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B.J. Hollars

In the summer of 1972, Rhinelander Mayor Claribel Prosser received a letter from Clayton Bailey, curator of Wonders of the World Museum in California, informing her of a recently discovered Hodag skeleton in northern Canada. The letter was accompanied by the “World’s only known Hodag skull,” which Bailey donated to the city of Rhinelander, Hodag Capital of the World, “in the spirit of international good-will.”

Never heard of a Hodag? Then you’ve never visited Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

The Hodag, after all, is the most terrifying creature the Northwoods has ever known. Measuring in at 7-feet long and 185 pounds, this nostril-singed, bulldog-devouring lizard-ox hybrid has, since its first “sighting” in the 1890s, struck fear into all who dared cross its path.

Either that, or it’s a bit of bunk created by 19th century timber cruiser Eugene Shepherd, who concocted the creature for the purposes of town boosterism.

But let us not get bogged down in the details. What matters is that thanks to Clayton Bailey, in 1972 the people of Rhinelander were bestowed with momentary “proof” of its mythical beast — even if no one knows where the skull is today.

I first learn of Clayton Bailey and his alleged Hodag skull while visiting Rhinelander’s Oneida County Fair in early August. Ben Brunell, owner of The Hodag Store (where one goes for all one’s Hodag needs, from koozies to coasters to mouse pads), directs me toward Bailey’s framed letter hanging just inside the town’s logging museum in Pioneer Park.

“Think you can help us find the skull?” Ben asks.

That I have become a half-baked “Hodag scholar” is as unlikely as the Hodag itself. Though, indeed, my previous writing on the subject seems to have qualified me for the task of getting to the bottom of such skullduggery — pun absolutely intended.

While the skull is history, what remains is the legacy of Clayton Bailey himself. Born in Antigo, Wisconsin, in 1939, Bailey’s work as the curator of the Wonders of the World Museum was a front of sorts for his true calling as an artist. By the late 1960s, Bailey had moved from Wisconsin to California to become a leader in the Bay Area’s funk art movement — an artistic style that pushed back against the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock to offer viewers a funkier, pop-cultured inspired form of art, from robots to Hodag skulls.

Bailey’s commitment to crafting fossilized remains of cryptids (from a backyard Bigfoot skeleton, to pterodactyl bones, to a sea serpent carcass washed ashore the Florida coast) all lent themselves to a different artistic medium: performance art. To add credence to his “discoveries,” Clayton Bailey regularly called upon the expertise of his alter-ego, “Dr. George Gladstone,” who was just Bailey dressed in a lab coat. Such hilarious hucksterism gained traction in Rhinelander, where sounder minds did not entirely prevail. On Nov. 6, 1972, The Rhinelander Daily News published an article titled: “Hodag Legend ‘Verified.’”

Bailey’s personal copy of the article contends that Hodag creator Eugene Shepherd actually discovered a real, live Hodag back in 1896, though to protect the rare creature from unwanted attention, he carved a fake Hodag (which he certainly did) to draw attention away from the real one (which he certainly did not).

Though the story is as clear as mud, it still boils down to a singular truth: Clayton Bailey bamboozled with the best of them, providing the people of Rhinelander a new wave of Hodag hoopla, one that bolstered a legend that was teetering toward obsolescence. In this way, Bailey served as Rhinelander’s second coming of Eugene Shepherd. One man’s hoax became another man’s art.

Bailey, who died in June of 2020, leaves behind a legacy far larger than any Hodag skull. As playful as his art often seemed, he was quite serious in making it.

“He was really trying to make some important points through his art,” his daughter Robin recently shared with me, “and maybe (elaborate hoaxes) was the way to get people’s attention.”

Bailey’s art has been called many things — “tasteless, obscene, and barely above the level of bathroom humor,” according to The St. Louis Globe, as well as “grotesque to the point of revulsion,” according to the The Palo Alto Times. Though I can’t confirm the veracity of this less-than-laudatory praise, that Bailey prominently displayed these critiques in his own book, Wonders of the World Museum’s Catalog of Kaolithic Curiosities and Scientific Wonders, speaks to his ethos as an artist. It’s an ethos than echoes that of pop artist Andy Warhol, who remarked, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Which is what Clayton Bailey did throughout his life: creating ceramic creatures, and fake fossils, and Dr. Gladstone, too.

“I think you need to be slightly out of whack to spend your life making personal things that are not really wanted or needed by anyone else but yourself,” Bailey remarked in 2002.

But Bailey’s art was needed. And is still needed. And not just for Hodag fans.

Perhaps our proclivity to dispense with such oddities is symptomatic of our society’s struggle to grapple with that which we don’t understand. Why bother learning something new, after all, when we can remain perfectly comfortable learning nothing?

Though his art, Clayton Bailey asks us to grapple. He asks us to try to understand.

Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad. While they are deciding, choose to be amazed.