If your name is Scott, go to Scotland
By LONN TAYLOR
The Shetland Islands are north of Scotland in the North Sea, due west of Bergen, Norway. In the wintertime they are among the least hospitable inhabited places in the world. Scott Hawkins of Marfa used to travel there in the winter with a circus, the Clown Jewels, which also made winter tours of the Orkney Islands, south of the Shetlands, and of northern Scotland. The circus was a New Age animal-free circus, with a core group of professional performers who produced a play interspersed with jugglers, acrobats, and giant inflatable puppets. Hawkins built and manipulated the puppets. “For instance,” he explained when I talked with him in Fort Davis last week, “there was a point in one of the plays where an actor would say, ‘Give us a hand,’ and a giant hand would appear behind him. That was my contribution.”
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” Hawkins said. “I was twenty-three and had just come back to Britain after two years as a volunteer in rural Nigeria, and the return was a massive culture shock. My values had been changed and I no longer fit Britain. My name is Scott so I went to northern Scotland, Scott-land. I thought there might be something for Scott there, and there absolutely was.” What Hawkins found, he said, was a big house where a group of professional actors lived, surrounded by a forest full of hoboes and nomads, New Age travellers with shamanistic beliefs, something similar to an American hippie commune but with a purpose. “There were people living in teepees, people living in trucks parked in the garden. There was a core group of five skilled professionals, and about twenty others who helped out, and then we had contract performers. In the winter we traveled in a double-decker London Routemaster bus and performed in a tent. In the summer we used three buses that converted into a three-sided stage.” The Clown Jewels, Hawkins said, filled a real need in northern Scotland and the islands. “Our shows were sell-outs. We went to isolated places where there was real poverty.” The circus received generous grants from national and regional arts councils. “This was in 1988, and we were a total expression of that age, a shamanistic community funded by the government that fulfilled a social need.”
Hawkins learned to juggle, walk a slack rope, and ride a unicycle in the Clown Jewels, and then he and a female Clown Jewel formed their own circus and toured Great Britain for the next fifteen years. “It was called Turnaround Arts,” he said, “because we believed that people could be empowered by creative group activity. We set out to change the world. We learned that the best we could do was to change people, at least for a moment.” Hawkins built a giant inflatable dinosaur and played the role of Professor Crazybones In Search of the Last Living Dinosaur. He wore a pyrotechnic device of his own design on his head that emitted flames when the script called for his brain to overheat. The first time he tried it out, he said, it burned holes in his hair and he had to re-engineer it.
Designing things like pyrotechnic headwear is Hawkins’s forte. He is a natural innovator. He grew up in Stevenage, a post-war “new town” north of London. When he left school at sixteen he was apprenticed as an electronics engineer in the town’s main industry, British Aerospace, and learned to design and fabricate metal objects. In Nigeria he became an improviser; the school he was teaching in had no typewriters so he made wooden keyboards in order to teach typing. In the Clown Jewels, he said, “I built a dragon that ate little children.” It was made out of wind-surfing sail fabric and fiberglass hoops, and had mechanical jaws.
While touring with Turnabout Arts, Hawkins became a part-time student at the University of Sheffield and earned a degree in industrial design. After graduation, he joined the faculty as a lecturer in industrial design and did research on a subject so esoteric that he had to explain it to me several times, finally saying, “Just say that it has to do with the way that sound informs our perception of three-dimensional space.” As a result, he built several devices he describes as “para-musical instruments” and holds patents on several products that make use of sound for therapy and relaxation. Far easier for me to grasp is his interest in what he calls “obscure bicycles.” He recently built a bicycle from spare parts he found around Marfa. It looks like most bicycles except that the handlebars are behind the seat.
After several years of teaching, Hawkins discovered that his time at the university was being increasingly consumed by administrative tasks, and he decided that it was time to wipe the slate clean and start over again. He and his circus partner had parted, and he subsequently met and married Metta Carlsen, a Danish art conservator. When she was offered a job as the conservator at the Judd Foundation, they moved to America, arriving in Marfa last November. With the exception of a short trip through Arizona and New Mexico following Carlsen’s initial job interview, Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis make up Hawkins’s entire experience of the United States. “In a way,” he says, ‘the Big Bend is like northern Scotland. The towns are small and isolated, but there is a regional sense of community. Everyone knows each other.”
When I asked Hawkins what was ahead for him in Marfa, he pulled a cross-stick boomerang out of a bag he was carrying. “I’ve bought a sander, a band saw, and a heat gun, and I’ve opened the Red Frog Boomerang factory under a shelter half in my back yard,” he told me. In addition to the cross-stick models, he plans to make boomerangs he has named the Longhorn, the Horseshoe, and the Texas Flying Star.
When Hawkins said he had been in Marfa since November, I asked him if he had bought a pair of cowboy boots yet. “No,” he said, “I don’t feel I’m quite entitled to wear cowboy boots yet.” Then, after a pause, he added, “When I sell my first Longhorn boomerang to a Texan, then I’ll buy my cowboy boots.”
So if you see a tall fellow with a short ponytail riding a bicycle with the handlebars behind the seat down Highland Avenue, stop him and tell him you want to buy a Longhorn boomerang.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk