Lewis Greenberg is an artist unlike any other, a winner of the coveted Geezer of the Year award, and a man on a mission–much to the chagrin of his Ballwin, Missouri neighbors.
Update! Lewis responds!PHOTOS
SUPER SPECIAL EXTRA PHOTO SECTION (by Adrianne Mathiowetz)
Lewis Greenberg – Artist
There’s only one for Lewis Greenberg to live his life, and you’re sitting in it. I live it out loud. My windows are open. You can see in here, if you want.
You can’t see through the yard because it’s full of all that stuff.
That’s Lewis. Sculpture, not stuff.
That’s good. Well, I’m telling you, they call it junk. Color. Farm. Shape. Capture. Rhythm. Harmony. Unity. Variety. What I’m going to do to you today, as I do to everybody, I’m going to give you a tour. You see my house, it’s immaculate, but there’s a lot of things going on.
I’m not a regular artist. I want to do something different. Plastic P.
Every time I come here, it gets harder and harder to get to your front door.
Well, you can’t get to it now. Sometimes I get people in here. It’s no good, man. They got to twist and duck. Satin. Cloth. Aluminum. Wood. Piece of marble that’s cracked in the middle. This is supposed to be a tombstone or a gravestone. Red. Yellow. Blue. I always had stars of David for my major motif. You know the affinity symbol, did you see it up there? I brought the outside inside. That makes basically a transparent human being. I want to be transparent. I can walk barefoot on this and I don’t cut my feet, just to let you know.
I want to record you walking on it.
Okay. So it’s still … It’s pretty much done now, and it’s pretty secure. I think my home is the most beautiful home in the subdivision. This is hollow ground for me. This is something special to me. I’ve been working on it basically for my whole life. And then, when I decided to take on the name about eight years ago, I called it the Holocaust Revisited. My art is made to evoke the emotions of the people that see it. That’s what it’s made for. It does have the ugliness and maybe a little terror to it. My art is … It’s fun. It’s fun, David. You’re what, 21 again?
28? Your life is very similar to mine, except I don’t have to work. Come on back here and you’ll get an idea. My backyard, I’m going to have six million of these. And it’s unlimited because I can make them as small as I want, the tombstones. I’ll never get six million, but that’s what I’m working for. That’s my goal. It’s only been 65 years ago. It’s always been this past April. That’s when they stopped killing Jews. I do think it’s intense. You know why? It’s made to be intense. It’s made to get attention because the Holocaust has not received enough publicity. I’m addicted to my art.
When was the first time that you found out the city was going to do something about your artwork?
This guy, next door. He called up the city of Ballwin and said that I have… He didn’t even know the correct words. If you want to use the correct word, you would call it a nuisance. You would call me a nuisance. Here’s what he said. I destroyed my home. They wrote me up for litter and the storage of litter, which is a health menace. They say this is dangerous. Well, of course it’s dangerous. Swimming pools are dangerous. I mean, tell me, is it really that bad that people would want to put me away? Do I overreact? I’m just asking you and you record anything you want. I’m asking you that question. Do you understand? I don’t even have the faintest idea why people dislike me and my art so much. Course I’m different, but that doesn’t make me bad. They had a unmarked car. It was an old van and I’m using my leaf blower, and I got earmuffs on, and I look up and the handcuffs are out there. They handcuffed me right here. Right here. And it was horrible, man. It really was.
What were they saying to you while they’re handcuffing you? What were the reasons they were giving you that they were-
I was screaming at them. I was screaming at them. You know how I am.
They took me off my pills, man. I went into withdrawal. They took me off my Prilosec. I didn’t have my Adderall. I had horrible nightmares. They took me off of my Flomax. I was sick. But the food was pretty good. I ended up four and a half days getting kosher food. My lawyer has filed to the higher court and what’s probably going to happen is I’m going to have to have the hearings over again. Maybe in five months, I’ll be going to the Missouri State Supreme Court.
So as long as you keep appealing, you don’t have to take it down?
Exactly. I’m finally getting out of St. Louis. I plan to go through the Supreme Court and by the way, the new Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan, you know, she’s a Jew. She’s as liberal as you and me. If it goes my way, I’ll die in my home, and this boy next door and these people that hate me, all of a sudden, “Where’s Greenberg at, man? He hasn’t been around.” Then they’ll start snooping and they’ll start smelling. Everyone will be responsible. I’ll just show you the people in the neighborhood.
So, here. Friend. Friend. Foe. Friend. Foe. Friend. Friend. Foe. I don’t know that one. Friend. Friend. No one lives in that one. Friend. I could just go, oh, I know the whole subdivision. Foe. Friend. Tell me when to stop. If you need any more, just knock on their doors. You’ll find out real quick. Go on. Knock on doors. It’ll be interesting.
All right. All right.
Karen: If the grass grows over a foot tall in this neighborhood, Ballwin will cite you and you either cut it or they’ll cut it and they’ll fine you. Hi, my name is Karen. I’m talking with David about my neighbor, Lewis Greenberg. It’s lowered our house values. We have proof of that because the man next door tried to sell his house. Everybody that came in liked the house, said they wouldn’t live next door to Lewis. If you go onto the computer and look up Lewis Greenberg, you’ll see comments about his yard. There are two kinds of people, those that say, “Hooray, Lewis,” and those that say, “It’s terrible,” and I’ve seen it. The people that are for his right to do that never say they’ve been by it to look at it. Never. Five or six years ago, we just asked him to calm it down and maybe change his sculptures out. From then on, there was a vendetta. You do not criticize Lewis Greenberg. You just simply don’t.
You just introduce yourself and …
Janet Schuller: Oh, Janet Schuller. That’s my name.
You want to move to Ballwin, don’t you?
Me? Pretty happy where I’m at.
I live in University City.
Oh. Oh, you come from where he likes to go.
Yeah. That’s how I met Lewis. I was working on a story, interviewing some people at the arts commission, and it was the night that he … And he won an award. You know what about that?
He won an award called, Geezer of the Year award.
So he’s in with all the young people.
I think that’s part of the thing is that they just see it as like, “Oh, here’s this guy who just wants to put up his art, and then he’s surrounded by these conservative people that don’t get it.” So he’s a sort of cultural figure like, “Oh, he’s standing up for art.” And you know.
Oh, god. They don’t come out and look. He’s always had art in his yard. I mean, a piece here, a piece there. I didn’t mind that. But this is the inside of his mind. He uses the Holocaust as the religion reason why he has all this there. Only after the 60 year celebration happened did he think of that, to keep it in his yard. Then the orange thing became the crematorium. And you know, did he take you through all that? When it first started, Tim was telling him of our concerns. Wish he hadn’t, because it just blew him up and got him going more and more and more. Do you hear what I hear?
What is that noise?
Him breaking his stone. Goes on all the time. He used to do it at 4:30 in the morning when he first started. And that’s what got me upset, so I called the police and then he’d lie to them saying, “I wasn’t out here,” or he’d hide and …
So what do you do now when you hear that noise? You just turn up the TV and try to block it out? Or …
One of the things he said was that he had to keep the balance of the neighborhood because he was surrounded by members of the Tea Party.
Karen: Number one, I don’t know any Tea Party-ers here, not a single one. Number two, how does he know? Number three, he talks that way about Janet and I. He voted for Obama. So did I. So did she. Because people disagree with him, he’s got to put a label on them. Therefore, they are Tea Party-ers. Nice Republicans here? Yes. Tea Party-ers? No. But because we disagree with him, we’re Nazis. Or Tea Party-ers now, that’s a new one. I didn’t know he called us Tea Party-ers. I’m so far from the Tea Party, it isn’t funny.
Janet: He was calling me a Nazi and my neighbor a Nazi. And I told him whenever he was calling me Nazi to my face, I said, “You just don’t realize how much that hurts to be called something like that.” I’m sorry.
I mean, do you think that something will change in the future or do you think there’ll be a moment where something happens and …
He could pass away. He keeps getting younger, though. He used to be my age. Now he’s several years younger than I am.
So in 2004, Tim comes over here, says, “The neighbors have gotten together.” They decide they want you to take down some of your art.
Lewis: I went so crazy with him. I’ll tell you what happened. I was barbecuing and I had a hamburger that was barbecued. I forgot all about it. By the time I got through with him, it was a nice size hamburger, it was the size of a dime. It shrunk on it. That’s good that you brought that up.
At this point, had you made your grill to look like a crematorium?
Oh, no, it just got started.
They said that you will drive by their car and rev your car engine really loud.
Oh, I always rev my car engine, yeah. Did you ever hear it?
Well, it’s got a Toyota Racing division muffler on it and it’s loud.
But doesn’t that seem like just mean?
Oh, I am. I have a dark side.
They said sometimes that you yell at them in your yard.
Always, always. Sure, I just told her, yeah. Of course I yell at them. Tough. I have done nothing wrong. The constitution says that I have-
I would say that you have done some things wrong.
What? My art?
I think the way you’ve harassed your neighbors is wrong.
What am I supposed to do? What is wrong with my art, David? You said I harassed them.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your art. I think you should be allowed to do whatever you want in your yard. I totally agree with you.
They harassed me. What am I supposed to do?
But I don’t think you should be a dick to your neighbors.
That’s where we disagree.
Why? I want to ask you. I want to interview you. Why should I be nice to them? They put me in jail for 18 days and they blindsided me. They did it all behind closed doors.
But if they had come up to you and said, “Lewis, we want you to take down your art there,” and you would have said, “Fuck them.”
Get the fuck off my property.
That’s what I’m saying. Well, the thing is, is that you have lost at the law every single time you’ve gone to court. The other two women that I talked to-
… they don’t seem like people that want to see you in jail.
I just want to be so kind to you because you’re … I really love you, man. I’m telling you, they’re not good. Do you believe me when I tell you that there are people that would kill me right here in the city of Ballwin if they could get away with it? You don’t believe it. So you think I’m making that up. I know you do. You got that goodness still in you.
I don’t know.
Believe me, they would. I never used to have to have a weapon. Our country’s changed. I will not stop punishing these neighbors because the ones that you talked to, they knocked on doors. They tried to put me in a mental institution.
They said that you were wrong about everyone being Tea Party-ers. In fact, she and her both voted for Obama.
You know something? If Barack and Michelle and Sasha and Malia, here’s what she’s talking about, were my next door neighbors, they would love me. Most of the people that dislike me, they are Tea Party people. Are these people Tea Party people? The way they are treating me, yes. They are worse than Tea Party, or Tea Party/Nazi. It’s only semantics. I mean, come on. That’s all it is, David. Do you want some coffee, or soda or anything, or something to eat?
Yeah, I’d love something to drink.
You want a Diet Coke?
Would you like that word better? Could you deal with enemies more than Nazis?
See, to me, an enemy is a Nazi. It’s just part of my vocabulary. It always have been, because I’m addicted to the Holocaust. I’m addicted to my art. Don’t you see where I’m coming from, man? I’m into being a minority. Haven’t you interviewed African-Americans?
Does it make you feel good to-
Yes, it makes me feel great!
… yell at your neighbors?
That’s what I’m all about. In fact, the way I am right now, people that don’t know me, they say, “Calm down, Lewis, you’re going to have a heart attack,” and then I explain to them, I’m in the height of my life right now. This is what gets me going. I’m excited. Can’t you see how revved up I am? I got a little mission.
So what is your mission?
My mission is this. My mission on the planet is to tell them, these people that fight against me, that I got the same rights as they do and I’ll fight them to the end because we’re all the same. They’re not going to bury me. That’s my mission. Part of what keeps me going is giving them a hard time, and to show them they messed with the wrong person.
So you’re basically saying that the war has been a defining thing in your life?
Oh, for sure.
So what defined you before the war?
Good question. Not much. This is the pinnacle of my life right now. How’s that sound?
I know that it hasn’t always been this crazy, but I was wondering what happened that-
Janet: His wife moved and he had free rein.
I think the quote I read in the paper was that he referred to her as the last obstacle.
Oh, well, he got rid of her. Actually, she left him. One day, I don’t even know if he knew she was going, because she did it in a snap.
Yeah. They came in, moved her out, and she was gone.
So your wife leaves you in 2003.
Lewis: She didn’t leave me. I throw her out. Get what –
She left or whatever happened.
Yeah, she left. You know why? She taunted me. She abused me mentally for years, and I was so weak because I was depressed. I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m a new man. I’ve transformed several times in my life. Have you ever transformed in 30 years? I was depressed for a good part of my life. How’s –
Did your son’s birth help at all with your depression?
No. It was in reverse.
Did that change your relationship with your wife when your son was born?
This is really off the subject, but I’ll tell you. My ex-wife, once my son was born, that was her whole life. And me, I was a second class citizen. My son doesn’t talk to me because he’s embarrassed of me. He’s never come here to visit. I don’t fly publicly. I deleted my son’s number and my wife’s number. They’re out of my life completely. Did I tell you that my son sent me a picture last night of my grandson?
I thought you weren’t talking to your son.
I didn’t. He sent me a picture over the phone.
Yeah. In front of a menorah. They’re giving him Jewish and Christian together. Were you raised up that way? Did you –
No, I was raised strictly. Well, not strictly, but my dad doesn’t … He’s an atheist, so …
Well, so your dad’s an atheist, so did you celebrate Christmas?
Yeah, we celebrated Christmas.
Did you go to church?
Oh, well, then maybe you can help me with my son. Here’s a picture of my grandson. He’s going to be three years old. It’s his birthday.
Do you have any desire to meet your grandson?
It’s my son. I got pissed off last night when he sent me that picture.
What is it that happened between you and your son that you feel like you need to forgive him for?
Well, he doesn’t talk to me. He said, “What will your grandson think of you if you go to jail?” I said, “The people that support me will think I’m Dr. King or Nelson Mandela. He’ll be proud of me. I’m a hero.”
This fight for you about your art, is that more important than your relationship with your son?
Oh, it’s the most important thing on the world. You know, my mother used to always say, “Apples don’t fall far from the tree”. It’s not my son’s fault. He’s a smart young man, but he just doesn’t know. I don’t think he knows the difference between right and wrong, and I think I do. [inaudible] Now, I’ll tell you why they are. Because I am my art. My art is talking back to them. Why, do you think because art … This art speaks. It speaks through me. I did it. I made it. I [inaudible] Come on. Let’s just talk about –
The other thing is, you guys have been neighbors for 40 years.
I didn’t talk to her ever.
But you didn’t have a big problem. Everything was cool. 40 years.
That’s because I didn’t do anything at that time. I anytime I want. That’s not true. That’s what they say. You would live next to me, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe. If you say maybe.
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