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Scratch Pad: Artists who live two lives

Erick Bengel

Coast Weekend

Published on July 27, 2017 12:01AM

Features Editor Erick Bengel

Photo by Danny Miller

Features Editor Erick Bengel

Konrad Wert — better known by his stage name, Possessed by Paul James — performs in Cannon Beach.

Photo submitted by Tolovana Arts Colony

Konrad Wert — better known by his stage name, Possessed by Paul James — performs in Cannon Beach.


A feature story this week focuses on Arvi Ostrom, an Astoria man who owned and tended a bar in Uniontown while, unbeknown to his loved ones, he drew thousands of striking pictures before his death in 1995 (see Page 6).

Ostrom’s grandson, a musician named Ken Carlson, said: “I don’t think a lot of people understand artists have to live two lives.”

The notion of workaday folks cultivating an artistic alter ego stuck in my mind as I spent Sunday evening in a Cannon Beach park watching a man named Konrad Wert, a 40-year-old singer-songwriter from Beorne, Texas, shred the guitar, banjo and fiddle during a Tolovana Arts Colony concert.

His music was breathless and heartfelt, the lyrics punctuated by staccato “Heys!” and “Ho’s!” and passionate, prelinguistic cries. Half the fun was the spectacle of Wert himself: his eyes shut, head wagging, body heaving in his chair, and left foot rhythmically pummeling something he calls a “clog-stomper.”

At times, the one-man folk band felt like a full-blown ensemble. Wert’s manic virtuosity rivaled that of any live musician I’ve seen.

Yet his music is, in fact, a side gig to his 20-year profession as a special education teacher. His act, Possessed by Paul James (named after his grandfather, Paul, and father, James), supplements his stipend from the school district.

“To live simple, but to live with enough, you do have to have two types of income as a teacher, in Texas especially,” he told me after the show. So Wert records, tours and writes music with his wife and two young sons.

But, in conservative Texas, “moonlighting, working two jobs as a teacher, is really frowned upon,” he said.

His stage persona arose from a need to keep those worlds separate — not least because parents may not want to know how Mr. Wert was spending his free time.

“A parent who has a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy or a traumatic brain injury seeing their teacher getting s---tfaced on stage with homies (is something) they’re not so keen on,” he said with a chuckle.

So he lived a separate life, drawing regular income from his Monday-through-Friday job, and a little extra from weekend shows.

Wert said he has found a kind of balance, though, since he started using his act to encourage people to volunteer in their public schools, to reach out “for families that might feel isolated, or for kids that need more avenues, and they always need more avenues” — that is, since he chose to let his professional life inform his artistic one.

After a draining day at a demanding job, he tries to find time to decompress by writing music, often about his teaching experiences — just as Arvi Ostrom spent decades sketching the patrons he served at Uniontown’s Snug Harbor Tavern and the ships he observed from the saloon.

And just as, elsewhere on the North Coast, bartenders act in community theater, firefighters write poetry, restaurateurs sculpt and receptionists paint — living two lives, and, sometimes, allowing the vantage point of one life to enrich the other.



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