DENNIS MCNETT INTERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
Against all that say nay, one does what they say. Determination, conviction, discipline. Born with a special talent or something like that. A choice to overcome distractions, the will to stay true to the choice, through thick and thin, that toughens the skin. A vision different from others, the skills to prevail and the courage to move forward. Willing to fail, but knowing it’s cool, the lesson is learned, and a turn to the future, now knowing what’s what. McNett is the man and knows for sure, you definitely can. When all is said and done, Dennis will stand… For the ones that stay true to their plans. The heart of a warrior… Thank you, Dennis McNett. It’s an honor to know you.
What do you want to talk about, D? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Virginia Beach. I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and spent most of my pre-teen through teen years in Virginia Beach.
How was it growing up in Virginia Beach? Did you surf?
I did surf and all of my friends surfed too. During the spring and summer, we lived at the beach and it was a super fun place to grow up. During the summer, all the tourists would come in, which meant you could get some stupid job to get extra money. We’d go down to the beach and surf during the day and skate around and get in lots of trouble. The two spots we surfed most were Croatan and Pendleton Beach, which weren’t in the tourist area. They were on the other side of the jetty. In the off season, it was better towards 1st Street.
How about the wintertime?
I wasn’t into putting on a wetsuit and going out surfing in the cold, so I was more into skating than surfing in the winter. We had a little halfpipe in my friend’s backyard and we’d skate that. The area that I grew up in was kind of rural, but they started putting in shopping centers, and they had all these freshly paved parking lots and painted parking blocks, so we used to skate those. They had a banked loading dock in the back, so we used to skate that all the time too.
What year was this?
This was in the early to mid-‘80s. I was never good at skateboarding. I enjoyed it and I had a blast, but I was nowhere near good. I could do some grinds and skate a ramp and do some ollies, but nothing good, but I was attracted to the aesthetic and the graphics and everything else that came with it. The graphics I was looking at were the Courtlandt Johnson Powell Peralta graphics and the Zorlac Pushead graphics. I flipped my shit when I first saw those. Those Pushead Zorlac graphics were so badass and the boards had these weird shapes like the Craig Johnson shapes. Those were sick.
What made you dig those graphics so much? Was it the subject matter or the style of the drawings or what?
Well, I was really drawn to the Courtland Johnson stuff and I liked the unsavory characters like the Mike McGill with the skull and sword. Caballero’s dragon was badass too. I found out later that all that stuff was done with linocuts and I’ve always been drawn to that type of aesthetic. Later, I got into relief prints and I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s what this guy was doing.” All of his stuff, like the Ripper graphics, I was way into that. The Pushead stuff looked gnarly too. I was a 12-year old kid going into the 17th Street Surf Shop in Virginia Beach and seeing those on the wall and going, “That’s what I want right there.” To me, all that stuff, in that time period, had a raw graphic quality. It was the early ‘80s, so it was all about punk rock music. I didn’t grow up in New York or L.A. I grew up in Virginia Beach, so it wasn’t as culturally rich.
Wouldn’t these things filter down to the beach though?
For sure. We got all of our culture from the surf shops and Thrasher at the time. We would see the tricks and how to do them and then we’d flip to the back and they’d have music. I was like, “I’m into this and I like these graphics. Let’s check this music out.” Then I’d put on Black Flag or Dead Kennedys and be like, “Fuck yeah! I’m pissed off just like this guy. That’s what I want to listen to.” All that stuff had that same raw aesthetic to me. That was it. I was hooked and I didn’t want to do anything else and I was always drawing graphics.
Obviously, those guys are talented artists, but you liked the subject matter too.
Yeah. I would draw that stuff on all my notebooks. I was kind of an art nerd.
When did you first start drawing?
I was drawing, when I was a kid, before I even started school. When my great grandfather was alive, I used to go over there and my great grandmother would pull out crayons and I would draw. I would show my drawings to my great grandfather and he would get all excited and be like, “That’s so good. Those are great. Draw some more.” He was blind, so I thought the drawings were magic somehow and he could see them. I would draw as many things as I could while I was there. That was my first encouragement and I’ve been drawing and making stuff since I was little.
Was your thing dragons and skulls?
Yeah. My mom pulled out a stack of stuff she hung on to that I had drawn in elementary school. The first thing she pulled out was a wolf mask made of construction paper that I drew in third grade.
Wow. Wolfbat has been going for decades.
When was the first Wolfbat?
The first Wolfbat was in 2005.
You were drawing Wolfbat since you were a little kid though.
[Laughs] Well, I was drawing wolves, but the Wolfbat came later.
So you drew your first wolf in third grade. Did you draw bats at the same time?
I drew bats and dragons and all kinds of shit. I’ve just always been obsessed with wolves. Some people think they are savage, but they are also very pack-driven and very intelligent. They are very expressive, so they’re fun to draw. When they are at peace, they look like they are at peace. When they are pissed, they definitely look pissed. Their lips curl up and they expose all their teeth and their posturing and gestures are very easy to read. I’ve just always been drawn to them.
Did you read comic books as a kid?
No. For me, all of the stuff that I was drawn to came out of Thrasher and punk rock album covers and show flyers and all that stuff.
What punk rock album covers influenced you? Did you like Pettibon’s stuff?
I loved Pettibon’s stuff. One of the first albums I got was Doggy Style. It was rad because it came with a big fold-out Xerox poster with all these drawings. It looked really raw, like someone slapped it together and I loved the way that looked.
When did you realize you were an artist?
Well, I’ve always made stuff but, in high school, it became apparent that’s what I mostly did with my time and what I wanted to do. I would get a pass during lunch or study hall to go to art class. I had it worked out with the art teacher that I could go in there, so I would just hang out there all the time.
You were already on the hustle. Some learn the hustle early in life. You were like, “This is where I want to be, so I have to make this happen. I’m an artist, and I want to make art.” When did you start to do something with your talent?
Well, there’s a weird time in between where I got in lots of trouble. I got heavy into drug addiction around age 19 and I went on a solid run for almost a decade. I got into drugs and that’s all I did.
“All of the print making stuff came back around and is definitely in contemporary art now. The guys that I run around with have been referred to as the Outlaw Print Makers. For a while, print making got really soft and it was a bunch of abstract, conceptual forms on copper plates. We came along and we were like, “We want to do skulls and wolves and clowns and whatever we want to do.” After a while, we got coined the ‘Outlaw Print Makers’.”
Were you drawing while you were high?
When I was getting high, I put down everything that I loved doing and I put everyone that I loved away as well. There were times where I would get clean in between and that’s when I would draw, but the clean times were short-lived in that time.
What was the drug that you aspired to?
Crack cocaine hit the streets in Virginia Beach pretty hard around 1990 and it was something that I accidentally happened upon. I was hanging out with everyone and someone was going to get some coke. I was like, “Get me $20 and I will split that with my friends.” It was really minor. He came back with crack and said, “They didn’t have coke. They had this.” He showed me how to do it and melt it down and smoke it and it just went downhill from there. At the end of that decade, I was homeless and I’d done things that I never thought I’d do – just crazy shit. At the very end, everyone I was running with either went to jail or died. I remember that last day. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I was so fucking tired.
You went to junior college, in the ‘90s?
Yeah. I barely got through junior college. When I got out of high school, I got an apartment right away. I was 18 when I got my first place. I partied quite a bit, but I didn’t really do anything hard, but then that year I was introduced to crack. I started doing it, but wasn’t full blown just yet and then I signed up for junior college. I went to classes and then I’d fuck up and then I’d get my shit together and go to classes again, and then I’d fuck up again. I did just enough to finish junior college. After that, it was just a nightmare downhill spiral.
Explain this. You’d get pulled over by cops but you didn’t get hassled too much.
Well, I’m not going to say that I didn’t get hassled. I got hassled all the time and I went to jail a couple of times, but it was nothing major. The majority of the time I would get pulled over and it would be so chaotic in the car and you could see the cops calculating the paperwork. I was in my early twenties and the guy next to me was a vet. He was a much older dude in his fifties that looked like he had been smoking rocks his whole life. There were two street walkers sitting in the back and there were piles of cartons of stolen cigarettes that we would trade for rocks down the street. The cops would look in the car and see all that and be like, “Just get the fuck out of here.” They didn’t want to deal with it. It was just too much. I lucked out because a lot of people who I ran around with went to jail for a long time or they’re dead and they’re not around anymore. You could talk to anybody that’s been through that and it’s the same story. The miraculous thing is that I made it through and I’ve been clean over 20 years.
That’s an incredible accomplishment.
It’s fantastic. It wasn’t easy at first but, through that process, I met some of my closest friends.
How did your family react to your drug use?
They got upset anytime they would see me. My dad was a cop. He is 6’4” and 260 pounds. He’s a big guy and he used to break down and cry when he would see me because he couldn’t do anything about it. I went through all of my friends and family. I remember my dad saying to me, “You can’t come to the house anymore because every time you do, your mother cries for two weeks straight. You’re eating her up. You can’t keep coming here.” Eventually, it was like that with all of my family and friends. They would say, “I love you and I’ll come to your funeral, but you can’t come here anymore.”
Wow. That’s harsh.
It’s just the way it was. I couldn’t stop. It was so hopeless at the time. I was convinced that was how I was going to die.
You were going to die from getting high.
Absolutely. I used to have heart palpitations and black outs. My heart could have blown up any time. I was smoking enough cocaine to kill an elephant. I was just driving down the street, blasting that shit and anything could have happened. I used to do dumb shit. I was the getaway driver for these two guys that would rob drug dealers. I would sit in the car and wait for them and they would punch a guy out and take his drugs and money and run back to the car. My job was to scoop them up real quick and haul ass out of there. Sometimes that was followed by gunfire. I’ve had my windows blown out and a gun pointed at my head. It was gnarly. In the end, I was homeless. It was over. It was either get clean or die. Luckily, I got clean.
Well, congratulations. I’m glad you did.
Me too. Thanks.
You’ve got 20 years sober. How did you do it?
When I finally was ready for help, my folks had moved up to the mountains in Virginia and my mother said, “Why don’t you come here and try to get cleaned up?” At that time, I was willing to do anything. So she drove down and picked me up and drove me up to the mountains where they live now.
She never gave up hope.
No. They kept hoping that I’d get clean but, even when I got clean, it took three or four years before they believed it. There was always that suspicion that I was pulling a fast one again.
What finally made you kick crack?
I had a moment where I was able to look around and all these people were dying or going to jail. I was just fuckin’ tired. I wasn’t tired like it’s past my bedtime. It was a decade of running tired. I was ready. I was like, “Whatever it fucking takes, I’ll do it.” I went up to the mountains and it sucked for several months. I was in the middle of nowhere in Virginia just trying to readjust to having a normal conversation with someone. I had been living on the streets or in abandoned houses or my car or sleeping on the beach or crashing on somebody’s couch until they kicked me out. I was having to readjust to being somewhat normal again. I was putting weight back on, because I was skin and bones when I finally quit. I was in bad health.
You get clean and then what did you do?
I went to Williamsburg, Virginia, to live with this girl that I was dating, and I started a wood flooring business. I was doing construction and installing wood floors. I was making pretty good money, but I hated it. At one point, I looked around and I was doing well. I had lots of work and I had bought all the equipment and I had employees, but I thought, “I didn’t get clean and survive all that shit to do floors. That’s not what I’m here for.” When I got clean, I was drawing and painting again, and I couldn’t wait to get home from work and do that.
So you kept doing your thing.
Once I had the clarity that I wanted to do art, I went for it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid. It seemed like, if I wanted to be an artist, I had to go to art school, so I applied to a bunch of schools and got rejected from most and then got accepted to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. I’m not going to lie. I was horrified. I’d never been to New York, but I was like, “If you can go into a drug-riddled neighborhood as the getaway driver, you can do this.” I packed my shit and went up there and got an apartment in Jersey City. I was driving around New York going, “Is this a good place to live?” I couldn’t tell. It all looked sketchy to me. Then I started seeing the prices and it was four times what I was paying in Virginia. I was like, “How do people do this?” I found a spot where I could manage in Jersey City, so that’s where I lived at first. Then I started going to graduate school and meeting people. I was going to meetings and then I met Andy [Kessler] and some actual artists and I started to figure shit out. When I first moved there, I was having to work full time construction and do full time grad school to make ends meet, so I wasn’t producing much artwork. Again I was like, “I didn’t get clean to do this. I’m here to make artwork.” The girl I was with at the time didn’t want to be in New York, so we ended up splitting up and I moved all my stuff into the studio that they give you at Pratt. You’re not supposed to live there, but I lived in the basement in that studio and I would take showers at the gym. That’s how I lived.
So you start going to meetings and you met Kessler.
Yeah. I had been on the street for a decade, so skateboarding and everything that I loved went out the window. Then I see Andy walk in and he’s got a skateboard with him and he’s ten years older than me. I was like, “What is this guy doing? If he can skate, I should be able to at least roll around.” We started talking about skateboarding and we hit it off right away. We’d meet up and go to a meeting and then hang out all day.
Do you think you became fast friends due to the fact that you could relate to him because he had a skateboard?
That absolutely had something to do with it because that initiated the conversation. That’s all we talked about at first. We came from a similar background of getting clean and that helped too. Andy loved artwork too and he enjoyed seeing art and talking to artists, so he’d ask me all kinds of stuff about art. I always carried a sketchbook around and I would sketch really funny stupid stuff on the subway and he would laugh.
I love that. I can hear him laughing.
We were laughing because a lot of the sketchbooks were funny, but he would make fun of whatever I showed him. If I was trying to be serious, he would make sure that I didn’t take myself too seriously.
“I built two 30-foot long Viking ships for that show at the Joshua Liner Gallery. That was MY first solo show in New York. Andy Kessler had passed away and my friends, Thomas Little and Richard Mock, had passed away within a year and a half and it was brutal, so the show was to pay respect to them.”
He kept you in check. You then met other artists in New York and realized that it’s possible to make a living being an artist.
Yeah. My thinking wasn’t, “I can make a living.” It was just, “Oh, this is how it actually is.” Coming from Virginia Beach, I had no idea. Meeting some real artists changed my perspective on everything. I met Kembra Pfahler and I was like, “Wow! She’s just going for it 100% with her whole being.” Then there was Kevin. He used to go by FA-Q. He did all this artwork on the Lower East Side and he was a big part of the Thompson Square Riot. He used to live in that park. Hearing all that, I was blown away. There is a graffiti artist that goes by Ghost and he was showing me old pictures where they used to do entire subway trains. They would go to the Writer’s Bench and watch the trains go by because you could see them all go by at some point. Coming from where I was coming from, it was like magic. I couldn’t believe it. Each one of them showed me different things and opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to be an academic art teacher to do art. It ain’t gonna be easy and it ain’t gonna be extravagant, but you can do it. I was already used to not living extravagantly because I had been living on the streets, so I was like, “I can do this.”
You were going to Pratt at the same time?
Yeah. That was a nightmare. Just two years prior, I was a derelict on the street, doing crazy shit and robbing people. All of a sudden, two years later, I’m in Pratt Institute. The majority of my peers came from a very different place. They were already somewhat art educated and their families were helping them with tuition and apartments and all that, so they had a different perspective. Their influences came from art history books and mine came out of Thrasher. That was the contrast. It was very different and hard. The majority of the people at Pratt were saying, “Your art is too narrative. It should be more abstract and more conceptual.” They were trying to push me into doing stuff that I wasn’t interested in doing.
So you kept doing what you did.
Yeah. That was mostly due to meeting people like Andy and Kevin and Frank and this guy, Richard Mock. Richard did illustration for the New York Times for a long time. I started surrounding myself with people that were encouraging what I was doing rather than people using big art words and theories to describe the work that I was doing. Those people would make me feel so small and make me think what I was doing was so irrelevant. Then someone like Kevin or Andy would be like, “Why the fuck are you taking that so seriously?” Richard would say, “Don’t listen to those people. Why don’t you just listen to the people that are encouraging you?” So I started doing that. I remember the big shift. One summer, I was like, “Fuck all these people.” I took all the artwork down in my studio and, at the end of the summer, I filled it from floor to ceiling. On every wall and the ceiling and every desktop, I had new artwork.
You are prolific.
Then those art fuckers came in and they couldn’t break out their arty art talk anymore. They had to talk about what was in front of them. It was too much. If I put up one piece, they could pick the shit apart. I had over a hundred new pieces up and there was no way they could talk arty art, art, art. It was like a big punch in the face when you walked in to my studio. There were snarling wolves in every corner. Also, I didn’t care anymore. Before that, I cared. My self-esteem was still low from being a drug addict. After meeting all these people that encouraged my art, it boosted my confidence. When the art fuckers would say, “Oh, this is too illustrative.” I would say, “What do you mean? Do you mean it’s too illustrative like Albrecht Durer or Robert Crumb? Because their art is awesome. I love that stuff. What do you mean by too narrative? I love narrative stuff. I love story-telling and always have since Star Wars. What are you talking about?” I’d just give it right back to them and tell the truth. I’d say, “Well, I’m not inspired by that. I’m inspired by this.” Then it got easier to hold my ground and keep doing what I was doing.
It was a big fuck you to everyone and then you graduated from Pratt with a MFA?
Yeah. When I first got clean, I got my BFA. I went to school and finished all that stuff and then I went to grad school at Pratt for my Masters.
Wasn’t there a teacher at Pratt that you hung out with at one point?
Yeah. Bill Fick. He’s a bad motherfucker. His art is so rad. He does these big gnarly dripping heads. His stuff is really great. He was one of the people that would encourage me. He’d be like, “That’s awesome. Do some more.” He is one of the people that told me, “You have to stop putting up one or two pieces. You have to put up a hundred. If you put up one or two, they can pick it apart. If you put up a hundred, they have to deal with it.” Bill was one of those people that got me through.
That’s great. So you graduated from Pratt, and then you were teaching at Pratt. That’s when I met you. Kessler was like, “You have to meet my friend, Dennis. He’s a professor at Pratt.” I was like, “Whatever, Kess. Sure.” You could have been some 78-year-old dude that Kessler knew that was a junkie with Burroughs or whatever. He was like, “You and Dennis will get along great.” That’s just how it was with Kessler. When I met you, I was like, “This guy is cool. I can’t look at him like he’s a professor anymore. Now I just look at him like he’s Wolfbat.”
I want to know how you graduated from Pratt, which is a prestigious school, and then you’re teaching there. I find that to be another hustle. When I say hustle, I don’t mean that in a bad way. It just means pushing forward and being persistent and making things happen.
Yeah. In the back of my head, I had this idea. I had been living in that basement studio at Pratt for over two years, so I was ready to get a place to live, but since I was graduating and about to get kicked out, I was like, “I need a job.” I was looking at the professors and I thought, “These guys come in for three hours and then go home. That’s what I want to do.” I had done some teaching assistant stuff to get extra money while I was there, so I looked at the program that I went through and saw that they didn’t offer what I was doing, which is relief prints. I do woodcut and linocut prints. That’s where my imagery comes from.
Break that down for me so I understand.
A relief print is when you take a block, it could be linoleum or wood, and you do a drawing on it and then you carve that image out. Everything I carve out is going to be white and everything that’s left on the block gets inked black. It’s a planographic process. I’ll carve away and, when I run a brayer over it, all the recessed lines don’t take ink, but the raised surfaces take ink. Then I can make multiple images of whatever I’m doing. It makes its own unique mark. It looks like it’s carved because it is carved. It doesn’t look like it’s drawn or brushed and I love that mark. I’ve loved that mark ever since I saw Courtlandt Johnson’s work or a punk rock show flyer, because it has that same graphic high contrast aesthetic to it. I love that. They didn’t offer relief printing at the graduate level at Pratt even though I’d just finished there and got an MFA in print making, so I went to the Department Chair and said, “I just did this show and you enjoyed it, but you don’t offer this technique in your graduate program. Let me teach a graduate level class in it.” She was like, “Okay. I’ll let you try it.” I couldn’t believe it. Coming from where I came from, off the streets, it all seemed surreal. I was like, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to let me teach here?” And they did.
I love that. What do you consider your style? Is it relief or block printing? I don’t mean to put you in a category, but I know you and Carlos and the other cats that do a lot of printing have your thing. I want to know more about it.
It’s a form of print making. You have painters and sculptors, but print makers always seem to be put in the basement, no matter where you go, to any university. That form of artwork is always at the lower tier. Painting would be at the top tier and then sculpture. Print making is way down at the bottom, but what I like about print making is that it’s more community-based. You have to use the printing press and all of the equipment, so you’re around people. It’s not taken as seriously. On the flip side of that, you don’t have to take yourself so seriously, so it’s more fun and has its own distinct look. I love the way relief prints look. You can’t draw it. You can’t paint it. It has its own unique mark. It’s still using contemporary art. If you look at Shepard Fairey, almost all of his stuff is print making. If you look at Swoon, almost all of her stuff is relief prints. If you look at Faile, all their stuff is screen printing. All of the print making stuff came back around and is definitely in contemporary art now. The guys that I run around with have been referred to as the Outlaw Print Makers. For a while, print making got really soft and it was a bunch of abstract, conceptual forms on copper plates. We came along and we were like, “We want to do skulls and wolves and clowns and whatever we want to do.” After a while, we got coined the Outlaw Print Makers. We do shows together. We just had a show in a museum and it was really cool.
Okay, so you start teaching relief printing at Pratt, at a graduate level.
I started teaching relief printing at a grad level and one of the first things I did was get them to rent a steamroller so we could do 4’x8’ wood cut prints. In one of the first classes I taught, the students did a 4’x 8’ print and we printed them outside on the street with a steamroller. It was fun.
Explain the process with the steamroller.
You have your 4’x8’ block that you’ve carved your image into and you roll ink onto the surface and you lay paper or cloth over that and a big carpet pad, and then you run over it with a steamroller. They are still doing that event now at Pratt, and that was ten years ago.
You’re doing relief prints and hanging out with Kess and making art and you’re a professor at Pratt. How do you come full circle and start doing skateboard graphics? When I say full circle, you were looking at Court and Pushead and those cats and, all of a sudden, you have this opportunity that comes about.
Yeah. Let me say this. The teaching thing doesn’t pay anything. I couldn’t even cover rent from that, so I had to hustle right from the get-go. Even with teaching, I couldn’t afford to pay for an apartment.
You had to get your hustle on.
Yeah. One of the first things that happened when I got out of grad school was that Andy was putting on a group art show at KC/DC Skate Shop in Brooklyn. He asked if I wanted to be in the show and I said, “I absolutely want to be in it.” So I did some new prints for it and I gave them to him to put up. At the show, Amy Gunther, who owned the shop, bought one of the prints and gave it to her boyfriend who worked at Deluxe Distribution. Soon after that, I got an email from Julien Stranger asking if I wanted to do some board graphics. At first, I thought it was one of my friends fucking with me. I was like, “Get the fuck out of here.” I had been wanting to do that since I was drawing that stuff when I was a kid. I thought it was a joke, but it was real. I called Julien and I was like, “I can’t believe this.” He said, “Yeah. I want you to do a series of five boards.” I did Julien Stranger, John Cardiel, Peter Hewitt, Frank Gerwer and Tony Trujillo. To be able to do graphics for those guys, I couldn’t believe it. Julien said, “I saw your print. Would you want to do a board series for us?” At that point in time, skateboarding graphics didn’t pay a lot of money. It paid $500 per graphic, but that was like a million dollars to me, at the time.
“Through my work with Vans and Antihero, I had a skateboard audience. Once I did the Jeffrey Deitch parade, I got a different type of attention. after that show, I was invited to do the windows of Barneys Department Store on Madison Avenue.”
You were also doing something that you love. How old were you at that time?
I was 30 or 31.
You were pretty young still and you got to do Antihero graphics. How psyched were you?
I was losing my mind and I poured everything into it. The whole time I was doing it, I was like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” At the time, I didn’t know how to do anything on the computer, so I did it the way I knew how to do it. I printed it on paper from the lino block and then hand-colored it with some watercolors and sent them those, so they had to do all the computer separations. Julien and those guys loved them and the boards sold really well and that started a relationship with them. What I didn’t realize is what a big industry is behind skateboarding. All these people are watching influential companies like Antihero. The next thing I know, I’m getting an email from Vans. Vans was like, “We saw these board graphics you did and the stuff you had in the art show and we were wondering if you’d like to do some limited edition shoes with us.” At first, I called several friends and said, “Should I do shoes? Is this like selling out or something?” The last person I talked to said, “Do you like hanging drywall and working construction? Do you like working all of these little part-time jobs that you’re doing?” I was like, “No.” They said, “Are they going to pay you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Are they asking you to do anything you wouldn’t normally do?” I said, “No.” They were like, “Do whatever you want to do. We just want your artwork on the shoes.” So I did it and, with that money, I got my first studio in Bushwick. It was the size of a closet, but it was mine just to make stuff. I also did my very first big project. I took all the money from the shoes and I created a Wolfbat that went down West Broadway.
So you do artwork for Vans and Antihero and you’re a working artist and professor at art school. Five years before that, you were living on the streets and puffing crack. That’s a dope story. How does Wolfbat come around?
Well, Jeffrey Deitch had this art parade that he did every year in New York that went down West Broadway. They were taking submissions for it, so I wrote a proposal that I wanted to participate in the parade. At the time, I was reading a book about Nordic mythology and the story of Loki’s children. The Midgard serpent held reign in the underworld and there was a giant wolf called Fenris that the gods predict one day will kill Odin, so they bound the wolf and put him underneath the earth. I didn’t like that. I’m like, “What the fuck does the wolf do besides be a wolf?” In the story, during Ragnarok, which is the big battle between the gods and the giants, the wolf breaks his bonds and hunts down Odin on the battlefield and devours him. Then Odin’s son kills the wolf. I didn’t like that ending, so I rewrote it. Fenris’ sister, Hel, is the only character in Nordic mythology with the power of resurrection, so I rewrote the ending to where Hel waited until the flames of Ragnarok died down and she found her brother’s carcass on the battlefield and crossed him with a bat and resurrected him and Wolfbat was born to fly the earth and destroy the gods. For the Jeffrey Deitch project, I built a huge Wolfbat, the size of a car, with two drummers on the back facing each other, Melvins style. I had 20 friends wearing costumes and fake blood and fur boots and we went down West Broadway and it was fucking glorious. It was so fun.
What did you make the Wolfbat out of?
It was made of wood, chickenwire and paper-mâché and it was covered in wood cut prints of wolves. The bat wings flapped, and I had a smoke machine hooked up to it so, when the bat wings flapped, smoke would pour up from the bottom. The jaw moved up and down so, as it was moving, we would push people into the mouth and they would climb out of the back of it. It was super fun. A photo of that got in the New York Times, which was crazy.
Wow. What year was this?
That was 2007. From that point, things really started happening and I started getting more and more work. It got to the point that teaching was getting to be more of a hassle. There were a couple of times where I forgot to go into Pratt to teach because I was so busy in the studio and I had to call in and say, “Oh, sorry, I’m not going to make it.” Finally, I decided to walk away from teaching and focus primarily on my artwork.
When you were teaching at Pratt, you had access to all of their equipment.
I did and I took full advantage of it. I built that first Wolfbat in the basement of one of the buildings at Pratt and I used all of their print facilities. I would find students that I thought were doing really good and I’d hire them to come help me in the studio. Some of those people I’m still really good friends with and they still help me with projects. Some of them have worked with me for over ten years.
That’s totally amazing. Did you keep doing Antihero boards too?
Yeah. I think I’ve done 30 boards for them. I did several series with them.
Did you keep doing those in your style, or did you start doing them on a computer?
I still do linocuts.
When you do board graphics, you have a print you can make of it as well, right?
Yeah. I do. I’m a businessman. I have to be.
You were also a professor. I would have paid any money just to go to your class and say, “Professor McNett.” You would have looked at me and said, “You get out of my classroom!”
[Laughs] No. I don’t know how I maintained a job there that long because I was definitely a little rough around the edges and not afraid to speak my mind, which definitely hurt people’s feelings there.
At first, you were intimidated and gun-shy. You didn’t know what to expect.
I was so insecure when I first got there. I was freaked the fuck out. I had never been in New York and I didn’t know anyone there. I forgot to mention that, two weeks after I got there, September 11th happened. On top of starting graduate school and moving to a new city that I had no idea about, there was a terrorist attack and there were tanks on the bridges and military on the subways. It was crazy.
You had just moved to New York City and the deadliest terrorist attack in human history happened.
Yep. My neighborhood in Jersey City was all Muslim, so there were FBI busts all over the place. Two blocks from my house was where the blind Cleric that did the first attempt on the World Trade Center did his teaching.
That adds a little bit of intensity to the whole situation.
A little bit.
Tell me about Hallo-Wolfbat.
For the last six years, for Halloween, I build big puppets and have puppet battles and crazy costumes and do an event called Hallo-Wolfbat. I make weird pinatas and I deck out the entire stage.
When you say puppets, some might think ventriloquist dummies or hand puppets.
No. These are 16-foot tall giant puppets. The biggest ones were the giant wolf and the giant robot and they have this big battle. The events are rad. GWAR headlined one of them and that was a highlight for me. High on Fire played at one of them and so did Flipper with David Yow. It’s bucket list checks forever with the thing. It’s super fun.
Did the Jeffrey Deitch parade spearhead all of this?
I would say that it definitely put my work in front of a different audience. Through my work with Vans and Antihero, I had a skateboard audience. Once I did the Jeffrey Deitch parade, I got a different type of attention. Right after that show, I was invited to do the windows of Barneys Department Store on Madison Avenue.
The Barneys window gig is a good one because they only ask people they really like and it’s not like everybody gets to do the Barneys windows. Here’s my question about the Jeffrey Deitch parade. Isn’t that when you took the Wolfbat and went 3D?
Yes. That was the very first performative happening thing I had ever done. It was a big production right from the get-go. It was with Jeffrey Deitch and it was down West Broadway in New York. There was nothing small about it. I hit the door running.
Was your proposal to them asking to give Dennis McNett and Wolfbat a shot?
Yeah. I wrote out the Nordic mythology story and said I wanted to resurrect this giant Wolfbat on West Broadway. I described the costumes and the drummers and everything. I wasn’t expecting to get approval, but almost immediately they wrote back and said “You’ve been approved.” So I just went for it. That took the prints and the installation stuff in a totally different direction. It went from a print being hung on a wall to it being an installation to it running down the street.
You have done a lot of different kinds of performances and even stuffed your sculptures with fireworks.
I have definitely burned a lot of sculptures.
Tell me about the Wolfbat in Wisconsin.
That one was really fun. I was invited out there by University of Wisconsin-Madison, so I made up this story of how the Wolfbat tribe had gone there so that they could conjure up this Frost Giant named Ymir and battle him and destroy him so they could recreate the world from his body. We went out onto this frozen lake in the middle of February and built this blood ice castle. We made all these costumes and I made this costume of this giant Ymir. I told all of the students I was working with that they were now part of the Wolfbat tribe. They all made their own costumes and we had this huge battle out on the frozen lake. First, we paraded through the town of Madison and, along the way, there was these union workers that were protesting because the governor was trying to do away with unions. The union guys thought we were protesting too, so they followed us out onto the ice and stood around and watched us set this ice castle on fire and have this battle with 30 students and this big giant out on the ice. That was fun for sure.
What about the elephant?
The elephant, Big Mary, was one of my favorites.I was invited to Johnson City, Tennessee. Usually, wherever I go, I ask if there is any local story that I can connect to and make a mythological reason why the Wolfbat tribe is there, and this guy told me the story of Big Mary. In the early 1900s, there was a circus that came to town and their big attraction was this giant Asian elephant named Big Mary. They were shorthanded, so they hired a guy from the town to prod the elephant along. Big Mary had stopped to pick up a watermelon rind off the ground and he poked her with this hook and he happened to hit her in the jaw where she had this abscess and she reacted and threw this guy across the circus, He hit his head on a barstool and it killed him, so the town demanded justice and wanted the elephant put down. The circus didn’t want to put her down because Big Mary was their money maker, so they tried to think of a way to at least make money off the whole situation, so they sold tickets to a public hanging of this elephant. They brought out a railroad crane and tried to hang this giant elephant from this crane to its death. They sold tickets to the public to watch it, and they brought all these other elephants out to watch the hanging, and elephants are extremely intelligent. It’s just a horrible story. I was like, “We have to do something about that.” So the story I wrote was that the Wolfbat tribe had gone to this area to clean and dispel all this negativity from this horrible event that had happened, and to resurrect Big Mary and give her all the love and respect that she deserves. I told this theater what I was doing and they looked at me like, “What? There is no way you’re going to build a life-size elephant in five days.” I started building and there was one other kid and he was like, “I’m going to help you.” By end of the first day, we had the main structure built. It looked like a lima bean on 2x4s, but it was 16-feet tall. It was the same size as an Asian elephant. These kids walked by and they were like, “He’s not joking. He’s going to build that elephant.” Then six more students said, “We want to help.” Before I knew it, I had more help than I knew what to do with, and Mary was all fleshed out and covered in woodcut prints.
What was your process of building Big Mary in five days?
We built Big Mary out of 2x4s, chickenwire and eighth-inch Lauan. Her ribs were built like a skate ramp, and I bent the Lauan around her ribs and got the main shape done and then started fleshing her out with chickenwire and 2x4s. Then I got more people to help put paper mâché on as we went.
“We paraded Big Mary around the campus and then we had this proper resurrection. We all gathered around and I told the story and then we did a ceremony and resurrected her. We lit off smoke bombs and did a chant and formed a circle around the elephant and Big Mary was resurrected. A few years later, the woman that brought me out there sent me a note and it said, “You must have inspired someone because the town has created a fiberglass elephant that they have different artists do art on and they auction them off and the money goes to elephant sanctuaries.” It went past my project into something bigger.”
First, they said you couldn’t do it, then one kid says he’s going to help you. All of a sudden, the soul of Big Mary is taking over the students. With the persistence of Dennis McNett, who I’ve worked with and is going to get it done by the time it needs to be done, it’s going to get done.
Yes. By the end of day three, Big Mary was ready. Then the students said, “Now what?” I said, “We have to resurrect Big Mary in two days and I need you guys to be part of the Wolfbat tribe to do that, so you need to make a mask and a costume so that we can properly resurrect her.” And they did.
When you asked them to build masks and costumes, did you give them guidelines?
Absolutely. I showed them how I build a mask and then I said, “Here are the materials. Go.” Then I provided prints they could put on the outside so everything looked uniform, so we got all the masks done and we got Big Mary done. At the end, it was 30 students dressed in costumes and we paraded Big Mary down the street. Every single news source in Johnson City was interviewing me about it and it was on NPR that Big Mary was going to be resurrected, so people showed up to see it. We paraded Big Mary around campus and then we had this proper resurrection. We all gathered around and I told the story and then we did a ceremony and resurrected her. We lit off smoke bombs and did a chant and formed a circle around the elephant and Big Mary was resurrected. A few years later, the woman who brought me out there sent me a note that said, “You must have inspired someone because the town has created a fiberglass elephant that they have different artists do art on and they auction them off and the money goes to elephant sanctuaries.” It went past my project into something bigger.
That is great. Tell me about when you loaded a sculpture with fireworks and you had music going and there’s a Wolfbat. Didn’t you do that in New York City?
Yes. I did that in Chelsea and it was so surreal.
That was near Pier 62 on the Westside.
Yeah. It was between 10th and 11th on Chelsea. I built two 30-foot long Viking ships for that show at the Joshua Liner Gallery. That was my first solo show in New York. Andy Kessler had passed away and my friends, Thomas Little and Richard Mock, had passed away within a year and a half and it was brutal, so the show was to pay respect to them. Inside the gallery I also built a 6-foot Viking ship for each one of them and it had their portrait on the sail and I built this big wave that represented death that was about to take them. Downstairs I built two 30-foot long Viking ships that were supposed to celebrate their life. In one of the ships, there was a metal band that was going to wait for us to come back, after we took the other ship out onto the street. Inside the ship, there were two drummers and I handed out 150 battle axes that we had made. I had mapped out this pretty safe route through Chelsea but, as I was pulling the thing right, everyone else pulled it left. I was like, “Fuck it. I guess we’re going West.” So we cut down 10th Avenue against traffic. There were cabs swerving out of the way and people were freaking out because here is this 30-foot Viking ship with a couple hundred people coming down the street. We were lighting mortar fireworks off of it that were smacking up against the buildings and exploding, and the drummers were going off. It was bananas. We smashed our way through Chelsea and came back to the gallery and, as soon as the other ship saw us, the metal band started playing and people flooded the street. We continued lighting fireworks and Chinese lanterns that floated up between the buildings, and that was a celebration of all of their lives.
That’s so amazing. What happened to the Viking ships with all of the fireworks? Didn’t one burn down?
There were a couple of things that burned down. The Viking ship that I burned was in Corpus Christi, Texas. We filled the ship with palm fronds, which burn really hot and really fast. The ship was 30-feet long and 8-feet deep and stuffed full of palm fronds. That’s a helluva fire. We got the thing down on the beach with all of these people. The Bay there is called Oso Bay, which is Bear Bay, so I made a big huge bear effigy and we put it into the ship on top of the palm fronds and then we were going to cast out hate, apathy, fear and anger from the hearts of the Wolfbat tribe so we could start the year with a clean heart. The students made molds of hate, apathy, fear and anger and cast it in iron on the beach. The last thing that they cast was the bear’s heart, then we cracked open the mold and there was this molten hot heart and we dropped it into the bear’s chest and it ignited the entire thing and this metal band started playing and it was just unbelievable.
Wow. So people can see this online.
Yeah. There’s video and images on my website, so if you just google Wolfbat, stuff will come up.
I recall when we did the art car parade in Houston with Dylan Goldberger.
This friend of mine, Carlos Hernandez, invited me to Houston one year to do an art car. I didn’t know what I was doing and I built this big Aztec Temple on this little Toyota Corolla. It was huge. It was like 16-feet wide and 20 feet long and 15 feet tall with an eagle sculpture on the top. I went through that parade and ended up getting second place. I was like, “Wow. That’s not bad for never having done this.” They invited me to come back the second year and gave me this ambulance and I tricked that thing out and got first place for that. The third year is when I called you. I wanted to do something with you and our friend, Elaine, was all down for it. I asked Vans if they would sponsor it and they did. They gave us some money to build it and we came up with doing a covered wagon time machine. We got an ambulance and turned that into a covered wagon and we had a horse mask that was mounted to the front. The top part was where you had the reins, and there was the covered part on the back of the ambulance. We tricked it all out with wood from pallets and it was pulling a halfpipe on the back of it. Dylan Goldberger was skating it in the parade, with the other two kids.
They happened to be able to skateboard really good too. That was phenomenal.
Yeah. We built the “Tumbleweed Time Machine” and took it in this parade and got the Top Prize, the Mayor’s Cup.
That was the funniest thing yet. It was a five-day non-stop build. I was exhausted and you were up at 7AM drilling. I was like, “Wow.” My guilt would kick in and I would think that I needed to get up and then I’d sleep a little more. [Laughs] The day before the parade, we were driving around the streets of Houston in the “Tumbleweed Time Machine” without the trailer and the halfpipe. Then we pulled into the parade line of the Art Car Parade and it was nuts. At the end of the parade, you drive by the judges, and I remember them on the loud speaker with music playing. The emcees were going, “Oh my god, here is “Tumbleweed Time Machine” by Dennis McNett and Steve Olson, and look at those two boys skating in the back!” After the parade, we went to your place and we were talking about how insane it was. Elaine called and said, “You’re coming to the awards ceremony.” We were like, “No. We’re hanging out.” She was like, “You have to come.” She was persistent. All of a sudden, we go there and get the Mayor’s Cup. That was outstanding!
It was unbelievable.
I didn’t even know it was a competition. I do think we are competitive by nature, so that was such an awesome experience. You had Carlos who would come by for comic relief and go after Goldberger. I also recall becoming friends with you when I was in New York with Andy Kessler and then you had a show in Silverlake, near Santa Monica. I went to your show and you were like, “I’m driving back to New York in my Volvo right after the show.” I was like, “You are insane.” So you split, but then you called me. You were in Oklahoma and you said, “I just got a crazy call. Andy died.” I was like, “No way. I just talked to him.” I called Amy Gunther and a few other people and it was real. That was surreal because I met you through Andy and we all were friends. That was a bizarre time.
That was horrible. I left your place and called Andy and he said, “I’m going to zip out to Montauk.” I was starting to lose reception with him and I said, “All right, I’ll see you soon. Love you.” Then I lost reception. An hour and half later, I got a call saying he died. I was like, “No, he didn’t. I just talked to him a little over an hour ago.” They said, “No. He got stung by a wasp and had an allergic reaction and he’s gone.” That was gnarly.
Yeah. When I went to his funeral, New York was not the same. I used to call him and say, “Yo, Andy, I’m coming to New York.” He’d say, “I’ll pick you up. What time are you getting in? Why are you so stupid? Get in earlier so I don’t have to sit in traffic.” I was like, “Shut up. You deserve it.” In a way, it just shows the impermanence of life and that we shouldn’t take it for granted and we should just dig our friends and the fact that we get to live. At some point, it’s done and it’s stupid to do stupid things. I miss Kessler.
What are you doing now?
I left New York in 2013 and moved around quite a bit and now I’m in Luray, Virginia.
Okay. We’ve talked enough. I know enough about you for the rest of my life.
[Laughs] All right. Love you, man.
Love you. I’ll talk to you soon.
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