By: Kate Tattan
I sat in my parked car on Downing Street of Worcester, MA, right off of bustling Park Avenue, outside of Clark’s Traina Center for the Arts building. Annoyed and fiddling with the strap of my black camera bag; I had called at least three times now and still no answer. Where was this guy? His email said to call him exactly at this time and to wait for him outside. Weird. I thumbed to my “recents” list on my phone and redialed him one more time. Blring, blringggg…Nothing. Officially annoyed at this point, I let out a forceful breath and surveyed my surroundings. I could see apartment buildings, some other random academic building, and a few scattered restaurants behind me. I then looked back at my camera bag and little black notepad filled with scribbles from previous interviews, making some sort of an attempt to remind myself why I was here. Photography, Kate. This is what you love. Just be patient. But really, what now?
After a quick pep talk, I stepped out onto Downing Street, grabbed my bag and notepad from the passenger seat, and jogged across to a set of short, wide, grey stone steps. I walked up to a fairly large building, separate fom any other sort of academic or Clark-related building, and opened the heavy glass doors into a mostly empty, large-windowed space. Honestly, it looked like it had been moved out of. Was I really in the right place? I wondered. I figured the only way to find out where this guy was or if I was even in the right building was to start walking, so that’s exactly what I did. I walked around the corner away from the vacant, open room and towards a darker hallway that wrapped tightly around what looked to be an auditorium of sorts. Nothing—just a dead end. Turning around, I thought I’d try the double doors to some stairs I had passed just outside the oddly vacant room. As I pulled the heavy old doors open, my eyes were led up a long ascending stairwell to God-knows-where. Cool, I thought. This is going to be harder than I’d thought.
Think of art. Now, think of Worcester, specifically. What do you think of when you think of those two? Answers will unquestionably vary, but it’s quite obvious that the Worcester Art Museum, a nationally renowned museum right here in our city, has always seemed to carry this overwhelming persona of being the art in Worcester. I’ll be the first to admit, when I moved to the area a couple of years ago, I too thought the same—that if I wanted art in Worcester, the Worcester Art museum was the place to be. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. It may require some digging, but you can find unique art everywhere.
I was fishing for some tension I knew had to be present between the Worcester Art Museum and local artists. My mind was set; I wasn’t turning back now. My ideas had more or less been shot down when I first started digging, and I’d been told artists wouldn’t talk for fear of damaging their reputations, but clearly the subject was arousing interest in the art community.
I wanted dirt—art dirt.
I needed to start somewhere so I dug my way around the university scene, poking and prodding professors to see who knew who, and who knew the right people to talk to. As I talked to more professors, I saw the art community in Worcester for all its largeness. Then I’d hear about the artists they knew, and so on. It just kept growing. To be honest, it was almost overwhelming in the sense that I had no clue what I was to even do with the crazy amount of names being thrown at me left and right. I eventually made my way down to ArtsWorcester, a local art group that provides up-and-coming artists with tools such as gallery space, material needs grants, and connections, after being told that would be the place to get the largest number of contacts in the art community. After speaking with the staff there, it just snowballed—emails came shooting in left and right from people willing to talk to me. I had no idea I’d get that much sound. It was one email in particular, though, that caught my attention – an email from a man named Howard Johnson.
He was the only local artist currently in the Worcester Art Museum out of only a select few in its history that was willing to talk to me. He scheduled a time almost immediately. When I walked into his quaint home on Hartford Street in Worcester, Johnson, 64, was sitting among a mess of art supplies, dirty clothes, take-out menus, paintings, entangled electronics, and old magazine cut outs on top of some boxes filled with more of the same. I thought for sure I’d hit the jackpot. He has used his scatterbrain work ethic to diligently get to this prized position in WAM that he holds today. But, don’t be mistaken—that talent and journey is anything but typical. Known for his gothic, darkly humorous, Holy Grail art, Johnson’s work has turned a lot of people away, but he hasn’t let that stop him. He’s the definition of a go-getter, but it wasn’t something I could gather from his presence as he fumbled uncomfortably with his worn out black T-shirt, his dog close by. He’s willing to push any, and all, boundaries, and stick himself out there when it came to his art. Johnson knows what he wants—a quality to take note of.
So what exactly did he do that worked? “I would go to New York,” He told me. “With ten sets of slides.” He’d walk the crime-stricken back streets of New York City, and Boston too, trying to show anyone who’d take even a quick glance. He’d carry that damn portfolio with him everywhere, always on his person. Johnson knew, he couldn’t predict when he’d meet that person, that patron, that dealer, but he was ready.
He even admitted to me that he didn’t like his work when he started but “you’ve gotta have something going for you,” he said. So, he made that something. “It’s what you’re made to do—you do it. I do what I do and I’m not one to care about what anybody thinks, yanno?” And I honestly think that’s Johnson’s finesse—it’s why he is who he is. It’s why he knows who he knows and it’s why he’s able to confidently say what he says.
I figured at this point, I was golden. With a two hour, or more, interview with this gem, I’d have all I’d ever need. Johnson knew there was tension—he himself has experienced the annoyances of trying to work through such a big organization, and he’s in it! But after all of that, Johnson digresses. He looked at me and said, “Most artists are afraid to get out of their back yard.” It’s a hard hitter, but it’s true. Us artists, we get stuck here and think it’s this or nothing. If we can’t get into the Worcester Art Museum like Johnson, we’re not making it. Wrong again. While listening to Johnson I began to realize that this apparent tension wasn’t that big of a deal. So what? So what if the Worcester Art Museum doesn’t do much to support the vast amount of local art that floods all around it? The point is that there’s so much more.
I stared at my computer screen, processing all of Johnson’s bluntly honest statements. I still felt unsure, like my question hadn’t been completely answered. I needed something more, but what? Coincidentally, as I clicked through my recent emails I happened to land on one from a Clark.edu email address from a local photographer-gone-professor who was also part of the small handful of local artists who had been in the Worcester Art museum. Well, he’s got to have something to say if he’s been in there too, I thought to myself, and so I quickly responded and set up our talk.
The first set of stairs and accompanying door landed me at a set of miscellaneous offices off of a randomly organized exhibit of what looked to be student art. All sorts of painting, drawings and mixed media projects hung on the white walls. I took a slow walk around the long room, stopping to look at a few impressive pieces that caught my eye until a conversation, between what looked to be two professors in one of the offices, jolted my attention. I slowly stepped back, pretending to look at one of the pieces I had passed earlier, trying to see if I could get away without interrupting them. Ah, what’s the harm? I tapped on the rim of the door lightly until I caught their attention and asked if they could possibly direct me towards the photography professor’s office—no luck. So, I made my way to the next door, which ended up being some sort of an office. I asked the blonde at the desk that appeared to be hiding behind the computer if she could help me. I figured maybe she’d be of more help and understanding after seeing the backpack propped up beside her and the stack of books on the desk—kind of a dead giveaway that she had to be a student too.
Luckily, she seemed to have a general idea of where I needed to go, and so she led me back down the winding stairwell and back past the oddly vacant room and then towards a descending stairway that I must have somehow missed. Four steps and a brown double door—barely two steps down and a spirited older man with darkish grey hair tousled atop his head, dressed in a worn out brown sweatshirt and jeans comes practically flying out the doors at me. Stephen DiRado.
A Worcester-based photographer, mostly known for his black and white eight by ten work, DiRado has been exhibiting his work since 1983. With a degree from Massachusetts College of Art as well as a Certificate of Art from the Worcester Art Museum’s no longer running art school. DiRado now teaches as a professor of practice in photography, inspiring the minds of many Clark students (and now myself) to be the best possible artist they can be, and above all, to be passionate about it.
When he isn’t hidden down in the photography basement, below Downing Street, he’s hidden on the shores of a Martha’s Vineyard “clothing optional” beach capturing the raw and untamed beauty of not only the landscape but also the people who inhabit it. After falling into a whirl of inspiration and pure need to photograph, DiRado bought a “little shack,” as he called it, right near the beach and spent an entire summer immersed in the culture of this nude beach. Aside from this, being one of his bigger projects recently exhibited on Worcester State University campus along with Frank Armstrong, DiRado also devotes much of his time to capturing the many friends and family that surrounds him—very simple, but I can’t help but smile when I see the lively “across the table” photos of dinner with friends or family that he regularly posts on Facebook.
“You’re here!” The internationally known, more than well-accomplished photographer shouts at me.
Slightly taken aback by his enthusiasm, “Yup, I decided I’d come find yah myself” I told him, sort of proud that I had actually found him on my own.
“I thought I told you to call me when you got here?” He questioned, looking at his clock with a squinted eye. Photographers eye, I laughed to myself.
“Oh, I did!” I said in an unintentionally defensive way.” I called you about five times, but you never answered.”
“That’s weird. I gave you my office number right?” As he raddled off some phone numbers, while I scrambled to find the one he had given me stuffed somewhere in my camera bag.
“Well, I decided to come find you myself,” I retorted. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I thought I’d just walk in and see what I could find.”
“Wow.” He said with a pretty surprised look on his face. At this point, the blonde girl that I had found up at the secretary desk that had led me down here had left. “That’s impressive. Go-getter! I like that!” He said with a smirk on his face. “Come on in!” Waving me through the mysterious brown doors into what looked to be a pretty dark room, at least from where I was standing.
I stepped down the stairs.
It’s moments like this where I wish I could just take a pause, step back, and look at what a pivotal point something like this can be—walking through some mysterious doors, down in the hidden basement of the Clark Arts building. This was it. I didn’t know it, but this was it. I was stepping into some strange place I’d never been, with some man who was, realistically, a stranger, but as I stepped into the basement of Clark Arts (later to be known to me as the “photography basement”) I laid my eyes on possibly the coolest, most fascinating place I’d ever seen.
To my right, there were some vending machines with Coca-Cola, and snacks, and then there were some doors I’d assume led to classrooms. There seemed to be about only one overhead light on in the place, but it proved good enough to see the essentials. Whimsical music danced around the atmosphere as I took a look around–without moving from where I still stood at the door. To my right, my eyes feast on an artist’s cave, clearly; a vast display of colored lights, papers, magazines, pens, pencils, lenses, and an array of printed photographs, all across a long table and a round one at it’s head. On the long table, directly in front of Stephen and myself, lay a massive, and I mean massive, print of one of DiRado’s pictures from the black and white work he did on Martha’s Vineyard—an alarming nude. The first one I think I’d ever seen, at least like that, all blown up and huge and in your face and such. I couldn’t help but notice my cheeks flushing as my eyes traveled across the large portrait of about five or six women draping their naked bodies across the rocky, celestial-looking, beach landscape.
“This is incredible,” I finally managed to spit out.
“Crazy right?” He said to me, raising his eyebrows a bit.
Where had this place been all my life? I actually kicked myself for not knowing it existed. I saw a few student photographers working in the computer lab directly off of the room I was in, as well as another hall that seemed to lead to other labs of sorts. Maybe the dark rooms? Then, my eyes landed on the treasure—a narrow, long-ish room lined top to bottom with every type of photography equipment you could think off. My jaw nearly fell off my face. I heard DiRado laugh and say, “Yeah, that’s all stuff that gets donated to us by alumni.” He walked in and started taking some random things off one of the shelves, “all of my students are free to rent out any of it.” My jaw fell further. I was a kid in a candy shop. This was it. I found my happy place—instantly knowing that I’d found where I belonged.
DiRado led me over to the round table, past the large print where we had first walked in. Miscellaneous photography items ranging from books to film cameras lay strewn all over it. He pushed a few things aside, hurried, and stuffed some papers on the already crowded book shelf across from the round table and then pushed a black office chair over to me as he took a seat across from me.
“So, why exactly are you here?” He asked quite bluntly. Threw me off a bit, I’ll admit: one, because I wasn’t prepared to answer questions about myself, and two, I thought he already knew. Placing my notepad and camera bag on top of the table, I told him briefly about how I was digging for some local art dirt, or maybe some real tension between the local artists of Worcester and the Worcester Art Museum. He’d been exhibited in the museum once, a while back, and was only one of a few local artists who had, so I knew he had something for me. The question was, what? I had emailed him a brief summary of this a few days ago, but I figured why not reiterate?
“I don’t really know what direction to go with this story,” I frustratingly admitted to him. “When I first started investigating, I knew I wanted to advocate for local art, but I don’t know a lot of people and I don’t have the connections.” I figure, be honest, with him, and myself for that matter. I’m not going to get anywhere without letting him know I’m stuck in a jumble of information that had been recently thrown at me by a few local art groups along with a ridiculous amount of names.
“I figure, there’s got to be some tension between local artists and the Worcester Art Museum,” I told him.
“How—how did you know that?” DiRado asked me with some confusion in his voice. I immediately picked up on the questioning tone in his voice and began to spiral backwards. Was I wrong? Was I imagining things? He probably thinks I know nothing—what have I gotten myself into?
“I’m not sure, to be honest. The thought came to me while I was brainstorming and I just sort of—went for it,” I answered. “I’m an artist too, I know I’d be pissed”—as I am because WAM (Worcester Art Museum) does very little to support local art. People told me I was crazy, that no one would talk to me, but I knew there had to be other artists that felt the same, so I decided alright, I’m going to do this, “I’m going to find those people!”
“I love you to pieces,” DiRado immediately said. “I’m always telling my students this…the fact that they challenged you and you’re going to show them is as good as it gets.” And DiRado is in that way, exactly how an artist should be—determined. I saw in him, at this very moment, as he told me about how he challenged his students and that they either make it or break it, what an artist not just is but has to be. This is why this man, hidden down in the depths of Clark Art’s building, is one of the few locals to ever make it into WAM and such an inspiration to so many people.
“The article that you’re about to write—it’s incredibly rich,” DiRado said, shifting in his chair.
“There’s just so much, I don’t even know what to do with it,” I laughed.
“I have the connections—” he looked me straight in the eyes this time, “if you’re really committed.” Of course I wanted them. I was reaching, grasping for anything I could get my hands on. Was this guy it? Of course, I don’t mean to say he’s the only one involved but I’d hit a pretty big jackpot, I mean, this guy knew everyone and everything! And to top it all off, he wasn’t holding back like I’d been told artists would. After several frustrating, dead-end conversations with others, my ideas were finally developing from the negatives—not only the story I’d been aimlessly searching for, but my future as an artist.
He told me about a girl named Brittany—the current editor for Worcester Magazine. She had done some work with him, and also spent some time with him on the vineyard to watch him work. Only ten years older than myself, and she was already the publisher of an art magazine. “She’s fearless,” DiRado proudly says while showing me a beautiful black and white he had made of her. “She’s scared to death, but fearless—like you.”
Diana Levine, another of the many names DiRado dropped in our talk, started the arts and Literature magazine at Clark a while back in 2007. She wanted to work in fashion, specifically writing and photography, but she knew nothing. Almost ten years down the road and “STIR” is still successfully up and running. “Now she’s working for MTV and traveling the world.”
“The thing is—it was a dream that she worked her ass off for,” he concludes.
I mentioned earlier how useful it would be to have the ability to step back and pause—see the moment from the outsider’s perspective, like when I looked upon the image of the group of women at the beach. I saw what they were experiencing that they might not have even realized in that very moment. I was seeing what I had done, as I sat surrounded by photography equipment and the king himself, nearly bursting with adrenaline down in the colorfully lit basement. I saw what could happen when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
Like Howard Johnson told me—the key to becoming a successful artist is “getting out of your backyard.” To get anywhere, you have to make the move. I realized that in order to make the connections or get my name out there, I had to get out of my backyard and march myself right on into the foreign land of Clark myself—and look what I found.