It was a Settlers + Nomads kind of moment. On June 18, a small group of artists and friends who had met in Las Vegas at one point and time travelled to the high desert from Nevada, Michigan, Tennessee and Maryland to make art and celebrate a beloved tradition. In honor of the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade “Bearded and Shucked” was a collaboration organized by artists and former Las Vegans Erin Stellmon and Aaron Sheppard featuring a pop-up exhibition and a parade in Joshua Tree, California.
I met Erin Stellmon and Aaron Sheppard in graduate school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where they discovered a shared love of Coney Island, and both have made work influenced in some way by their experiences on the boardwalk. I asked both artists to share some thoughts on Coney Island and the Mermaid Parade.
“The first time I went to The Mermaid Parade at Coney Island was in 1999, and I had just graduated from Parsons. I had always gone home to Portland for summers when I was in school, but this was my first summer staying in New York, my first summer of real adulthood, and also my first summer of freedom. I had been to Coney before, ridden the Cyclone, haggled with the Russian junk sellers, sat on the beach with a 40, but I had no idea what the Mermaid Parade would be like. I had no idea of its magic.
I was always a fan of the idea of Coney, the place built for the working man to shed the stress of the city, (just a subway ride away!). Before trains went out to Jones Beach, Robert Moses made sure that commoners couldn’t take the bus out there by purposefully building the overpasses too low so only people who had cars could go. Ah heck, who cared when you had Astroland and your square 2 feet of sand? I love seeing photos of Coney back in the day, the excitement and romance were captured in every photo…the Coney of the late nineties was run down and a little dangerous, but it was cool and you felt you belonged…because everybody did.
On my first Mermaid Parade Day I was awed with sparkle and flesh of all sizes and booze and inclusion. The person who wouldn’t make eye contact with you on the subway yesterday was now dressed in a tutu and wanting to have a sing along. You made friends in every beer, bathroom and fried clam line. I was overwhelmed with happiness, you know the kind where you just say to yourself quietly, “I am soo happy!” and live in it for a second? No? Well it’s the best, you should try it.
Coney reinvents itself, and people and businesses come and go, but it is a place that is layered with the residue of years and years of happiness. You can feel it in the air and taste it in the beer. That first parade made me feel like I was going to be okay in New York, that people of every walk of life were able to survive here and I would too. I just needed to make sure I made time to not take myself so seriously. Just learn to relax and put a fin on every once in a while.
I realize now that Aaron Sheppard was most likely there too in 1999, but I guess we weren’t meant to meet until six years later in Vegas. When we found out about our mutual adoration for the parade, we vowed to go to Coney together some day, and now that I am back on the east coast I thought our dream of sharing the parade could actually happen. Unfortunately, he said he couldn’t make it this year, so instead of splashing around without him, I decided to bring a bit of the ocean to him in Joshua Tree. Nothing like the spirit of ridiculousness to help plan a parade in three weeks.
When I first moved to Vegas I made constant comparisons to the strip and to Coney island, playgrounds for the people, you get it. There were also similarities with dilapidation and reinvention, the parallels went on an on, it was ripe for MFA exploration. This painting from that time when I was making those associations with my past and my present is of the closed roller coaster that was left standing for many years and featured in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (see clip here.)
Link to artist’s website – erinstellmon.com
“It’s because of the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island that I have such an obsession with mermaids…
I have been attending the Mermaid Parade since ’96. I’ve been about 12 times, I guess. I have a core group of people I go with and meet there almost religiously. We would always focus on being at the freak show bar and Ruby’s on the boardwalk. It brings like-minded happy freaks together to celebrate being the festive outsiders to society we are. We kiss and dance and have conversations as if we’re in a fairy tale. We admire creative decorations and our sense of sexual adventure heightens and is expressed through words and actions of admiration for another’s costume. We express raw, instinctual, spontaneous, drunk love for Chicken Man.
I always wanted to live in Coney Island because of the Mermaid Parade. It’s a gritty part of Brooklyn with deceptions of summer midway fun on a beach. Entering the ocean leaves one bleeding from broken glass and needles. Used discarded tampons float by. Seagulls attack one another over piles of mutilated corn dog bags and dive bomb people holding funnel cakes. Unclothed kids piss in the sand amongst broken beer bottles.
It’s usually hot sweaty weather (it being a celebration of the summer solstice and all) hot and filled to the gills with smelly freaks trying to make room for their costumes amongst the others in the crowd, as spectators with cameras demand their own perfectly posed shot. The day consists of fighting our way in one line for a beer, then moving to another hoping not to piss your fish costume before reaching the jam-packed party of costumes in the coed-for-the-day johns. Cops may harass someone for having a bare blue ass or tits just as soon as the festivities end. Local gangs and moms threaten with looks, actions and words. The subway is filled with spent warriors of the day half clothed and half consciously aware. We spend or loose all our cash. Phones are misplaced as well as some pals that wander away for a smoke or makeout session or God only knows what.
For these few reasons alone, the Coney Island MP continues to be one of the most heavenly of earthly delights for me. It’s infiltrated my soul and my attitude towards artistic expression.”
Link to artist’s website – aaronsheppard.com
Other participating artists who made the journey to Joshua Tree: JW Caldwell, Mikayla Whitmore, Yasmina Chavez and Courtney Carroll all from Las Vegas and Shannon Eakins (Dowagiac, Michigan) and Lake Newton (Memphis, Tennessee). Kristen Peterson, who was part of the festivities, reported on it for the Las Vegas Weekly. Read her first hand account of the festivities (with Mikayla Whitmore’s photos) here. Many thanks to Mikayla Whitmore/Las Vegas Weekly for sharing the title image and this image below:
Aaron Sheppard lives and works in Joshua Tree, CA. He has gallery representation at Western Project in Los Angeles where he will be exhibiting in a two-person show with Carol Caroompas this October 2016. He is currently collaborating with artist Joe Baker on a performance piece to debut in New York City’s Washington Square this October. He will also exhibit new performance and audio works created in collaboration with artists Johanna Wagner and Karolina Sulich at Projekt Raum – Pool in Karlsruhe, Germany this September. Link to his e-book “Midway” here.
Erin Stellmon is a multi-disciplinary artist from Oregon who lived in Las Vegas for more than a decade. Her community-focused practice explores local manifestations of transience, memory and reinvention. In mixed-media collage work she frequently emphasizes the visual fragmentation of her compositions in order to highlight the cycles of destruction and reinvention that she perceives are endemic to the Las Vegas municipality’s civic culture. She now lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.