Artist captures complex local character on film
It might go without saying, but Wayne Propst isn’t into Mary Kay cosmetics.
His homestead north of Lawrence is full of objects that are part-joke, part-art and part-social commentary. Think: A candy machine full of glass shards, or a Santa Claus figure smashed by a mousetrap.
The lines on Propst’s face show this is a guy who has done some living. At first blush, he might not seem like the type of character a photographer like Nick Vaccaro might focus his lens on.
Vaccaro is a hometown boy done good. Based in New York City, he has photographed dozens of celebrities and amassed an impressive client list ranging from Rolling Stone magazine to cosmetics giant Mary Kay.
“I think a professional like Nick could get some really good pictures of anyone,” Propst says. “The fact that he was interested in me would enhance what’s going on there. I saw his Mary Kay photos – here are these Mary Kay slobs – Jesus Christ! Within the parameters of what they want him to do, and his photos are right on the money.
“Now, I’m no Mary Kay saleswoman, but he’s got the skills.”
The relationship between Vaccaro and Propst started at Teller’s restaurant in Lawrence.
Vaccaro, back from New York City, was having dinner with his mother a little more than a year ago.
“He immediately caught my eye,” Vaccaro says of Propst. “I said, ‘I have to photograph him.'”
So he did. A lot.
Over the course of the last year, Vaccaro hung out with Propst at his home, went with him to the landfill (where he finds materials for his eclectic projects) and spent time with him at the Bourgeois Pig, 6 E. Ninth St., Propst’s favorite hangout.
Those photos are the subject of a documentary exhibit that opens tonight at the Pig. It’s called “Wayne’s World.”
To understand the photos – and why Vaccaro felt compelled to take them – you have to understand a little of that world.
Propst, 61, might be best known as a pal – he considers himself a “student” – of William S. Burroughs, the famed beat writer who called Lawrence home for the latter part of his life.
“What intrigued me at first was that he knew Burroughs and all that,” Vaccaro says. “But I found Wayne was his own entity. He has just as strong a personality.”
A look around Propst’s property shows that. Most nooks and crannies of his home, barns, trees, fence posts, etc., are filled with projects that reveal his sense of humor and outlook on life.
¢ Bags full of shredded-up Bibles, as if they’re for sale. The label reads “Bible Trash.”
¢ A windmill made out of a bicycle.
¢ An orangutan hanging from a tree.
¢ A gravestone that says, “W. Propst. Bull(crap) jokester.”
“I’m not really an artist,” Propst explains. “The reason I wince at the notion of art is I know some real artists, and I almost feel like I’m disrespecting them to say, ‘I’m an artist, too.’
“What I do tends more toward performance than the actual object. It’s how I’m trying to push the object, the behaviors I use to push the artwork. I mess with people’s minds that way.”
In many ways, the documentary series is as much about Vaccaro’s world as it is “Wayne’s World.”
Shooting portraits of celebs like Danny Glover, Sarah Jessica Parker and Mariah Carey might sound somewhat glamorous.
Vaccaro, who is 46, assures that it’s not.
“The hours. The abuse. Being treated as a second-hand employee,” Vaccaro says. “They think it’s just me. But it’s both of us. People who realize that it’s collaborative are going to be the best picture.”
And that’s what Vaccaro likes most about photographing Propst – it’s different from his 23 years in New York. Here was a guy who understood what Vaccaro wanted to do, who gave him the time he needed for an in-depth project and who was pretty much up for anything.
Vaccaro says the photos ended up showing both the face Propst tries to show in public, and the more private side of who he truly is.
“Everything he does in public is a performance,” Vaccaro says. “His outbursts, his sense of humor. Everything is out there on the table.
“I learned more from him in one year than I had learned from everybody else in my entire life. He tells it as it is.”
Vaccaro’s interest in photography goes back to his days at Lawrence High School, where he graduated in 1979. He graduated from Kansas University four years later.
Both of his parents were artists. His father, also named Nick, was a well-known painter and KU art professor who died in 2002. His mother, Lu, still lives in Lawrence and is primarily a potter.
Lu Vaccaro says Propst – who is a friend of hers – was a perfect subject for her son as he examines the future of his career.
“Artists like to change their involvement, their own images, so they have something new to look at,” Lu Vaccaro says. “I don’t think he’d done a character study quite this intense before.”
Vaccaro intends to continue shooting for commercial clients, most of whom come to him nowadays with assignments, rather than the other way around. But he’s wanting to pursue more fine art photography than he did earlier in his career.
He’s also wanting to back away from New York City now, spending half his time in Lawrence and the other half at a mountainous property he recently purchased in eastern Washington, where he is renovating a cabin.
As the show opens at the Bourgeois Pig, Propst says he won’t be bothered to have photos of himself lining the walls of his hangout.
Besides, he says, the photos aren’t really about him.
“This is 1 percent Propst and 99 percent Nick,” Propst says. “It’s probably 99.9 percent. I have to say I’ve worked with other people who were not very good at … Well, I’ll use a sports analogy. There are coaches who don’t get the best out of their players. And there are other coaches who are doing something that make people who are (screw)-ups do pretty good.”