The Story of an Artist’s Fevered Dream That Turned Into His Life’s Work
Piece-by-piece, sculptor John Frame is building a fantasy world and a fantastic tale. But not even he knows how it ends.
He had all but given up on making art. In 2004, following two decades busily making art in Los Angeles, John Frame was slogging through what would turn into a brutal 5-year creative dry spell. Known primarily as a sculptor, Frame is in fact a master of many trades — critic David Pagel once wrote, “If John Frame were in the movie business, he would be a costume designer, stylist, set decorator, prop master, lighting specialist, writer, director, editor, producer, agent and publicist all rolled into one.” All that creative potential, and yet a long line of false starts marched straight into the garbage.
Frame decided it best for his mental health that he move on from pursuits that were giving him no joy.
“Actually the feeling was one of relief, because I’d been torturing myself for so long about not being able to work,” he says. “I’m very … self-punishing, I suppose is the right word, when it comes to not being able to do what I feel like I’m called to do. I was really just filled with anxiety and tension, and the minute I decided not to continue doing it, all of that just evaporated.”
His decision would turn out to be the prelude to a moment of inspiration unlike any he’d ever experienced, or even imagined.
“It was like the artist’ block had never been there,” recalls Frame. It was just gone. I had genuinely let go of the idea that I was ever going to break through, and it was literally two or three days after that this thing happened.”
“This thing” happened shortly after Frame had fallen asleep. He awoke suddenly in the early morning hours, suspended in what he has since learned to call a hypnopompic state, the strange and often vividly creative cognitive nether realm between sleeping and waking. A sprawling vision began to unfold before his mind’s eye. A grand story, its vast cast of characters, architecture and environments, all appearing to him in ways that suggested sculpture, photography, and film.
“The more I watched it the more things came and the more complex it became,” he says. “I realized that they were moving, first, which meant that this thing I was seeing was some sort of articulated sculpture that was almost certainly animation, and my conscious mind was saying ‘Wow, I’m going to become an animator.’”
Frame felt he had been handed an imaginary world to usher into the real one, a sweeping narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end, all set in a universe he’d never seen before, though it had emerged from his own mind.
Grabbing a pad and paper as soon as he emerged from this ‘download’ mode, Frame spent the whole day taking down notes from the experience. What he’d thought would be five or six pages would up as nearly 70.
“Everything from the narrative to sketches of the characters to costuming, to actions, to scenes, set designs, what the landscape looked like, what the architecture looked like,” he says. “It was just an unbelievable experience, and of course I was pretty much holding my breath the entire time.”
The notes would serve as the first sketches of The Tale of the Crippled Boy, a sweeping and powerful project composed of photography, animated vignettes and fully-articulated sculptures, down to the fingers and eyes.
“It was such a tremendous relief from not having worked for so long,” he says. “But as it was unfolding I was thinking, shit, this is going to take me the rest of my life if I’m going to be serious about doing this. So even at that moment I recognized how large it was. The following day I started working on it, and here we are nine years later and it’s still what I do every day.”
Frame set to work immediately, logging day upon 12-hour day in the studio. Carving and fashioning the characters, sets and objects while the sun was up, his evenings were given to research on the practices and traditions of stop motion film and photography. After all, this was a guy who knew almost nothing about the technicalities of cameras, yet he had just been informed that he was to bring a word to life in photographs and film. He had some studying to do.
The Tale of the Crippled Boy has since emerged as a series of fragments of the larger story. Each element is suffused in the atmosphere of its own world, portraying a richly realized aesthetic and a deep sense of mystery. With the assistance of his son-in-law Johnny Coffeen, the environments and figures — sometimes fanciful, sometimes dark or humorous — have emerged as sculptures, as photographs, as film, each a shard of evidence hinting at the grand narrative that was revealed to the imaginary world’s creator.
Viewers find themselves dropped into the middle of dark, ethereal scenes populated by strange characters and found objects. They play out pretty much without anything in the way of context, or even dialogue. Epic conflicts and relationships connect fantastic characters in scenes rife with drama. Whether viewed online, in a film or a gallery, the story is not presented in linear fashion, leaving the viewer to grope for their sense of place in the midst of an arc whose beginning and end they can’t possibly trace.
Everything is part of an intuitive whole, even though the whole is not really known to anyone, even Frame.
“It makes sense to me as a work of art, not as a ‘Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,’” says Frame. “When I see that kind of overt symbolism, my inclination is really to move away from it or in certain cases to destroy it, because it makes the work transparent in a way that doesn’t appeal to me. I’m constantly looking for a non-verbal reaction to what I do that feels right, that isn’t about how I think about the world — it just feels right and it feels meaningful.”
These vignettes amass to give The Tale of the Crippled Boy a literary sense of depth without a single word being spoken. Each environment is painstakingly rendered, a fully realized work of art on its own — the figures, the sets, the props, every single element brought in from the ether with utmost care. The initial moment of twilight inspiration still informs where these elements come from and how they emerge.
According to Frame, the idea even came with a set of instructions, as to how the work was to be produced and the life it was to live in the real world. Frame was not to make any money off of the work — he says all funds that come from selling prints and whatnot have gone straight back into the project, and all of the visual material is made free to the public on the Internet.
Another instruction limited how many people were even to know about the work while it was being made. This is the one point where Frame is guarded about the project; his creative process is a private one, and while he is wide open about all the work he’s done so far, he remains mum on the most recent phase that he is in the process of bringing out.
“I don’t want to in any way dissipate this energy, and I also don’t want to in any way dishonor this thing that I’ve been given. So it’s kind of a complex relationship between this thing that I don’t fully understand, and me,” he says. “All of this stuff is coming from some intuitive location and I constantly try to be faithful to that.”
“I believe that intuition that is a kind of supra- or extra-intellectual process — I’m smarter when I’m not thinking than I am when I’m thinking, if that makes any sense. And I just trust that when I’m working.”
Leading up to the first exhibition of the work — which included presentations of the sculptures themselves alongside segments of film, text, sets, and photographs — Frame took some 10,000 pictures. In the process, he learned that a photograph might, at first, appear like a strong portrait full of meaning, but would turn out reading more like commercial product shots of the things he’d built, devoid of any emotional ‘oomph’. Realizing this as he saw them hanging in LA’s Huntington Library, he ended up taking down half of the (rather expensively) framed photographs just before the exhibition opened.
The images that carried the most mojo turned out to be the ones in which the characters or scenes had dictated their own trajectory in front of the lens, often in ways that were at odds with what Frame had originally envisioned. Outside inspirations have shaped the work, of course — the Quay Brothers are an easy influence to name, for example — but the work remains the driving creative force behind itself.
In keeping with what has become a relationship of respect for the world he’s creating, Frame continues to present the material in whatever way it chooses to be realized.
“The characters kind of become volitional, they sort of say ‘well I know you wanted me to walk seven inches to the left and pick this thing up, but what I’d rather do is turn around and walk away from the camera,’ and I just go with that,” Frame says. “As the pieces evolved, I just let them go where they wanted. So in fact the world that I created is in some ways richer and more complicated than the world that I saw.”
That first exhibition at the Huntington Library collected elements of Frame’s world in one physical location. There were arrangements of photographs and film, while some 35 sculptures sat frozen under inches-wide pools of light, their fine details and expressiveness all the more apparent in person.
As a viewer entering the space, the impression of a story with deep intent was palpable, hard to believe that it all emerged from a single early morning fevered dream.
As to where this all came from, Frame remains circumspect. Whatever the source, he’s just happy to have been given so much work to do.
“During that 5-year period when I was so intensely blocked, by unconscious mind was building this thing, it was just working on this huge kind of realm that was being borne out of all of the frustration,” he says. “In the end it doesn’t come from me, it comes from something else, and that’s something else that I don’t understand and I personally can’t really put a name on it — it just came to me as a gift and in a strange way unbidden. I didn’t really ask for it, and once it arrived, from that time until this I’ve treated it as a complete gift.”