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Apr 23rd
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Cows, Boxes and Poetry

The Tannery Project gets its first residents with the Dead Cow Gallery

cowboxesandpoet

At the entrance to Highway 9, a rickety homemade sign says in white painted letters, “Dead Cow Gallery.” With that sort of advertising, you have to turn on your blinker and veer down the gravely driveway to find out exactly what “Dead Cow Gallery” is. Is it a real gallery, out in the midst of a construction site? Is it a new burger joint? Or is it the latest leather shoe store? You’re not sure what you’ll find, but the sign is too mysterious and the location too bizarre to do anything else but take yourself on an adventure.


A barn-red house is on the right, and it appears as if someone might live in this dusty area. At the end of the driveway turn right and park. No hamburgers in sight yet. Walk around the other side and there’s another sign, “Dead Cow Gallery.” What is this place?
Kirby Scudder, co-executive director of the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts (SCICA) shows up and is more than happy to tell you.
“Two-and-a-half months ago Ceil Cirillo from the Redevelopment Agency asked me if I’d live out here,” Scudder says, gesturing to the red home. His neighbor? The former Salz Tannery sits next door. It’s a dilapidated, crusty old building that the city is in the very beginning stages of transforming it as well as the surrounding land into artist studios, live/work affordable housing and performance venues. Aptly titled the Tannery Project, it is expected to open in 2010. As the enormous artistic endeavor gains momentum, it’s necessary that security of some sort be provided on the giant lot.“There’s a long history of the homeless getting into vacant buildings, lighting fires, and anything that happens here could affect the entire project,” Scudder says.
Per Cirillo’s suggestion, Scudder, Chip (also a co-executive director of the SCICA) and Joe Hencke, a co-owner of the Hide Gallery, recently moved into the residence on the lot to provide caretaking. In addition, Scudder wanted to create a new visual arts gallery—one that would have a raw style, and one that would attract visitors to the site where an artists’ haven will one day stand. The Dead Cow Gallery was born.
“It was the Dead Cow Store,” Scudder says of the 42-feet-long by 22-feet-wide space. “It sold leather stuff. … We still have people coming here looking for the store after all these years.”
The curious moniker is simply following in the Salz Tannery tradition of maintaining the name of the previous store. Now, instead of selling leather products, it offers up (and sometimes sells) the work of local fine artists.
For the next three months, the Dead Cow Gallery is featuring anything but a “dead” show, with the work of Richard Shaffer. If you’re lucky enough, from now until the end of July, you may get a chance to meet, talk with, and even watch Shaffer at work in the middle of his exhibition.
Entitled “Votive Boxes,” Shaffer’s show is a stunning example of what someone can do with the space given to them. The Dead Cow Gallery is an intimate but fully functional space, and Shaffer has literally used every nook and cranny to convey his artistic expression.
On the walls, of course, are the prized votive boxes: They’re wooden, 7-inches by 9-inches, filled with concrete and sometimes an object like a candle, a mirror, or other surprises. They hang on walls, delicately curated by Shaffer himself. Covering the rest of the walls are large-scale writings, poems, selections from books, those sorts of things. And scattered across the entire ground are hundreds of pieces of paper. The actual floor is scarcely visible. None of these papers are here by accident, nor were they plucked from a recycling bin. Each is purposed, or as Shaffer likes to say, they earned their right to be here.
“It’s all stuff that I’ve written and Xeroxed from experiences over time,” Shaffer says. “I collect it and keep it. It’s as much of a studio resource as a paintbrush would be.”
His show is about both writing and the boxes. Somehow, the two merge—in the middle of the space is a writing room, which Shaffer constructed. It’s itty bitty in size, but it’s made up of 10 doors and is about 5-feet-wide by 7-feet-long. The inside is a cozy space, lit darkly, with a 20-year-old typewriter and an old chair being just two of the highlights. Interesting objects hang here and there, including a petite television encased in a box. (It actually works.)
It’s here in this actual box of a room that Shaffer will spend some time during the next three months composing the introduction to a book he plans to write about his “other” job. In his spare time away from being an artist, Shaffer and his wife (she’s also an artist) run the company Laidlaw (you’ve surely seen the busses around town), which transport disabled people to various places where they can receive services. “It (the book) is about the normal people who serve the disabled and the trouble or lack of trouble they have. … I could never write a fiction book. I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”
Huh? Look around Mr. Shaffer, um, this is a fairly creative room, I suggest. “This is all about reality, about real experiences,” he says. “It’s nothing about things that are made up. Truly, when you look at all of this, pick up a piece of paper off the floor, it’s not just written so I could fill the space. There’s an experience behind it to generate what it is. I could give you an exposition of all that, but it would take us months.”
So we’ll suffice for a tour. The first time cruising through the gallery, you get the overall picture and concept of what Shaffer is trying to accomplish in this exhibit. But the second time around, you go deeper, and Shaffer takes you there, foot by foot as he points at all the things you missed the first time around: The writing room he made for his pint-sized daughter, the box where you peer through and see your own eyes looking back at you, the scent box, the anthrax box (don’t worry, it’s only pastry flour), the little camera that acts like it’s recording us. Maybe it is. The bulletproof vest, that protects the little dress, maybe symbolizing Shaffer, protecting his sweet daughter from the atrocities that exist in this world.
His child told him that maybe he should make a thousand boxes. He’s considering it. There’s something in the process of making these votive boxes that allows Shaffer to unload the more stringent guidelines of his life as a painter and instead become childlike, as he sculpts and creates these original boxes. In fact, it seems like Shaffer is beginning to think ‘inside’ the box. Not outside—inside. It’s here in this room that numerous boxes exist: his writing room box, the gallery—it’s a box of sorts; even this entire red barn building. It too is a box.
“They’re living here to support the activities of persons much like myself,” Shaffer says of Scudder and company. “It’s a volitional act on their part, to work and have a presence so everything else can happen.”

The Dead Cow Gallery is open during daytime hours at 1040 River St., Santa Cruz. Ring the bell outside and someone will let you in. Or, participate in the First Friday Art Tour and visit scica.org for more information. For more information about Richard Shaffer visit zebraparis.com. The SCICA can be contacted at 454-8200.

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