The artist touching up his work. Photographs by Ricky Vazquez.
“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell
and count myself a King of infinite space.”
– Hamlet, II, 2
“… seems we all have a tendency to slip.
Doesn’t it seem only the righteous
can get a grip? I wonder who
that might be – you,
– Michael Scott Addis, “Righteousness”
The lips and tongue of Michael Scott Addis are not yet fully habituated to their new set of teeth. For equally unaccustomed ears, the cumbersome cadence that issues forth from his mouth takes some getting used to. For Scotty, as he goes by, words like “righteousness” rub up against his Medicaid-provided dentures and then shove their way past with a defiant, self-assured drawl, his eyes atwinkle and secretly knowing.
Born here in Miami on February 25, 1953, Addis is a sculptor who carries the weight of familial abuse, drug addiction, and living on hot and merciless streets for most of his adult life. His works are small, mostly figures: dragons, horses, human and humanoid heads and faces, rhinoceroses.
At once ghoulish yet familiar, and naive yet disconcerting, they sporadically adorn the surroundings along Scotty’s wayward paths through the city, themselves only evident by the abundance of his work. Part decoration, part internal protrusion, they can be found in various states of [dis]repair, and at a glance, in the context of dense public spaces at odds with the natural environment one can scarcely differentiate between them and the milieu of furtive territorial daubs, cultural callouses, and subtropical urban detritus that they consist of.
Horsehead in progress.
Addis crafts using a mix of soap, ash and other materials - mushrooms for mustaches, thorns for teeth, and fish gills for eyelids – affixed to wire mesh frames. His figurations have an uncomplicated elegance and straightforward focus on form that recalls the ancients, but this belies their fierce rawness and exalted feverishness. They’re totems that signal a mind ravaged by the violence of others, circumstance, and the impulse to self-destruct. New scars from old wounds. Portals and mirrors.
Addis grew up in Liberty City and then on Miami Beach. His mother was an alcoholic and his father, Eugene, was a brutal and enormous MBPD detective. Mickey Rourke, the applauded actor of Diner, Rumble Fish, The Wrestler, and Sin City fame, is Scotty’s stepbrother. After Rourke’s father left his family, his mother Annette married Eugene when he was around six years old, and they moved in.
Rourke recalls the drama of growing up with Scotty. He witnessed his first forays into drugs, wildness, and the perilous street life that they shared. On the first day that Rourke’s family moved in with Scotty’s (they each had several brothers and sisters), they were eating at the dinner table – where no talking was allowed – and Eugene “backhanded Scotty, and he flew about four feet in the air.” Scotty started running away from home at the age of nine and was in and out of juvenile detention centers. It was around this time that he started sculpting.
A young Mickey Rourke playing Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish, speaking to Rusty James, his younger brother.
As teens Mickey and Scotty would prowl the streets of Miami Beach and sit on benches with their arms around each other’s shoulders waiting to scam the cruisers who would invariably attempt to pick them up. Rourke also says, admiringly, “He was one of the best burglars around. He could get into any house. We’d be broke and head over to North Bay Road [known for its extravagance] and hit two or three houses.”
Scotty was also a formidable athlete, “a defensive back known for laying people out,” and an amateur pugilist who sharpened his skills on those foolish enough to try them. “There was nobody that had a bigger set of balls. He’d fight guys five feet taller than him. He had no fear.” This is coming from Mickey, who was a championship-winning amateur boxer with a 27-3 record and who trained at the 5th Street Gym on South Beach where Muhammad Ali honed his floating and stinging.
The stepbrothers both found solace in the ring and on the street and, as Scotty says, the two “stuck together like stink on shit.” While Mickey boxed professionally and then entered a mythic film career after receiving a brutal concussion[i], Scotty found himself increasingly alienated. After Mickey left for the Actor’s Studio in New York in the mid-’70s, Scotty spent more time on the streets and eventually became addicted to crack and various other substances. He tried with no success over the years to hold jobs ranging from “house painter, clam digger, handyman, [to] parks department employee.”[ii]
Scotty in his room speaking about his current work.
Scotty’s life is a fractured narrative. It’s difficult for him to place events in sequence, identify years, and give context – and not only because of the traumas of abuse by his father and his long crack habit. He was in a car accident in Charlotte, North Carolina that sent him into a coma for several days and was severely maimed after finding a gas bomb while dumpster diving, which exploded when he dropped it. Scotty lived on various corners but came to settle in a shack he built behind a house in Little Haiti on NE 82nd Street and NE 2nd Avenue. He delivers these details of his life story with the hiccups and bombast of a war veteran.
Though he struggled to survive, Scotty became engrossed in his art. He moved from the rudimentary reproductions of nude statues that he made as a kid to the highly expressive masks that he now sculpts and places in bunches on trees, the walls of buildings, and other surfaces in public view. Fueled in part by the euphoric peaks and despondent valleys of the crack high, he developed a style that characterizes the nuanced array of human facial expression. He’d started out by making “1,000 eyes, 1,000 noses, 1,000 ears,” and went on to forge subjects tragic, comic, and everything in between. They were manifestations, inevitably, of his internal back-and-forth, his despair and ecstasy. But they’re also documents of the rapists, murderers and dealers, as well as the decent and good-hearted, who lived a life with him on the outskirts.
Scott Addis, outside the Rubell Family Collection.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, people came to know Scotty and his work, and found a man that was kind, funny, and extremely intelligent. They’d bring him food, converse with him, and buy some of the sculptures that he made. Most of the time it was people driving and seeing him all the time in the same areas, but a few collectors took notice too. Edward Soto, an attorney, has bought several works, as has the ethically questionable Martin Siskind, who has a bit of a history of ripping off “outsider” artists (see: Purvis Young). Scotty also had an exhibit at the Miami Beach Public Library after Leonore Barbosa, an aide there, saw him and his sculptures at the library one day and immediately recognized his talent.
Other than the unassuming and easily-missed locations, Scotty also put up his work on a tree on NW 29th Street outside the Rubell Family Collection after being told he wasn’t allowed to come in – “probably because of how I looked,” he says with a smile.
Detail of work outside the Rubell Family Collection.
Though his artistic practice grew and he maintained contact with the people who helped him, Scotty was in the depths. He’d lost touch with his family, was deep into drugs, and was exposed to the everyday dangers of homelessness. Mickey recounted the difficulty of interacting with Scotty: “For years we couldn’t really participate much with him, because you know, he was all fucked up on the crack. When I’d be down there in Miami, I couldn’t really communicate much with him. You couldn’t give him five dollars; you couldn’t give him five hundred dollars ’cuz he’d smoke it up.” Climbing up utility poles to put up his curled-lipped and smirking faces, Scotty remembered, he would just remain there and cry.
Decades passed like this, and then the inexplicable happened. On July 11, 2011, something inside him broke down, or came together – some neurochemical event took place or the hand of God flipped a switch. Scotty walked into the Better Way of Miami treatment center on NW 28th Street and NW 7th Avenue, and asked for help.
The hallway leading to Scotty’s room at Better Way of Miami.
He was taken in by the staff and immediately liked for his zealous conviviality, caring demeanor, and capricious habits. Since then, he’s been off drugs and has entered the recovery culture of daily meetings, working the steps, and gradual, never-ending healing. He now works in his small, semi-messy room. At first the space was chaotic, much like his mind and body; his hands would shake and he could barely dial on the phone.
Steven Engram, his primary counselor at Better Way, gushed about Scotty, saying with a deep laugh, “he’s what you call an acquired taste,” and that the work is an anchor for him, “When Michael stops his artwork, you know he’s preoccupied.” A big part of his recovery plan was getting back in touch with his family, and it was through Better Way that Scotty was put back in touch with his stepbrother Mickey.
The entrance to Better Way of Miami.
Going from a life that is frenetic and disconnected to one that is slowed down and in-touch is part and parcel of recovery. When Scotty was on drugs, he thought falsely that he had “a better imagination” while he was making his art. “I would make the same thing over and over. Now that I’m straight, my mind doesn’t go so quick. I can build my thoughts.” The relentlessness of the amphetamine high certainly embedded a skill that comes with intense repetition, but now a growing calm has taken hold. He’s taking it one day at a time, approaching life more honestly, and “giving it away.” He’s shaking less and getting his touch back, and drinking a lot of fresh juices.
The figures Michael Scott Addis has put up over the years are in various states: bleached by the sun, melted from the rain, torn at by the jealous and vengeful homeless he had problems with. They look back at us as reminders of our individual frailty revealing that in everyone there exists an area that is marginalized; an acre or two of personhood (or personal hood) that is razed or befouled, irrespective of privilege, effort, or nature. Though many of us are stuck in our ways and slaves to being, Scotty and his sculptures render the resiliency and buoyancy of the human spirit, the aptitude for change that, for those rare sorts like Scotty, comes like a flash in the dark[.]
The artist with his work.
[ii] The Miami Herald, “Dragon Man,” Lifestyles section. Laura Misch, date unknown.
**A special thanks to the gracious staff at Better Way of Miami for speaking with us and allowing us to see and photograph the facility and Scotty’s room.
This post was contributed by Rob Goyanes. Photographs by Ricky Vazquez.