealer.

At the same time, a group of alternative galleries showing mainly local art were sprouting in Kansas City -- Random Ranch, the Left Bank and Gallery V -- and Deatherage liked what he saw. He wanted Union Hill Arts to take on some edgier work and told McDermott that he had noticed some good work at the Kansas City Art Institute. "She said, 'You bring them in, and I'll let you show them,'" he recalls.

By the time McDermott died, about a year after Deatherage opened the Late Show on Charlotte, she had become a sister to him. And he had learned that most art enthusiasts were arrogant and demanding.

"I was tired of selling bullshit," Deatherage says. "I was tired of having designers come in and say, 'I love this piece, but do they do it in mauve?' I'd say, 'Fuck, no. It's black, and they do it in black.' I used to get so pissed."

The culture hasn't changed much at many galleries in town, Deatherage says. But he wants the Late Show to be known as a place "where you can smoke and raise hell and give the artist shit if it's not very good."

He says he gets a rush selling art and that it's especially exciting to sell work to new clients who aren't sure exactly what they're looking for. "I would rather sell a piece of art to someone who is struggling to buy it, because I really know they love this to death. And they're getting into it. It makes me feel real good. And it's sharing something that I think is beautiful."

He has no formula for finding good art. It just grabs him. He is drawn to a painting with a strong background that takes his eye away from the obvious object.

Deatherage points out a painting Greg Eltringham made years ago. Three naked boxers pose with gloved fists in front of an above-ground pool. The pool resembles a giant tub rising into a deep-green backdrop that accents the bright-red boxing gloves. It's a painting that hung in his bedroom on Charlotte Street for years, but he still gets excited about what he sees in it.

"This mysterious above-ground pool is just so fucking weird," he says. "The shape is weird. It's just weird. I like the weirdness. I don't understand it. An alien dropped it there. I like that. I like the weird fucking colors. And they're ugly fucking colors. But I like it."

Tonight Deatherage has been drinking, and his mood is grim. He slumps in his chair. He's invested years of his life into the Late Show, but he has saved no money. Some days he's optimistic about the future of his gallery. But when it comes time to pay the bills at the end of each month, he wonders how he'll survive through the next.

Deatherage says he's a realist, and the reality he often considers is whether the Late Show is just his fantasy. "Day-to-day existence is just kind of nothing," he says. "There's really nothing, not a big deal with it. And some days are great. Sometimes it's just enough to have sunshine, and that makes it nice, but that's really not very fucking much."

Though he has aged, Deatherage has not slowed in his pursuit of having a good time. And his sex drive has not waned. He says at some point when he was younger, he began partying with his lovers because drugs relaxed his hyperactive nature. Over time, drugs and sex have become inseparable. Now that he's older, he admits his good times have come at a cost.

"Has it been a problem? Yeah," he says. "Drugs and operating a business, you get fuzzy the next day. It's physically hard on your body. It's an expense. I know damn good and well I have not been on my best toes because I was getting a piece of ass the night before the reception. That bothers me."

But, he says, that's who he is. "I drink way too fucking much. And I do drugs more than I want to. Sometimes I feel like they are out of control."

Mott-ly says he's seen a darkness in Deatherage for years. But after a gloomy spell, he always bounces back. "He won't ever simmer down," the artist says. "He won't ever calm down. Some days he's really haggard, but those are the times when he hasn't been treating himself too well. When you treat yourself that way and you smoke two packs a day and you drink so much and do everything else and can't sit still and are so full of energy -- and he's pretty half-nuts -- there are going to be days when he looks ten years older."

But Deatherage is resilient. He may look bedraggled and beaten one day, then, after some rest and a couple of good meals, seem back to his old loud, obnoxious self. "It's always been that way," Mott-ly says.

Lou Marak wonders whether Deatherage would have made it bigger in New York City during the Andy Warhol years. "He's always kind of gone on his own, and it's a rough way to go," Marak says.

But he has succeeded in what he has set out to do, Mott-ly says. Deatherage has provided a space for artists and found joy in becoming their friends and business partners. And he downplays his contribution, Mott-ly says. "He's done a lot more than he realizes."

On April 1, the First Friday crowd at the Late Show was small, mainly artists and friends of Deatherage. A puppy yapping around the main gallery got as much attention as the work on display. A friendly host, Deatherage pointed out the Miller High Life and soda cans in a bucket in the main gallery and invited visitors to go upstairs and help themselves to the vodka bottles he had lined up on the kitchen counter.

Around 10 p.m., a trolley stopped at the Late Show, and a fresh group of guests walked in. Deatherage, who generally speaks politely to newcomers and sometimes warms up to them by wrapping an arm around their shoulders, saw three women gradually surround a Joe Gregory painting of three pears standing upright in soft colors. Deatherage walked over. "It's faux fruit," Deatherage said to the women.

One complained that the wall in her house was red and the painting wouldn't match.

"That's a goddamn poor excuse not to buy a painting," he slurred.

In the kitchen, a pretty blond woman stared at a painting of a roach. It was by Deatherage's new talent, Kyle Richards. She was unable to take her eyes off the hairy insect but couldn't explain why. "I don't even like bugs," she said.

"That bug is great as shit," Deatherage said, then gushed about Richards. "I just love the kid's work. I love the kid. You can't go wrong with him."

A man who looked to be in his early 30s was also entranced with the pears. Deatherage stepped over and began his negotiation. They came to an agreement: $300. The man asked Deatherage if he would be around the next day for him to pick up the painting.

"I live here. I'm always in this hell."

Turning to leave, the man said he would be back around 1 p.m. "I'll bring cash, too."

"That's good," Deatherage said with a smirk, within earshot of everyone upstairs. "I'll go buy some drugs."

Tom Deatherage is standing in the rain. With a few days' stubble, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and green fatigues, he looks more like an artist than most of the people who hang work in his gallery.

He begins circling what he considers the most beautiful sculpture in Kansas City -- the fountain depicting St. Martin of Tours that rises above Brush Creek along Volker Boulevard south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Deatherage is bright-eyed and loud today.

He says he wants to move St. Martin back where he belongs.

In the Volker Memorial Fountain statue, by Carl Milles, a naked, winged angel hovers, playing a flute above St. Martin, who is saddled on a horse, sword drawn. An older, bearded beggar reaches toward St. Martin, head back and palm raised. Two other statues complete the sculpture -- another nude angel looking over at the bearded man, and a beastlike creature watching, hidden behind a bush.

Deatherage steps beside the beast, looks up and scowls at the gray sky.

"You got the goddamn horse's ass facing the audience!" he yells, turning toward the museum and pointing to where the fountain once stood on the lawn.

People used to hang out and splash in the water there, he says. There were demonstrations, rock concerts and picnics where people gathered when the fountain was on the edge of the grass. During Brush Creek renovations in the summer of 1996, the Parks and Recreation Department moved it across the creek and planted it roadside. There was some public outcry over the move, and opponents feared that exhaust from passing cars would tarnish the fountain. Now drivers zoom by, hardly giving it a glance.

"It's really a major piece of work in Kansas City in the worst fucking place possible," Deatherage says. He says he's going to draft a petition to get the fountain moved. "Just shift the fucker back across."

Deatherage says his work in Kansas City is not done. After he gets the petition signed and put into action, he's going to host a personal show in the front gallery at the Late Show. All the art will be portraits and interpretations of Deatherage, created by artists he's worked with for years and others he's met since he moved to Cherry Street.

He thought of the idea a few months ago, when business was so bad that Deatherage thought he would have to shut down. Sales have picked up, and he's feeling optimistic again. The show will go on, he says.

"I still want to do it, and I don't give a shit what people think," he says. "I think it's a great idea. And I still have artists who want to do it."

On this gray afternoon, Deatherage is seeing his life more clearly, and his gallery is giving him hope. He never stopped believing in what he set out to do, and he's kept his vision uncorrupted.

"I'm really proud I'm part of the art scene," he says. "And I really am part of it. I realize it, and it makes me feel good. I thought I was just kind of edgy, but I'm part of the scene. I can still see through the bullshit. I'm happy I can see through the shit, and I think I did. But I understand how little time I have left and am trying to make the most of it. Because I'm 62, but I'm pushing hard."

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