Whale of a secret
A house fire sparks renewed interest in a hilariously hush-hush art club.
In the weeks since an electrical fire ripped through their Pilsen home, artists Michelle Faust, Kenneth Morrison and Nat Ward have been overwhelmed by an outpouring of charity. People have made cash donations to a PayPal account. A television, furniture, and pots and pans have been offered up. Volunteers even stepped up to clear out the scorched remains of Morrison’s possessions. (He lost almost everything to the blaze, which started near a TV in his upstairs apartment.)
Along with donations, supporters shared fond Facebook remembrances of “The Whale,” the nickname given to the house as headquarters of the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey, a kind of tongue-in-cheek Freemason fraternity for starving artists. In 1997, Morrison, 45, a metal worker, founded the group to revisit the art-school ethos of exploring different mediums purely for fun, something he says had been lost in the careerism of client and portfolio work. Though the Lamprey has been dormant for about a year, the fire has “created a lot of nostalgia for the location, and that has fueled new interest in the group,” he says. “We’ll probably resume meeting once we get back on our feet.”
That’s good news for a loose lot of Pilsen artists once nurtured inside the Whale’s kitchen. “It was like a clubhouse,” Ward, 39, says of the Sunday afternoon meetings. In nature, lampreys are parasites that suck on the soft, fleshy underbelly of whales. Likewise, Lamprey members (numbering in the hundreds, Morrison says) fed off the house, both literally and creatively. Affectionately known as “the Big Sucker,” Morrison usually manned the stove top, cooking brunch.
After the meal, the “adjudication” would begin. As would the absurdity. Members of the order created and presented works—from poems to performances—based on a random word: monk one week, hair the next. (Faust, 34, once made a video in which her dead, peeling toenail sang rock songs.) It was the job of the omnipotent adjudicator (arbitrarily picked weekly) to appraise each piece and choose the next word.
To carry out the ridiculous rituals, the adjudicator dressed the part: a cape, a hat (often an unwieldy sombrero) and “the chains of obligation”—like Dumbledore meets Marley’s ghost. Wielding “the scepter of power” (a pipe-cleaning brush), the person awarded such distinguished prizes as “the matted hair of revulsion” (an old wig) and “the banana of ill repute.”
Although about 100 Lamprey works were destroyed in the fire, some 4,000 pieces, Morrison says, are safely stored in “the Lamprey vault.” Which is located where? “Sorry,” he says. “That’s a secret.”
Save the Whale by donating via PayPal. For details, go to “The Burning Whale” Facebook page.