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Patterson files at NO!art headquarters-east
Clayton Patterson files at NO!art headquarters-east archives

CLAYTON PATTERSON was born in 1948 to working class parents in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His father's family was Scottish and migrated from eastern to western Canada, and his mother was decended from Swedes who originally settled in Minnesota. His father was a strict religious iconoclast who held a long succession of blue collar jobs and his mother was a nurse's aid at a children's hospital. Patterson's early experiences growing up poor instilled a passionate hatred of inequality and social discrimination that would later influence his career choices and creative work.

Patterson attended local public schools and after completing the ninth grade, he left home. He continued attending high school, and due to the influence of an inspiring teacher, he developed an interest in art. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. There he first met Elsa Rensaa, who later would become his life partner and collaborator.

At the art school he found the faculty disappointing and the experience alienating. He soon left and within a few years enrolled in the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he studied art education and printmaking. A faculty member there recommended him for a job teaching art at a public school in rural Alberta, where the students came from a variety of backgrounds, including native students from Canadian Indian reserves. He was able to finish his degree while he taught and found the work to be inspiring and personally rewarding.

After three years of teaching, he decided to pursue his artistic ambitions again, and enrolled in the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, which by the 1970s had become an international center of experimental art that featured visiting artists such as Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg, Eric Fischl, Joseph Beuys and Vito Acconci. There he focused on etching and printmaking, and benefited from the school's cosmopolitan student body and strong ties to New York City. Through connections at the school he and Rensaa visited New York for the first time in 1976 and stayed at the experimental performance center, the Franklin Furnace.

After obtaining his degree, Patterson taught printmaking at the University of Alberta Extension and later at the Alberta College of Art and Design while Rensaa worked as a commercial art designer. He had his first print exhibition in Burnaby, British Columbia in 1977 and in 1978 represented Alberta College of Art and Design in an international print exhibition in Katmandu, Nepal. By 1979 he had tired of the administrative politics at the college and that year he and Rensaa decided to move to New York City to pursue their art careers.

Life on the Lower East Side

After a brief stay in Brooklyn, they settled on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. To support themselves while they created paintings, prints, photography and sculpture, they both worked in a commercial shop making prints of famous artworks. Soon Patterson immersed himself in the Soho art scene and in 1979 the Frank Marino Gallery gave him his first New York show.

For the next few years he continued to have shows at the Soho gallery, but spent more and more time exploring the culture and art scene of the Lower East Side and East Village. In 1982, he and Rensaa bought a building on Essex Street that would become their home, art studio, printshop and gallery. It also served as the base for Clayton Hats, the project that produced custom embroidered hats and jackets beginning in 1985.

While photographing performers at the Pyramid Club in 1986, Patterson was introduced to the video camera by downtown nightlife videographer Nelson Sullivan. He took to the new medium immediately, and over the next two years shot over 250 performances at CBGBs, Pyramid Club, the Tompkins Square Park Bandshell, Irving Plaza, the Ritz and other venues around the city. Rensaa became his video editor. He also documenetd the graffitti and illegal tattoo art scene and became a leading figure in the movement to legalize tattoo parlors in New York City.

His life changed dramatically on the night of August 6-7, 1988 when he gained notoriety for videotaping the Tompkins Square Park police riot. In what was the first of many legal cases for Patterson that concerned artists’ rights to their work and freedom of expression, he was arrested for refusing to give up his tape and sent to jail for eight days before a settlement was negotiated that allowed his release. The actions of officers that night against neighborhood residents, homeless individuals, affordable housing advocates, anarchists, squatters and others resulted in the filing of over 100 complaints of police brutality. The footage was important evidence in the investigations and legal proceedings that followed and several officers were disciplined or criminally indicted. The city also paid an estimated $2-3 million in settlements to the injured.

As Patterson admits, the Tompkins Square Park tape changed the direction of his work and his life. Afterwards, he became actively involved in neighborhood struggles and his video and photography often focused on such issues as the homeless crisis, drug trafficking, police corruption and the displacement of the poor and artists by gentrification. He began the Clayton Presents cable shows (1990-1993) to use his video to expose problems and advocate for change. The Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum became a meeting place for artists in the area and exhibitions featured their work. Through his friendship with the artist and holocaust survivor Boris Lurie, Patterson joined the NO!art Movement and in 1994 his gallery featured the first of several NO!art shows to be held there.

Today Patterson lives with Rensaa in the same location. He continues to photograph and videotape events on the Lower East Side and exhibit his work. Over the years, his photography and writings have appeared in numerous publications and he began to publish his own books about the area in 2005. He dedicates much time to publishing books on the history and culture of the area and organizing the archive that he has built with Rensaa. He also mentors many young artists. In 2008, three of them, Dan Levin, Jenner First and Ben Solomon released the documentary feature film Captured, which documents Patterson's life and work.

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BORIS LURIE ABOUT CLAYTON PATTERSON: Everybody knows that Mr. Patterson is the mayor of the Lower East Side, in fact not just a lazyballot-wise elected mayor, but a History-appointed Fuehrer. When he walks the streets of the Lower East Side, followed by his armaments'-keeper Elsa Rensaa, armed with television x-ray apparatura, battle dressed with a red beard and fright'ning skull-and-death bones almost SS looking cap - the sidewalks of the former Jewish Lower East Side tremble. The bearded and proletarian Jews don't live there any more to tremble. The sorry neo-Yuppies, who've occupied the neighborhood now, don't tremble, because they were born just yesterday. This is an age when the artists rule the world it's they who've liberated us from the curse of the Evil Empire. It's they who run the Wall Street global economy so profitably It is the Andy Warhols and the Keith Harings (and Rauschenbergs and Jasper Johnses, particularly Frank Stella) who single handedly have elevated us to become the Führer of the Culture World. Not only Culture World but World, wherever in Indonesia and Africa and the former Soviet Union that it might thrive, the gay world But Clayton Patterson, though he appreciates the organizational and financial accomplishments of acclaimed left-wing revolutionary geniuses like the deceased Warhol's - just stubbornly refuses to make profit, from this art-business/world. And why? - his phony mephistophelic red beard is just too red for that. Though if they whistle for the Kanuk, could he resist the call of the Canadian Wild? The Great Reformer Gorbachev could not resist the Siren's aria. But Mayor Clayton puts himself in such an obnoxious light, instinctively perhaps, foregoing the norms and ways and how one should behave at gentle openings and learn how one is meant to talk. Jew-York and not back-woods Kanuks, the call from the wilds will likely never have a chance to come. Meantime - he works on the telephone, and even more intensely than how the Wall Street brokers harangue-telephone. And Art (Great Modern, or post-Modern or whatnot) isn't anymore what the graduates of noble universities accept as fact: the avant-gardes thrive only through the outside, unloved people. And wasn't Van Gogh, Chayim Soutine, outside Soho salons?

Published in: NO!art Show No 3, catalog, New York, 1998

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