Arts 

PHANTASMA: LEE BARRON’S CLOUD CLUB

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A foot inside The Cloud Club is like stepping through the looking glass. You half expect the Cheshire Cat to slink up the creaky stairs, past disassembled doll limbs and curving plaster walls. It’s the scene of a fantastical tea. The ultimate treehouse.

Mali Sastri, Jaggery frontwoman

Inside two simple South End brownstones is a conceptual artistic environment assembled from what others discard—the junk of back alley dumpsters or the sidewalk just before trash pickup–all melded into something functional and unique. It’s interior design outside the cash economy.

“We work from a need,” says Lee Barron, the 69-year-old outsider artist from Montana, who bought the place in 1973. He sips his beverage from a large, glass measuring cup. “If you have a need and you don’t have a chair, you see a chair in the street, but with no legs and no arms and no back. You’re still need-driven. So you start having an eye for what might fit your needs, and, low and behold, you tend to find it.”

Barron addressed this need by binding parts of three discarded chairs into one, using deer antlers to support its back. Years later, functional creations like this one fill his home—quite an improvement from the “shell” he bought for a mere $8,000. The house now acts as a creative haven (and performance venue) for a collective of artists like musician Mali Sastri, filmmaker  Michael Pope, writer Geeta Dayal and, for 11 years, Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer.

Watch Palmer’s 1999 Cloud Club interview with Barron here:

But Barron explains: “I don’t make things, they make themselves.” That’s his mantra. It’s never about producing something or turning out a product, but about letting creations develop at their own will.

“If the product becomes the subject then you’re no longer being an artist,” he says.

Take the giant tree trunk for instance that emerges right out of the floor on the building’s top level. Deer antlers are attached, so that it functions as a ladder to an elevated, tree house-like loft above. It’s like visiting the Swiss Family Robinson.

Barron cut the tree down himself (in the forest no less) and he’ll launch into the elaborate tale of how he pulled the whole act off:

“We chainsawed it and put one end on my friend’s lawnmower. I took the other end and we hobbled it out of the woods and to my old painted truck I had been living in and drove it to the Cloud Club and hoisted it through a hole in the wall that later became a window.”

But he says the truth of the matter is much simpler: “It happened because I needed it to happen.”

Still, there’s a huge chunk of the Cloud Club interior that errs outside of physical utility: contoured walls of plaster, soft to the touch with cutout holes to other rooms; a skylight straight to the moon (if you’re standing in the right spot); walls and ceilings covered in mirrors. While these interior innovations might not be “physical necessities,” Barron places them in the realm of aesthetic functionality.

“Maybe the room feels small to me or dark to me, there’s only two little windows on each end,” he says. “I have a need for the room to feel brighter, to pass the light around. I have a need for the room to feel larger. There’s a wall there, on the other side of the wall birds are chirping so why not put a window in that wall?”

The result:  an intentional blur of interior and exterior. There are windows in floors, holes in walls and a glass dome on the top floor that curves convexly into “outside space.” Conventional windows were removed and replaced with sliding glass doors that double the light flow and can be slid completely open during the summer months.

The only constant in this house is reconstruction—everything eternally growing, developing and assembling itself, with Barron as creator and self described “relentless improver.”

But Barron says that’s the fun of it all, and the real prize that comes with getting older.

“Everything’s just getting richer and richer because now they’ve had 20 years to write themselves,” he says. “Now you get the real goodies, you understand what to do with them, you’ve got the arsenal of art pieces to assemble, and they’re all assembling themselves constantly all dancing around at the house turning themselves into things.”

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