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Arts and Entertainment

Do-it-Yourself Smile

The Profound Pranks and Prose of "Blaster" Al Ackerman

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 9/18/2002

If you blindly ran into Al Ackerman at his day job behind the counter at Normals Books and Records in Waverly or strolling the streets of Charles Village carrying a blue plastic grocery bag, you might not give him a second glance. He is a quiet and compact 62-year-old, outwardly remarkable only for his full gray beard and his ever-present flat cap. He certainly doesn't look like someone everyone calls Blaster, much less like a major force in the Baltimore demimonde.

But Ackerman's poems and stories have inspired multiple stage productions. He paints, stages pranks, and gives regular public readings. And a new cadre of local Ackerman devotees has begun proselytizing his surrealistic aesthetic to a larger audience, creating a new wave of Ackermania that includes narrative videos directed by local filmmaker/dramatist Sleaze Steele, a short film by local filmmaker Catherine Pancake, and an upcoming mail-art exhibit at Canton's Chela Gallery. Measured in terms of the peripheral activity and thought he has inspired, he is one of the most influential artists currently working in Baltimore.

Ackerman's creative journey began after his family settled in San Antonio shortly after World War II. L. Frank Baum's Oz series and early EC comics (publisher of Mad magazine and Tales From the Crypt, copies of which were scornfully burned by Ackerman's mother) provided the avid reader with his first literary inspiration. In the third grade, he presented his teacher with an illustrated fictional work of his own. "'You really like repulsive things, don't you?'" Ackerman remembers his teacher saying. "That's how I knew I was on the right track."

Ackerman began greedily devouring fanzines devoted to his favorite science-fiction and mystery authors and wrote to many of them, stating, "I am a very young person in San Antonio, Tex. Tell me how to get out of here." His most encouraging responses came from sci-fi magazine publisher Ray Palmer. While Palmer didn't buy any stories from the teenaged Ackerman, he gave him some pointers to improve his craft. By the age of 20, Ackerman had placed several stories in romance magazines--"the only [magazines] who would accept stories without going through an agent," he recalls.

Over the decades since, Ackerman has chosen a variety of unusual vocations, shifting gears dramatically when he's needed a change. In the 960s he worked for various local TV stations in Austin and Houston, scripting public-service announcements and children's shows. In a twisted juxtaposition that would have a great impact on his peculiar aesthetic sensibility, he went from entertaining kids to gruesome hospital work, spending almost 5 years as a medical technician in burn wards along the West Coast--an experience that still occasionally produces nightmares. "I can't stand doctors," he says.

Then Ackerman encountered a 972 Rolling Stone article that greatly enriched his life. "Correspondence Art" focused on artists and cultural outsiders who had begun exchanging work through the mail, often transforming the mail itself into art objects. The spontaneous, noncommercial nature of this artistic approach captured Ackerman's imagination, and within a month he had established correspondences with several people mentioned in the article. These exchanges led to others, some continuing to this day. Exchanges with outsider musician Genesis P-Orridge resulted in an Ackerman letter appearing on the back of Throbbing Gristle's 97 D.O.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle --the letter inspired the album's signature song, "Hamburger Lady."

The 90s found Ackerman eking out a living in San Antonio making commissioned crayon-on-black-velvet portraits of cats in historical and literary settings--an eccentric vocation catering to an eccentric clientele. "[It] was an interesting way to starve," Ackerman quips. A lecture tour on his concept of potato therapy, in which participants cover both eyes and plug their mouth with potatoes until they begin to hear voices and see things, brought him to Baltimore in the early '90s. He has rarely left since.

New Baltimore friends quickly became fans and supporters once they read his writing, which some admirers compare to writers such as Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. Ackerman's plots sometimes veer through acid-tinged, cyberpunk twists, and his post-semantic delight in playing with language speaks for itself. Yet his writing remains relatively unknown and, because of its obscurity, resonates that much louder to its local discoverers. Admittedly, part of Ackerman's obscurity is intentional. Catherine Pancake, who adapted her recent film The Suit, from an Ackerman short story, quotes an Ackerman axiom: "To remain creative, artists should always work in a despised medium."

"Blaster has always seemed a Zen, egoless conduit for his art," says Shattered Wig Press honcho (and City Paper contributor) Rupert Wondolowski, publisher of many Ackerman works. "I've seen him create intricate masterpieces on the outside of envelopes and send them off without any concern for whether or not they'll be appreciated or preserved." As for Ackerman's prose, "it's hard not to be pulled into his orbit and want to write in his style," Wondolowski says.

Ackerman may court obscurity, but he hasn't avoided it completely. His stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and chapbooks, sometimes under pseudonyms. Still, with 994's Omnibus (Feh! Press)--a rich volume compiling material dating as far back as the mid-970s-- still in print and last year's I Taught My Dog to Shoot a Gun (Popular Reality Press) also available, accessing Ackerman's writings has never been easier.

Sleaze Steele began shooting Ackerman stories on video while living in England in the early '90s, continued making Ackerman-inspired videos since moving to Baltimore several years ago, and recently starred with Wondolowski in several local performances of the original Ackerman play Kant's Gnawser, in which Immanuel Kant interacts with an imaginary playmate. Steele revels in the way that the "generally jolly" Ackerman's writings "turns the corners of expectations and subverts the forms in which he works." Having memorized much of Ackerman's work for various performances over two decades, Steele likens himself to a character in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 45, assigned the task of memorizing the writer's canon for preservation after all books are burned.

Pancake sees Ackerman as a defining personality within Baltimore's experimental cultural scene, and certainly a key influence on her own work. "Through meeting Blaster and others, I became aware of a world of creativity that was divorced from above-board, formal art and more concerned with getting people's brains free," she says. Pancake says she sees his art as very political, a crosshatch of "pranks and tricks that draw attention to possibilities of other worlds in nondogmatic ways." Her 0-minute cinematic translation of the Ackerman tale "The Suit" follows a young Baltimorean's attempts to liberate himself and woo his neighbor by fashioning a beautiful suit from sausages, artfully capturing both the surface humor and the darker undertones running through his work.

Along with these writings, films, videos, and plays, a exhibit scheduled for November at Canton's Chela Gallery demonstrates Ackerman's versatility as a visual artist. Chela's Bonnie Jones has secured loans of 00 to 400 Ackerman items from 0 international mail artists who have traded artwork with him over the last few decades--including Welsh performance artist Andr2 Stitt, Italian mail-art pioneer Vittore Baroni, and Duplex Planet publisher David Greenberger--in addition to pieces preserved by locals Wondolowski and John Berndt. Pieces by each of the contributors will also be shown.

The work going on display at Chela includes pencil and ink drawings, black-velvet pieces, pastels, acrylics, watercolors, illustrated zine covers, postcards, envelopes, hand-drawn stamps, and a jacket bearing a painting of Elvis Presley. While certainly consistent in tone with his writing--absurdly humorous and pointedly shocking--his colorful, cartoonish visuals stand strong on their own. Jones notes a fascination with hebephrenia (a form of schizophrenia characterized by silly behavior) as a dominant theme in Ackerman's visual work.

Yet, while Ackerman's work often dwells on disturbed individuals, you never get the sense that he intends to insult them. Wondolowski, who regularly hosts Ackerman readings at his Shattered Wig Night events, feels that Ackerman's empathy for his characters overrides any mean streak he might manifest: "There's an amazing kindness behind it all," he says.

Indeed, Ackerman spends much time carefully underscoring the support others have given him, stressing that both Pancake and Steele produced their adaptations without any prodding or assistance from him. He is unfailingly polite and soft-spoken while giving succinct biographical information peppered with the occasional one-liner. But his avuncular demeanor only aids his subversive nature. At the interview's end, he slides a hastily scrawled-on piece of paper across the table. "See if you can work this into your story," he says. The paper contains a single quotation from William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy." He offers no other explanation.

Indeed, while his unsappable energy has left behind plenty of physical evidence, Ackerman's major influence on others may be the sly wit of a lifelong prankster. Most of what he says sounds fabricated, but most of it--including those bits about the potatoes and the cat portraits--are completely verifiable. The simple explanation: Ackerman has lived his entire life so that truth seems stranger than fiction. The portions of his life that sound embellished may just as well be true.

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