But Armstrong might be surprised at GWAR’s new relationships with established cultural organizations.
GWAR celebrates its 20th birthday next year, and embarks on a month-long national tour in Winston-Salem, N.C., on April 16. But the band has also been turning up in distinctly unGWARlike places — the Valentine Richmond History Center and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.
The Valentine is acquiring several pieces of GWAR memorabilia for its permanent collection. The decision is not final, but the group is considering donating a helmet from “The Armored Clown,” Flattus Maximus, circa 1988.
The Valentine History Center has one of the largest collections of costumes on the East Coast, according to Jackie Mullins, its registrar. “This will really help us bridge the gap between last century and this one,” she says.
The pieces in the Valentine will show a slice of cultural history and shed some light on GWAR’s early days as well.
The story of the evolution of GWAR’s costumes from simple papier-mché to intricate latex molds has been the subject of presentations by the band at both the Rhode Island School of Design and the group’s alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University.
On March 9, GWAR addressed VCU’s Illustrator’s Club in the very same building where they took, or cut, classes two decades ago. GWAR spoke at the Rhode Island school in Providence on March 19 and conducted a mold-making workshop there the next day.
Members gave advice about materials and costume construction and divulged the secret thickening agent for their fake blood: carrageen, a compound extracted from certain kinds of seaweed.
GWAR even discussed the administrative matters surrounding the band’s headquarters, the Slave Pit. “The Slave Pit is not just GWAR, GWAR is just our biggest project,” Dave Brockie says.
In its heyday, the Slave Pit had 25 members. Since then, it has shrunk to 15 musicians, set builders, costume designers and craftsmen of all kinds. “In the Slave Pit, you’re not a painter or a musician or a sculptor, you’re an artist and that’s how you learn and grow,” Brockie told VCU students.
In addition to writing and playing their own music, members of the Slave Pit make all their own props, costumes, videos, and even “Slave Pit Funnies,” a seven-issue series of comic books. “Phallus in Wonderland,” a compilation of the band’s videos released in 1992 was nominated for a Best Long-Form video Grammy, but lost to Annie Lennox’s “Diva.”
In the beginning, all members paid dues. Now, all members share profits, meager though they may be.
“Of course there’s always side projects and freelance work, but I’ve basically lived off this for the past 15 years,” says Bob Gorman, who has been with the group since 1988.
“I was in art school and basically getting no response there,” Gorman says. “So I started interning with GWAR and learned way more about materials. A year later, I saw a guy I had been in school with. He was working in a frame shop and I had just gotten back from Europe.”
Members of the group were quick to point out that VCU’s even allowing them to speak showed a huge change of attitude since they were enrolled in the ’80s. The group is discussing a mold-making class for next year and talking to the Rhode Island School of Design, known in the design world as “rizdee” from its initials, about an intensive session that would work through a film or production from concept to design to execution all in one week.
“People have gone on from working with GWAR and done work on ‘Crank Yankers,’ script editing, off-Broadway costume design,” Gorman says.
According to Paul Connelly, the associate director of student life at the Rhode Island School of Design, “These guys are meticulous. They’re obviously experts. We’d love to have them back.”
“Dude, they don’t even teach this latex stuff at RISD,” Brockie noted. “We could totally pioneer this shit.”
They already have. S
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