About the name: It's The Poet Spiel. You can call him Spiel for short. Back in the day he went by Tom Taylor, and for a while, Thoss W. Taylor. But when you ask him for his "real name" today, make no mistake, Spiel is his real name.
Understanding this is just one of the hurdles in getting to know him, even if he's invited you into his home.
His bright blue eyes are cold, and fix on you intently. His white beard is finely clipped, his smile mischievous. Up close, he smells of his cigarettes, even though his house is clean and comfortable.
And then there are the images that cover the walls. Spiel's paintings, busy and colorful, teem with disturbing images executed in fine detail. In "The Church," a large lipsticked pig sports what look like teething rings piercing its teats, and huddles with an infant like a surreal Madonna. In many works, a layer of putty creates ripples — an undercurrent of extreme tension — beneath the paint. On top, his subjects swoon, weep and ooze.
If any of this makes you uncomfortable, then you're getting a sense of how Spiel has felt for many of his 69 years. He's lived with mental illness (he's bipolar); been adored by — and repelled by — culture at large; been told he had months to live, 15 years ago; and had to squeeze a big personality into small spaces. Looking at "Chronic Expulsion," portraying a grotesque table of characters leering at an enraged bull, he says it portrays the way he has been socially shunned his whole life, "because I have a mouth."
So to clarify, it's not that he's unfriendly. In fact, he has a great relationship with fellow members of 38degreeslatitude, a collective of contemporary Pueblo artists showing locally for the first time this month at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs.
Instead, if you're uneasy around Spiel, it's probably because nothing around Spiel is easy.
"I've always jumped off cliffs and gone off and done something else," he says, impassioned. "I've never been an artist who's stayed in one lane for long periods of time. Ever."
Elephants and bread
Spiel lives in a cozy house on a hill in Pueblo West. From the back porch you can see from the southern crest of Pikes Peak all the way to the Spanish Peaks. His partner, Paul, who is soft-spoken and gentle, keeps a lovely garden on the west side of the house with two small ponds and a fence of tall, pruned skyrocket junipers.
Spiel and Paul came to Pueblo 13 years ago from Wheat Ridge. Before that they lived in Denver, having met 25 years ago at a mutual friend's Thanksgiving dinner.
In the living room, next to the fireplace hangs a large, simple painting of a herd of replicated elephants. Graphic and clean, "Tuskers" is the hallmark of Spiel's commercial career in art.
After spending some time in Africa in the late '70s, Spiel — then Tom Taylor — developed a series of fine-art posters for the World Wildlife Fund, "Tuskers" included. The elephant image was an enormous success: Spiel received handsome royalties for everything "Tuskers" — posters, coffee mugs, even bed sheets. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Spiel's work was a popular commodity. He did expos in New York City and Los Angeles, signing copies of his posters for hours on end.
"I was hot shit as Tom Taylor," he says, adding, "I had a whole aura about me. Sometimes I can become very Hollywood."
But at the same time, his more personal, alternative art was also succeeding, as it had been since the '60s. His most notable solo show, Confines, exhibited in galleries across the country. His prints and paintings — which drew legions of fans, including Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — often depicted faceless children and farmhouses with white clapboard siding.
These symbols are rooted in Spiel's childhood, which was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II and its aftermath. Growing up in rural Longmont, he says, he was acutely aware of a strange, terrible thing going on around him, but was forbidden to talk about it. "I was too damn small to put it all together," he says.
Today, the lost children also speak to his embittered view of mass culture in America. Spiel created a whole series around white bread called "P.A.P.," an acronym for "Pathetic American Platitudes." To him, sayings like "Everything's going to turn out OK," are proliferated lies unique to America.
They meant little to a homosexual child in a rigidly shushed, heterosexual world, and perhaps even less later on, to a grown man who was literally condemned to death.
The great beyond
In 1996, at a relative low point in his long-thriving career, Spiel received devastating news: He had pancreatic cancer. His time, the doctor said, was extremely limited.
He recalls hearing the news on a Friday, and then spending the weekend painting a scratchy, abstract blue piece titled "Beyond." It's chaotic but patterned, like a startled flock of birds. He has no recollection of doing it, which says something for a man who otherwise remembers dates with shocking clarity.
Peering over the painting today, he marvels at its softness and the hint of an image beneath it. "What that is, is my soul — see the curvature of the earth? See those wisps? — That's my soul leaving the Earth."
For weeks, Spiel made preparations for dying. He sold many of his works for cheap to longtime buyers and said goodbye to friends, colleagues and patrons.
And then ... it was discovered that the cancer was a misdiagnosis. His pancreas had actually wrapped around another organ. It required stents, and would take many more surgeries to ease the abdominal pain, but Spiel would live.
Having trained himself to make peace with imminent death, facing life again was an adjustment. For one thing, he had to reconcile the many letters written by friends saying goodbye.
"I never, ever went back and read those things. Ever. I couldn't do it," he says. "Because those people were showing me intimate parts of themselves that they wouldn't have shown me otherwise."
It took a couple years, but their words would act almost as a prelude to a new era in his quest for creative expression. Instead of paint, he turned to poetry. By 2000, he was no longer hot shit Tom Taylor, but The Poet Spiel.
The unplanned poet
Since 2003 he's published multiple books of poetry. "There was a period for several years where I could write poetry every single day. It was fun," he says. "I didn't ever plan to be a poet, really."
Spiel's words lack none of the impact of his images. His language — using expletives as well as taboo subjects — makes many squirm. From his 2010 book Barely Breathing, one of his tamer poems "you say what you are" opens with: "arms where your feet should be / eyes behind your elbows / and your mouth protruding / from your ass."
But the artist says it's not about shock value: The truth is harsh and anguished, no matter what words you assign to it.
Today the poetry has waned in volume. In 2007, he started painting again — the BAC show will feature Spiel's works from the past few years — and now his studio accommodates both media. Located off to the right from his living room, the space is cluttered with books of art and poetry. Several desks and workspaces crowd a room already heavy with stacks of papers and old art projects.
Above his computer hangs a framed pencil drawing of a face contorted in pain. An onion-like series of lines radiates from the figure's right eye. It's Spiel, and a visualization of the chronic cluster headaches that plague him. He finds the drawing quite beautiful, and it is.
"I'm lucky if I write 10 poems in six months. Not even that, now," he says matter-of-factly. "I approach my poetry kind of like I approach a painting. And it takes a long time for it to come; maybe, maybe not. I really am kind of retired now. I have been for a long time."
To Spiel, retirement doesn't mean a break from creativity as much as it does an opportunity to reflect on his career. He hopes to have a retrospective at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, and to have one of his large "P.A.P." sculptures accepted into the permanent collection at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Despite those goals, he assures that it's not about seeking validation. He's not making works to sell or worried about making sure viewers understand them. He must create to survive.
Spiel says it feels as if he lives in a war zone. He wonders aloud, "Doesn't everybody?"