For the better half of a decade, strange creatures have been popping out of the utility poles on the North and South Forks. Like something out of a Roald Dahl vision of a child’s subconscious mind, these creatures, hand-painted on plywood not much larger than dinner plates, appeared and disappeared, only to pop up again on other utility poles in other parts of the East End.
Over the past few months, though, these creatures have been growing, and as they grow, they’ve become more bold, showing up on front lawns, in school gardens, in front of businesses and farm fields.
The first thing you’ll likely be drawn to on these plywood creatures are their striking eyes, bulbous or bright blue or bloodshot. But you’ll likely have to keep driving on to your destination, with just a twinge of wonder in the back of your mind over how these creatures arrived on our shores.
The answer to this riddle is really quite simple. Beacon staffers simply stopped into the Jamesport Country Store and asked the proprietor, Howard Waldman, how the creature outside his shop got there.
He said a mysterious man named Michael R. Zotos asked permission to put it there. He didn’t want any money and his art wasn’t for sale. But he did leave behind a photograph of his workshop, with his phone number scrawled on the back.
We got in touch with Mr. Zotos in mid-September, and it turns out he was quite happy to talk about his project. In fact, he’s just submitted a photo album filled with his creations to the East Hampton Library’s Suffolk County archives as an artifact of early 21st Century life on the East End. He lives in Holtsville and often comes out east to check on his creatures several times a week.
“I started out calling them spontaneous entities. It began as a character I would generate spontaneously freehand,” said Mr. Zotos. “The point initially was, no mater who you are or where you’re from, you would have no frame of reference for it other than the characters themselves, which seem to be subconsciously a biomorphic plant/animal.”
Mr. Zotos, who spent the impressionable time between fourth and seventh grade in Saugerties, NY, said the creatures he saw in the ponds and woods there at different stages in their life cycle had a strong early impression on him.
Later in his life, as he began to wind down a career buying and selling real estate and started spending more time showing off his artistic projects in New York’s Union Square, he began to see kids camping in the streets of New York in protest against the banking practices that lead to the Great Recession. He decided it was time to get out of the real estate business.
On one of these visits, he happened upon a book about the early abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky while browsing at The Strand in New York City. He was so intrigued with Kandinsky’s ideas about spontaneous art that he ended up with 13 books about Kandinsky, and the germ of an idea for a new career.
A New York art gallery owner told him if he wanted his art to get noticed, he should head out east on Long Island.
“I heard it was all happening out here, but I never knew it was like this,” he said.
Now, he says, he’s focusing more on deliberate creations, like a series he calls “pieheads,” which are creatures with more rounded and pronounced heads.
Mr. Zotos said he currently has 33 large pieces installed, with permission, along roadsides throughout the East End, with the greatest concentration along the Main Road corridor in Jamesport and Aquebogue, and along Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton.
He just began an installation in mid-September at the Bridgehampton School Garden.
“People are becoming more cool and friendly with me as these things are up,” he said. “If it’s in the school, it’s cool.”
Mr. Zotos said he showed up at the school with pictures of his work, and asked the teacher in charge of the garden, JudiAnn Carmack-Fayyaz, if he could place them in the garden.
“The school seemed to be very appreciative,” he said.
Mr. Zotos made his first significant foray into these creatures by placing a few of the smaller ones on poles around Southampton Village, from the 7-Eleven on County Road 39 to Jobs Lane in the fall of 2014. They were also briefly for sale at the Out of the Closet vintage store in Southampton Village.
“I always made characters for myself around the house as a creative outlet,” he said. “I decided to make a whole bunch of them. I’d use heavy markers and I started making them come out pretty nice.”
This year, he began popping in to stores throughout the East End asking the proprietors if he could place them outside, everywhere from Hildreth’s Home Goods in East Hampton to Duck Walk Vineyards in Water Mill to Junda’s Crusts and Crumbs in Jamesport.
He even asked a farmer on a tractor in Laurel if he could place one large one, whom he calls “Red Dot Guy,” next to the field he was plowing.
“I like the fact that people drive around and see them here and there, so a family with a mother, father, children and their grandmother, are all in a car together and all see it,” he said. “With most art, maybe a couple people will go to a gallery, but here everybody gets to see it together.”
“I hear a lot of people say they were driving around with their families counting them,” he said. “At this point, pretty much every where I go, people agree to put them up.”