I can’t quite put my finger on what made the Dude Ranch so cool. Maybe it was the space itself: the hardwood floors, the windows facing Louie’s 76 gas station and the huge screened porch. Or maybe it was because it sat on top of Frank’s Barbershop on the North Trail.
I don’t know.
Perhaps the place and its location had nothing to do with it. Maybe it was us. Would it have still been cool if Larry didn’t sit out on the stairs with his guitar singing unlikely songs to nobody? Or if Chris hadn’t danced on the stove top to a Roy Orbison tune before going on a frenzy and smashing Larry’s three television sets with Raff’s numchucks? And what if Jorge hadn’t spray-painted the body of a naked woman on the refrigerator? Or if I hadn’t kicked down the front door one freezing night when I didn’t have my keys?
I don’t know.
When I first came to Sarasota in 1984 to attend The Ringling School of Art and Design, my intention was not so much to become an artist, but to get away from the mundane suburbs of Miami and my dead-end job at a gas station. So when I dropped out of Ringling a year later and moved into that peculiar apartment with Lawrence Forte, an acquaintance from art school, I would have never guessed how deeply my life would be affected by the place that would one day be nicknamed the Dude Ranch.
Indeed, it was Larry, and later the Dude Ranch, that would turn me into an artist.
It was an unlikely place for Sarasota. It was an older, two-bedroom, one- bath apartment that sat alone in a commercial area near the corner of the North Trail and 27th Street. It had a large screened porch, a parking lot, and had been abandoned for a few years before we moved in. We had to build a room out of cardboard and two by fours in order to accommodate a third roommate. Years later we would build another cardboard room in the porch as temporary shelter for Ray Baker, another friend from art school, who found himself in need of a place to live. True, it looked more like part of a shantytown in Juarez than an apartment in Sarasota, but it was one cool shanty.
In those early days, Larry and I would come home late at night from bussing tables at Indiana Joe’s, the restaurant at the Holiday Inn that was next to the Ringling Towers. We’d pick up a 12-pack of Busch beer at the FINA station across the street, and hang out on the porch, sometimes until the early morning.
Larry possessed boundless energy. He would sink into his art, pouncing all over the porch as he worked, covering everything with art. And art was all over him: it was in his eyes, in his hair, under his fingernails and most definitely in his heart.
Pretty soon the apartment was transformed. When you walked onto the porch, you couldn’t resist the temptation to put something on paper, or canvas, or even cardboard like Larry used to do when he had no money for canvas.
I spent those sticky summer nights sucking down cold beers out of a can while watching Larry make art. I never saw him waste a second. Creation was his fuel. He’d frantically mix paint in old tuna fish cans, adding pigment, turpentine and linseed oil, testing the colors and making adjustments before spreading them on a canvas. And I never saw him procrastinate over subject matter, either. He simply caught sight of an empty jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, or a couple of bottles of Budweiser on a window sill, and began a new painting. For Larry, it was not so much about the subject as it was about the method. And while his method was inspiring, his energy was contagious. Soon, I began to feel a sense of invincibility, like anything was possible-like I, too, could become an artist. A few months later, I was off to photography school in Boston.
While I was up North learning how to expose film, Jorge Conchola, a charismatic artist fresh out of Mexico City, showed up at Larry’s doorstep and convinced him that they should put together a show, an idea that had been percolating in Larry’s head for months. Larry got in touch with some former art school friends whose work he admired; Steve Guthrie, Christophe Skura and Leonard Maffett. And what happened during that weekend was something none of us had ever experienced in Sarasota. Over Friday and Saturday nights, hundreds of people came to look at the art. Instead of wine, crackers and cheese, there was an obnoxious quantity of cheap American beer. And in the living room, half hidden by the cardboard wall, was Colossal Man, the rock ‘n’ roll band that would shake the walls of the building and annoy the hell out of the neighbors throughout the next five years.
"Brains Out," as we called it, was anything but the usual pretentious art opening. And it was a coup for a group of artists who had only known rejection from the art establishment. Now, their work was getting some attention, but more important, it was on their own terms. The Dude Ranch was born.
We were all dirt poor. Every piece of clothing we owned came from one of the downtown thrift stores. Everything about us was stained with paint. The apartment stank of stale beer, linseed oil and turpentine. We survived on tuna and black beans and rice. And every last penny of our minimum wage jobs always managed to find its way to the art supply store.
That fall, we painted my ’71 Volkswagen bus with Dude Ranch graffiti and went on various scavenging expeditions to the old drive-in theater, which had been closed and turned into a dump. We salvaged loads of reusable trash: scrap metal, lumber, an old wheelchair and a large metal arrow, which we hung at the entrance of the apartment. As time passed, most of the junk we collected found its way into our art.
We spent most of our time on the porch, painting and talking while the band rehearsed in the living room. The door was always open. People were constantly stopping by; students, Ringling teachers, the occasional art patron, bums, the police, the fire marshal, and one day, even a pair of former Contra rebels from Nicaragua.
It was a place where friendships were made, ideas were developed, and artistic styles matured. We were constantly learning from each other, turning each other onto the work of different artists, authors and musicians. We were committed and supportive of one another. We felt we could do anything, and we wanted to do everything. The atmosphere at the Dude Ranch was charged with possibility.
But what built a reputation for the Dude Ranch was the shows, those art-filled, rock ‘n’ roll weekends when people of all walks of life came to be a part of our world. The shows came together like spontaneous combustions. One day we’d simply decide it was time for a show, and the machine would begin to move. The title could be completely abstract: "Brains Out," "Beating A Dead Horse," "Fourteen Legs," or straightforward: "Dude Ranch," "Knowing Larry," "Palabas ng Dalawang Tao" (a show for two men). An invitation would be drawn and printed, then Larry would roll out his long list of addresses and do a mass mailing. But despite his efforts to alert the media, no Dude Ranch show was ever reviewed.
In the weeks prior to the show Larry would print T-shirts, put up posters, mail invitations, and coordinate with the other artists to clean the place up. We stretched white bed sheets over the walls of the porch, ran electric extensions on the ceiling, and added clip-on spotlights throughout the space. Once we had successfully turned the apartment into a gallery, each artist chose a suitable space to hang their work.
Every show featured guest artists. At different times we had performance, dance, installations and guest bands. Once we had Todd Pease set up in the middle of the gallery with an old Underwood typewriter so he could write spontaneous poetry as the show went on, but the beer was too far from where he sat and pretty soon the typewriter was left unattended. No one at the show could resist the temptation of the blank page. One at a time, people would pause at the table and type out a sentence or two. The result was pages of strange vignettes and impressions from an evening at the Dude Ranch by a group of anonymous authors.
On the mornings after the shows it was a ritual for us to crowd the old Waffle Shop restaurant on 301 and share our impressions of the show over endless cups of coffee and a greasy breakfast.
And after the weekend, the Dude Ranch would simply morph back into its former self. Slowly, junk would begin to pile up, canvases were stretched and paintings were started.
The Dude Ranch, like art, is impossible to define. It was the place itself, it was the shows, and it was us: Lawrence Forte, Christophe Skura, Steve Guthrie, Leonard Maffett, Jorge Conchola, Todd Pease, Rafael Kayanan, Joe Truesdale, me and a whole battery of artists and individuals who spent time at the apartment, exhibited at the shows, and were a part of the spontaneous experiment. The Dude Ranch never had a structure, a plan, a philosophy, a goal, or money. It was all about art. We talked about it, created a lot of it, rarely sold it, occasionally traded it, often criticized it, and in some cases even destroyed it.
The Dude Ranch was something we had to invent in order to exist. It was our own self-invented graduate school. It taught us not to limit our thinking and offered us a world of possibility. And in the process, the Dude Ranch allowed us to make a commitment to art and set us on our current paths of creative exploration and solid friendships.