'Did I dream that?': Artist Peyton remembers Prince, Glam Slam, Paisley Park in the '90s

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Peyton in front of a Prince mural he painted.
Peyton in front of a Prince mural he painted, in collaboration with Wes Winship, outside his Northeast Minneapolis studio. (Jay Gabler/MPR)
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Minneapolis artist Peyton Scott Russell first encountered Prince in the 1990s, when Peyton showed work at the Glam Slam nightclub — a downtown spot that Prince owned, and where he frequently performed. Peyton also worked at Paisley Park, among other things helping to decorate the venue for Prince's 1996 wedding reception. When Prince died last year, Peyton was moved to cover his First Avenue star in gold leaf.

As the one-year anniversary of Prince's death approaches, Peyton has brought his Glam Slam pieces out of storage, and plans to display them at an April 21 event (tickets required; use password WHAT to access details) in his Casket Arts studio. In addition to the Glam Slam art, Peyton will also be showing a Prince mural he painted last year in collaboration with Wes Winship. Eddie Hutchins of the Corner Stone Cafe will provide appetizers for the event. At the end of this feature, there's a form where you can enter for a chance to win two tickets to the show.

Last week, Peyton welcomed me into his Northeast Minneapolis studio to talk about his long and complicated history with Prince — and to share the story of gilding Prince's star, creating an instant sensation.

Before we talk about Prince, let's talk about you. So, you grew up around here?

Yes. Pretty much born and raised in Minneapolis. I've lived in all different sides of the city, from Prospect Park to South Minneapolis to North Minneapolis. Lived in New Richmond, Wisconsin in my middle school years. So I kind of bounced around a little bit. I graduated high school [in the] late '80s, moved to Chicago, was there for about six or seven years. Came back to Minneapolis, hard-core into the arts, moved to South Carolina, now I'm back again. Very itinerant.

So you're based here in Northeast Minneapolis, and you're now primarily known as a graffiti writer — and a teacher, as well.

Pretty much. It's one of the things in my artistic arsenal that I am very passionate about: graffiti art, and teaching.

Tell me about how you first took a special interest in Prince.

Living here, I've seen him a bunch of times. With his first couple albums coming out, the buzz around town. I had actually seen him at the Roller Gardens a few times and everyone would say: "Hey that's Prince! He's got that album out." I didn't take a whole lot of notice to him, at the time. [I was] getting into high school in '84 when Purple Rain came out. Before that, people were really into Controversy and 1999. I loved it all, but I wasn't a fan. I was into hip-hop. Hip-hop was new; it was coming out. I was a b-boy, trying to learn breakdancing and getting into graffiti. So [Prince] wasn't my scene.

Graduating in '87, I moved to Chicago and people found out I was from here and it was like: "Oh do you know Prince? Have you seen him?" And I kept getting those questions. Sign O' the Times was out, and I remember when I first listened to that album. I didn't like it, but I couldn't stop listening to it, which was weird. I didn't quite like it, but I couldn't turn it off. I just kept playing it and playing and playing it and it just slowly grew on me and I just started hearing deeper things in it. That was the album that hooked me. It's my favorite album, out of the whole collection, as it is most people's. I actually went back and started listening to Around the World in a Day. That album and Sign O' the Times are my two favorites, and then Parade mixes in there.

But right about '88, '89 is when I really fell into it. The people of Chicago helped me see a different side of it. Then I started to try and re-live: "Oh, I remember when I saw him here!" or "I saw him in Uptown!" And I'd remember all the sightings, when I would see him. That's when I started collected the bootlegs and I started to dig a little deeper and started hearing all this music that you don't hear. That's when I was like: "Wow, this guy is different." There's something about it. I always call him "the wizard" and he makes spells.

So I was on this crusade, and when I was home for visits I would be calling people and trying to find out the avenues; Paisley Park was opening, so I wanted to get in there some kind of way. It was the early '90s that I had the opportunity to come back for some art stuff. I ran into one or two people and I don't really remember how it happened, but there was a guy who was curating work for Glam Slam. I ended up meeting him and he said: "Show me some work, I could maybe get you a show at Glam Slam." So this was maybe '92 at the time. At one point I came back with a portfolio of stuff. It was similar to what you are seeing here [in my studio now]. He immediately said: "You're in, I'll give you a show."

Artwork from the 1990s by Peyton.
Artwork from the 1990s by Peyton, including some pieces formerly displayed at Prince's Glam Slam nightclub. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

How would you describe what we're looking at right now?

This particular work was created specifically for the club. Once I got in there, I took measurements of the walls. The work had to be large, so it could stand out. There were a few celebrity faces who were popular then who I was focusing on. I tried to make things that were ethereal, with "out of body" experiences and spiritual awakenings and things that had to do with water. It was like making an aesthetic for the club. The curator kept saying, "I love all of these, but they have to be approved."

We're looking at some large-format pieces here. Work on paper, screenprinting. Lots of different colors, I'm seeing Michael Jordan there, Prince...

...Cindy Crawford, Jimi Hendrix. I was way into Jimi Hendrix, even before Prince. And I knew there was some influence there, so I definitely wanted to do something there. So these are larger, underwater scenes. They're surreal and symbolic.

If I was trying to describe this to someone, I might think: "Well, I see Andy Warhol there, but with kind of a '90s twist." Does that seem right?

I have a lot of influence from Warhol, being a printer. I studied his work, the simplicity of it. I'm a little more detail-oriented. I like artsy flair, but I like the simple parts of Warhol, and so there was a lot of that influence in the work.

Artwork from the 1990s by Peyton.
Artwork from the 1990s by Peyton, including some pieces formerly displayed at Prince's Glam Slam nightclub. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

So, you were saying that you were trying to shape the aesthetic of the club.

I wasn't the only artist; there were rotating artists. So when I got the opportunity, I tried to infuse myself into what people might want to see. That's where most of this stuff came from. So, I had my date, I brought my stuff in, and the curator was there. He loved it all. He said: "Okay, hang it all, but just be prepared: we may have to adjust a few things here and there."

I hung the entire show, and Prince walked in. When I was done I was walking around, admiring and making sure the frames were straight, and he walks in. It was the first time I had seen him since I was into him now, and I was like: "Oh my God, there he is! He's looking at my stuff." And he walks around for a good 15n minutes. He stopped at each piece, and he stopped at his piece. The Afro, 1970s photograph.

This is a piece taken from [Robert Whitman's] iconic photograph of Prince in front of the Schmitt Music mural wall in downtown Minneapolis. You isolated his face from that and blew it up, very large. I'm seeing some purples and blues and yellows and reds there.

Again, in a very Warhol aesthetic: lots of drips and spilling paint, which I really like to do. [Prince] looked at it for quite awhile, and then he walked out. About five minutes later, the assistant manager walked out and she said: "This piece has to come down."

I was like, "What? That's the piece!"

"It's the Afro piece, he's not into that at the moment. It hasn't been approved, so you have to remove that."

I was heartbroken, obviously. Out of all the pieces, he Xes that one. The assistant manager, she said: "I want it. How much would you sell it to me for?" It was a bittersweet thing: I sold a piece, but I couldn't exhibit it. Up until last year, I hadn't shown it since. It went up for, maybe 30 minutes? I sold it, it came down, and it's been in storage since last year. I had two exhibits: Parkway Theater and UROC in North Minneapolis. It'll be shown again during this [upcoming] exhibition.

Artwork by Peyton.
Two pieces by artist Peyton - including one piece, at left, that was initially hung at the Glam Slam nightclub and subsequently removed at Prince's request. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

What was the scene at Glam Slam like back then?

It was a club. I was in my early 20s, so it was my first time going out and experiencing life and trying to be grown. Glam Slam wasn't anything crazy or over-the-top. Paisley Park was. Glam Slam was just a nightclub. I spent a lot of time there, my work was there.

Funny story: one of the nights, it was after the opening reception, we're there in the back room. I think it was my second or third show there. I got into the VIP upstairs. I had artwork back there, and in my mind I'm thinking: "I'm in here! I'm in!" Prince comes in, he's sitting on the couch. I carry a portfolio with me. He's sitting on the couch and I just thought, I'm going to go over and present myself and show my portfolio.

I walk over to him and I'm like: "Hey man, how're you doing? This is my art, thanks for the opportunity. Are you interested in looking at my other stuff?" I opened the book and laid it on the table in front of him. Sucking on a lollipop, he bends over and starts flipping through the pages.

All of the sudden, I'm in a full nelson. I got swung around, and I am totally confused. The bodyguard is like: "What're you doing? You can't talk to him! You can't approach him like that, you need to get approval for that." He said: "You have to leave."

And I'm like: "What? My art is in here. Why are you going to kick me out of my own show?" Prince didn't say anything; he was just looking at the whole scene.

The guard grabbed my portfolio and gave it to me. He said: "You have to leave. You can come back, but you crossed the line." I was dumbfounded. I didn't do anything, I just showed him my art, and I was kicked out. I was standing outside, totally perplexed. I didn't know what happened! It was that quick.

I came back the next night and people were telling me: "Yeah, there's rules here. Even though you're in VIP, there's a separation that you have to adhere to." I was still a little embarrassed about the whole thing. That was my first real encounter of what that was like.

[Prince] would actually follow me in the club. I tested it one time. I'd be sitting at the railing and he'd come within 15 or 20 feet and sit on the railing next to me. I would move to the other side, and then he'd come to the other side. I'd go back again, and he'd come back. I did that three or four times, playing this cat-and-mouse game. I actually tried to approach him again and the guard stepped in front of me. There were other small times too. I actually started working at Paisley Park for a while.

Just to clarify that transition: you were showing your work at Glam Slam throughout a period of years in the '90s?

From about '93. That was the first show.

Did you get the sense that Prince was bringing artists in to showcase their work to support artists in the community or were they just looking for something to hang on the walls?

I think they were just looking for something to hang on the walls. Something that was interesting and local. I never got the sense that he was supporting the artistic community. I just felt that they were decorating the club. For me, it was about '95 or '96 when it ended. When [Glam Slam] changed into the Quest, most of this work ended up going to the Rouge Supper Club. I was one of the featured artists at the Rouge, and when that closed I moved over to the Lounge.

What was your first experience at Paisley Park?

I had been going there for the afterparties. A friend of mine [Kay Kropp], she was a scenic artist, she worked on movies. Remember that time in the '90s when Minneapolis was being set up for the "new Hollywood"? She was in with all of that. She would hire me for all these scenic movies. She was doing that, and she got hired at Paisley Park to work on the reception for the wedding with [Prince] and Mayte. Valentine's Day of '96?

She called me up and said: "I know you're really into this, and I've got an opportunity for you to work at Paisley Park. We're going to decorate the entire place. It's going to take about three weeks, why don't you come in?" I was just goo-goo eyed, and right away she was like, "You gotta keep that under control, because if you freak out you're gone." I'd already been down that road before, so I understand. We started, and I was one of the low guys. I painted walls, I took out the trash, I just did all the heavy lifting.

This was before Paisley Park was redecorated, which happened later in the '90s. How did it look different than how it looks today? Have you been out there recently?

No, I have not. Because when I left it, I left it. When I left, I didn't look back until last year.

How would you describe the aesthetic of Paisley Park at the time?

You would enter a different space. I swear he had subliminal music going on, and he was probably pumping oxygen in there because it was different. The air was different. I remember every time I would walk out the doors, I would get this different kind of air. It was like, back on Earth. I was just really surreal, even working there. There's no windows, so you know what time it is, but you kind of forget. The hours didn't matter, I just kind of felt really strange.

You were there working on this redecoration for the reception for this planned wedding. It must have been a significant project if it was going to take a team of people weeks to complete. What were some of the big things being done?

I remember some of the specific projects that I worked on. "Dolphins" was out at the time, the song. So we made this fountain. It had moss on it. It was mostly Styrofoam. We'd take these cheap materials and make them look extravagant and expensive. Lots of symbols. The glyph? That was everywhere. Lots of painting walls different colors; we'd paint walls three or four different colors a day, and that's how the glyphs worked too.

I worked on a project with the atrium front window, and I did this huge heart. They gave me a stack of these huge mylar sheets that they use on spotlights, so I had a bunch of red ones. They said: "Do a stained glass thing, we'd like this heart." I worked 6-8 hours on this thing, and they were eight-inch by ten-inch mylar sheets. So I had to figure out how to take all these small pieces and put them together into this very large heart format. And the windows were huge. But I did it, I completed the heart and I was really proud of myself. It was front and center, everybody was going to see this piece, and I'm getting off the ladder and [Prince is] standing right behind me.

I almost stepped on him, basically. I didn't know he was there. And so I was like: "Hey, man. How're you doing?" He didn't say a word. I'm like: "What do you think? What do you think?" He didn't say a word, just kept looking. Then he turns around and walks away. Five minutes later, Kay comes up to me and says: "The heart looks like it's broken."

Right when she said that, it totally did. I took these 8x10 mylar sheets and I made them to look like irregular tiles, but I made these hard points on them, so the heart looked shattered. Graffiti artists, that's one of the techniques that we use: making things look like tiles, different colors, cracks and that kind of thing. I think that's where that really came from, but it wasn't flying there. But then I got pulled into a different project.

The next day, I get pulled into one of the offices. They said: "We need you to go back in the room, and when the phone rings, answer it." I go back there and I'm the only one back there. I'm waiting, and I start to doze off a little bit. Prince walks in. Me and him, in this room alone! He sits down, and he turns his back to me. Then the phone rings.

And the phone is ringing, but now he's in the room so I'm like, "Nah, I'm not going to answer the phone, he's in the room now." He looks over at me, and he looks down at the phone, and he looks back up at me like, answer the phone. So, I answer the phone. I don't remember this guy's name, but he was Kay's boss. He had been to the meetings before, but now he was in Houston. And he says, "Hey, we've got a problem with the heart."

And I was like, "Yeah, I've already been through this."

And he was like, "Well, what are your suggestions? What are you going to do?" And so we talked through what we wanted to do, and then I asked a question. The guy said: "Okay, hold on. Hang the phone up."

I hung up the phone, and this other phone rings. Prince pulls this gold phone out, and I didn't think a lot of it at the time. My first thought was, where'd that phone come from? He put it in his lap and he put his mouth over the phone, and was whispering into the phone. He hangs the phone up, and the black phone rings again.

It's the guy. And he goes: "Oh yeah, we're going to do this and that." And I'm thinking, alright, I'm communicating with this guy through these two phones and [Prince is] not speaking to me. We went back and forth on this conversation with these yes or no questions. We got to the end of it, and I'm on the phone, and [Prince] walks out. He leaves the [gold] phone on the chair.

So I hang the phone up and I'm just looking at the [gold] phone, and remember I had been in that room 10-15 minutes prior. There was no gold phone. And when he walked in, maybe I was so starstruck I didn't notice. I've thought about this through the years, and he didn't have a phone with him. I don't know where that phone came from. Some people will tell me there's a ton of different interesting stories like that one. That was my most interesting encounter there.

The last time I was [at Paisley Park], I was with a friend named Jon Bevil. He's a clothing designer; he's no longer here, he passed away in 2004. He was my best friend. We were always at Paisley Park and Glam Slam and the Quest and we were in that circle together. We would go to the after parties and we'd get frisked, so Jon and I would be doing that.

But right at the end of it, I would get frisked a lot: at the door, and then once I was in there I would get pulled off to the side and get frisked again. There was one time I got frisked three times. I just looked at the guard and I was like: "What is going on? I'm already in here, you guys know I don't have any recording devices." And they said: "We're just doing what we're told. We just have to spend time with you." And it was really disturbing and ruining the flow of the night; I was getting fed up with it.

The last night I went up there, Jon and I were standing in line. We get pulled off to the side. We're the only two in the lobby. They close the door and lock it. Jon is a little more impatient than I was. He's banging on the door. The guy opens the door and goes, "Hey, what's up?"

Jon's like, "What's going on?"

The guy goes, "Oh, we haven't been told to let you guys in yet." So we're waiting, and all the sudden everybody in the lobby leaves. And they turn the lights off. And I just laughed, and we walked out. I haven't been back since.

I did go back one other time with a girlfriend of mine. This was [2004], he had a concert at [the] Xcel [Energy Center].

Artist Peyton in his Casket Arts studio.
Artist Peyton in his Casket Arts studio. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

So, several years later.

Yep. The girlfriend of mine is now the mother of my kids, and so she wanted to experience that and we went to the concert, and there was an after-set after the concert. We went up there. We stood in line, walked in. We're in there, she actually got a chance to see [Paisley Park]. [Prince] was doing his thing [waiting a long time to perform], and we're tired. So, we left. And she didn't get to see the after-set. And that was the last time I was there.

Did you have a sense that anything had changed at Paisley Park between '97 and 2004?

I think my tastes were different. I would remember the time when I was a little bit more starstruck and more into it. I just remember feeling like I was just standing around, waiting for something to happen. People were just being there to be there. It was not my scene any more. So, when [my girlfriend] wanted to leave, I didn't really argue with that much.

I tried to encourage her to stay so that she could hear the deeper parts of what he had to offer — because those people who never went to Paisley Park and saw that under-layer of what he had, that's when you would see the magic. When people say genius, that is an understatement. When you would go to Paisley Park and you would hear him in his element, when he was comfortable, it was just something. It's hard to explain. I wanted her to see that and so I would have sucked it up and stayed the night. But we were tired and we wanted to go.

Did you ever get a sense of what it was that make [Prince's] apparent feelings towards you so complicated?

I never quite figured it out. Tommy Barbarella [keyboardist from the New Power Generation], he and I, we became friends. He always thought that [Prince] liked me. He didn't know how to incorporate me into anything because I'm a visual artist and he's with musicians. Tommy always felt that he didn't quite know how to handle that. I always thought that it was this personal thing. I always thought I was the one being selected out and treated like that. It wasn't until last year that I figured out that there were so many other people who he treated like that. I just thought it was me. And then all these stories would come out: all these people explaining different things that would happen.

You were being given a hard time, and yet you were coming back — and being hired, in fact. You were working for Paisley Park throughout this time. Not only was he letting you in, but he was hiring you to work on projects. Almost teasing you.

Now we're 20-some years later and sometimes I wonder: did I dream that? Paisley Park was so different. He'd follow me a lot: he'd stare at me through plants and I could feel him. I'd look around and I'd feel like somebody's watching me. When he would recognize that I could see him, he'd walk away. Things like that happened all the time. So when I left, I left. I rarely bought any of the new albums. There were a few that I bought, but I kind of stopped listening until he passed.

When I got the news that he passed, I was in denial. I didn't believe it at first. I thought it was a rumor. And I was just kind of like, "Oh, that's too bad." As the day went on, I started remembering certain things and I started pulling out my old [artwork]. I had to dig it out, I had to find it. I didn't know where the stuff was. I slowly started pulling out some of the music that had an effect on me.

It was mid-day on that day [of Prince's death] when I kind of fell apart. It felt like I lost a family member — which is really odd for me because I'm not a person that's into celebrities. I'm not impressed by famous folks. I just really felt like I lost a silent mentor. He gave me so much, so much inspiration and passion for doing what I do. With his music, there was always slow growth. I would listen to his stuff and I wouldn't like it right away. After a while, it would just grow on me. And these songs are just a part of me. And when he passed away, the same thing happened. I didn't feel anything right away.

Prince's star on the wall of First Avenue
Prince's star on the wall of First Avenue, shortly after artist Peyton covered it in gold leaf. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Then you decided to give his star on First Avenue's wall a treatment. Just to tell the story of you putting it up, you went in the dark of night: 3:30 in the morning, I understand.

It was a couple weeks after his passing, because people spent the night at that star: putting stuff up, notes and flowers. I kept going there and checking it, and I had recently just started gold leafing in my art. I saw all the things that people were putting up on the star and I thought, as a graffiti artist: "I'm going to gold that thing."

I figured 3:00 would be perfect: a couple hours and I could get it done. So, one night I made it happen. I knew it was going to get noticed, but I thought it was going to be people thinking: "Oh, someone just decorated the star." But wow. It was huge. I've seen murals in Europe of that black background with the gold star, the same font. An exact replica of that star. It really carried a weight.

What made you decide to show this work?

Sarah Savoy contacted me. She's hugely connected with the circle: Prince fans worldwide. She's pretty famous in that culture. She contacted me and was like: "I don't know you! I thought I knew everyone."

We set up a meeting and she came by, she saw the work and right away she was like, "We gotta show this stuff. Let's have an exhibit." I'm removed from it; I'm doing other things now, and I know how difficult it is setting things up, and the paperwork. But she talked me into it.

I'm happy that she was able to coax me into this. It's really fun for me to pull this stuff out, because I haven't seen this work in 20 years. I've always bemoaned my work as an artist when I first do it. I gotta put it away, come back to it in a year. Now I lay it out on the table like this and I'm like, "Wow, this stuff is pretty special."


Postscript: After our interview, I received an e-mail from Peyton. "I didn't mention the one cool thing that Prince did for me," Peyton wrote. "This happened before he turned the lights off on me and Jon.

"He sent a bus to pick up my art students for a benefit concert at Paisley Park. I believe it was in 1996. That was totally awesome. i'm not sure how it all went down and got set up — but a bus came to pick us up with a few others. Winter coats were handed out to the youth with the Prince glyph on the back, and he gave us a private question-and-answer session — but the adults in the room ruined that by asking dumb questions about Purple Rain or stupid trivial questions. Prince didn't want that and he said so, but the adults continued on and he got up and left.

"The concert was short too — not sure why, but he only played like four or six songs and left. After being there so many times I knew that was not normal. I'm not sure what was going on — but the gesture was awesome. And the bus brought us back to my studio. Memorable evening."

The Current's Glam Art Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Glam Art giveaway between 12 p.m. CT on Tuesday, April 11, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Monday, April 17, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive two (2) admissions to Peyton's Glam Art event on Friday, April 21, 2017 at Casket Arts in Minneapolis. Three (3) backup names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $39.98

We will contact the winners on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

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