THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
OUTSIDE the LINES
Creativity helps Pueblo West poet-artist cope with life
Published: June 29, 2008
By SCOTT SMITH He’s a puzzle of a man. He is artist Tom Taylor. He is the poet Spiel. He is a world-weary soul with impassioned blue eyes, a wispy gray ponytail and a kaleidoscopic personality. He is intense and iconoclastic, creative and loquacious, intelligent and obsessive, engaging and cynical. He’s also mentally ill. “I have a hard time with life,” says Taylor, 67. “I am unusual. I’ve always been unusual. And I’ve always been aware that I was unusual. . . . It’s the truth. I’m strange.” Strange, yes. Successful, too, despite the battles that clatter around inside his head as Taylor wrestles with life’s everyday challenges. A Pueblo West resident for the past decade, Taylor is one of the area’s best-kept artistic secrets. Some of that is because few people here know him as Tom Taylor – in these parts, he’s known as Spiel, a poet with a penchant for darkness and discomfort – and some is because of his insular lifestyle. A typical day for Taylor – or Spiel, if you prefer – consists of work, work and more work in his home office, occasionally interrupted by a smoke break in his peaceful rooftop garden or some quality time with his dog, a sweet-and-feisty heeler named Gracie. He ponders. He writes. He edits. He polishes. And then he wakes up the next day, takes his 13 prescribed medications (for “multiple diagnoses” of mental illness and physical maladies that include fibromyalgia, cluster headaches and arthritis), and does it again. “He’s very dedicated to his work,” says Paul Welch, Taylor’s partner for the past 24 years. “When he was an artist, he was consumed by that, and as a poet, he’s consumed by his poetry. That’s probably the main motivation in his life.” Says Taylor, shaking his head, “I never dreamed that I’d stand up and say, ‘I am a poet. I am the poet Spiel.’ It’s astonishing to me.” He’s a prolific wordsmith, cranking out chapbooks (small books favored by small-press publishers) filled with sharp-edged poetry that ranges from searing to satirical and explores the cobwebbed corners of the human condition. The subjects are real and raw: incest, suicide, war, death, love. “I think life’s uncomfortable,” he says. “One of my therapists once said, ‘Sometimes I think you live in a war zone.’ And I said, ‘I do. Doesn’t everybody?’ . . . I think a lot of people wouldn’t admit it, but doesn’t everybody get up in the morning and sort of duck and cover?” Taylor’s perspective is hardly surprising for a man whose long, strange trip through life has been longer and stranger than most. “When I was 30 years old, I thought I’d be a famous artist. I thought I’d be comfortable and admired, like I’d be Matisse or something,” he says. “But it hasn’t turned out that way.”
The passion inside
At his peak, Taylor was a commercially successful wildlife artist who also produced critically acclaimed works laced with in-your-face social commentary. From 1964 to 1996, he had nearly 50 solo exhibitions in museums, galleries and private showings. His images appeared on needlepoint patterns, in magazines, on record album covers and book jackets – even on coffee mugs, serving trays and bedding sets in the case of his signature piece,”Tuskers,” a stylish, mesmerizing rendition of an elephant herd.
It didn’t take Taylor long to master the new hard-edged painting style that would become his trademark. He created beautiful images of African animals for a calendar produced by the Zambia Wildlife Conservation Society, and his career skyrocketed. He produced a series of fine-art posters for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. And the popularity of “Tuskers” generated attention from everyone from the World Wildlife Fund to a major international licensing agent. Suddenly, the Tom Taylor “look” was in demand. For Taylor, “Tuskers” was a personal masterpiece. “It’s just something you hit on,” he says. “You don’t set out to do something like that. Many times after that I tried to figure out what the formula was, tried to do it again, and it wouldn’t work.” But the royalty checks from his images came rolling in, and life was good. But not great. Taylor continued to battle his demons (and finally sought professional help in 1982), even as he was producing both lucrative animal images and unique alternative-style art that featured everything from paintings of people with coat hangers for heads to a series that used white bread as a symbol of America’s shallow values.
Preparing to die
In the fall of 1996, Taylor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His doctor gave him six months to live. If there’s ever anything you and Paul have always wanted to do, she said, now is the time to do it. “Paul said that within 45 seconds, I gave up my career,” Taylor says. He sold off most of his inventory. The men traveled to Mexico, and to Yellowstone National Park. And Taylor waited for the end. “I decided that the best thing to do was to learn to love dying,” he says. “I used to lie in my bed and look up at the ceiling and say, ‘OK, OK, I’m ready.’ ” But a funny thing happened on the way to the afterlife: It turned out that Taylor didn’t have pancreatic cancer. His pancreas had wrapped itself around his common bile duct, producing similar pain and symptoms to the deadly cancer. But by the time the doctors figured that out, Taylor’s brain was dead-set on dying. “I couldn’t start to learn to love living,” he says. “I couldn’t get back.” Complicating matters, his pain persisted. Surgeons would insert a stent so his bile duct would drain and everything would be fine for a while, but then the blockage would return.They replaced the stent 17 times. Frustrated on all fronts, Taylor and Welch moved to Pueblo West in 1998. And shortly thereafter, Taylor underwent biliary bypass surgery in Colorado Springs – a procedure that finally solved the problem and stopped the pain. As he regained his strength, Taylor also redefined himself. He wrote short stories, and then poetry – and he metamorphosed into his current persona: The Poet Spiel. His imagination surged, and the written word became his new medium for personal expression. And the small-press publishers loved his lower-case, punctuation-free verse, which was filled with deep texture and genuine passion. “I didn’t really know what I was doing at first – I was just messing around,” he says. “But I sent some stuff off to a few places and immediately started getting accepted . . . and I’ve been on a roll ever since.”
A creative comeback
But even as his newly discovered creativity came tumbling forward via his written word, his feeling of incompleteness – so evident in his lifelong imagery of faceless and headless people, and houses without doors and windows – persisted. He still had no interest in picking up a paintbrush. However, that changed about a year ago. Inspired by an abstract exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center – and by interest showed in his work by then-interim curator Trisha Fernandez – Taylor went back to the canvas. The plan was for him to produce some new paintings to go with his vast and varied collection of older pieces, and to couple them with his poetry in a 2009 exhibit at the arts center. It was a tantalizing prospect: a chance to pair Taylor and Spiel in a respected gallery. Slowly and painfully, Taylor went to work, producing five new paintings in his favorite medium, gouache. There was a faceless self-portrait, a piece showing a crowd of people with buttons for mouths, and an intense work that included an American flag, barbed wire, a baby factory, a row of dodo birds, flying harpies and the words “Jesus Hates Dead Babys(sic).” Just as importantly, he was able to maintain his poetry career at the same time. “At that point, I started to be alive again,” he says. “Something gave me the confidence to unite those two pieces of me into one for the first time since I died.” But his elation turned to despair last winter. The show was canceled because of a contractual disagreement between Taylor and the arts center’s executive director, Maggie Divelbiss.Taylor, ever in tenuous balance with himself, was devastated. “I have not painted since,” he says. Perhaps what bothers Taylor the most is that the lost show was a chance to make a profound statement about what mentally ill people can accomplish. “It was to be a public expression to encourage others,” he says. “It was going to say: Look at me. Tomorrow you can get up and be an abstract artist, and the next morning you can be a realistic artist, and the next morning you can get up and be a writer, and the next morning you can get up and write a novel, and the next morning you can get up and write poetry. And you can do it out loud and you can do it in private, and you can fingerpaint and you can scribble on the floor. “You can do all those things and don’t let anyone say you can’t. . . . I’m living proof. But it ain’t been easy.” For now, Tom Taylor and Spiel are separate again. But somewhere deep within his synapses, Taylor knows that his inner artist and poet are no longer mutually exclusive. “It’s like my shrink tells me: ‘You made that leap of faith. You made that step,’ ” he says. So where does Taylor go from here? He can’t tell you for sure, other than to say he’s working hard on two new poetry books (one is “Once Upon a Farmboy”), has recorded a spoken-word CD and expends much energy dealing with his daily pains. “I’m not looking for a show. I’m not out there knocking on doors. And I’m not just an artist,” he says. 6/08