In any form of art, it’s difficult to separate the art from the artist, but what about the art from the collector? Julian P. Hobbs enters the world of serial killer art and memorabilia through collector/dealer Rick Staton and fellow collector/sidekick Tobias Allen.
Staton runs a funeral parlor in Baton Rouge. His fascination with serial killers led him to correspond with John Wayne Gacy. Eventually, Gacy asked Rick to become the exclusive dealer for the artwork created from his prison cell. Rick struck up correspondence with several of Gacy’s colleagues on death rows around the country and encouraged many of them to make their own art.
One of the highlights of this documentary is a “Death Row Art Show” in Texas that showcases the work of Elmer Wayne Henley. Henley, with two others, murdered 27 children. Families members of victims invade the art show to express their distress at what they see as the glorification of their children’s executioner.
Hobbs also follows Staton and Allen around the country as they visit several notorious landmarks of the crimes of these killers, often collecting souvenirs.
There is validity in the art as it can sometimes present a window into the mind of these aberrant personalities. Too often, the filmmakers get sidetracked in presenting Rick and Tobias as a couple of grinning ghouls obsessed with serial killers. This is where the real problem is.
Americans are fascinated by serial killers. In a nation with a very violent past, we seem to produce a lot of them. Over time, we’ve developed an elaborate framework of rules and regulations in which we can function with a minimum of problems. We become obsessed with those who operate far outside of this box, mentally, spiritually, and legally. You might wonder what makes you different from them. Reasons can run much deeper than that and can vary widely from person to person.
Hobbs didn’t delve far enough. In exploring the phenomena of this art, he ask the collectors why they do it, but he barely touches upon their personal histories. Staton has a wife and child that we only see in pictures. We know little about him other than his interests and his occupation. Aside from he and Allen, one collector profiled is artist Joe Coleman. Coleman is a well-known and respected artist of the macabre. He displays a massive collection of artifacts and art, and receives the opportunity to explain his interests, but not his past. As I’ve met Coleman and know about him, I can see the glaring oversight of the absence of his personal history. Joe had a tortured upbringing with harsh religious elements that inform much of his work. You can’t separate his views from his past. I can only imagine same idea applies to Rick and Tobias.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe our two heroes are nothing more than a pair of grinning jackals. However, if you spend so much time documenting their behavior, you should devote at least as much time exploring their motivations as you do recording the condemnations of the victims’ families. To ignore this element relegates the collectors the class of freaks as much as the “artists”. It creates a distance from the collectors that conveniently prevents the filmmakers from identifying with them. I’m sure the “artists” were able to distance themselves from their victims in a similar way. It’s this deplorable but convenient distance that has always allowed one group to inflict their will on another.
This film played at the SXSW Film Festival.