Stories from the Hood, Part Eight- The Birth of Spiderman

Stories from the Hood

The Birth of  Spiderman

Chapter Eight

After Corrine’s death and during my battle with cancer, the apparition of Spiderman climbing up the side of my house became a reoccurring vision.  As much as Corrine’s hero, it represented the difficult climb that would ultimately end with my victory over cancer and the triumph of the human spirit.  A climb that someday I would be able to look back down from.  I began to identify with this persona as an alter ego.  This secret identity gave me strength in the battle I was fighting, and in that dream, I was empowered to see the light at the end of a long tunnel. I had no idea of how I was going to make this symbol materialize, but the cogs in my head were slowly beginning to turn.  I knew that someday, somehow, this poetic fantasy would be realized.   

During chemotherapy, I took on a photography job for Nikki Pike, a graduate student in sculpture. Her sculptures were altered plaster casts of body parts.  She was a strong-minded feminist with a lot of sexual overtone in her work. As with many of my artist clients, she had a lot of artwork that needed to be photographed and not much money to pay for it. When I took the patronly attitude of doing the work that she needed on a trade basis, I had to figure out what she could do for her end of a trade.  At that moment, the idea that she could transform me into Spiderman came together.  It was an exciting proposition and soon after, the process of creating my alter ego began.

After figuring out the exact location on the house where he would be installed, I choreographed a dramatic pose for the spot.  I envisioned him at the ascent of his climb to the top, looking out, over the intersection below.  His hand gesture would be as if he were casting a web towards the middle of the intersection.  One of his feet would be bolted to the wall of the building and the majority of his weight would anchor onto the top ledge. 

To fabricate Spiderman’s form, we used plaster bandages to separately cast each of the various body parts. Nikki covered me with Vaseline as I positioned each body part for casting.   Piece-by-piece, she cast each section separately and a pile of body parts began to amass.  When we had finished, I had all the body parts I needed to assemble the full body.  I left, still a bit greasy, with a do-it-yourself Spiderman kit in hand.

I assembled the individual parts in my studio and attached them together with more plaster bandages.  A thin skin of spackling paste was spread over each section to hide the seams and imperfections, and after the spackling paste was dry, I sanded the surface to further refine it.  I altered the cast of my head by eliminating the ears and nose and forming the special Spiderman eye shapes on the skull.  Then I framed the inside of this exoskeleton with wood and wire and reinforced the fingers on the extended hand gesture with metal rods in case someone tried to shoot them off.  Finally I put heavy-duty wire through the legs and feet and attached them to a wooden base.  After the outer shell and structural skeleton were complete, I filled it with an expanding insulation foam, making it into a light but solid form. 

The basic body form was now complete and needed to be waterproofed and weatherproofed.  The exterior plaster surface was a strategic challenge, as plaster is not a material that could hold up to exposure outside.  As luck would have it, the solution to this problem fell into place.  By the time I had finished the body, Nikki was doing a fiberglass workshop and the school had tons of excess fiberglass that needed to be used up. I brought the sculpture over to the workshop.  We put our masks and protective gear on and carefully covered the plaster with fiberglass cloth and resin. His form had now become invincible to the forces of nature.

The next technical challenge was to figure out how to alter the smooth, non-porous surface of the fiberglass resin.  The existing, glass-like surface had no texture for paint to bond with and the weather conditions on the roof would be brutal.  As luck would have it, I just happened to be visiting with a friend who owned a brick engraving company.  His company engraved letters into brick and stone, mostly for memorials.  In talking with him about brick engraving, I discovered that he had a large room dedicated to sandblasting letters into bricks. The room was large enough to accommodate Spiderman and sandblast him, but the idea was a gamble.  Sandblasting is a very harsh process to use on fiberglass and it would either destroy him or be the perfect solution. The only way to find out was to get Spidey over there and try it.  So the fiberglass surface was carefully sandblasted, just enough to give the surface some tooth and smooth out some of the sharp fiberglass edges.  It actually worked.  With great relief, all of the most difficult problems were now solved.

The full body form comes together. John stands next to his molted body shell.

By this stage of production, the long road of chemotherapy was behind me and I was cancer free.  With much work still lying ahead on the Spiderman project, I lost steam.  In surviving death, there was a rebirth process as I reconnected with the world around me.  I thought of the amber form of my alter ego as the skin of someone who braved cancer, a shell that was shed as I was reborn back into life – much like a cicada emerges from its shell after a stage of darkness in the ground, then flies off into the light and leaves its shell behind.  Perhaps someday I would bring Spidey back to life and reach closure on this project, but at that time, it was the least of my priorities. He was then stored high on a shelf, where he lay for almost a decade, as I moved on with life.  

Detail from "Contemplation on a Cicada" from the Passages Series. This molted Cicada shell is from Ohio.
Two different species of Cicadae from Malaysia which hang on my studio walls.
The bottom cicada is the largest in the world.  It must have shed an amazing shell.
The Cicada nymph lives underground digging tunnels in the dark and sucking sap out of tree roots for 2 to 17 years, depending on the species.  Next year will see the emergence of the 17-year cicada brood. When it is ready to emerge into the light, it will tunnel to the surface, climb a vertical surface, break out of its previous skin, flap out its wings, and fly off into the light, leaving its molted exoskeleton behind. Once it has reached the light, it will only live around a month.  During this time, it makes its exuberant, shrill, piercing buzz into the soundscape of a hot summer’s day. It’s call will attract females and repel birds.  Then the generational cycle begins once again.
As a child in Ohio, I would collect these body shells and play with them.  Their little feet are engineered to cling effortlessly onto about any surface. I would find them on trees and the siding of houses.  I would put them on all kinds of things in little acts of fantasy.

The Resurrection of Spiderman


Many years passed before I heard anything about the fate of Willie (blog seven).  His arrangement with the initial, court-ordered foster care mother was short-lived.  Soon after his mother’s death, one of Willie’s female cousin’s became his guardian and brought him back into the family fold.  Seven years later, Willie made the Denver news.  He was then sixteen years old and was hanging out with friends on a porch down the street, drinking beer.  The Denver Gang Unit drove by, profiled them as a group of young Hispanic males and approached. According to Willie’s later testimony, he did not want to be arrested for being a minor with a beer in his hand, but there was a little more to it than that.  

When Willie saw the police approaching, he took off and ran.  With the police in hot pursuit close behind, one officer shouted for him “to stop or he would shoot him in the back.” After being hit with a flashlight from another officer, Willie tripped near a fence and curled up, face-down, on the ground.  At that point, he was handcuffed and one of the officers started to jump up and down on his back while another punched and kicked him.  “I begged, ‘Please stop.’ The pain was unbearable,” Willie said.  “It could have been death if he had done it a couple more times.  It would have busted me right open.” This was the case.  After the police had finished beating him up, Willie was rushed to the ER where he spent three days in intensive care.  Hand-cuffed to his bed, he was never cited for the beer.  Willie was beaten so badly that he had a ruptured spleen, lacerated liver, damage to both kidneys, and fractured ribs.  One of his kidneys was damaged beyond repair and had to be removed. 

Willie was wanted for vehicle theft and failing to report to his probation officer, but there was no warrant out for his arrest.  The family had no insurance and after the medical bills reached in excess of $100,000 and the collection agencies were called in, they had to stop medical treatment with dire results.  The family then realized they were sitting on a goldmine and filed a lawsuit against the Denver City Police for 1.3 million dollars.  They won the case and the city settled for just under one million dollars.  The family stated the settlement money was going to be used to send Willie to college but since Willie was a minor, after the hospital bills were paid off, the rest of the money was probably considered family funds. College was never part of this kid’s big picture.

Willie with a patch and drainage tube where his kidney was removed.
Willie with a patch and drainage tube where his kidney was removed.

Whenever I work outside on my house, I must allot a good portion of the time for interaction with those who pass by. Sometimes I actually get a little work done amidst the social interactions.  After one neighborly exchange on an otherwise quiet afternoon, I was getting back to painting the trim on the house when I heard some drunken man singing at the top of his lungs.  He was walking down the center of the street, much like a sailor on furlough, acting as if he owned the street.  The raucous singing got louder and louder as the man got closer.  In between song lines he yelled out, “If there is any woman out there who wants a good fuck, I’ve got the equipment.”  I thought, “Oh… shit.” I knew I was a sitting duck out there working on my house and as such, I was a magnet.  Often these drunks are just looking for a fight with anyone they can find and I was in no mood for an encounter like this.  I did not look his way and focused on my painting.  Sure enough, I caught him out of the corner of my eye heading in a beeline straight towards me.  As he got closer, there was something about him that was familiar.  In a flash of recognition, painting the house fell by the wayside.  It was Phillipe!  It had been a lifetime since we last parted ways.  We embraced and hugged each other to the core of our being.  

He was tough; he was cool; he spoke with a rough street lingo; this was a guy that you did not mess with, but to me, he was still the child I once knew.  He had just gotten out of jail and was sleeping in the back of a car. He told me he had done bad things that were unimaginable.  I had no reason to doubt him.  With sad emotion spilling out his eyes, he said, “My life was all my mother’s fault. I never had a chance in hell but she loved me and I still feel love for her.”  We sat on the sidewalk as the emotion swelled up.  He told me his family had disowned him for things he had done.  He was in love with his first cousin, a love that was forever true and pure.  She was quite young and he got her pregnant.  The only family he was presently in contact with were his two brothers.  

I told him I was going to build and install a monument to his mother.  The memorial would be a statue of Spiderman climbing up the side of the house where we were sitting.  It would have given her joy to look out on each day.   Of course he had no idea of what I was talking about.  I invited him inside my house to see the fiberglass sculpture up on the shelf.  He came into the house and cried.  I asked him why he was crying and he told me,  “No one would ever invite someone like me into their house.  I can’t believe that you let me in and are not afraid.”  I told him, “I’m not afraid of you.  You are welcome in my house.”  Just like his mother, I knew that inside his hardened exterior existed a good heart.  I showed him the sculpture.  He went silent with wonder and awe.  It was a haunting and magic-realist encounter for the both of us as he grasped the unimaginable vision I was working on.  

This last encounter with Phillipe played over and over in my head for weeks.  It was in that moment that the meaning which others found in what I was doing became stronger than my own and the time had come for Spiderman to be brought back to life.  He came down from the shelf and the next stage of his metamorphosis began.  

The fiberglass surface was first coated with primer in preparation for the colored acrylic painting.  The primer transformed him from a beautiful amber to pristine white. On top of the white, I applied color, as he morphed into yet a new reality. Instead of Spiderman’s normal blue color, I used the gray color of the building; in that way his color tied into the color of the house.  On top of the painted areas of color, I achieved the webbing design by dipping cotton rope in black paint and laying the wet strands of rope on the sculpture.  When the paint-laden rope had dried in place, the rope was permanently bonded to the surface. 

I fabricated the other design elements on the body with a mosaic of broken mirror fragments.  Broken mirrors were always in abundance in my studio as I used mirrors in my photography to bounce light and they often got broken.  The broken mirrors were smashed into small shards which I then sorted and organized into a palette from which I created the mosaic designs for his eyes, chest, and back.  I then glued small circular mirrors onto the tips of his two gesturing fingers with the idea that on certain days, when the sun’s angle was just right, the sunrays would hit these little fingertip mirrors and reflect beams of light down onto the sidewalk or into a person’s eyes.  It worked.  This little detail of the mirrors on the gesturing fingertips also caught the imagination of the public.  On more than one occasion, people have stopped their cars to ask, and even settle bets, about whether the mirrors are actually video cameras. 

After all the layers of painting and special effects were completed, I coated him with a clear exterior finish made for murals.  This finish not only helped protect the painted surface from the elements but kept the color from fading in the strong Colorado sun.  

Applying the primer to the fiberglass form.
The beginning of color over the primer.

Applying the rope webbing and mirror mosaics.

Various forms of the head.
The finished sculpture.

It took a year to finish him, and the time for him to be installed had finally come. On the day of his installation, he was wrapped in a white shroud so that there could be a ceremonious unveiling.  Until he was anchored in place, I could only hope that all the measuring, bolt holes and installation planning would actually work.  In a fireman’s hold, my neighbor Mash hoisted him up the ladder and bolted his foot into the building from below as I bolted him into the roof ledge.  The bolts lined up with the pre-drilled anchor holes and he successfully became a solid, structural part of the building.

Spiderman wrapped for the unveiling and ready for installation.
Mash and Camilo install from below.
Spiderman's view down.

The unveiling.
The unveiling is complete.
Neighbors welcome the new boy on the block.

The party that ensued was called “Spiderman’s Erection Party”.  After his unveiling, the block party began. His party took over the Tango House, my house, the backyard, and the street.  Some three-hundred friends and neighbors came to see for themselves what they had been hearing about all year with a joyous celebration lasting into the wee hours of the morning.  Spiderman was born into a public life of his own.

Spiderman's Erection Party

An engraved plaque was embedded into the house under Spiderman that reads:

(The name "Matrixman" was used on the plaque for copyright reasons.)

Mary was one of the elderly residents on our block.  She lived a couple houses down. Before the history of the hood moved on without her, I used to run into her regularly.  She was always on her way, to and from, grocery shopping at the 7-11 a couple blocks away.  She had emphysema and stopped every half block to rest and get her breath.  On the return leg of her trek, she would always sit on my front step to have a cigarette with a bag of 7-11 food on her lap.  Over the years, she had come to know Corrine and her family very well.  On one of our encounters, she passed on the news to me of Corrine’s son Eric.  All she could tell me was that Eric hanged himself with his belt.  Upon making more inquiries and delving into some police reports, more of the story unfolded. 

By the age of twenty-four,  Eric was incarcerated at the Sterling [Colorado] Correctional Facility.  Apparently, Eric was a member of a prison gang by the name of “211”.  A decision was made to move 211 Crew members from one prison to another. Eric was moved to a holding facility during his transfer to the Jefferson County Detention Facility with a court hearing scheduled for the next day.  On March 7, 2013, (the day before his hearing), Eric hung himself with his belt in the holding cell.  His body was discovered at 10:15pm.  Perhaps it was hopeless depression, perhaps the option at his own hand was better than what he would face as a rival 211 gang member in the social context of a new detention facility. One can only wonder. 

Some time after the sculpture was installed, Phillipe crossed paths with my son, Casey, in front of the house.  He introduced himself and asked if I was his dad.  He then told Casey that I was the only person he respected in his life because I came through on what I said I would do.  The monument to his mother, his brothers and him was real.  He told Casey he would be there for me. 

Yet another year passed until next I ran into Phillipe.  He was still heavily into the meth scene and crashing in a tiny camper parked in the alley behind a house down the street.  The house was being remodeled by his girlfriend’s father.  She was about twenty years his elder and was also a meth addict.  She let him park his camper in the alley in exchange for sexually servicing her.  She wanted to control him as her slave.  I met her briefly and she was quite reminiscent of a zombie, inside and out.  She was driving Phillipe crazy with her attempted manipulation.  I made arrangements to come back in a couple hours to photograph him in his camper. When I returned, he and his camper had vanished into thin air and were nowhere to be found. 

About six months later, I was working outside on my roses when a huge, brand new, shiny black pickup truck pulled up.  Who should be driving this magnificent vehicle but Phillipe!  He rolled the window down to say hi.  Initially I thought that maybe he was doing well.  As it turned out, he had stolen the truck.  The guys who buy stolen vehicles and do the makeover for resale, were backed up and couldn’t take the truck for another couple days.  He was out for a ride and still doing meth.  

Another six months passed before I ran into him again while out on a walk.  He was on his way to meet with his parole officer to check in and be evaluated.  We walked together for thirty minutes and caught up a little.  He was living with his brother, Willie, in an apartment not too far away.  He was off meth and into heroin but Willie was still into meth.  He was in touch with his son, who had grown up by that time.  He related that he had a loving and understanding relationship with his son and that his son respected him as a father.  He told me about his frustration, paranoia, and fear of riding a bus (see introduction to previous chapter).  His anger and his complete alienation from the society around him was consuming.  As an empath, I was right there with him, transported to his world by the amazingly clear picture that he painted. We must have looked quite the idiosyncratic couple walking down the street together.  A number of the people we passed stared at us with an obvious curiosity as to our relationship. A story that no one could have imagined, but one that we knew only too well.  

I am always haunted after randomly running into Phillipe on the street.  I wonder if I will ever see him again or if he has become just another forgotten statistic in the city morgue records.  Regardless, Phillipe’s story lives on in my heart.  

Spiderman’s Legacy


Spiderman not only became my alter ego but also has become an alter ego for the many children who pass by him on a daily basis.  This Spiderman has come to be a neighborhood landmark and inspiration.  Not a day passes that he is not a photo opt for someone. People are always stopping their cars to say how great he is or ask questions.  Cars often park below him for the children inside to shower him with adoration.  Last week, I came home after dark in freezing weather to a parked car with the window down and a child screaming, “Spiderman, Spiderman.”  I overhear parents telling their children the story of Spiderman on their walks.  On several occasions, mothers have told me that whenever their child was throwing uncontrollable tantrums, they would bring them here and their children would stop screaming and fall silent into quiet calm. It was like magic they would say.  He has proven to have a soothing effect on people.  Perhaps it is just the shifting of the reality paradigm into a momentary consciousness of lightness and hope as one notices him with a passing grin from deep within.

My favorite encounters are with a group of twenty children from a pre-school up the block.  I can hear them from inside my house as they approach.  Every Friday is Spiderman Day at their pre-school.  The teachers tell me that all week long, the children look forward to visiting Spiderman.  With their three adult supervisors, they all come down the hill to my house for Spiderman time.  Often the children are connected by a colorful rope with little plastic life-savers that each child holds on to, keeping the herd safe and together.  They all stop on the other side of the intersection to “stop, look, and listen” before crossing the street.  It is at that point that the kids all pile up in excitement and start screaming “Spiderman, Spiderman” in frenzied unison.  They then start to give Spiderman the pointer-and-pinky hand signal as they scream.  As they cross the street, they continue screaming “Hi Spiderman. Hi Spiderman”.  The joy is infectious to anyone who is fortunate enough to witness it.  When they finally get past him, they all turn around, give him the hand-signal again and scream “Bye, bye Spiderman!”.

Countless times I am working on my computer in the studio and from the other side of the wall, I hear a little, high-pitched, squeaky voice screaming in uncontrolled excitement.  The tone is always full of awe, wonder, and a genuine sense of joy.  It is always the same – “Hi Spiderman!, Hi Spiderman!”  It comes through the walls, out of nowhere, and puts a little smile on my face as I work silently inside. 

 On foot or from a rolled down car window, people are inclined to stop, chat, and share their stories about how their lives are affected by my house.  When I am on the roof, people shout from below to interact.  The other week, I was out blowing leaves with a loud leaf blower and a dust mask over my face as several strangers made an effort to catch my glance, smile, and give me a thumbs up.  The following is but one example of a comment shared, “My son asks to see Spiderman everyday and everyday we come by to visit Spiderman.  Sometimes we just sit in the car.  Sometimes we see others pointing and smiling.  I brought my parents by and they loved it.  Thank you for bringing so much joy into our lives.”  As a conversation piece, the house seems to break down barriers of age, background, race, culture, and even language. 

It is of no coincidence that prior to the installation of Spiderman, this corner house was the target of constant graffiti.  Since the day he was installed, not a single mark of graffiti has graced the walls of this house.  It is an interesting psychology to speculate on with an undeniable connection.  Aside from instilling respect, I believe that Spiderman has entered into these people’s lives in some way, perhaps directly, perhaps through a younger sibling. He has become family with people I do not know.  The Spiderman sculpture truly has a life of its own and has become as much a part of other people’s lives as mine.  The stories that come into my radar are only the tip of an iceberg.

Soon after Spiderman went up, he became a Denver “Pokestop” in the digital game “Pokemon Go”.  Inside this Internet game, this house is a source of power to combat evil.  In life, this house is a mesmerizing icon for those who believe in its powers… a place where the world of fantasy intersects with everyday life and reminds people of dreams that are too often forgotten.  

The house on the corner of Osage and 36th.
At night, the silhouette of Spiderman usually catches people's attention.
Looking up at Spidey.
Angle showing sun's reflection on fingertip mirrors.
Last week amidst the new Corona norm, my neighbors, Milo & Denali left a beautiful chalk drawing at my front doorstep. When I opened the door, it was like a ray of sunshine. It remained intact for several days before a spring snow washed it away. Although the temporal nature of chalk drawings is part of their charm, I sent away for some oil pastels to match these colors with the intention of recreating their drawing as a permanent addition to the house.

Addendum


If any readers out there have experiences of your own with “Matrixman”, please share your stories in the comment area below and help make this blog a living and growing neighborhood story.

Next and last chapter of the neighborhood series:

The Murals

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Comments:

  • robert sadowski
    April 18, 2020

    Great story John I am so glad we got to see Spidy

  • Patty
    April 18, 2020

    This is fantastic! I love the look on your face as you are unwrapping Spiderman. What a lovely story and a thoughtful manner of marking the passage of time and the people connected to different parts of our lives. Lovely work, John.

  • Lorelei
    April 19, 2020

    Thanks John for sharing your story! Spiderman is a wonderful testament to the way you live your life and art; the way they come together…

  • Brian Scheuermann
    April 21, 2020

    I always wondered what the story behind Spiderman was. Thank you!

  • Colleen Morey
    April 25, 2020

    I just want to say thank you. I take my 2 year old son to “go see Spider-Man” often. We live on 37th and Mariposa and it’s nice to have a outdoor destination while the playgrounds are closed. Hope you are safe and well!

  • Rene' O
    May 5, 2020

    What an amazing story John. It touched my heart in so many ways and is a reminder we all have an impact. Whether we know it or not.

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