Mark Beam makes big fish from papier-mache, to hang on the wall. One fish has the face of Elvis Presley. Others have "Jaws"-like mouths, zigzag dorsal fins and yellow eyes. Once, Beam exhibited a blue whale in the building known as "the Blue Whale"--the Pacific Design Center.
Beam made his first fish in his mid-Wilshire studio a year ago, and a friend bought it for $200. Today his fish sell for $400 to $1,200, and Beam makes his living by papier-mache creations alone. His raw materials cost him very little: They are mostly newspapers, which he cuts into strips with a pair of scissors and mixes with wallpaper paste.
The papier-mache is strengthened with wire, one-inch plumbing pipe, dowel rods, toothpicks and pipe cleaners, and the cores of some figures are made of a Styrofoam product. Beam is a master of improvisation. Paint brushes are stuck in as hair, Ping-Pong balls are used as eyes. "You have a problem; you look around the room and you grab something that's going to make it work."
Beam has been diversifying. Besides fish, he now makes free-standing papier-mache people--"Latin love gods with humongous pompadours; African businessmen who have suits from the waist up and skirts made of chicken bones; and Pygmies with briefcases." What he wants to make next is cows with guns. Cows standing on their hind legs and brandishing guns. "It's the contrast between the cows' dopiness and the menace of the guns that appeals to me," he says. "I mentioned this to a person last night, and they've already said they'll buy one." A gun-toting cow will set you back about $1,500. African businessmen and Pygmies with briefcases come cheaper--between $500 and $800.
Beam, a 29-year-old bachelor, was born in Detroit, where both his parents were in the automobile industry--his father as a car salesman, his mother as a secretary at General Motors. "The automotive industry kind of bottomed out about 10 years ago," Beam recalls, "and all these people who were lifetime employees, who believed in 'the Corporation' and had set themselves up to be taken care of, went down the drain. And that had a profound effect on how I got to where I am." Beam says he wants security as much as anyone else, but he would rather be responsible for his own security than hand over that responsibility to a corporation.
As a child, Mark Beam showed a kooky creativity. When he was 13, he stretched a canvas, stuck two doll's arms through it and painted the whole thing off-white, so that it looked like a relief. Two years later he painted a cross section of a pimento olive on a 5x5-foot canvas. His brother, today a mechanical engineer in Laguna Beach, liked the picture and still has it on his wall. "I think everyone back there (in Detroit) respected what I did and kind of liked the weirdness of it," Beam says, "but I don't think too many people there had a burning interest in it or identified with it. They just thought I was goofing around." When Beam's father sat down with him to discuss what subject he should major in at college, "the first words out of his mouth were: 'Well, you can't be an artist, because artists aren't worth anything until they're dead.' " Beam studied photography at Henry Ford Community College, Detroit, but left without taking a degree.
Eight years ago, Beam came out to San Francisco. "California is much more accessible to new ideas, and people do what they want to do. That's what I love about this state." He arrived with $200 and a small suitcase of clothes, and he lodged with a girl from Detroit who had invited him to stay. She found him a job as a janitor at a school for retarded children in San Jose. Beam got on well with the teachers, and after he had been a janitor for two months they invited him to become a teaching assistant. He took the job and did it for five months. "It was such a new experience--here I was, taking care of kids, retarded kids. And my art was helpful, because even kids who can't read a book respond to colors. Everyone responds to colors."
Shortly after Beam had arrived in California, someone had taken him to the Boarding House, a San Francisco nightclub. "I saw these stand-up comedians, and I said, 'I've got to try this.' So I spent the next year writing, trying to get 10 tight minutes of funny stuff together."
The act Beam ended up with was of "a really buttoned-down guy"--a stuffed-shirt, suited businessman not unlike his later models in papier-mache. "I allowed my mind to think of just about anything it could think up, and I didn't edit it in the act. I think my sober dress helped: I got away with a lot of stuff that was borderline taste because of the way I looked."
Was there any example of patter from his act that could be printed in this magazine? "Yeah. I can't remember how the joke ran, but the punch line was: 'I would Velcro my cat's face to the refrigerator door.' " Hm, one can understand why Beam thought of changing careers again.