by Jim Hight
SINCE HE PAINTED HIS FIRST MURAL AT BUCKSPORT Sporting Goods in 1984, Duane Flatmo has turned more than 20 Humboldt County walls into colorful fantasy worlds that shimmer between two dimensions and three.
His edgy, neo-psychedelic graphics beam at us from posters and beer bottles, and his Kinetic sculptures have grabbed glory every year since 1982. He's a comic, a musician, a teacher and an entrepreneur. He's even appeared on TV with David Letterman, playing guitar with an eggbeater.
On top of all this public success, he's a hit as a fine artist, winning honors and selling paintings.
So, after all this exposure, why aren't we bored yet with Duane Flatmo?
That question was on my mind when I arrived at Duane's place in Eureka at 9 on a foggy June morning. With fresh batteries in my tape recorder and 20 questions in my notebook, I was ready.
He wasn't. He'd been expecting me at 11, he told me. He had an eye doctor's appointment at 9:30.
I got very anxious. This interview had taken several days to schedule, he was going out of town the next day and my deadline loomed. "Hope we can reschedule," I said, ready to drop to my knees and beg.
"Naah," he said, "we can do it now. I'll just make a quick call."
A few moments later, Duane zapped me a cup of coffee and we sat down in his living room and talked for two and a half hours. When I left, I had my answer.
Duane Flatmo, 38, grew up in Southern California, first in Santa Monica and other beach communities, then in the mountain town of Big Bear, east of Los Angeles.
Both his parents were artists, and his father, Oystien "Rocky" Flatmo, was a Norwegian immigrant who supported the family by painting houses. He'd often take Duane and his brothers along on jobs, teaching the boys a practical, do-it-yourself ingenuity.
"All the neighbor kids would get these fancy plastic guns for Christmas from their parents, but my dad would come over and chop one out of wood right in front of us and put a pipe on it for a barrel, a nail for a trigger, and it would be a really cool handmade toy gun that lasted a lot longer than the plastic ones ... plus we got to stain the stock and carve our names in it."
Duane's creative streak ran deep and so did his love of things mechanical and his urge to make people laugh. "Being one of my brothers or my sister must have been one of the toughest jobs in the world." He'd work for hours to create elaborate practical jokes.
"I'd tie strings from the doorknob (in one of their bedrooms) to the bookshelves and the sheets and to stacks of poker chips -- a whole Rube Goldberg thing that would totally mess their room up when they opened the door. I'd crawl out the window and go downstairs and listen.ä And the whole thing would be their fault because they were the ones who opened the door."
Duane remembers always loving to draw, with an early leaning toward the fantastic. "My dad read us stories about ogres and trolls, and he'd draw mountains with big long noses," he said. "A lot of my art started going in that direction. I'd come up with a painting that was just a really outrageous scene, on and on with faces in the mountains and rocks."
As he became an adolescent in the early 1970s, he was influenced by Mad magazine and Cracked and heavy metal comic books in the sarcastic, gross-out genre that was -- and is -- so popular among pubescent boys.
Duane's mother was not amused. "She always hated it when I drew goblins, devils and other bizarre things. She'd say, 'Why can't you draw good things?'"
But she valued her son's talent and creative energy, and when Duane eagerly tugged Jeanne Flatmo out into the yard to see the latest moving sculpture that he and his buddy had made of rakes, bowling balls and clothesline hauled from the garage, she'd marvel at how long and hard they had worked on it.
"I got a lot of backup and support for doing art," he said.
When teachers told Duane's parents that their son was hyperactive, they refused to put him on drugs. And for many years his mother sent news clippings about Duane's work to a high school counselor who had urged him, when he was a junior, to abandon his dreams of becoming an artist and focus on something he could make a living at.
In high school, Duane's skills as a designer and illustrator led to his election as publicity chairman for the student body. "I knew how to do lettering, so I started painting all the signs for the school events, pep rallies and so on."
He dabbled in cartooning. "I did a little cartoon strip called 'Space Out.'"
Was it funny? "It was OK," Flatmo judges today. "Just stupid things. The moon would be hanging there and a spaceship would come up and land on the moon's nose, and the moon would say 'Thanks, I needed that.'"
At Big Bear High School, Duane also found his first mentor, John O'Hare, an art teacher. "He taught me perspective and how to sign paint. He said, 'Duane, if you can learn sign painting, you can make a living anywhere you go.'"
Making money as an artist was already on young Flatmo's mind. On a field trip to the Los Angeles Times he remembers being awed at the concept of syndication. "I thought, 'Wouldn't that be neat. You get syndicated, then all those newspapers pay you a little bit of money and you got a lot of money.'"
Yet after graduating, his counselor's warning seemed to come true. "After high school, I didn't really do art. I knew I loved it but I didn't know how I could make money at it."
He moved to San Diego, started college, dropped out to work and save money for a car. "But after living in Big Bear for seven years it was impossible to move to a big city and feel good." So he and his girlfriend, Karen, scanned college catalogs and a map of the state. They chose Humboldt County.
"It had the redwoods, the rivers, the oceans, Humboldt State, College of the Redwoods."
In Duane's tiny sports car, they drove up the coast. They spent the first two weeks camping at the KOA, two weeks in which the North Coast weather gods welcomed them with a typically wet winter of 1977.
He got a job at Sears, first in draperies, then in hardware, then finally in the display department where he'd wanted to be.
"I had a real cool boss there and I learned a lot about colors and composition."
Knowing about Duane's aspirations and his off-center artistic bent, some friends suggested he take an art class with Jere Smith at College of the Redwoods.
"Jere Smith opened my eyes to the art field. He was really into heavy metal magazines, science fiction, cartooning. He was with a group that was into the Dada movement (European surrealist artists of the 1920s) and we had outrageous parties. That's where I first came up with the 'pencilhead' costume. Jere came dressed in a suit with Wheaties glued to the whole thing, and then he lacquered them. It had this crunchy sound.
"I used to create stuff, then run over to his house to show him. I look back at what a dork I was. I wanted to impress this guy because I thought so much of his response."
In Smith's class Flatmo also found inspiration to take the plunge into self-employment. "One of our class projects was to design your own logo. I combined the 'O' in Flatmo with the "G" in Graphics and created a logo for Flatmographics. And then I thought, 'For $12 I can have these printed up on a business card and hand them out. Maybe I can do some sign jobs on the side.'"
He did, and within a year he decided to quit Sears and go into sign painting fulltime. There were lots of paper signs for grocery stores, "I would do anything," Flatmo remembers. "There were months where I'd make only $100."
He and Karen were married, and her salary pulled them through until "little by little the business snowballed. It was amazing, sign painting jobs one after another." His first big job was for Mazzotti's Italian Food on F Street. "I got $200 and all the pizza I could eat. Back then that was excellent money."
Flatmo's growing rep as a sign-painter eventually led to an inquiry from Bucksport Sporting Goods on Broadway. The company had the rights to a painting by L.W. Duke of 19th century mountain men struggling with river rapids. Could Duane paint it on the side of their building, they asked?
"I said 'Sure, no problem.' But inside I was wondering if I could really do it.
"I used something I'd learned from my high school art teacher: the grid pattern. I just chalk-lined the grid up on the building and drew the same grid on the drawing."
That high-profile mural, positioned at the southern gateway to Eureka, put Flatmo on the map. He was soon commissioned by Los Bagels in Arcata to create a mural for the two-story wall facing the restaurant. "That's when I came up with the idea of using collages. I laid a big giant sheet of butcher paper out and I started drawing buildings. I'd cut out a window and stick a photo from National Geographic of a person playing guitar in the window."
The clients liked his collage, so Flatmo set to work with his chalk-line. When he finished several months later, the result was a startlingly beautiful scene: a village at sunset, with musicians playing, couples dancing, a street vendor selling fruit, people of all ages and races at rest in the twilight, with silhouettes of mountains in the background.
But the tranquility of the piece is given an edge by Duane's narrative humor and his tweaky perspective. The guitarist borrowed from National Geographic seems to lean right out of the wall, his raucous smile beaming down at you. On the stone plaza, a couple sways to the music in a rapturous embrace, while another, older couple sits on the curb displaying a family photo. What's the story? Why is the man on the bench reading his newspaper upside down? And why does that fruit seller look so familiar?
"To get a different skew toward the whole perspective, I made the people in the background a little bigger, and the people in the foreground a little smaller, so the scale is thrown off. It works, but it makes people ask questions."
The Los Bagels mural was a commercial breakthrough for Flatmo as well as a creative one. The project was written up in the San Francisco Chronicle. After the story came out, he got a call from an agent in San Francisco who represented muralists. Wined, dined and flattered, Duane signed up with Linda Fealk-Hoffman in 1986, and she began landing big-money jobs for Humboldt's "enfant terrible," then only 28.
"She got me a number of jobs in the Bay Area, and I started making real good money. I'd go down there and work for one month and make 10 grand on a wall. One-third would go to her, but that still left a lot for me. I could live off three of those a year."
His local commissions increased as well, with a 1987 exterior mural at Humboldt Brewery in Arcata, an interior at Smokey Jim's BBQ, Eureka, in 1989. Since then he's done as many as three murals a year.
Along the way, Flatmo became more and more bold in using the unique style he calls "whimsical cubism." His original inspiration for it came in a poster job for the Old Town Bar & Grill in 1983.
"I came up with three characters, two guys and a girl, that I called 'Three Fools,'" he said. To express the lust and sexual posturing associated with a singles nightspot, Duane contorted and abstracted the fools' faces.
"You show one side of the face, but somehow you're looking at two nostrils, and you're looking at the mouth on the side of the face, and you're seeing the chin on the opposite side. It's skewing things."
Using a paint airbrush tool to execute his pencil sketch, he felt the resulting painting was something new and intriguing. Fine art critics agreed. When he entered the painting in an art show at the old Cultural Center in Eureka, he won "Best of Show."
"The minute that happened I knew that if I could kindle this style and work at it, it could be my own trademark."
And indeed it has been. Thirteen years later, Flatmo has deployed this cubist style in countless posters, labels for local breweries, and other applications.
It's not popular with everyone, however. "One time I was standing in a gallery where one of my paintings was, and this one lady came along and said 'Oh, that's terrible, that's sick,' then walked away. She never knew it was me."
Flatmo says such critiques don't bother him. "It you're going to take the positive stuff, you have to take the negative stuff."
But after 13 years Flatmo admits that he himself feel a little ambivalent about continuing to work in that style.
"I do sometimes get tired of it. Some people say, 'There's another Flatmo. He still does the same thing.'"
On the other hand, some fans of the Flatmo cubist style were disappointed when his Kinetic Race poster for 1995 was rendered in an uncharacteristic Victorian style. "Some people said, 'You ought to go back to your old style, that's what your thing is.'"
Flatmo is remarkably open about money. He says he's been paid amounts ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 for murals, the highest being the interior of Yakima Products in Arcata. This is also Duane's favorite. (Yakima welcomes viewers; call 826-8000.)
He received $5,000 for his most recent project, a long agricultural scene painted on the back of the North Coast Co-op in Arcata. On murals, labels and design work, he says that he makes between $10 and $200 per hour.
Fame, on the other hand, makes Duane uncomfortable. "I get very embarrassed and humble if I'm in a store and I write a check and the checker goes 'Oh, you're Duane Flatmo! My daughter has your posters on her wall.' Then she'll go over to someone else, 'That's Duane Flatmo.' That happens pretty often, and I'm always embarrassed.
"I would love to be totally anonymous," he said, acknowledging in the next breath that many people who've seen his very public work would scoff at that. But he says that even as a kid, when a party would be dragging and he'd jump out of a closet with a crazy wig, doing some kind of frantic dance, it was never about him as much as it was about the performance and the reaction of the audience.
"I just like to do the thing and watch people watch it. Like when they watched the dragon out there in the (1996 Kinetic) parade, I didn't care if anybody knew who did it or anything. It's watching them look at it, that's the whole thing for me."
Flatmo manages to speak at length about himself and his work without sounding vain. He peppers his discourse with references to people who have supported and influenced him: his parents and siblings, teachers, friends, former bosses, collaborators, sponsors, too many to list here, but if Duane had his way, they'd all be mentioned. And every time he mentioned someone significant to him, he would spell out their names so they would be cited properly.
He met his wife Micki in 1982 when she hired Duane to silk-screen signs for the old Bistrin's department store on 5th and G streets in Eureka. "We were both married at the time, but we loved working with each other."
Micki and her husband divorced, and she considered leaving the county. Duane begged her not to, telling her how much he'd miss her friendship.
Then Duane's wife, Karen, unexpectedly announced she was leaving. "It wasn't because we had a bad relationship. We got married right after high school, and she had never dated anyone else. She wanted to go out and kinda see the world. I was totally devastated."
Duane remembers turning to Micki for support. "I was depressed and bummed out about the situation I was in.ä She was going through the same thing."
Later, a Halloween mask-making project drew them together long enough for romance to bloom. They were married in 1985.
An accomplished artist herself, Micki's pastel drawings stand out on the living room walls that Duane and Micki painted dark green after buying the house -- their first -- a year ago. "She was doing all these galleries and her paintings were selling, then all of a sudden she got a horse and started doing dressage, the English riding. That became her new art form."
He says Micki is his most valuable critic. "Just about everything I do I put through the Micki test. Most of the time she has the greatest judgment."
After years of discussion, Micki and Duane made a decision not to have children of their own. "I'd get around kids and say 'I'm never going to have kids,' and then a week later, I'd see a little baby and go 'God, I want to have kids.' We did that for a couple years."
"My mom wanted me to have kids, but I told her that if I don't have kids, I'll work with kids somehow."
And out of that desire sprang the Rural Burl Mural Bureau, a tongue-twisting handle for the teen mural-painting group that Flatmo founded three years ago.
With funding from the California Arts Council, Ink People and City of Eureka, Flatmo has recruited and trained a cadre of teenage artists. They've completed five murals and are working on their sixth at the Bank of America building on F Street in Eureka. The scene depicts a town pulling together to rebuild in the aftermath of an earthquake.
When he began the project, 32 teens showed up for the first meeting. "Everybody loved the idea of painting murals, but they didn't see the parts about washing brushes and mixing paints ... and developing something that's important enough and worthy enough to put in the public view."
The group has boiled down to a crew of about 12, including Tyler Mitchell, Heather Croy, Susannah Moore and Julie Raich, all of whom showed up behind the food Co-op in Arcata last month for the celebration of Duane's latest mural.
"Duane's a wonderful guy, he cares about us a lot," said Moore.
"He's a geek himself," said Mitchell, "so he's nice to all us other geeks."
The funding for the Mural Bureau runs out this year, but, with help from Humboldt Area Foundation, Humboldt Arts Council, Ink People and the city, Duane is raising money to continue the project.
"Some of my friends have said that it's really good for these kids to work with Duane. My friend Jeff Jordan said, 'It's a good thing for Duane to work with these kids.' And it really is. It's put me in touch with a lot of their feelings and angers about life, all the problems they go through."
He says that a lot of kids, particularly those without two-parent families, "get lost in the shuffle and the light at the end of their tunnel gets blurred."
An exciting side project of the Mural Bureau is the bathroom at the Ink People (photo left). "If it's raining, we stay at the Ink People and work on our designs. They told us we could paint the bathrooms.ä Those are some of the coolest murals."
So what's next for Duane Flatmo?
More Kinetic sculptures to follow in the footsteps of the Crawdudes, Armordillo, and this year's Dragoons, which Duane and crew will take to festivals in Napa Valley, Oregon and San Francisco in the next year with help from sponsor Calistoga Mineral Water.
Repainting old murals, especially the 12-year-old Los Bagels panel. "It's just like when you buy a new car. Look at that car 10 years later. There's no paint in the world that lasts forever."
Perhaps clearing his schedule for more time in his studio painting for the pure joy of it. "That's what I'm really lacking right now with all my jobs. I miss doing painting for my own pleasure. I'll spend three or four days in my room, take the phone off the hook, my whole room will become a big mess, but that's the most fulfilling inner time that an artist has."
Landing mural jobs in faraway places. "This is my home and I love it here, but I'd love to travel to Paris for a week to paint a mural. That would be awesome. So far, the Bay Area is the farthest I've gone."
In fact, Duane's been saying for at least five years that one of his major goals is to get a "$100,000 mural in Hawaii."
If anyone else said that, we'd probably say, "Yeah, right." But to Duane Flatmo, who gives Humboldt County as much as he gets, we'd more likely say, "Right on, Duane."