… or how I discovered Randy Titus — (blog written in 2017)
Thunderstorms were coming in over South city and I was in the open fields of Tower Grove Park. The annual St Louis Pagan picnic was slowly being muffled in the rising humidity and it was time to take a break. I rolled down Shenandoah blvd towards Fox Park, to make an appearance at the Randy Titus Memorial that was happening on the same day.
This historic neighborhood was cut in half by the industrial corridor of Gravois blvd, on the edge was the Koken Art Factory, an old warehouse space that doubled as a playhouse for underground artists. Here as I climbed the creaking stairs and spied the hundred or so paintings donning the walls, I found myself transported into the strange world of Randy Titus.
Happenstance had brought me into the ever tightening circles of Randy’s world. His loved ones shook my hand and asked a question common during funerals and memorials.
How did you know Randy? The answer was one not easily explained.
Randy Titus died suddenly in the spring and his friends/step children were still in a state of shock. As they cleared the tiny apartment across from the Carpenter Branch library on South Grand as much as they could, it was still filled with a lifetime of collecting and obscure interests. This underground artist had left a storage locker full of paintings as well as antiques, family photo albums and rare memorabilia. How much art was done by Randy in his 50 years or so years as a classically trained artist…. is unknown as he was fond of giving away his creations to those closest to him.
Paintings hung on the walls of the Koken Art factory from the gallery, to the bar, and every available space was now filled with his work, at a certain point they had to stop hanging. Artists from St Louis and beyond, friends, and adopted family drank beer, smiled and told stories while absorbing the overwhelming talent of his art career. The portraits he did of each one of them was held up side by side with obvious signs of personal aging. One friend even received posthumously a strange statue of a rooster from Randy as a inside joke.
I laughed along with everyone and took a photo next to his ashes and when they asked me that question again, I whispered in a low tone. “I found Randy in a dumpster.”
It was a rainy night that spring when I discovered a lot of Randy’s things in a dumpster under the soft lights of the alley way across from the library. The collection discovered was mostly books, personal papers, a genealogy filled folder, a Kindle e-reader, art resume portfolios, photo paper filled with images and most importantly his 2005 art experiment called “No Semblance of Meaning” with the original paintings on paper. *for more on No Semblance.
The story goes that after his death, the owner of the apartment needed to purge, and it wasn’t malicious or mean, he just didn’t know if anything valuable was left. Randy didn’t have any biological heirs, he hadn’t done an art show in decades and his legacy was in question. When I viewed the details of his life and saw his “shadow”, I struggled to understand this artist even as his life unfolded before me and our overlapping interests would materialize.
Back at the memorial I had tears in my eyes as I wandered through the Koken Art Factory, seeing the full sized paintings that I had only seen in trash photographs and I understood that his legacy had yet to be written. The brilliance of Randy was evident but what unfolded was a soul that was so well loved by those around him, it was in their eyes and words that I came to understand the value of telling his story.
Why should anyone care about this particular artist? Randy Titus much like his hero Marcel Duchamp refused to play the art gallery game. His talent is easily discovered in paint, while his philosophy hard to find within the leftovers of his material existence.
I read a quote once that said…interesting people are always interested.
In a similar way, to view Randy Titus is too read his words, experiments, find out what he was interested in and how it influenced his work. Isn’t an Artist’s life the sum of his experiences/work and the impact on those around him?
The most beautiful part of the Randy Titus Memorial is perhaps the most poetic I have ever experienced. All the paintings hung in that room, went home with the people he loved. Even if I never met him, they told me of his soft Zen-like manner, ability to walk his talk and a need to do art for the sake of doing art. I often describe to people that Randy used art as a spiritual experience, not that one could classify his faith. He studied philosophy, technology, quantum mechanics, virtual reality, chess, futurism, Zen Buddhism, art movements and many other fascinating subjects.
On the little yellow post-it squares next to his paintings written in individual handwriting were the people who were a part of his life up to the end. They told me that he was the guy they visited to show their new work for his opinion, and many remarked that Randy was an inspiration firmly rooted in their psyche. He was also an important part of the New Music Circle, one inner city teen Chess champion team, proud member of the Chess Museum and the South Grand neighborhood. Randy Titus was the last of his family name, a blood line that went back to the Mayflower itself and on to Irish Aristocrats. He left no heirs, and yet an impact is clearly visible in the world he inhabited.
For me… I discovered Randy’s things at a time I had left South City for the forests of the west. In him I saw the artist I wanted to be, the spiritual seeker looking for truth, the good Buddhist who can embody non-duality with joy and love, and the geek who loves the obscure. In so many ways his things and influence took their place in my life as I read his books one by one. I started a sequel to his unpublished virtual reality short story from 1987 and his art work graces my walls as I sought ways to honor him.
Reviewing his piece “No Semblance of Meaning” for All the Art Magazine was a treat for me, as I discovered in one of his art books from the dumpster, the highlighted notes he used for the piece. His word choices pointed towards a few particular Artists, Kandinsky and Malevich. These Abstract artists who created Non-objective art using an occult type focus, and spiritual gnosis through painting served an inspiration. The whole package, from Randy’s Zen meditation and books on Mu (no-mind), to the abstract sensibility, combined with the absurdity of made-up stories and the possible philosophy explored by Randy in Linguistics and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I worked very hard to write a compelling mystery, and historical inspirational point of this dumpster found art work. I hoped that it would be intriguing to the general public and possibly the Art scene that knew him well.
As the Dumpster Archeology project moves to the next phase, and the public showing of Randy’s lost art moves into the public sphere, I can only share the little things to confirm what I suspected that rainy spring day, as I eagerly saved as much as I could from the oblivion of the trash black hole. This artist deserves our attention.
A few paintings on the wall were not Randy’s, but done by an artist named Nancy, a one time college girlfriend. She brought one of her portraits of him that was hung above fireplace. She sat by the couches, much older than the painting he did of her, but she still glowed with a passionate charge. I told her how I came to be at the memorial that day and she laughed, saying she knew Randy would have found it funny too. As I prepare to show Randy’s work and life in a Dumpster Archeology event, like I have done for all the souls I discover in dumpsters, I find the story of Randy Titus can not be told with words, but through his art, his family memorabilia and the few examples of his personal writing that I found.
Yet like a good Zen student, the material attachments must be overcome as one moves through personal experiencing into awareness, and his things remain ….just things. The story that unfolded will move on, and a generation will pass as time marches forward, and the world will forget Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Randy and the course of human progress itself will disappear into that same black hole all things must pass into. Perhaps for one moment we can appreciate the artwork and creative mind that once bore the distinction of being called Randy Titus.