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Donkey Boy builds his dream house: At home with artist Michael Barrett

<p>Michael Barrett / PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>


It’s hard to imagine a better place for an artist to live and work than Michael Barrett’s small cottage at Casino Center and Coolidge, in the heart of the arts district. Here’s how he directs you to find it: The 18b sign points right at my house. Old by Vegas standards — from the ’40s, Barrett thinks — the place feels like a bit of downtown archeology: battered by time and neglect, primitive street art swirling its exterior walls. The big window affords a view of the Arts Factory, Art Square and, shouldering up beyond, the Strip. Lot of inspiration to be had here.

“I’ve only been living here two weeks,” he says when I drop by, “but I’ve been here eight weeks, every day.” The place was trashed, he says, you couldn’t see the floor through the flaked paint and insulation, so Barrett struck a deal with the landlord — lower rent in exchange for fixing it up.

So Donkey Boy swung into action. “My nickname in the family is Donkey Boy,” he explains, smiling at the memories of his parents buying crappy Bay Area houses, fixing them up and reselling them. Donkey Boy earned his nickname by carrying things and muscling the wheelbarrow during the restorations.

That background paid off here, though. Look at his place now. New floor, fresh paint, a working bathroom, a new kitchen in the works. The living room is singular: eight video monitors loop footage of his performance pieces, while a projector fills the far wall with more. The effect is one of layered memories, and when you walk into the room, the projector bulging your shadow onto the wall, you’re suddenly part of it, too. There’s a curiously public-private dynamic here, and that’s by design. He means it to be more than a home and studio.

“I would like to invite people in to use this space exactly like I am,” he says. “Las Vegas artists, but also outside artists. That’s really my big intent — to have a place where they can come and introduce themselves to the Las Vegas arts district.

“As an artist, I want people always coming in to look at my work, I want the door open, I want studio visits, I want feedback.”

Does that have a beneficial effect for you, to have your work life and private life overlaid on each other?

He nods. “It’s discipline and a motivator. I have invested myself mentally and physically in this arts district. From my past military and sports experience, I know you have to just embed yourself, you have to immerse yourself, if you want to be successful. There can’t be any other distractions. There can’t be any excuses, there can’t be ‘the bus is late,’ none of that shit. You trip over it, you fall over it — and a lot of times, for me, that’s when the ideas happen.” Stepping out of the shower, he might stumble over one object and land on another — an idea is born. “As absurd as it sounds,” he says, “that’s how it works.”

Barrett’s aesthetic is reflected everywhere. The physicality of rehabbing the house is consistent with his performance pieces, which often call upon his experiences as an athlete, Marine and cancer survivor to comment on bodily themes — endurance, control. As an artist who’s been known to perform in a jock strap, he’s not bothered by the privacy intrusions that come with opening his home as a public venue. And in the bedroom, his art supplies — which include masks, gloves and other objects he uses in his pieces — are arranged in a way that other Marines would recognize: “They call it a ‘junk on the bunk’ inspection, where everything you’re issued goes in certain patterns,” he says.

“I think I come to art from a really different angle,” he says, “because my work is tied to my body, and the experience of cancer and the military — it’s tied to my life, I can’t escape it.”

At one point in our talk, he suddenly stands up and walks to a wall where he’s pinned up a few old photos from his past. He’s just divined a resonance between two images — one of him as a child, dressed as a cowboy, and another from his Marine days.

He starts musing aloud: “This is probably 10 years … boy, hat titled back, weapon in his left hand, shirt tucked in, he’s playing the part, he’s wearing the costume — he’s innocent … [indicating the Marine photo] here the weapon is in the right hand, the hand that’s used, [back to the cowboy] here it’s not a threat, [back to the Marine] hat pulled down to keep the light out of his eyes … still the same person, still playing the same role, still playing dress up, still has the weapon, with the trigger finger ready …” Who knows, maybe someday he’ll tease a piece out of those connections.

“I have a lot going through my head at one time,” he says. “My ideas — ask Marty Walsh [owner of Trifecta Gallery, who represents him]: I’m jumping off the Stratosphere, and we’re shooting rockets, and Santa Claus is coming. And every day we’re minimizing something and minimizing something. Marty says, ‘We can’t do that,’ but this is where it started.”

Before I leave, I ask Barrett the obvious question: Aren’t you worried about someone breaking in to steal all the TVs in your living room?

No, he says, not really. He walks me into the room to show me why. “That’s why I left the price tags on them,” he says, laughing easily, “$6.99 at Savers. I have eight TVs for under 60 bucks.” Who’d want to risk jail to steal TVs he could buy for less than bail? He laughs again.

Barrett’s next performance piece, Standing Room Only: Episode Two, will take place at Trifecta Gallery, in the Arts Factory, on Dec. 28, 6-9 p.m.