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Rural midwest culture as art

Zachary Ostrowski'
Zachary Ostrowski's Beverly Fresh persona is a loner, trickster type who will pick pockets for entertainment, as seen in this still from his "Outskirts" performance video. (Courtesy of Zachary Ostrowski)
Zachary Ostrowski sees more than strip malls, car washes and other fragments of small town life when he travels through the rural Midwest. He sees art. Specifically, art in a community culture he wants to preserve through performance, graffiti or video.

"I'm working on an archive of Midwestern culture because I see a need for it," says Ostrowski, an associate professor of art, media and design in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

He showcased his work at an April 25 Humanities Center event "Who Am I Now? The Art of the Con." His first solo exhibition in Chicago opened in April at DePaul Art Museum and will run through Aug. 5.

"One of the things that Zack does so brilliantly is question the concept of culture at a deeply philosophical level," says H. Peter Steeves, Humanities Center director and philosophy professor "He shows us that life was always already a performance and the stage was always already set in every direction around us."

Ostrowski talks about his artistic persona Beverly Fresh and his mission to archive Midwest culture as art.

How did you get started as an artist?

I've been performing publicly since I was 16, starting as a rapper in Detroit, but I quit music and went into art and design. I went back to graduate school when I decided corporate work wasn't for me.

Who is Beverly Fresh?

When I started out, I didn't know if Beverly Fresh was a character, but the more art I made, I found that the best stuff came from my personal history and not the persona's. The archetype I would identify him with is a loner, rambler, trickster type. He's a traveling hobo or a wanderer. He's somebody who is on the fringe.

Beverly Fresh picks pockets for entertainment shows a la Ricki Dunn. He enters rooster crowing contests and broke a Guinness World Record for breaking the most eggs on his head.

Tell me about the DePaul Art Museum exhibition.

"BEVERLY FRESH: Really Somethin Else" is a continuation of my research into rural Midwest.  It's of Beverly Fresh going to magic festivals and 4H fairs or the smallest towns like Turner, Michigan, and Valley City, Illinois. I also take all those experiences and synthesize them into a show called "Mr. MDWST," which is a 20- to 40-minute performance that is a variety show with songs, jokes, physical feats and a call and response portion. Some pieces in the exhibition will blend fact and fiction.

Why the fascination with rural Midwest?

I feel it's undefined, misunderstood and contradictory so my work reflects that. There is a landscape of abandoned strip malls and car washes, county fairs and crafts. I grew up in a poor farming town.

I did an escape act in Colon, Michigan, the self-proclaimed magic capital of the world that has held an annual magic convention for 80-plus years. I went to the St. Clair County, Michigan, 4H fair where I won the rooster crowing contest. I won a pet and owner lookalike contest and it wasn't even my dog. I've come in fourth in a pizza-eating contest.

In Henry, Illinois, I entered a potato-decorating contest and did really bad because I brought my own ingredients like tuna fish and made a self-portrait.

My first performance as Beverly Fresh was as an agitator at a VFW pancake breakfast in Michigan. I got up on a chair and sang a song about pancakes with pancakes on my face. I did get some claps. Nobody asked me why I did it.

Why not perform in Chicago?

I have done some street performances and I haven't enjoyed it as much. I would much rather perform in a small town. In Colon, Michigan, I put up a flyer in a gas station that I was doing a performance and people showed up. I could put an ad in the Chicago Reader and nobody would come.

How did you fit in with the Humanities Center panel last month?

The panel included Andy Kaufman's sister, Carol Kaufman Kerman, and prankster Alan Abel. It was part of the Humanities Center's examination of "fake." Kaufman adopted many personas and his sister talked about what it was like to be part of his family. Abel talked about cons.

I co-teach a class with Greg Scott, an associate professor of sociology, called "The Art of the Hustle," examining how cons are structured and why they work.

Learn more about his exhibition on the DPAM website