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Musician and Artist Mark Mothersbaugh Comes Home for a Career Retrospective

A Young Mark Mothersbaugh

by David C. Barnett

Mark Mothersbaugh is known for music and videos from the 1980s band DEVO.  But, there's a whole other side to him --- drawing, painting, and sculpture.  This week, Motherhsbaugh is kicking off two exhibits of his work --- one in Akron and one in  Cleveland.  This career retrospective is named for the eye condition that shaped his life --- "Myopia"

Many Americans first saw Mark Mothersbaugh as a guy wearing a strange red hat, wielding a whip, in DEVO's 1980 "Whip It" music video.

DEVO burst into popular culture, backed by eye-catching videos that were a staple of early MTV.  But, Mark Mothersbaugh's career expanded  to other places.  Over the last 20 years, he composed music for filmmaker Wes Anderson.  He's also behind a number of TV soundtracks, including several kids shows, like Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Yo Gabba, Gabba.  And, he's even more prolific as a visual artist.  Adam Lerner, who curated the Myopia exhibit admits to being overwhelmed when he first started sorting through Mothersbaugh's artistic output.

"I didn't realize," Lerner says,  "that he had four storage spaces filled with boxes and artworks from decades and decades of making art and music."

As a kid growing up in suburban Akron, Mark Mothersbaugh's eyes were open to a much smaller world.

"Six inches from my face, the first seven years of my life, everything was a fog," he recalls,  "but from six inches and closer, I could see it in focus."

He says his life opened up when he got his first pair of glasses --- the chalkboard in class, the wooded path on his way home, the clouds in the sky.  

"Even though I had glasses, it was like wearing pop bottle bottoms.  And I was the smallest kid in my class,; I was the kid who had a permanently tattooed "Kick Me" sign on my back, and I always felt a little bit alien to everything I was watching around me."

That idea of feeling like an outsider --- someone who didn't fit in --- formed the basis for many of the songs he and DEVO bandmate Jerry Casale wrote.  Besides a sampling of music videos, the Myopia exhibits at MOCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum include sculptures, posters and computer animations.  One gallery features a whimsical group of instruments, built from old telephone bells, antique organ pipes and a collection of bird calls

Another room features an assortment of mirror-image photographs, where a face is split in two and one half is flipped in reverse - creating a lightly unsettling new face, both normal and strange at the same time.  The importance that eyes have to Mothersbaugh's sense of identity can explain a life-long fascination with disconcerting reflections.  

"One side," he says, "would be their kind of more innocent, or childish, or beautiful-looking side, and on the other side, people have anywhere from a demonic to just kind of a homely side to them."

But, despite occasional dips into darkness, Mothersbaugh says he's an optimistic person.  And he's got a new generation of fans.

"I like it.  It's kind of fun.  It's nice to be in an airport and there's a baby with a binky in a stroller going 'Yo Gabba, Gabba!'"

And, despite the world-wide fame, the Akron boy, who now lives in California, and his bandmates are still proud of the place they came from.

"We are definitely aware of our roots," he says, "and we identify with Ohio, really strong.  And, people identify us with Ohio, so I hope that's okay with you guys."

Apparently it's okay with the officials in his hometown.  The Mayor of Akron will present Mark Mothersbaugh with the key to the city.  That thought brings a smile to Mothersbaugh's face, though he admits he's not sure what it will unlock.

DETAILS ON OPENING NIGHT PARTY AT MOCA: http://www.mocacleveland.org/programs/opening-night-party-mark-mothersbaugh-myopia

DETAILS ON OPENING NIGHT PARTY AT AKRON ART MUSEUM: https://akronartmuseum.org/calendar/free-opening-party/10200



David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.