Designing to heal the inner child with immersive installation artist Lonnie Hanzon
Lonnie Hanzon has been a professional artist for over four decades, with impressive credentials including Lucas Films, the nationally-acclaimed Camp Christmas, Neiman Marcus, and the “Evolution of the Ball” sculpture at Coors Field. But coming from humble beginnings and with the lack of a formal education, he started out taking a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills, from singing telegrams to designing costumes for drag queens. In this episode, Lonnie sits down with Alan to talk about how his wide variety of past work has coalesced into his current focus in immersive experiences, the fear of failure and success, the narrow and high standards we hold artists to, and more.
Links mentioned in this episode:
- Lonnie’s website
- Camp Christmas
- Follow Lonnie on Instagram
- Subscribe to Lonnie’s YouTube channel
- R. Alan Brooks’ TEDx Talk “When the world is burning, is art a waste of time?”
This episode contains mature language and content.
ABOUT LONNIE HANZON
Lonnie Hanzon is a Colorado-based artist, best known in Denver for designing the Evolution of the Ball sculpture at Coors Field, The Wizard’s Chest, and the Clocktower Cabaret, as well as early Parade of Lights floats. Other major Colorado installations can be seen at Palazzo Verdi, Museum of Outdoor Arts, Marjorie Park, Red Rocks Community College, Denver Pride celebrations and throughout the Kenneth King Performing Arts Center. His national and international work includes large outdoor urban entertainment projects including Houston Zoo Lights, immersive visual merchandising displays and fine art for Neiman Marcus, and large-scale displays and events at Hong Kong’s Pacific Place. He is currently working on the third year of Camp Christmas with DCPA Off-Center.
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. Today I'm joined by artist Lonnie Hanzon. Hey, Lonnie.
Lonnie Hanzon (00:23):
R. Alan Brooks (00:24):
So to start off can you give us a brief overview of you and your artistic practice?
Lonnie Hanzon (00:29):
Oh my gosh.
R. Alan Brooks (00:29):
It's a big question.
Lonnie Hanzon (00:32):
A brief overview. I think I am now considered and immersive installation artist in the current vernacular. I'm a Colorado boy raised in the mountains outside of Pine. Started as a performer, then went into costume and fashion and then ended up in art. The last five years have been really focused on the new immersive movement which is just wonderful for me because it combines all the arts. So I love this space because it uses every language from color and theater and all those different places. So I really kind of feel like I'm home now. Yeah, it's nice.
R. Alan Brooks (01:23):
So what kind of performer did you start out as?
Lonnie Hanzon (01:25):
Oh my gosh. I was supposed to be Danny Kaye or one of the Osmonds, so song and dance and musical theater and then magic and then clowning and singing telegrams which is really blue chip, a blue chip beginning.
R. Alan Brooks (01:44):
But those are all interesting things. There's this magician open mic that used to happen at Mutiny Information Café. I don't know if it's resumed yet, but it would happen once a month and that would be great because I would just watch magicians try out new stuff.
Lonnie Hanzon (02:00):
I love it. I love it.
R. Alan Brooks (02:02):
Okay. So you started as a performer and then you moved into-
Lonnie Hanzon (02:06):
Yeah. I started making other people's costumes and props and then a friend one day sat me down and said, "You might be a good performer someday, but maybe you could be a great designer." And I kind of just took it and started doing a lot more design, then got into retail design. Window dressing... I don't have any education. I was working very early and basically did what I could find to do.
R. Alan Brooks (02:41):
Okay. So let me ask, with starting as a performer and doing all those different kinds of things and then moving into design, what was the appeal? Was it being in front of people, was it connecting to people, making them feel something, was it expressing yourself creatively? What was it that drew you to that stuff?
Lonnie Hanzon (02:58):
I had some shrinks explain to me that it was called creative sublimation and I didn't have an extremely dark but fairly dark childhood and the arts were an escape, creating something was another world. I was safe in my imagination so I think I used the arts as a kid and an as adolescent as a coping mechanism and then started getting told that I was good at it and also finding out that I wasn't very good at things like school and other angles.
R. Alan Brooks (03:42):
Okay. So then as you moved into the design, it created the same escape for you?
Lonnie Hanzon (03:48):
Yeah. It does now. I think some of the early work was just trying to stay alive and make a living. I've been very lucky that I haven't had to have a lot of straight jobs because I wasn't very good at it. I tried to do restaurant work and I was lousy at it and so I couldn't do that, the straight job thing and be creative on the side. So I just had to find what was there that I could do, so that's why it was commercial things like window dressing and Christmas decorations and Halloween costumes and drag queens and strippers and burlesque, all the little tiny pockets that there was a little bit of money and a little bit of work.
R. Alan Brooks (04:34):
Okay. So you were in this period where you were designing things specifically to make a living, to survive. Was there a point for you where it moved into choosing jobs that were fulfilling to you?
Lonnie Hanzon (04:47):
Yeah. Made a lot of different things, worked a lot jobs. And then did what would now be called my first immersive gated project in Omaha, Nebraska of all places that happened to go viral. And this was in the '80s. And back then going viral was like a UPI pickup or an AP pickup, an Associated Press pickup.
R. Alan Brooks (05:15):
Associated Press, okay, yeah.
Lonnie Hanzon (05:17):
And back then it would go around the world. And I designed this store that had to charge admission to control the crowds and that kind of got me some fame. And we moved to California and opened a retail store that failed miserably. And I answered an ad in Variety and by some unbelievable luck ended up as a show producer at Lucas Film in 1990 and it was an amazing experience but I wasn't supposed to be there. I wasn't qualified to be there but I was and sort of cut my teeth, that's when I think I probably got the confidence that I could do a body of work or that I would do a grouping of work that would be about what I was trying to express. And then moving back to Colorado after that period, I think that's when I did my first, what I would consider bodies of work.
R. Alan Brooks (06:24):
This is interesting stuff, man. All right. So you did this show. It went the '80s version of viral. And you answered an ad in Variety which led to Lucas Film. That's pretty amazing. So then, okay, the Lucas Film you said you were working in the shows in the '90s.
Lonnie Hanzon (06:40):
Yeah. So I worked for a division that was short lived. It was a think tank called Lucas Arts Attractions. So it was a theme park division, part of Industrial Light and Magic and Lucas Film. And I worked on really crazy projects, most of which never got built, never got past legal. But I also worked on the 42nd Street redevelopment project in Times Square in New York and worked on all kinds of wild projects. And we were studying a thing called VR. This is 30 years ago. And it was a bucket on your head with these four inch cables coming out of it.
R. Alan Brooks (07:26):
That's virtual reality for the under crowd.
Lonnie Hanzon (07:31):
So yeah, like I said, that was really amazing. It was an amazing time but a lot of early stuff that never happened.
R. Alan Brooks (07:37):
I want to ask, okay, so you talked about these things of finding an escape in your art early on, getting negative messages from other places. And then you have this thing that goes viral, blows up. It leads to you working with Lucas Film. I think that you kind of touched on the idea that that helped your confidence.
Lonnie Hanzon (08:00):
Oh yeah. I started working when I was 14 and I barely got through high school. I was on my own at 17, and like I said I've always worked in the arts, whether they were low arts or not. They might have been real low. But I survived. But yeah, no, that was just a huge confidence builder. And I got picked partially because they wanted some street guy. They wanted some guy that had a bunch of background, which I had retail and entertainment, some of that background, but wasn't Disney and hadn't been brought up through the system because those movie systems and theme park systems are very, very constructed.
R. Alan Brooks (08:50):
Then how did that experience change your approach to art going forward?
Lonnie Hanzon (08:54):
It just really opened my eye to, that was a whole period that I was learning about story telling and Joseph Campbell was my hero and here I was sitting in the same library that Joseph Campbell did all those interviews with Bill Moyers. It was just a brain dump, man. I learned so much about entertainment and just all of these forms. Part of it was trying to find out where all the forms were going to go. We were trying to figure out what was the future of all of this stuff. So no, that was a very short period, but very, very intense.
R. Alan Brooks (09:34):
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:09:35] So you came back to Colorado.
Lonnie Hanzon (09:36):
Yeah. I could have stayed but I was put on toy design which I wasn't ... They'd ask me to design space guns which I just couldn't relate. And so it was either go to work for Disney, go to the mouse, I could do that at that point, or come back home and do my own thing. And I just, I wasn't up for the corporate, I wasn't very good at the corporate side of that whole thing and I didn't want to wait years and years to get a project to be seen for something. So my partner's parents where getting older and dying and we came back home which I was really glad.
R. Alan Brooks (10:16):
Yeah. Okay. So what did you do when you got here creatively?
Lonnie Hanzon (10:21):
Actually, we came back here. We had been designing The Wizard's Chest toy store since the beginning, since 1981. And so Betty Arca, she said, "If you come back I'll find some money to do a remodel." So we had a job to come back to so we built the Fillmore Store, Fillmore and Second. And then shortly after that built the castle between Second and Third. And that got us going and I had a consulting firm. I took some of the clients I had at Lucas. Some of them followed me. And then I started doing more fine art and got into the whole public art thing and that's when I did the baseball stadium and that was a pretty big deal in '94.
R. Alan Brooks (11:08):
Okay. So this is good. I want to go back a little to basics because anybody listening to this, they know that you're on here because you're an artist. But you've done so many different things in so many different places. I want to drill down a little bit on what it means to be a designer. How would you define that for people who don't understand what exactly it is you do?
Lonnie Hanzon (11:28):
The straight answer is a designer solves design problems. The whole design approach for me is that you can go in and solve those problems, whether they're story telling problems or merchandising problems, and you can do that with art and hopefully some love and courage, too. But I just found it didn't matter what form I was working in. It was up to me as a designer or an artist to bring something positive forward. And then when you do see a child light up or nose prints on a window or hand prints on a window, then for me it pays off. It pays the same. And it pays the same or even more than if you do sometimes the higher stuff and have the elite praise it. So it doesn't matter what we do, we can bring art and we can bring hope to just about anything.
R. Alan Brooks (12:33):
Okay. That's interesting. I'm glad you said that. So in terms of bringing hope to anything, are you thinking of bringing hope to the people who have the problem that needs to be solved or are you thinking of bringing hope to the people that interact with the art that you create?
Lonnie Hanzon (12:47):
Yeah. For me, I serve five masters. One is the client, which is never the audience. Then, it's the team of who you're working with. The checkbook. You've got to serve the checkbook or you can't do any of it. And then the higher purpose. For me it's always the audience, still trying to make the client, whoever the client is, which is usually the person that's providing the funds happy. But ultimately it's about serving the audience because if the audience is happy, then you're going to be okay on the other four.
R. Alan Brooks (13:27):
So then what are you trying to bring to the audience? Is it an experience? Is it happiness? Is it making them think of something? What is it?
Lonnie Hanzon (13:37):
If inspiration is a part of it, that's pretty wonderful, to inspire somebody. I say that I like to bring joyful images for people. I think we ultimately, a lot of our work is what heals us so I think I'm always after bringing something to that inner child, whether it's an adult or a child. But that's what to me is sort of an honest living, is if you've lifted somebody or your light has spread a little bit.
R. Alan Brooks (14:19):
Yeah. I've been talking with people about how a lot of art falls into two categories. It could be both but it's either healing ourselves or saying something to the audience at large. And sometimes you do both, sometimes you do one or the other and it sounds like you tend towards both. Would you say that is accurate?
Lonnie Hanzon (14:38):
Yeah. I think that my cognizant approach is about the audience but I think we are probably all trying to heal ourselves at the same time.
R. Alan Brooks (14:47):
Okay. So in you're five things you mentioned higher purpose. Can you talk about that a little more?
Lonnie Hanzon (14:54):
In a non-spiritual context, it would be aesthetic and trying to bring a quality of work that's just trying to do the highest level of what you can bring to that form. Again, it's like one of the things that I did here, I rebuilt the Parade of Lights in the late '90s and it's parade floats. It's parade floats and costumes and rolling stock and all of that sort of thing. And I did it, I kind of volunteered for it, it was a job but I kind of went after it because I saw what the parade looked like one night. We had done four years of work in Hong Kong doing big Christmas stuff, huge Christmas stuff over there. And I had finished in Hong Kong and I was driving through town one night when the parade was happening and I saw what was going out there on the streets and what we were feeding our kids and it pissed me off. So I kind of went after it saying, "We've got to do a little bit better here in terms of what we're feeding these kids."
R. Alan Brooks (16:01):
That's such an interesting thing because I think the average person seeing a parade is either engaged or not engaged, but your mind thinking towards, "How can we improve this? How can we make it a better thing?" is just a cool and distinct perspective. So then when you see something like that, do you just start visualizing the improvements immediately? How does it work in your mind?
Lonnie Hanzon (16:24):
I do tend to see the projects fairly, not necessarily in focus but fully. Then, hopefully I drive it to that focus coming in and actually holding onto that. There's nothing that you can't really come to these forms and sort of say, "Hey, let's rethink this a little bit. What's been going on? And then what could we bring to it that would make more magic?" Because in that case it was that I was looking around and I didn't see any magic. I didn't see any joy. I just saw a bunch of stuff. And so I think it's just a matter of looking at the form and saying, "Well, is there a different way of skinning this?"
R. Alan Brooks (17:11):
Okay. So I'm super not a sports guy.
Lonnie Hanzon (17:15):
R. Alan Brooks (17:16):
So I'm really interested in what you did with the baseball, is "stadium" the correct ... baseball field?
Lonnie Hanzon (17:23):
R. Alan Brooks (17:24):
Okay. Anyway, so okay, because now-
Lonnie Hanzon (17:27):
The Downtown Denver Municipal Major League Baseball Stadium District was who I was working for.
R. Alan Brooks (17:35):
Lonnie Hanzon (17:35):
R. Alan Brooks (17:35):
That's such a long name. All right. So I wonder about now that we've talked about kind of what you do and how you approach it, it'd be really interesting to hear how that process worked in regards to the stadium. Did you see a problem or was it a job that came to you?
Lonnie Hanzon (17:52):
That was a competition. Most public art pieces are competitions. And I just finished a body of work that was on cross-cultural symbology. I had taken the circle, the cross, and the triangle and done hundreds of abstracts of those symbols to see if I could find a whole. When we look at a circle we have the same ideas, and whether that was true or not. I was trying to figure that out. And I was hanging with some artists and the competition had just been announced for the baseball stadium and somebody made a joke about, "Hey, you just did the circle series. Well, now you should do a ball series." And we all laughed about it. And then the next day, fully formed in my head, I grabbed the markers and just started drawing every ball I could think of including a black ball, debutante ball, whiffle ball, odd ball and came up with a massive list of balls. And then there was this arch, beautiful arch that was in front of the train station that had been designed by a female architect and I was inspired by that arch and so we built this "Evolution of the Ball" and it's a series of 108 terracotta tiles that represent and celebrate each one of these balls. I did the model and the mockette and the drawings and sent in the stuff, made the finals, and then you're down to three or four people or whatever.
Lonnie Hanzon (19:28):
And then you go in and you do the big dog and pony. And oh my god, I don't think I've ever pitched so hard in my life. And I got done and I remember this very well known city mother, I got done with my presentation and she said, "What are you going to do now? Run for mayor?" Because I was just that hyped up about it. And I think sometimes in those things the one that gets the gig is the one that truly wants it the most or it was back then anyway. And so I got the commission and started raising some extra money to do it because I think it was $115,000, which was a lot of money at the time, but it took 150 to build it. And assembled of team of amazing people because obviously I can't do all this stuff. There's steel people and concrete people and terracotta masters and glazers and all the balls on top of that archway are all glass mosaic. We had a wonderful little studio, an old parking garage which is now Milk Bar because the balls were so big we needed it close so we could just roll them to the site.
Lonnie Hanzon (20:43):
And yeah. That was fascinating. That was my first public art piece and it unveiled in '95 and then it got taken down a few years ago when McGregor Square started getting built. But we've now settled it with the Rockies and they're doing the right thing and they're bringing it back. It'll be back up by next Christmas. Yeah. So that was my first public art piece and then did quite a bit of state and local projects then through the years.
R. Alan Brooks (21:21):
What's engagement like? So when you have things up in the gallery or when you do like I do like a weekly comic, a newspaper comic you can kind of see. You get people's reactions to it. So for something that's public art-
Lonnie Hanzon (21:36):
Yeah. My moments are really, they're different because very often people don't even know who I am or where I am. So a lot of these big projects is kind of through the fence you kind of see it. But again, the moments are really, they're not like the art gallery moments where people are coming and blah, blah, blah. Actually, I don't dig that very much. It's hard for me. But in the case of that it was that I was downtown one day and I saw a mother and her son talking about the balls and then the boy taking the imaginary balls and playing with his mother. You see that, and when you see the dialog happening, or in the case of something like Camp Christmas you see the grandparents and the parents and the kids and the multi generational. When you see that dialog happening, then that's the ... It's not about me, it's about the work doing its thing.
R. Alan Brooks (22:50):
Right. That's interesting because we talked about how having a goal of your art affecting people in a particular way. And I just wonder how you get back, how do you know, how do you get the satisfaction of knowing? And since you work in so many different mediums that appear in so many different places it seems like that could vary quite a bit.
Lonnie Hanzon (23:13):
It does. And sometimes it is like I said nose prints, fingerprints. It's always the kids because kids are honest. Years ago we were doing this light show down in Littleton and there was this thing that was just a very abstract thing called Castle on the Hill. And it was like a castle on a hill made out of lights and it was just this little display. And maybe to most adults, they wouldn't even see a castle. But kids can see a castle on the hill. And I had a showrunner call me one night and said that there was a mom with a kid and the little girl saw the castle and kind of lit up and started to bolt. And the mom said, "Come back here, Susie, we'll get there." And the little girl turned around and said, "I'm sorry. I just can't." And it was just like, "Wow." That's like, ka-ching.
R. Alan Brooks (24:24):
What I love about those kinds of things is that's interesting about those kinds of things is that you can't predict them. I'll share one of mine. The first graphic novel that I wrote, it's called The Burning Metronome. It's a supernatural murder mystery. I met a woman at San Diego Comic-Con, maybe 2017. She just had two strokes so she had aphasia so wasn't able to pull up the words that she wanted so she was struggling to communicate. She bought my book. A year goes by. I go back to San Diego. I see her again. She's speaking a lot more coherently. She's definitely worked through it. She told me that she used my book for speech therapy. And she's like, "So with my therapist we both read a chapter and then I have to describe what happens in your book in my own words." And she was like, "A lot of weird shit happens in your book." And I was like, "Yeah, it does." But that's not something that I could have ever imagined, that it could occupy that space in her life. And so for you, when you see these people have these reactions to your work, it's a blessed thing, it really is.
Lonnie Hanzon (25:24):
Yeah, yeah, no. It really is. And for me, it's also the numbers. I'm doing popular stuff but it can be hundreds of thousands of people that see that work over time or in a short period of time. So to me that's ... Because it's like maybe I only got one person a night that felt something but that counts. So to me it's as important. I mean, I'm lying. Of course I would love to be thought of well in the art world or in the museum world or any of that sort of stuff. But I still say, "If you can touch a lot," like with you with a graphic novel or a comic book, I don't know how many copies go out but it's a lot of copies and those copies float around sometimes forever. We're always seeing that stuff comes back up or somebody treasured it.
R. Alan Brooks (26:30):
Yeah. The comparable experience I have actually is I did a TED Talk during the lockdown so nobody was there.
Lonnie Hanzon (26:38):
R. Alan Brooks (26:38):
Yeah. So nobody was there because of the lockdown so I'm really just kind of giving my energy to the camera, but I don't know where it's going to go. But when they posted it, it's like at a million point three views, which is crazy. It's hard for me to even conceive of that many people caring about what I said in an empty room. But the beautiful part of that is people have found my email and written me from Australia, Mexico, India.
Lonnie Hanzon (27:05):
Oh wow, yeah, and so that audience is huge and it's that person in Australia that you got through to and bless their hearts for reaching out. I'll get a letter every once in a while or something and go, "Wow. Okay. Somebody saw that."
R. Alan Brooks (27:23):
Right. I think people don't realize how much it means when they take a moment to say, "Hey, your art moved me."
Lonnie Hanzon (27:30):
Oh my gosh, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (27:33):
Okay. So like we talked about, you worked in so many mediums. You do so many different things. So when you have an idea, how do you decide which ones to pursue and which ones to put on a shelf for a while?
Lonnie Hanzon (27:46):
Which one's funded?
R. Alan Brooks (27:49):
That's a good system. Are you pitching the funders a lot or is it just kind of like at this point the things that come into your purview or whatever?
Lonnie Hanzon (28:03):
I have never gotten one gig by going out and pitching it and somebody saying yes. It's really strange. It's still all incoming. It used to be a phone call. People don't do phone anymore but it used to be a phone call. And I'd get a phone call and say, "Hey, you don't know me. But so and so said you're the only guy in the world that could do this project." And it was usually true because of a strange combination of skills or chops or whatever.
R. Alan Brooks (28:39):
Right. They don't have many magicians.
Lonnie Hanzon (28:42):
Yeah. Somebody who knows this side of the magic and this side of the retail and this side of the showgirl headdresses that open up and pop open to do the spring-loaded clown noses. But now the last few years have been, I'm finally coming home which is really nice. I found out early on for Colorado that I could live here but that I couldn't necessarily make a living here so did a lot of traveling and made our money in other places because the Denver market, I don't know how long you've been here, but it used to be that local was not a pretty word and it meant second class and it meant less than and it was a real import town because we were a boom town and so we brought everything in. And so then I'd have to go to California or New York or Texas. Texas has a lot of money. Or Hong Kong, my god. And it's only been the last few years since I started working with DCPA and all of that that now I feel like we're home.
R. Alan Brooks (30:00):
Lonnie Hanzon (30:01):
Yeah. It's really nice and it's really nice to be seen. Even today, this a great honor to be here. I tell these folks, it's like I don't even know why they let me in.
R. Alan Brooks (30:13):
I'm glad you came. It's a good conversation. Okay. So has anything substantially changed about the way you approach your art just throughout your career?
Lonnie Hanzon (30:23):
I probably trust my method a lot more than I used to because I was always trying to find out what the method is because again I didn't have the teaching, I didn't have the credentials to know what the process is and when you're doing strange work like I'm doing, there's not exactly a road map like building a house. It's different. So for me now it's exciting to start trusting what the method is whether it's crazy or not. It's how I've been able to get by. And it's not a linear process and we've got a few different studio rules of what we go by. And it's always path of least resistance and we're always grabbing the lowest hanging fruit and just keep on working and keep on doing it. And we don't wait for anything. We try to bounce around and get anything done you get that soup made eventually. And a lot of processes don't like to work that way. You do this and you do this and you do this. So just trusting that now, that's exciting. And it's madness, but I've done it enough times to understand what we can do and how much we can get done within a period of time. And you know how it is. You're always squeezing it into that last 30 seconds no matter what you're doing.
R. Alan Brooks (31:53):
I've noticed you've been saying we throughout so is your spouse also an artist or who are you referring to?
Lonnie Hanzon (31:59):
My now-husband, we've together 40 years last May.
R. Alan Brooks (32:06):
Lonnie Hanzon (32:07):
Thank you. It's been a long time. We've been together since I was 21 and he was 20.
R. Alan Brooks (32:13):
Wow. You snatched up a younger man.
Lonnie Hanzon (32:17):
Yeah, yeah. We became quick glue and we haven't always worked together. There have been a few times that I had to go work separately but for the most part we've worked and sort of divided the business up and the house up and all of that. And then just because my projects now take, I think the current project going to be 30 or 50 people by the time we get done because they're getting bigger, they're getting more complicated so it takes an army now. I don't get to do as much of the physical work anymore. But it's exciting seeing the big stuff come together.
R. Alan Brooks (33:03):
That's really beautiful to have a creative partnership that lasts that long, let alone romantic. That's really dope.
Lonnie Hanzon (33:12):
Yeah. Oh, man. And we're lucky. We're very, very lucky, not that there haven't been some really, really tough times. But now, we've just very made it in the right way and he's my rock and we're lucky. But it's like I was talking to somebody yesterday, with those long term relationships it has to be the two of you against the world. You have to absolutely commit to that and then once you're there it's not hard. The years go by pretty quickly.
R. Alan Brooks (33:49):
Okay. So I'd like to ask about, for people who are listening I assume that a lot of them are going to be people who are thinking about their own artistic journey. So we've talked a lot about what you've been able to do, what you accomplished. But also I think it's important to talk about things that didn't go according to plan. You mentioned that retail store or you could talk about that or you could talk about something else. But please share a story of something that didn't-
Lonnie Hanzon (34:13):
Oh gosh, someday I want to do a show called My Beautiful Failures which is just every project that went just so horribly wrong. You know how the business coaches always say fail as big as you can fail? It's the truth. The more learning you can get done, the better. Well, I don't know what I haven't failed at. There's a little bit of failure in all of it. You blow it and then you're down on the ground. I call it the concrete trampoline because-
R. Alan Brooks (34:49):
That's quite an image.
Lonnie Hanzon (34:51):
... it hurts like hell. You fall off that pedestal, whatever it is, pedestal that you put yourself on or somebody else put you on or whatever because you're reaching for the stars and you trip and you fall off the pedestal and you hit that concrete. And then I don't know what happens. But if you do allow that, then you do end up in a higher place. That's why it's a trampoline. You end up in just a slightly higher place. And then you fall again. But how many thousands of pieces of art I've made and I see them at thrift stores. I see them at auction. The other day I was on the internet. There's some auction house and maybe it's going to go for 10 bucks or maybe it's going to be 500 bucks. It's sort of like you make it, you do it, you give it away and then you go back and find enough money to go make some more.
R. Alan Brooks (35:59):
Do you feel like you would be where you are in your career if you had tried to avoid failure?
Lonnie Hanzon (36:05):
Oh, absolutely not. No. No. I don't think anybody with any level success ... Maybe there's people that somehow it all works out and you're an Olympic champion and didn't have to work hard for it. But no, I would credit any of my success to my pain. It's like both ends of the same thing.
R. Alan Brooks (36:37):
Right, right. It's all together.
Lonnie Hanzon (36:38):
It's all together. Just like grief is unspent love, it's the same thing with this work. It's just like, I think our despair and our hurt and all of that stuff is ultimately the fuel that we use to try to do the other stuff I guess.
R. Alan Brooks (37:00):
Yeah. So many, I guess I'll say aspiring artists, that's how they introduce themselves, are so focused on not failing and are so afraid of trying and doing badly and that's part of the reason that I touch on this when talking to people because I feel like it's important to recognize, one: failure isn't the end, it doesn't destroy you. But also I guess I want to ask, have you ever or do you deal with any kind of fear or artistic anxiety when you're going forward in something?
Lonnie Hanzon (37:38):
R. Alan Brooks (37:39):
And how do you manage it?
Lonnie Hanzon (37:40):
Oh my gosh. There's not a day or night, it's usually at night too-
R. Alan Brooks (37:51):
When everything's quiet.
Lonnie Hanzon (37:53):
R. Alan Brooks (37:53):
Lonnie Hanzon (37:54):
In the middle of the night is when you're just full of failure and the stress. And a bigger mistake than trying to avoid mistakes I think is the fear of flying. I see that over and over and over. People have got an idea and they want to be creative and they want to do this thing and they'll start going at it and they'll start throwing stuff at it and then there will come a point that they've got the opportunity to either sabotage themselves and throw a fork into their own engine or they'll let somebody else throw a fork into their engine or they'll beg somebody else to throw a fork into their engine. And it's easy. It's easy to let other people destroy you. It's easy to let other people destroy the work. It's easy for all the circumstances to give you the excuses to not do it. Again, I think I've been blessed in that I didn't come from a lot and if I wanted to stay in, I had to pay the rent and I had to eat. It's like I really didn't have an option. I didn't have any family to go home to. There was no backup and so in a way I was lucky because I had to fail and get up the next day.
Lonnie Hanzon (39:30):
And just you brought that up and now these flashes of all these unbelievably embarrassing moments in my life are flashing before me.
R. Alan Brooks (39:43):
We'll try to move into another space.
Lonnie Hanzon (39:46):
But when you look back at them, comedy is tragedy plus distance so you've just got to get enough distance from it. But oh my gosh. And if you're lucky enough to blow it really big and people don't shoot you, then just take it as a blessing and just pick yourself up and go back to it. It's like you hear all these success stories of people that have made it and most often they'll talk about how bad they were or how hard it was at one point or another. They don't talk about how easy it was. I don't hear a lot of those stories.
R. Alan Brooks (40:28):
Yeah. It's interesting because people I think in general are really focused on the victories but not the struggle.
Lonnie Hanzon (40:33):
We live in that kind of society, America. It's like cooking because I try to talk to people about art because people say, "I can't do any art. I can't draw a straight line." And I'm like, "Well, I can't either. That's what a ruler's for." It's like we all cook and eat food every day and that doesn't force us to be chefs. You don't have to be a chef to make a wonderful meal. But for some reason in the arts, man, you're either Emmy and Oscar ... you're either a star or you're nothing and there's just a whole lot of room. There's a whole lot of room in there. But we do have this thing especially in this country.
R. Alan Brooks (41:14):
Yeah. Actually, that's what I talked about in this TED Talk is just the value of art because when you grow up as an artist, as a creative person, there are so many people who are there to tell you either you're being selfish or irresponsible. Like, "You need to do something responsible to change society." And I kind of talked about how dictators always when they come into power immediately control and censor art because they know the power of it. But here we are doubting it. And you're right. Our society is so focused on, "This person kept doing it and they're a star now." Not how they struggled, how they failed, what connections they had to make, what are the mechanics of them making their way up. It's just an interesting thing. But I think for people listening-
Lonnie Hanzon (42:05):
Your first graphic novel, was it a best seller?
R. Alan Brooks (42:09):
No. No. Yeah. And it's interesting too because I switched from a super square profession because I was doing music for a long time and it just wasn't doing what I wanted it to do. So I gave up and I was like, "I can make money doing something I hate." And so I did insurance. I sold insurance for four years and that's the squarest job I ever worked. But at some point I was like, "I can't die as an insurance agent. I met some good people and they're good at it, but I can't. That can't be my life." So then I decided to go into comics, which was the first thing that I ever loved and that was 2017 and here we are.
Lonnie Hanzon (42:56):
Again, not to do the Joseph Campbell thing but it's like follow your bliss. If you follow your bliss, the money will follow. If the money doesn't follow, at least you're happy. So it's a good trade off.
R. Alan Brooks (43:13):
Yeah. I think it's important for people to make decisions because I think people want to have victory without sacrifice and that's kind of the tricky thing because if you walk the path of an artist, you may or may not make a living at it. So you have to decide for yourself if being an artist who doesn't have much money or resources but is fulfilled is enough for you. And if not, then fine. Do the other thing. But that's a decision that I think a person has to make. And it seems like a lot of people when they approach art are not trying to make decisions, they're just trying to hope it'll happen and work on it when they're inspired.
Lonnie Hanzon (43:53):
Yeah. Well, that doesn't work, right. You know that. You've got to get up and get inspired.
R. Alan Brooks (43:53):
Right, yeah. If you want to make a living as an artist, you can't wait on inspiration.
Lonnie Hanzon (44:03):
No, no, no.
R. Alan Brooks (44:03):
There's a Stephen King quote which is kind of hard, but he says, "Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work."
Lonnie Hanzon (44:11):
Yeah, yeah. No kidding, no kidding.
R. Alan Brooks (44:13):
Yeah. And I try to tell people that the idea is inspiration but doing it is work because when an idea comes I'm like, "This is great!" But then I've got to write it down and I've got to take some action. And that's the part that I think a lot of people don't feel the connection too.
Lonnie Hanzon (44:27):
Right. It also pays in arrears meaning that some of the pay off of things in my past come today when I'm talking to you. They didn't pay off then. They pay off later. They pay off in memories. They pay off in impact. You don't necessarily get to see that, and especially as an artist. That's the other thing. You've kind of just got to be willing to say, "I'm going to do it, and I'm going to put it out there." And then you may not get to see the impact at all. Or can you imagine what some of the masters would think if they saw ... Van Gogh's got six touring shows right now around the world, six?
R. Alan Brooks (45:15):
I was just about to bring up Van Gogh.
Lonnie Hanzon (45:17):
Can you imagine? His mother was using his paintings to fix the chicken coop. Can you imagine if he were to pop in and go, "Oh shit."
R. Alan Brooks (45:25):
Okay. I was just about to bring up Van Gogh. I'm going to take you on a little bit of a geeky deep dive. I don't know if you ever watched "Doctor Who." Are you familiar with it?
Lonnie Hanzon (45:36):
Maybe one episode.
R. Alan Brooks (45:37):
Okay. So British time traveling alien. There's an episode where he goes back, meets Van Gogh during his life. Van Gogh of course is unhappy because nobody likes his art. He's afflicted with just all the things- [crosstalk 00:45:51]
Lonnie Hanzon (45:50):
Yeah. All of everything, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (45:51):
Yeah. And they take him in a time machine to a modern day exhibit of his work. And there's just this moment of him seeing all ... It's ridiculous. It's so beautiful. My mother doesn't even care about sci fi and I showed her that episode and she loved it. You're talking about imagining that moment. Being able to see them act that moment out, it was so moving.
Lonnie Hanzon (46:15):
Yeah, oh yeah. Wouldn't that be sweet?
R. Alan Brooks (46:17):
All right. So you encounter a young Lonnie. What advice would you give the young Lonnie?
Lonnie Hanzon (46:28):
Usually when I talk to young artists it's like, "If there's anything else you can do-"
R. Alan Brooks (46:35):
It's a real thing.
Lonnie Hanzon (46:36):
... "if there's anything else you're good at, go do that and then make art part of your weekends." And by saying that, I also know that a young Lonnie would absolutely reject that 100% and say, "F you, I'm going anyway." It's like when I met my partner, Terry, because I didn't think I was going to find anybody, let alone my soul mate. And it was like, "No, no, no, no. You don't want to go on this path. I've been working on this my whole life. I know how hard it's going to be, it is really ..." And I still remind him every once in a while because it gets really, really hard sometimes, it got really hard during the pandemic. And I was like, "I warned you. I told you. I told you this could be so fricking hard." But be kind to yourself. Get help on any level, financial, mental, psychological, emotional. Don't stop pedaling. Try not to listen to the critics although you'll memorize every negative thing ever said about you.
R. Alan Brooks (47:51):
I try never to read the comments. That is excellent advice, seriously.
Lonnie Hanzon (47:56):
Because I can still-
R. Alan Brooks (47:59):
You can read 1000 positive ones and then a negative one and that's the one you remember.
Lonnie Hanzon (48:02):
Yeah. No. They say an artist will remember a bad review long after he's forgotten his home address and his phone number.
R. Alan Brooks (48:10):
Lonnie Hanzon (48:10):
And it's true, it's true. Although those negative, I remember getting a nasty review in Denver. We did a huge fashion show and a local writer, I won't name him, just ripped, ripped me apart. And those also fuel you because then you go, "I'm going to show you."
R. Alan Brooks (48:31):
Right. I'll tell you this. I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my graphic novel writing and stuff like that by a reporter who's now a friend. I'm not going to say their name either. But they gave me a negative review on an album 10 years earlier and didn't know I was the same person.
Lonnie Hanzon (48:48):
Whoa, as a musician and then as a-
R. Alan Brooks (48:51):
Yeah, yeah. So in the interview they're like, "Hey, I really have been a fan of your stuff. I've been following it since the beginning." And I was like, "Well, you haven't always been a fan." They were like, "Oh." And I told them and they were like, "Oh, that really threw me off, man." So that was actually a good feeling.
Lonnie Hanzon (49:08):
Yeah. No. That is good. That's sweet.
R. Alan Brooks (49:13):
All right. So where are you headed now artistically? What's next?
Lonnie Hanzon (49:17):
We're working on Camp Christmas again but we're moving it. We're moving it to a fabulous location. We're moving it to a place called Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, which is May Bonfils' hobby farm and estate out in Lakewood and it's turned into living history museum and they've turned all these wonderful old buildings onto the site so we've got a diner and a motel and a gas station and a school house and a farm house and a barn. It's fabulous. So we're getting ready to do that. It's going to be an outdoor, indoor show. It's pretty big. I think it's about six acres. So yeah. We're working on that which is great.
R. Alan Brooks (50:06):
All right. Well, Lonnie, if people want to follow your work online where should they go?
Lonnie Hanzon (50:11):
I think the easiest is probably on social. There's LonnieHanzon.com and Camp-Christmas.com that'll be more active as we get into the fall. And just yeah, on the internets.
R. Alan Brooks (50:30):
Right on. Hey, thank you for taking time to talk with me. This was a great conversation.
Lonnie Hanzon (50:35):
This was my pleasure. It was lovely. Thank you.
R. Alan Brooks (50:42):
R. Alan Brooks (50:42):
[music] Thank you to today's guest, Lonnie Hanzon. Visit MCADenver.org/podcast to learn more about his work. How Art is Born is hosted by me, R. Alan Brooks. Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor. Courtney Law is our executive producer. How Art is Born is a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.