The story behind the straitjacket paintings is important, because every fold & crease has its history. These garments got their knocks in the institution of performing arts. My friend Bob Taxin, magician & performer, owns three, which he let me use for my series of still lifes. That’s him in the photo, escaping (successfully) from a straitjacket while hanging from the San Francisco installation “Defenestration” (1997-2014 by Brian Goggins, photo by William Binzen), in performance at its opening.
The Knot (oil on canvas) is an echo of the jacket’s former life. A study in disorientation and connection. Pictured are the final painting, and below, a photo of the painting in progress with the straitjackets set up beyond. The chairs are dressed in straitjackets & tuxedo, hanging from the studio ceiling, to give a composition that will suggest movement.
A visitor to my studio summed up the straitjacket paintings best: “How you see them depends on where you are in your sanity.”
Interested in learning the story behind the straightjackets, I spoke with Bob, who told me his story.
Q: How did you start escaping from straitjackets?
Bob: What happened was, I got a call from a guy and he said “I understand you’re a fire-eater. I’d like to hire you for our show.” I said “great” he said “we want you to do half an hour” I said “I’ll be happy to do fire but half an hour is way too long” he said “well, all right, what else can you do?” “How ’bout I give you a magic show” “Naw, they’re high school kids, they’ll be really bored” “Okay, what if I escape from a straitjacket?” “That’d be fantastic!”
At that point I had never done it, didn’t know anything about how to do it. The show was a month away… I had to learn. And I did it. Eating fire is in many ways a lot easier than escaping out of a straitjacket… Escape is much more dramatic, people like it, and they get to see the whole process.
Q: Had you ever actually even held a straitjacket?
Bob: Never. So I went out and bought a straitjacket, which is a little hard to find. They don’t use them anymore. I found an old manufacturer, Posey. They didn’t even know if they had any. They finally found some lying in the back of a cupboard. That’s how I got my first straitjacket.
And then I started asking people who did it how they did it. Started reading as much as I could about it. I started studying Houdini, and what his philosophy was and how he did it.
The most profound thing that I learned along the way was something Houdini said. “These things are designed to restrain madmen, and I’m not a madman, so I should be able to figure out how to get out of this thing.” That was really true. Because if you panic and freak out like people do when they get restrained like that, then things just get worse and worse.
Houdini was very meticulous about how he did it. And he inspired me to really study.
Q: Did your meticulous training with complex card tricks help prepare you for that?
Bob: Yes. You have to really pay attention to details. The other part is that it is very physically demanding. That is, you have to use muscles that you don’t use in any other way. That required a lot of work, and practice, and getting stuck in the straitjacket a fair amount of times.
I’d go around my building, which has a lot of people in it, and I’d have them put me in the straitjacket. And I’d say “don’t lock your door”. And I’d try to get out of it. The deal is that everybody ties you into it a little bit differently. That further complicates things.
You learn from experience. I mean, I’ve been stuck in the thing many times, but only once on stage in a public performance. And that’s because of the very unusual way that the guy tied me in. But now I know how to get out of that, so if it happened to me again I could get out of that.
Q: Unlike the elegance of sleight of hand, this is almost the “punk rock” of vaudeville, thrashing, hard-core, you show the effort.
Bob: Yeah I get it. Because it’s not pretty like a slick tuxedoed magician producing doves and silks and things like that. It’s the opposite. It’s much more working class.
Q: Watching you on film, it looks like it’s kind of a combination of bull wrestling and yoga.
Bob: Yep. Multidirectional. And it’s especially complicated when you’re hanging upside down from your feet because at the same moment all the blood is rushing to your head. And you can’t use the floor for leverage, like I do on the stage.
Q: To any person with your background in circus and magic, Houdini must have been an icon.
Bob: Yeah, he’s an icon. And the interesting thing is that up until Houdini, and probably since, escape artists were at the bottom of the vaudeville pyramid pretty much. Here comes Houdini, and he really elevated it.
What Houdini did, which was really phenomenal, was that up until then escape artists would get chained in various restraints, they’d get covered with a curtain. They might be under water or whatever, but you wouldn’t see them until they came out. the extraordinary thing about straitjacket escapes is that you do the whole thing in front of everybody. Much more dramatic. Much more theatrical.
Endnote: Bob’s not hanging in and out of straitjackets anymore. Still a performer, these days you’ll more likely see him acting or playing his dobro.
(Note: This interview was first published in my newsletter, September 2013.)