Let's take a step back in time with Custer's Last Waistband, a project featuring a man brave enough to adopt the full lifestyle of a 19th century peddler pulling around a 200 lb Amish cart to sell and sew custom-stitched shirts. It's a year-long performance piece that combines American nostalgia, fashion, and getting in really good shape. We caught up with the eloquent and mustachioed Charlie C. Umhau — otherwise known as The Cowboy Prince — to explain to us his wearable art and the adventure he is embarking upon.
So, Cowboy Prince, where did the name come from, and what is it that draws you specifically to the 19th century peddler lifestyle in particular?
The Cowboy Prince is actually a nickname I had as a kid. The beautiful costume-clad childhood make-believe afternoons of mine were most often devoted to the impassioned play of cowboys and banditos, running around the neighborhood, grinning like mad. In recent years, I have reassumed that name in an embrace of an intentional devotion to maintaining that sense of childhood wonder as an adult and as an artist. It specifically pays homage to my childhood curiosity of who I would become as an adult and my deep question of whether or not I would actually like that person. So in that sense, the Cowboy Prince serves as somewhat of a moral compass for me, while also allowing me to tap into my own quixotic inspirations and projections for red-blooded courageousness.
In that same vein of childhood inspirations, I've always been drawn to the aesthetics of the 19th century: beautiful coonskin caps, rugged individualism, wide brimmed hats, hand-stitched patch-work quilts, leather worked saddles, rustic durability,uniform trims, and romanticized sabers flashing in the sunlight. But, moreover I always loved the eras simplicity, the nomadic romance of freedom, its love affair with nature, the vision of the open road, the danger of the wilderness, the required self reliance, and the implicit sustainability of adventure.
The Peddler historically had a rather cognitive role in developing this country, and they are some of the most quintessential American characters who helped develop our collective identities, our idealized — yet not always realized- community structures and value systems. These figures connote the old folk heroes of the past, who, traveling by foot, served a pivotal role through sharing their stories and skills as laborers, tinkers, metal-smiths, tailors, flap jack makers, and appleseed shaking, to affect encouragement and dispute the hardships of the day. For me, in embracing this lifestyle I hope to fulfill that missing component in today's culture.
It seems like a big part of this is that people walk away with their own wearable art and a story. How significant is the interactiveness in this?
The personal interactiveness of this project is perhaps the breath in the song that this cart is most eager to sing! Sadly though, too often in this day and age we have become removed from the processes of production, the costs, and the time in which things are made, and therefore we fall victim to the 21st century side affect of apathy. So, on the most basic level, the interactiveness of Custer's Last Waistband strives to creatively combat that impersonal nature of today's mass production culture by literally showing in person, on the street, an alternative, more personal means of creating. Furthermore, the opportunities for one-on-one interactions between artist and audience, customer and tailor, will serve to establish a more intimate dialogue of human interaction. When they button it on themselves, an applicable "if you love it, it will survive mentality" will instill in the wearer, a greater sense of care and significance for the things that they wear.
The emphasis of the peddler's cart interaction is less about me as an artist, and is significantly more about people getting to feel more special about themselves, even if that begins with simply enjoying the unique, personal little details in each individual shirt, and the love of the clothing and wares that they are delighting in. I'd love to be able to photograph each person with they shirts they purchase, to celebrate its new owner. To that end, I'm also working on specific plans for a peddler's cart guest book for people to write their own visions, personal notes,dreams and childhood aspirations that will adventure along inside of the cart. In the larger sense, I see the cart on the street serving as a symbolic representation for each and everyone's creative potential to unleash the wild things they can personally do!
You say you've been lifting cinder blocks and trail running every day to prepare for this project, which makes sense if you're pulling a 200 lb (!) nomadic tailor shop around. Seems like you're really, truly all-in on this, body and soul. Why is that important to you?
I could honestly fill hundreds of notebook pages just about about why this is so wildly importantly to me, but I think it can best be summed up by echoing the sentiment of the bold abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, when he so beautifully proclaimed…"I have need to be on fire; for I have icebergs to melt!"
There something that feels counterintuitive about fully embodying a 19th century lifestyle and using something very techy and modern like Kickstarter to accomplish it. Does it feel like there's some kind of cognitive dissonance in that way, or does it feel like it makes total sense?
To me, this project is about reintroducing the values of the "golden" past in order to re-enhance the present day. In that regard, this performance piece is more of a historical fusion and re-envisioning of the past than it is an historical reenactment. I actually used to be a Union drummer boy re-enactor, but my time traveling desire was not quenched enough. In my early twenties, I artistically decided to take it a step further, during a year-long period in which I tried to completely escape the present age in my own home, and live as much in the 19th century as possible. Although I had no computer for that year, lived predominantly off biscuits and beans, and sewed and painted by candle light, I did have a refrigerator, an oven, and an electric sewing machine. I eventually understood that despite my romanticism, it certainly was no mistake that I was born in the 20th century, and thus I have found it essential to strike a compromise between my old-timey values and the beneficial tools of modernity.
In lieu of the disbanding of the Pony Express Riders and the town bake sales fund raisers of yesteryear, I feel Kickstarter is a pretty good modern equivalent for sharing ideas and messages with large audiences. In this same regard, this project is about meeting people where they are in order to inspire more possibilities for change. By using technology and social media to share my vision, I'll be able to reach more people and further remind the 21st century of our collective mythology, our history of struggles and simplicity, the relationship of sustainability that people inherently adhered to their possessions, and an affinity with each other and the world around them.
What's the response been like to your project? How do you imagine your interactions with people about this to be, and what's your ideal result of this project?
The first few days after the Kickstarter launched were spent exuberantly dancing and earnestly weeping with joy around my studio while shouting to the sky"I can't believe this happening! I'm just some kid' 'Wow!'" This whole experience has been one of deep emotions and humbled reactions of gratitude. It's been this completely groovy-sock-knocking-off kinda feeling to have so many wonderful people involving themselves, enjoying my artwork, delighting in the video, and giving me such jubilant thumbs up. It's been really wild to say the least!
Some people have already invited me to walk to California and New York City and offered to donate supplies. One beautiful lady came up to me on the street and gave me a hand-painted 18th century reproduction "Join Or Die!" flag to mount off the back of the cart. Perhaps the coolest response I have received, has been in the form of new friendship with local Folk Art legend Mr. Chris Milk Hulburt, who allowed me to collaborate in a show with him for Richmond's First Friday Art Walk at Pibby's Bicycle Shop- he even rode his bicycle along side my cart as we processed down Broad Street to the show.
Ideally, beyond supporting myself financially off my shirts and folk art, the bigger result of this project will be on a personal level, the beginning of the greatest adventure of my lifetime through a full-scale fulfillment of a childhood dream. But most significantly on a societal level the ideal impact of this quest will be inspiring others to go out there and pull their own carts in whatever equivalent form that takes; to get our generation to go out there and charge without restraint towards that winding 'S' curve road on the last pages of the story books we read as kids where another world is indeed possible!
(Photos by Zach Gibson)