For the past 15 years, visitors to the Strawberry Fields John Lennon memorial in New York City’s Central Park often encountered a long-haired, scruffy, slightly manic figure lording over the proceedings.
Perhaps they heard this man – Gary, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Strawberry Fields” – offering a highly personalized and idiosyncratic version of a tour guide’s speech on the history of the memorial, the life of Lennon, and the rather imposing presence of the Dakota building, which looms above this corner of Central Park as a reminder of the cruel fate Lennon suffered on its front steps nearly 30 years ago.
Maybe these visitors watched as Gary covered the ornate “Imagine” mosaic with decorative designs made from flowers he culls from the garbage bins of local florists each morning. However they might have encountered “the Mayor,” it is not likely a meeting they soon forgot.
Buffalo-born filmmaker Torre Catalano found Gary during his first summer in New York in 2005. He observed him at Strawberry Fields and became convinced that Gary’s life and work would make a powerful topic for a documentary film.
With the help of a few talented friends – among them filmmaker/ cinematographer Jo Jo Pennebaker (son of revered documentarian D. A. Pennebaker) and producer Larry Meistrich – Catalano created “The Mayor of Strawberry Fields,” a moving documentary that uses Gary’s daily life as a leaping-off point for mediations on art, homelessness and Lennon’s continued resonance in the lives of fans.
Catalano will premiere his film in Buffalo, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, on Thursday. Here, he discusses some of the film’s core themes:
Throughout the film, there’s a running subtext concerning the nature of art. I’ll ask you the question you asked so many in the film: Is what Gary is doing actually art?
I think it is art, because he believes it’s art. That’s kind of the point that we tried to make without ever stating it explicitly in the film –whatever it is that you do, if it’s important to you, if it’s something you believe in and do with a certain amount of integrity and commitment, then it is worthwhile.
Gary believes that what he’s doing is art.
Why take that away from him?
There’s a touching scene in the film where Gary is sitting with one of his homeless friends and the two proclaim themselves to be “the last of the hippies.” In spending time with these people, did you get the sense that they had“dropped out” of society based on ideals and deeply held beliefs?Or did they do so simply as a result of circumstance?
That’s the big question, really. We didn’t want to answer these questions with the film, but simply to raise them. Are these people just
lazy? Did they merely take the easy way out, mess up their lives and end up on the street? Or are they actually truly following a line from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the one that says “Imagine no possessions?”
In Gary’s case, I think he truly believes that he should be free to do whatever he wants to do. He’s smart enough to get up in front of hundreds of people several times a day and deliver a lengthy speech, verbatim. That leads me to believe he’d qualify for some kind of job. In fact, he’s had opportunities for jobs and turned them down, saying, “No, this is who I am, and this is what I do.” There’s a certain integrity in that.
Gary comes across as genuine in his love and admiration for Lennon.Did you ever speak to him specifically regarding his own interpretation of what Lennon’s life and work represent?
For Gary, I think it’s really simple. As he says in the film, “John spoke about peace, and he’s not here to do it anymore, so I’m doing it for him in my own way.” That seems to be a very general and broad take on just what “peace” means, but interestingly, the first thing Gary does each day is take these discarded flowers and construct a peace symbol on the mosaic.
The fact that Gary is constructing his own sort of “outsider art” from society’s detritus – the parts and bits “normal” society deems useless –provides the film with a built-in metaphor.
Man, it sure does. There’s a moment in the film where Gary says of the flowers he’s pulled out of florists’ garbage, “This is the stuff they think is no good no more.” Now, he doesn’t get specific about who “they” are, but that statement says a lot about what he believes he’s doing. He sees himself as a rebel. He says “I am rock ’n’ roll,” and the thing is, he’s serious –he’s forsaken the opportunities of the “straight” world in order to make something meaningful out of that world’s garbage.