May 4, 20099
This past Easter Sunday, the profound Tom Kennedy and his loving family, friends and fans experienced the shock of his life being tragically cut short at Ocean Beach south of the Cliff House and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The 48 year young joyful, whimsical, prankster, art car pioneer, artist/performer, progressive political activist, mediator and inspiring mentor – after a good session of body surfing with pal Mike Tackaberry – got caught by the combination of a large rogue wave, a rapid succession of waves and a nasty riptide ending his illustrious, prolific and greatly influential life.
Please join me in celebrating the life of this magnificent and important man.
Time magazine called Tom “a fin man.” He was that and so much more.
I first met Tom in 2004 when he was collaborating with my brother, Brian Goggin, on a piece of furniture sculpture filled with whimsy and levity – Desire for the Other – right up Tom’s ally.
At the time, I was working with some good friends in San Francisco on a political action committee, WeCount.org, contributing to the collective efforts attempting to end our misery under W.
After checking out the sculpture’s progress at a South of Market studio, Tom and I had lunch and shared thoughts on our political activism that election cycle. Tom dreamt of touring art car parades nationally featuring a Bush missile truck. The missile truck became a reality, only during the 2008 election.
After Tom’s passing, his mother Pat graciously shared with me the roots of Tom’s legendary art/political activism.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, “Tom as a small boy exhibited a well-developed sense of fairness,” Pat told me. Active in team sports, he was often a leader – primarily because he “knew what it meant to be part of something bigger.” This sense helped Tom to develop deep empathy for others, “He looked out for the underdog,” Pat added.
And he understood that, in speaking and acting out to injustice, it was important to work at the macro and micro level. Tom valued the importance of one on one interactions, mostly through joy, humor and love, but also through in your face antics.
The second of four children, Tom and his family moved numerous times during his childhood with brief stops in Portland, Or., Kansas City, and Oklahoma, before spending five years in Cleveland – he later graduated from a quality high school in a Detroit suburb. Along the way he experienced being different – like having long hair in Oklahoma – but also a team player and leader.
After spending two years at Michigan Tech, Tom, used to uprooting, journeyed south – this time to Houston where he landed a job on the loading dock of the Houston Chronicle. Soon he was managing the dock and then – flagged by management as a strong and effective thinker – transferred to circulation. Tom’s ride up the corporate ladder ended, however, when he discovered, amongst other unsavory things, unsettling practices the Chronicle used to boost circulation numbers.
By that time, Tom had gone back to school at the University of Houston in marketing, gotten married to a very charming woman and bought a house. While at the University, Tom took an elective in sculpture leading him, in the early 90s, to attend the Houston Art Car Parade. It changed his life.
Says fellow art car veteran and film-maker Harrod Blank:
“After seeing the effect these rolling sculptures had on people, he decided he wanted to make an art car and join that group of people. He made Ripper the Friendly Shark.
“It suspends your disbelief. It’s a car, but all you see on the highway is a giant shark. It’s something you’re not used to seeing on a highway.”
Deciding to leave behind the more conventional life he established in Houston, in 1995 Tom set out on his own and settled in San Francisco.
From that point on, Tom brought amazing art to the people – he wasn’t too fond of museums, in part because of their lack of interactivity. And, his work became more political over time.
Good friend and Burning Man co-founder John Law posted out upon learning of our loss:
Tom was one of the kindest and sweetest men I have known. His big, muscular presence was that of a gentle giant, a protector and a gentleman. Tom’s sense of fairness and justice was as powerful as his creative urges. He was no push over, though. His work as an art provocateur and activist was tough, funny as hell and very “in-your-face” for those he saw as oppressors and forces of evil in the world. Greedy businessmen, slimy politicians and the like were the hapless targets of his art wrath.
The infamous performer Chicken John, a 2007 San Francisco candidate for Mayor, posted out:
His passing leaves us impoverished.
This is a big man, a giant almost. Stong. Powerful. Hard worker. Hands like medium Cornish hens….Tom’s body of work is astounding. He built American Art, the Art Car. And took us all along for the ride. Without fear or a parking spot for any of them. He lost his art to the tow truck many times. Can you imagine?….
Life is fragile. I will miss Tom Kennedy. So will a million others. The really sad thing here is all the kids that will miss his work… the work he never got to make. Lets make sure that we always have a spot for Tom to park….
After that lunch I had with Tom in 2004, he went on to protest at the Republican Convention in New York City. He even got arrested – and met his future wife and co-provocateur Haideen Anderson, a co-founder of the Missle Dick Chicks.
Here they are in the Hippopotamobile
In NYC, Tom joined the Missile Dick Chicks, who hailed from Crawford, Texas, in street theater/agitprop – he donned the masks of Cheney, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld. On the night of his arrest, Tom was Cheney and could often be heard grunting, “Go fuck yourself.”
Both Haideen and Pat emphasized what a great voice Tom had – both literally and influentially. His singing voice added to the effectiveness of the NYC protests. Tom’s public speaking prowess led to an interview with the BBC and his narration of Dust and Illusions – a documentary on the history of Burning Man.
Tom simply broke through and down barriers. In the 90s, Pat rode with him in Houston’s Martin Luther King parade. They were the first white folks in the parade and, fittingly, drove in Tom’s first art van – “Our Lady of All We Have in Common.”
“Ripper the friendly shark” was a perfect entree by Tom into the art world – it directly challenged conventional thinking in multiple ways.
As Law pointed out, Tom especially enjoyed in your face activism. After he and crew burned Bush effigies in the Houston Art Car Parade, the powers that be changed the rules to make it more “family friendly.”
In early 2007, Ben Cohen (Ben & Jerry’s) commissioned Tom to build the Topsy Turvy Bus.
The bus toured the nation in the run-up to the primaries protesting the US’ grossly disproportionate levels of defense spending over domestic spending on education, health care and the environment.
While Tom toured on Topsy Turvy with Haideen, they penned this poem:
WASTEFUL – DISTASTEFUL – DISGRACEFUL
Those of you who back the war
Who make-up what we’re fighting for
You’re truly living by the sword
Shame on you and your entire hoard
Those of you who pump the fear
Through mainstream media’s friendly ear
You’re the one who should be damned
By those of us with extended hands
War pigs roasting on the spit
Sausage bacon burned a bit
It’s time for you to call it quits
Go make some friends and chill a bit
All of you who were raised on hate
For Armageddon you just can’t wait
Your names are on the Devil’s Slate
A life in hell is your just fate
Pentagon Pentagon your budget’s bloated
Your wastefulness has been noted
The last time that the people voted
It was WAR that was demoted….
Those of you who deal in death
Whose lips drip blood with every breath
We hereby take your power away
And give it back to the people today
Where’s the wasted money?
In the land of milk and honey
You think this war is funny?
Your Pinocchio nose is runny!
Where’s that trillion dollars gone?
In the pockets of your cronies
Who are stealing the tax money
Rumsfeld’s legacy does remain
Public loss for private gain!
Like four of the great-grandparents he was named after, Tom, most of all, was a great adventurer – and right up to the end. While many of us enjoyed the sun, family and friends celebrating spring, Easter or Passover three weeks ago Sunday, Tom was riding the waves of the Pacific Ocean one final time.
But because Tom so creatively modeled action, he leaves a great legacy inspiring many to continue riding life’s waves of art activism and our own individual means of creative expression.
Thanks Tom Kennedy – thanks for teaching us to enjoy life while speaking up to injustice. You will be sorely missed, yet live on within the millions whose lives you so gracefully touched.