San Diego CityBEAT
"It's the renaissance, man"
August 9, 2006
by Michael Klam

Ted Washington was once told by a shrink, "I'm a clinical therapist, and I don't think I'd let my patients read your book."

Imagine what the shrink would say about Washington's music; essentially, it's his poetry books brought to life.

Washington is an author, performance poet, ink artist and frontman for Pruitt Igoe, an opera-meets-spoken-word-pandemonium-playhouse band. The dreadlocked, king-sized iconic doorman at Winstons and The Casbah says bands like Circus Contraption—which combines apocalyptic frolicking, circus acts, orchestra music and the operatic voices of a gypsy carnival—inspire and influence him. Washington's own approach to the stage favors primordial screaming and elevated weirdness, high-volume saturnalia and chaos humor. His is not the typical, sedate spoken-word performance. You know the kind: the traditional trip through the poet's ego of sit down, shut up and behold my sonnets. Washington's shows are loud and unfettered—they jump off the stage and into the audience.

Washington's brainchild, Pruitt Igoe (named after an infamous public housing project in the neighborhood where he grew up in St. Louis that would eventually degrade to the point of having to be imploded and demolished), blows away the common poetry show. It features electronic musician Matthew Kerr, mezzo-soprano Molly Whittaker, guitarist Jon Cordova, percussionist Chad Farran, bassist and violinist Are Jay Hoffman, trombonist Andy Geib and dancer Coco Campbell.

Audiences at Pruitt Igoe events spend the night on their feet, leaning in and around each other to catch every bit of anomaly and trying to figure out what to do with it. Do they listen, dance, scream, feel, jump into the fray or take it as spectacle and just watch?

A moment in the show can go something like this: Whittaker fires off an operatic shriek that almost decalcifies the spine, then follows with a fine line—a note of musical perfection that holds the chaos at bay and keeps the room from shattering. Cordova's guitar distorts the air while Kerr's keyboards rein in Campbell's sometimes silky, sometimes frantic and drunken body movements. Then the trombone, the violin and Washington's deep voice as it bangs off Whittaker's high notes. And next comes Washington, solo, loud, ranting about sex, war, peace, love.

People want
Sex drugs and death
If they wanted
Rock and Roll
There would be
More guitars
Than guns

All of the poetry comes from Washington's collections and the small pieces of paper that fill his Ocean Beach apartment. For years he wrote witticisms, philosophy and chunks of poetry on little pieces of paper while working the door. He gave most of them to the patrons in the bars and threw some away. Nowadays he keeps them. He just recently published his third anthology.

His latest book, Less, was released last year by Puna Press. The collection combines 16 of Washington's original black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, portraits of faces mostly on illustration board and 57 pages of poems.

"I don't know how [the drawings and poems] become connected," says Washington. "The imagery connection would be more just the feel of the book, the intense black-and-whiteness of the book in stark contrast against pages with no artwork," he says.

"The art offers an escape that the poetry cannot, and the poetry answers something that the art cannot," he continues. "The art gets me away."

Washington employs a style of pointillism in his drawings—thousands of dots made with four pens, all different in point size—that can take months to finish. Some days he works for 14 hours straight in long meditations, secluded in his room.

The long hours produce real results; Washington's drawings have been winning awards since 2000, including first place at the Twelfth Annual Juried Competition at the Veridian Gallery in New York and best of show at the 20th La Quinta Arts Festival. His artwork is currently showing in San Diego, Santa Monica and New York.

Washington has purposely created a life that keeps his art at the center. "I have part-time jobs that only require that I be there on time," he explained. "When I'm at work, I'm reading art books, I'm writing, I'm doing art at work. I made those decisions before. I had serious work and I hated living. I didn't even feel like I was alive. I worked for the IRS as a collection officer."

Along with being a bagman for the feds, Washington has been a baker, a laborer and a retail salesman. At one point, he was the No. 1 salesman in women's accessories in Denver.

Washington says he could never go back to that life; he says his art and poetry are in full swing, and stopping is not an option.

Art is my anchor
holding on tight
in deep over my head
the bottom in sight
Art is my anchor
holding me down
if I let go now
I'm doomed to drown

Ted Washington's drawings will be featured in a show with the San Diego Drawing Group at the Art Institute of California-San Diego, 7650 Mission Valley Road, through Sept. 29. An artists' reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11, and feature the music of Pruitt Igoe. Washington's poetry collections are available at The Black, 5017 Newport Ave., in Ocean Beach.

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