The Seven Letter Word Game (Paperback)
Clayton ascribes to the idea that an artist can translate any activity into a work of art. His seven-letter drawings are one example. He's got lots more.
Growing up in Calgary, Canada, Clayton knew he wanted to be an artist from early on. He met Elsa Rensaa at the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1972 and they've been together since. That was the year Elsa gave him his first camera.
In 1979 they moved to New York City to work in a printmaking shop. Clayton had successful solo sculpture shows in Soho, the epicenter of the art world at the time, and his work sold to good collections, including the Brooklyn Museum. But he and Elsa felt like outsiders in the commodified, corporate, celebrity-hyped Soho scene of the 80s. They withdrew, and from then on they would make art their own way, while encouraging others to do the same.
They lived at first on Broome Street, then Bowery; then in 1983 they bought the small building at 161 Essex Street on the Lower East Side. They lived on the second floor over an Hispanic dressmaking shop. "Compared to Soho, we found the Lower East Side totally liberating," he has written. "You could be whoever you wanted to be, do whatever you wanted to do. Nobody was going to stop you. Everyone was in the same boat. Elsa has said it was like Disneyland to us, everything new and interesting."
Following their own path meant inventing ways to make a living while making art. You know how everybody in the world wears a baseball cap? Elsa and Clayton bear some large responsibility for that. In the mid-80s Elsa began embroidering Clayton's designs on baseball caps, inventing a whole new art form and fashion, the Clayton Hat. As more and more celebrities wore them -- Mick Jagger, Matt Dillon, David Hockney, Rob Reiner -- the fashion press caught the buzz, and they soon had a thriving cottage industry that was an important source of income for them.
"My work and life, how I live and what I do, are all parts of my artist's journey," Clayton says. "We transformed those baseball caps into small sculptures, and they were every bit as much works of art as any sculpture in an art gallery."
In 2021, Clayton's images would catch on in fashion again, as a Supreme line of Clayton-designed caps, jackets, shirts and jeans sold out practically overnight.
The income from Clayton Hats gave him to time to spend walking the neighborhood, taking pictures. He became an obsessive, ubiquitous documenter of Lower East Side life. He's taken hundreds of thousands of pictures, compiling a unique archive in which one can find Crips and Bloods, bikers, dope crews, drag queens, homeless men and hookers, punks and eccentrics, artists, and lots and lots of neighborhood kids, mostly Latino. He posed many subjects in front of his richly graffiti-tagged front door, and began posting some of these portrait photos in the storefront window beside the door, which got to be known around the neighborhood as the Hall of Fame. He also built up a collection of neighborhood ephemera, including heroin bags he picked up off the streets, graffiti stickers he peeled off walls, books, articles, posters, postcards, and tattoo flash, much of it rare.
Photographing at the Pyramid Club in the mid-1980s, he met Nelson Sullivan, who introduced him to the handheld video camera, new technology at the time. Video opened a new dimension in his documenting of Lower East Side life. Between photography and videography he covered all aspects of neighborhood action: drug use, drug busts, police actions, fires, marches, protests, riots, art and artists, drag queens, poetry readings, community board meetings, social gatherings, Judaica and synagogues, Hari Krishnas, tattoos, bands, performances, street fairs, doorways and so on.