The Blue Genie Boys Take On 'The Story of Texas' for the New State History Museum
There are six enormous panels of reinforced concrete more than halfway up the front face of the new Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Congress. Six panels illustrating the museum's theme "The Story of Texas" in detailed bas-relief far above the heads of visitors. Six panels gorgeously unvanishing the Lone Star past -- from the era of conquistadors to a seems-like-only-yesterday moon landing -- and each panel is 11 feet by 16 feet and weighs more than two tons. Not the sort of objects, in other words, that appear instantly with a snap of the fingers and a cry of "Alakazam!"
Funny thing about that, though.
The panels' images were designed by an artist from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. The final, three-dimensional planes of concrete were manufactured by GFRC Cladding Systems in Garland, north of Dallas. But the original full-sized sculptures and the molds derived from them were produced by Austin's Blue Genie Art Industries.
The three main mullahs of the Blue Genie group are Rory Skagen, Kevin Collins, and Dana Younger, thirtysomething artists whose work you've seen before, even if you're a recent transplant to the River City. The armadillo-festooned entrance to Threadgill's World Headquarters on Riverside Drive; the guitar gal atop Fran's Hamburgers, the be-fezzed monkey perched atop Lone Star Illusions, the cheerful green wyrm heralding Dragonsnaps, and the just-installed dancing zebra in a Carmen Miranda get-up over Lucy in Disguise, all on South Congress; the comically inspired guy grinning from the roof of the Lightbulb Shop and the skull-with-octopus-legs ("the Skullopus," corrects Skagen) menacing the airspace above Atomic Tattoo on Burnet Road; and, of course, the big blue Arabian Nights-ish djinn, complete with magic lamp, towering over pedestrians and vehicles on South First Street at Annie.
All of these are Blue Genie projects -- mini-landmarks stabbing brightly out of the shorter cityscape that surrounds downtown's multistoried hub -- and what they are, basically, is fun. They're fun for the people who see them, fun for the out-of-towners who receive photos of their tourist pals posing in front of the vivid figures and grotesques, and fun for the people who made them.
Making the Texas History Museum panels, though, was a bit more than just that.
"There was something to be learned every day," says Dana Younger, tugging absently at his thick, dark beard. He sits at a long table in the professionally cluttered office of Blue Genie's 10,000 square foot warehouse on the Eastside of Austin and next door to the Blue Theater that Younger runs with his friend Ron Berry. Rory Skagen and Kevin Collins are at the table, too, drinking coffee, nodding in agreement. "Every day we had something important to figure out," says Younger. "And it was figured out. From enlarging the maquettes to heating the clay to making the molds and making sure they were flat on the back -- all these things fell into place almost miraculously, but it took a lot of effort to get each step done."
"The hardest part was making the actual molds," says Skagen. "It was ... grueling."
"Yeah," concurs Younger, with a grimace. "Grueling."
"The molds are made from polyurethane rubber," says Collins. "It's a sprayed-on application. First we seal the clay, then we spray it with the rubber, which is the flexible part. Then we back that with urethane foam, which is the supporting mold. It's necessary because the rubber is kind of floppy by itself and it needs a cradle to fit in. And then the whole thing comes down as a negative that you can cast into."
"We had to build these giant, movable walls to hold them," says Skagen. "There were three separate two-sided walls on rollers, with a sculpture on each side. We had to do them all at the same time, because the molds had to be done at the same time."
"Once you start," says Younger, "you have to keep putting rubber on the sculpture until it's covered, so you get really good adhesion. It took about 12 hours to put sufficient rubber -- about a quarter-inch -- on each piece. And that was with three or four people working on it."
And how did the Blue Genie boys get involved with a project of this magnitude?
"We got the job through Mike O'Brien," says Collins. "Mike's a sculptor who's also the exhibits coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife. We'd done several smaller jobs for them before this one came along, and Mike was familiar with the stuff we'd done around town, so he already had us in mind as the people he wanted to use. But before it got to us, he worked with a committee for about 18 months until the final designs were approved, then produced small versions -- maquettes -- of all the panels that showed the basic elements. And after we got them into full-scale, Mike expounded on them, changed a lot of the details. We signed a contract with the state in January, and the panels were stained and sealed in July. It all went pretty smoothly. Of course, it had to go smoothly: We were reminded, a number of times, that if we were late on this, we'd be holding up an 80 million dollar museum. And they were not gonna be happy with us if that happened."
"The time frame was challenging," agrees Younger. "We had six months to make these six giant sculptures. The pressure of that, the deadline crunch, was really hard. It tended to make things go on late into the night. Which got ... a little tiresome."
"Grueling," says Skagen.
"We could have worked for six months on each one of them," says Collins. There is general concurrence.
"I think the highlight of the whole experience," says Skagen, "was when we drove up to Garland to deliver the molds the second time and they'd already cast a couple of the pieces. It was such a relief to see them in concrete, because we knew nothing could happen now -- there was no way anything could go wrong."
"It's a really cathartic moment when you stand on one of those things," agrees Collins.
"Because," says Younger, "every minute during the whole process, there's something that could rip or break or tear or get crushed while they're still in clay or rubber. They could fall over, something could hit them, anything could happen. So it's a good feeling to look at them in concrete, to stand on them. To kick them." He grins, twirls an index finger in the air. "Hurray," he says.
The Blue Genie boys have been working together since they collaborated on some Austin Mardi Gras floats in the late Nineties. Skagen, having parted ways with former mural-making colleague Bill Brakhage, was working solo at the time; Collins and Younger were a team called Black Mountain Art. (See the Chronicle feature "A Mysteriously Happy Atmosphere," by John Spong, Oct. 23, 1998.)
"We wound up doing so many projects together," says Skagen, "that we decided to dissolve the separate businesses and plan a new corporation."
"We did the Brainmobile for Thinkwell together, after Mardi Gras," says Younger. "And we figured, this is what we need to be doing: jobs that use all of our skills."
"We have diverse skills," says Collins, "and that allows us to accomplish things together that there's no way we could do by ourselves. And we wanted to have employees, too, to be a real, viable business. And we knew we'd be closer to that if the three of us actually joined forces instead of just continually collaborating. So we moved into this place in '99, got to work, set up a Web site."
"It was kind of miraculous that we lucked into this space at the right time," says Younger. "When Mike first approached us about the state project, we were working out of our back yards, there was no way we could have done it then. But now, with this huge warehouse ... "
Blue Genie Art Industries has been a long time coming -- even further back than the Nineties, if you present this creative triumvirate one by one, if you sort of construct maquettes for panels of their own personal histories.
"My brothers and sisters were a little older than I was," says Skagen, "so I was by myself a lot. I enjoyed drawing and painting and, well, making stuff. And as I got older I just kept doing it."
"My earliest memories are of art," says Collins. "I won a church competition for a Christmas drawing of a snowman when I was four or five years old, and I still have pretty potent memories of that drawing. In high school, art classes were, ah, where all the hot chicks were -- that was always a benefit. And I was a studio art major in college." He pauses, looks past the office door to the busy warehouse beyond. The remains of the recent mold-making job are out there, along with a scattering of large, cartoonish figures carved from Styrofoam.
"I never thought I'd be able to do this commercially," says Collins. "Professionally, I mean. A lot of people think, 'Oh, I'm gonna put on a beret and go become a painter or a sculptor.' And I think all of us finally had harsh realizations that it wasn't gonna happen like that. We went through maybe a 10-year period where that wasn't going on. So we had to create this ourselves."
"I come from a theatre background," says Younger. "I've done theatre since I was in the Christmas pageant play at Hyde Park Baptist School in sixth grade. That, combined with some cool things I've been able to do -- like, my parents and I built a log house in Idaho and lived in it with no electricity or running water -- that gave me a sense of wanting to create things physically. And later there was the realization that there's no money to be made in theatre. I mean, you could do theatre until you're a hundred million years old and never have a dime. So now it's a hobby that I really enjoy, but I choose to make my living here, with something more tangible and longer-lasting -- like the state job. Most of the stuff we do, who knows where it'll be 10, 20 years from now? But these panels, that's something our grandchildren will see -- our grandchildren's grandchildren, even. That museum's not going anywhere."
"We've come away from this project with a great sense of pride," says Collins.
And now that the state job's been done, now that their handiwork is on display in such a serious and respectable manner, what's next for Blue Genie Art Industries?
"We're currently working on a 65-foot bas-relief mural for Central Market South," says Skagen. "It's based on several Cézanne still-lifes. It'll be in color -- jars of fruit on a table, that sort of thing -- hopefully looking like a Cézanne painting when it's done." And will this be in concrete, too? Skagen shakes his head. "It's an interior piece, so it'll be done in Styrofoam." Then there was the Carmen Miranda zebra for Lucy in Disguise. "And we just finished an artcar for the SIMS Foundation," says Collins. "A tattooed and pierced Volkswagen Beetle."
"We do a lot of charity work," affirms Skagen. "But maybe ... heh ... maybe we don't want to say that -- we don't want to do any more. We're kept pretty busy."
"That's one of the reasons we're in Austin," says Younger. "What other town would foment a business like ours? Where else would you have a main strip with businesses that'll display sculptures like the ones we've done along South Congress? There's a quality to what we produce that's kind of -- well, it's specifically Austin, you know, in a way that other cities are just now catching on to."
But what would they like to do, these veritably state-approved Blue Genie boys who delight in granting the city's more fantastic design wishes?
Kevin Collins smiles. "Well, it's rumored ... " he says slyly. "Rumor has it ... that Parks and Wildlife wants to do a dinosaur. Life-size. In bronze. And, you know, we wouldn't mind working on that project."
His partners laugh, nodding. "Yeah," says Dana Younger, eyes bright. "We wouldn't mind that at all."