THE INTERVIEW: Ann Magnuson on the art of “suRURALism” and coming to ground in West Virginia

Ann Magnuson in front of Kenny Scharf’s “Cosmic Cavern” installation at the Museum of Modern Art’s Club 57 exhibit in 2018.| Photo by Steven Love Menendez. Hair and Make Up by Virna Smiraldi.

Charleston WV native Ann Magnuson is currently back in her hometown, prepping a show of “spooky songs and stories” in a style she dubs “SuRURALism.” A show on Saturday, October 29 will bring her entourage to Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, WV, starting 7:30 p.m. (tickets $15 at this link). She performs the next afternoon in a free performance at the West Virginia Museum of Music at Charleston Town Center Mall, 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 30. Produced by Magnuson and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, she’ll team up with WVMHOF director Michael Lipton and local musicians “to conjure up songs and spoken-word dreamscapes from her extensive musical and theatrical catalogue,” as a press release describes it.

WestVirginiaVille editor Douglas John Imbrogno interviews Magnuson below on the show and the fundamental role her West Virginia upbringing and return visits have played in a wide-ranging career.

Her creative work ranges from fronting offbeat bands such as Bongwater and Vulcan Death Grip, to managing Club 57 in its New York City heyday, while rubbing elbows with the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. Her film and TV work spans performing with David Bowie in the horror classic “The Hunger,” to a recent appearance in “STAR TREK: PICARD” as Star Fleet Commander Admiral Kirsten Clancy. She has staged performance art at museums around the world, while pursuing her own visual art practice. She received an Honorary Doctorate from West Virginia University in 2021, and was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2018.

Our interview took place via ZOOM, with Magnuson staying at a friend’s house on a wooded lot in the South Hills of Charleston WV, as the owner’s elderly cat meowed loudly for attention. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Unlike lots of creative types, who achieve a level of success in the wider world and never look back, you’re back in the city and in this state-of-mind called West Virginia fairly often. What brings you back? And what role does the state play in how your creativity — and sanity, if indeed you are sane — has unfolded through the years?

ANN MAGNUSON: I feel like I have to come back to West Virginia all the time, to maintain some kind of sense of groundedness. And also it’s in my blood. I guess a lot of people when they leave, they don’t come back. I love it. I love the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the state — when you’re not, you know, looking at mountaintop removal. People are very genuine here for the most part. At least, the people I hang out with.

Certainly, when I lived in the East Village in New York, which was very dangerous and had its difficulties, it was nice to come back here and be in nature. I need to be in nature. So, when I moved to Los Angeles, we eventually got a place in Joshua Tree. The landscape couldn’t be more different, but still it was a rural environment. And there were fewer people. I can’t be around so many people.

“I feel like I have to come back to West Virginia all the time, to maintain some kind of sense of groundedness.”

But now Joshua Tree has been discovered the way that the East Village and Silverlake (NOTE: the Los Angeles community where she and husband John Bertram live) were discovered. Both the places I lived in New York and Los Angeles were like small villages within the big city. They were places that were very rough around the edges, where artists liked to congregate because the rents were cheap. But then the artists made those places hip and then venture capital came in and changed the whole thing. So, that has happened in Joshua Tree.

I pray to God it won’t happen in West Virginia. Although I understand Lewisburg is full of tourists and Fayetteville and Thomas in various parts of West Virginia are getting discovered. I’m hoping being in Charleston and further to the southwest, there’s less inclination for corporate hipsters to make their way here.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: ‘Corporate hipsters‘ is a good and useful phrase.

ANN MAGNUSON: I mean, the word ‘hipster‘ means nothing anymore. Except if you combine it with ‘corporate.’ And that pretty much describes how everything from the ’80s became commodified by MTV and then infiltrated the culture. And now with the Internet, everything travels so fast that you can’t have a scene that stays secret for very long. I mean, on the one hand, I wouldn’t mind some corporate hipster-fication money. [laughs.] But I guess I stay a few steps too underground for that.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Let’s talk let’s talk about that. What does ‘a few steps too underground’ mean?

ANN MAGNUSON: Well, it might be more than a couple of steps. I was always attracted to the — quote-unquote — avant-garde. Well, I do like both things, you know. I liked watching Adam West and “Batman” on television. But I also got very interested in avant-garde theater, particularly when I went to college and acted in plays like the Ionesco’s “The Chairs” and Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” But I was interested in bands when I was in high school that weren’t known to the general public. After all, David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” didn’t sell that much at the time, not when you compare it to “Let’s Dance,” for example. He was considered too weird and avant-garde. And that was what was appealing. Billed as “the new Bowie,” the performer Jobriath was even ‘weirder’ to the public, mostly because he was openly gay. I got both of his records when they came out — had to do special order for those!

I was also a big Elton John fan and he was certainly very popular. So, I didn’t really forsake one for the other. I just found that people who were doing the, well, more adventurous work, that it was more exciting. The stuff that the majority of people, certainly at the time and in the ’70s, would say: ‘That’s weird! I don’t get that. That’s too weird for me!’

I’m like: ‘Not for me!!!”

Rolling Stone wrote that David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on-stage persona was “the alter ego that changed music forever and sent his career into orbit.”

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Looking backwards as a kid in the West Virginia hills, what else influenced and shaped your sense of the world?

ANN MAGNUSON: Growing up, Soupy Sales was one of my idols — the earliest idol I had! He’s from Huntington, but he visited Charleston. And he was in the parking lot of the Civic Center. And we went down there to visit him and somewhere I have an autographed photo of him. I LOVE Soupy Sales. And, you know, Captain Kangaroo had a lot of surrealist elements, too. Captain Kangaroo was a psychedelic experience for a kid growing up.

Plus, I loved “Chiller Theater” and monster movies and “The Outer Limits” and “Twilight Zone.” I liked things that got into, I guess, the realm of the supernatural. Even church has that aspect to it. I was turned on to protest music in the fourth grade in music class at Holz School when our teacher played us Peter, Paul and Mary. And that was the way I heard Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and got that kind of information.

“Humor is also the one thing I was always drawn to. Soupy Sales was one of my idols — the earliest idol I had!”

Funny story. The son of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sinclair, was visiting from California. He was going to, I think, UCLA or USC, but had volunteered — or so he said — for these medical experiments, to be a guinea pig for this new drug called ‘LSD.’ And this is when it was still legal. She had him come to our class and give a talk and he described his acid trip. That really stuck with me.

And you also grew up back then with Walt Disney, seeing something like “Fantasia.” Or “Mary Poppins,” you know? She jumps into a chalk painting and goes into this wonderland. All of this stuff! I was presented with alternative realities from the get go. It was magic. It was the land of magic.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You have said your dreams — your actual nightly dreams — have played a significant role in your creative work. How so?

ANN MAGNUSON: I’ve always been a very vivid dreamer. So, the dreams have worked their way into my work. I’d say my dreams have infiltrated my work since the ’80s, when I started really writing them down and performing them as songscapes or turning them into lyrics that actually became songs. Most of the stuff that was in Bongwater came from that that. The unconscious. Or sort of the consciously-sourced unconscious. And a lot of those lyrics were poems or things I wrote here in Charleston, when I was visiting from New York, hanging out on the porch in the summertime on Sweetbrier Road.

“I showed [my Grandma Magnuson] this ad for the New York Dolls debut album and she flipped out! She said: ‘That is the devil! Promise you won’t have anything to do with those people!’

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Can you describe how the alternative, non-mainstream music scene also influenced you — and how that scene in New York became part of the backdrop of your daily life after you moved there in 1978 at age 22?

ANN MAGNUSON: I was very influenced by Patti Smith, as a person who wrote poetry and put that poetry into music. And Tom Verlaine of Television. Richard Hell. Those more poetically-minded punk rockers. And I remember very clearly when The New York Dolls came into the picture. There was an ad in Rolling Stone of the New York Dolls debut album. I mean, this was a pretty mischievous thing to do, but I showed it to my Grandma Magnuson, who lived in Morgantown and we went up there a lot. She was a big storyteller who loved to tell stories, so, I know I inherited some of that — the gift of gab from her. But I showed her this ad for the New York Dolls debut album and she flipped out! She said: ‘That is the devil! Promise you won’t have anything to do with those people!’ I’m like, okay, okay. And I was kind of giggling.

But in a lot of ways, she was right. In New York, in the East Village, I would see members of the New York Dolls walking around, stumbling around. It was a really tough environment.

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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What was it like, this West Virginia girl landing in New York, living in a crappy flat, finding other artists on the streets and in the clubs?

ANN MAGNUSON: Really, I was excited to be on my own and to be able to have an apartment that was cheap. And finding all these other like-minded artists and being creative together. And I didn’t have to have a real nine-to-five job. I was the manager of Club 57, which has now become a pretty infamous place. The Museum of Modern Art did a retrospective about the activities at the club, a show that I was co-curator of in 2017 to 2018 So, I found my tribe. I had a great time. But I was always looking over my shoulder. I had some pretty close calls — and it was really not a place for a little West Virginia gal.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What do you mean ‘close calls’?

ANN MAGNUSON: Oh, you know, people tried to break into my apartment. I got mugged. There was a lot of crime. Bad crime. Let’s put it this way — I wouldn’t have let my daughter live down there [laughs]. But parents of my generation, once you were 18, you were on your own and had to make your own way.

“As far as New York was concerned, the mid ’80s, certainly, when Andy Warhol died in 1986, that seemed to be a turning point.”

Colorized photo of Andy Warhol.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Was there a point when you said, ‘Okay, I’m done. I need to go someplace else’ — and you headed out?

ANN MAGNUSON: Well, I was always coming back to Charleston. I was always coming back to see my dad, who retired to Snowshoe. I always liked to travel. So, I was always traveling. But as far as New York was concerned, the mid ’80s, certainly, when Andy Warhol died in 1986, that seemed to be a turning point. The re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984 kind of felt like New York had changed because a lot of money was starting to come in. AIDS started infiltrating the creative community. People were dying. That changes your outlook.

Certain people, like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and then Madonna came into the picture — they were making incredible amounts of money. And it suddenly didn’t seem cool to be poor anymore. Before, there was an even playing field. And you didn’t really think about money. You just wanted to be creative and be around your friends. And when you’re young, that’s normal.

As you get older, you start to realize, ‘Oh, I might have to set my sights a little higher. I need health insurance, for example …’ In America, you need to make some money to have health insurance. I got sick of living in this hovel, even though for awhile I was very happy to have this East Village apartment. Basically, it was a dump because it was so cheap! You didn’t have a lot of responsibilities, except to your creativity. And there were so many other people doing the same thing.

Ann Magnuson photo by Photo by Carol Sheridan.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: All the while, your creative profile was expanding, from music to art to film …

I was getting roles. I was in this Beth and Scott B movie. That led to me meeting Jimmy Russo, who introduced me to Mary Goldberg, who was a casting director, and that’s how I got in “The Hunger.” I did that in 1982. So, I went to London to do this movie with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. And I had such a good time doing that, that I wanted to do more. I really liked being in this environment with all these people. It was like running away with the circus.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: So, did you move from New York to LA or did you come back here to West Virginia first?

ANN MAGNUSON: I was coming back and forth from here and New York. And then I started going out to LA. And I met somebody and got involved with them. And then I started going back and forth from New York and LA, with stops in West Virginia, periodically. I was working in both cities in TV and film. And live performance and in the art world. And performance art and, then, nightclub cabarets. Anything. I just took every opportunity that came my way to be a theatrical storyteller, whether it was in music or theater.

And I did some what they call legitimate theater, although I think everything we were doing was completely legitimate. So, for a while I was alternating  doing shows off-Broadway and movies and TV shows, as well as being in bands. But in 2003, they kicked me out of that apartment because the building had been sold. The East Village was gentrifying and they were trying to kick out everybody who had rent-stabilized leases. And it was very hard to let it go. But I had gotten married in 2002 to John Bertram and really needed to stay out on the West Coast. So, that’s when we decided to get a place in Joshua Tree. I didn’t go back to NYC for three years after that — and found I didn’t really miss it.

“I just took every opportunity that came my way to be a theatrical storyteller, whether it was in music or theater.”

Ann Magnuson photo by Steven Love Menendez. Hair and Make Up by Virna Smiraldi.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: In profiles of you and your work, ones by others and in our past interviews, we scribblers end up tossing around a lot of hyphens and descriptors about what you do. Performance Artist-Actress-Musician-Cabaret Performer-Storyteller … What do you call what you do?

ANN MAGNUSON: I sometimes call it alternative storytelling. Maybe ‘contemporary alternative folklore.’ That description takes in all these elements I’ve been exposed to throughout my life. And through the help of the unconscious, it’s almost like automatic writing. I wake up, it’s like — wow, that was quite a story. That dream. So, I write it down. And some of them become elements in these shows and some of them don’t. But I’ve got thousands of them, now, that I come across. Some, I’m like, ‘Oh, I never performed that! That might be good …’

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Let’s talk about the show you’re here in West Virginia to perform. So, ‘SuRURALism.’ You’ve been using this term for some years, now.

ANN MAGNUSON: I was thinking about this, gosh, like a decade ago, at least. Maybe 20 years. Because I like the mystical aspects of West Virginia’s nature. Maybe it’s because of growing up and being so into monster movies and “Outer Limits” and “The Twilight Zone,” and hiking in the hills in the woods around South Hills. Then, we’d go visit our neighbor’s farm in Dunmore. And then going up to see my grandmother in Morgantown. And she made all these strange dolls.

And, so, a lot of Bongwater stuff comes from West Virginia. It inspired that material or I wrote it while I was here and it was about my experiences here. That band was very psychedelic. Make that psycho-psychedelic! And, of course, becoming a teenager in the early ’70s and having an exposure to some certain mind altering substances … [laughs.] It all mixes up and becomes this combination of the surreal and the rural.

And I thought — I want to pursue that more …


Bongwater, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, performs “You Don’t Love Me Yet”on the program “Night Music” in 1990.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You say your guitar is back in your hands here in your home state. What musical influences in West Virginia have left a mark on you?

ANN MAGNUSON: I picked up the guitar again and am writing more songs. I like all the West Virginia native musicians and the directness of a lot of the music such as Hazel Dickens. And then the wild aspects of it that you see in Hasil Adkins and Jesco White. And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay … No wonder I like making up all this crazy stuff.’ This is really where I come from. And it’s really not weird at all. It’s just part of the landscape.

But it’s good to do this stuff in the context of a Halloween performance, because then people understand it better.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: I’ve always been intrigued by the way Mexican culture deals with death, the loss of loved ones, and the after-life with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, in which you’re talking about something normally dark and fearsome. But you’re turning it into this kind of party ‘story’ and that somehow makes it more approachable. Is there a kindred connection between ‘suRURALism’ and putting your ‘spooky stories and songs’ in the context of a Halloween show? We’ve talked about how Jung’s thinking and work addressed some of this stuff. Jung was all about the “shadow” side of things.

ANN MAGNUSON: Yes, yes, it’s absolutely that. A lot of it is the exploration of the shadow self. It’s that Jungian journey of ‘individuation,’ in which you use all aspects of of the human and the non-human experience. Not just to find meaning, but to create a communal experience that makes us feel less alone. But with a lot of humor. Humor is also the one thing I was always drawn to.

“Theater, after all, was originally created as a religious rite. It wasn’t — quote-unquote — ‘entertainment.’ It was about a connection to a higher power. To the great mystery that has created us all.”

Theater, after all, was originally created as a religious rite. It wasn’t — quote-unquote — ‘entertainment.’ It was about a connection to a higher power. To something. To the great mystery that has created us all. And to help people feel less afraid of this frightening thing known as mortality and whatever might await us after we’re gone. Or if anything at all awaits us, you know? And if not — if it’s nothing — we better create some meaning, right now.

Spending time in Los Angeles — I’ve been there for over 30 years, now — The Day of the Dead was always a big thing. And now it’s become just MASSIVE. Hollywood Forever is an old cemetery that has a lot of Hollywood people in it. Now, they have a lot of rock and rollers who have passed away, like Johnny Ramone and Chris Cornell. My friend, Howie Pyro, who just passed away, is there. But they have a huge event where people create Day of the Dead shrines. It rivals Mardi Gras at this point. I don’t even go anymore because it’s too many people. But it’s so magical.

Maybe it’s a connection to honor the ancestors. That’s basically what it is. But it’s really an excuse for people to get together and feel less alone.


The official video of Ann Magnuson’s 2018 induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame
Produced by Brainwrap Productions | Script by Michael Lipton | Narration by Larry Groce | Research Gavin Wissen

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Which has ever been the function of storytelling.

ANN MAGNUSON: Yes. And the campfire. Let’s get around that campfire and get warm, so we don’t DIE. But we’ve also got to tell these stories so we don’t die of alienation.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: And we’re gathered together as those eyeballs out there in the darkness are staring our way. Whoever those creatures are out there. …

ANN MAGNUSON: Right. And we saw one here. Because this house I’m staying at overlooks a ravine. And we saw a red fox the other morning! The deer are walking in and out. And I saw a raccoon, too. I’ve got to be around nature. I lose my mind in these big cities. I don’t really want to be in Los Angeles much longer. I don’t like it. It’s become so gentrified and so dense. And people are much ruder there. They’re much nicer here.

A scene from “Making Mr. Right,” a 1987 sci-fi romantic comedy. Starring Ann Magnuson and John Malkovich, the movie concerns the misadventures and burgeoning romance between an android and Frankie, the Magnuson character.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: In recent years, you’ve danced around the idea of moving back to West Virginia. At the same time, ‘Mr. Magnuson’ — or maybe you are ‘Mrs. Bertram — has his own acclaimed in-demand California-based architecture firm.

ANN MAGNUSON: He’s getting fed up with the craziness of the city, but he still has a few years left in him for his profession. This question is an ongoing project that we’re just letting the answers be revealed. Not trying to force the solution, but to let it come naturally. Coming here and getting to stay in this wonderful house while my friend is on a cruise is an absolute gift. So, when these gifts come my way, I receive them with much gratitude. And then I think, well, let’s see … Is this pointing me in another direction?

Who knows where I’ll end up.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: To wrap up, what else is on your creative radar right now?

ANN MAGNUSON: Well, I’ve been playing the guitar more and making up some folk songs. I want to put together an album of that. I’m working with dublab in LA. And I performed last month — the first time in years! Certainly, COVID prevented me from wanting to be in a theater or a club. But the Bush Tetras were playing and [vocalist] Cynthia Sley asked me, ‘Do you know anybody who could be our opening act?’

And I thought, hmmm ….. ‘Me?’

Alejandro Cohen from dublab played with me and the drummer/percussionist Joe Berardi. We just did a really easy, stripped-down thing. And I thought, well, gosh, I could maybe do some version of this in West Virginia. But now it’s turned into something different. It’s not going to be the same show. But I got my toes wet again. And I thought, well, let’s see. And so, here I am. And we’ll see if I can remember all this stuff without referring to my notes too much. [laughs]

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You also make art, some of it inspired by your grandmother, which includes some of her homemade fabric dolls and also ones you made for your strange and wonderful Youtube series “WTF2022.”

ANN MAGNUSON: My grandmother taught me how to sew. So, during the pandemic, and prior to that, we inherited my husband’s mother’s sewing machine and I just started doing any old thing. Just putting together what I call ‘hillbilly charm bags.’ Then, I started making fabric-based art and produced a video series about the pandemic using the dolls my Grandma Magnuson made way back when. She grew up during the Depression, when everybody made use of anything and everything, particularly because they were so poor. So, I was exposed to her homemade creativity. She made these interesting dolls out of pipe cleaners, old silk stockings, and nylon stockings. And she would crochet faces on them. It’s very akin to Ousider Art. Hell, it WAS Outside Art!


“Testing,” in which Arzetta and Dust Bunny leave the house and go to Dodger Stadium to get tested for Covid-19. Written and performed by Ann Magnuson, in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard.

The artwork that I’m making now is very much of an extension of my grandma’s aesthetic. This ‘surRURALism’ thing is extending to  this fabric art as well. So, it’s all coming full circle.

Plus, I had done a drawing of David Bowie when I was at George Washington High School in 1972. And I had little stickers made out of that. So, I’ve been making these “Bowie Icons” using that image and made of fabric and sequins and all kinds of glittering stuff. I will do one more run of those — maybe do a special show for his birthday next January 8 — and then move on to something else.

David Bowie then — drawn by a high school-age Ann Magnuson — and turned into a sticker today.

I also made some drawings of the Flatwoods Monster. And I’m finishing up one of Moth Man. Because I’ve got this new song, “Ghost Cat,” that mentions them. And I made a fun graphic logo for ‘SurRURALism’ and had stickers of that art made at Charleston Blueprint, so those will be available at the Halloween shows! I’m enjoying making the art, that’s for sure. It’s calming. Less stressful than the frenzy of Show Biz.

But if a TV show wanted me to be on it, you know, and it was the right thing, I would be on it! Or a movie or whatever. I’m open to anything that could potentially be fun. The plan is to stay creative.

And spend more time in West Virginia.


Ann Magnuson performs a David Bowie tribute at The Empty Glass in Charleston WV on July 15, 2010, with an all-star band of West Virginia musicians. | VIDEO by Douglas John Imbrogno

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