“Almost There”: The fascinating portrait of odd obsessive hoarder & outsider artist Peter Anton

By on January 9, 2018

In their 2014 documentary Almost There, first-time filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden give us fascinating unvarnished portrait of odd obsessive hoarder and eccentric “outsider artist” Peter Anton. Watch the film now over on Night Flight Plus.

Their documentary takes us on a strange journey which also lays bare some of the issues that people like Anton face towards the ends of their lives, living in penury and dealing with mental illness and other serious health problems, with only the redemptive power of art keeping them alive and moving forward, one step at a time.

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Peter Anton

In 2006, Rybicky and Wickenden were in Whiting, Indiana, where they’d come to see the world’s largest pierogi, reputed to weigh more than a hundred pounds. It was being unveiled that day for the Guinness Book of World Records at that year’s annual Pierogi Fest.

That’s where they first crossed paths with Peter Anton, a quirky little old man in his late seventies at the time, wearing a bowtie and telling corny jokes at a rickety little booth, where he was sketching pastel portraits (for a small fee) of the local kids.

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Directors/producers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden

They were instantly bemused with Anton, who charmed and regaled them with his stories.

Once upon a time, Anton, an art-school dropout, had been employed as the head of a Northern Indiana youth center.

He’d also been an art instructor for the Salvation Army and ran a summer recreation program at an East Chicago city park in the late ’70s.

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East Chicago, Indiana

Then a few years later, they accompanied Anton back to where he lived, in a dilapidated, decrepit house in poverty-stricken East Chicago, Indiana.

They soon realized that Anton was not only a worthy of having a documentary film based around his life and his art, but that they might also be able to draw attention to his situation and get him much-needed financial help and assistance with his health.

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Anton’s home looked to them like “an end-of-life nightmare,” filled with the detritus, the dross and dead wood of a life forgotten.

He’d first moved there with his parents in 1941, when he was eight years old, but the filmmakers learned that the local utility companies had shut off both the heat and electricity long ago.

Now, the floorboards below his feet were uncertain and the ceilings above his head were rotting, and beyond dangerous.

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They also noted that Anton’s hermitage included a mold-encrusted basement that he’d been using for storage, like an obsessive hoarder’s hideously trash-heap hovel.

There, precariously stacked floor-to-ceiling, were Anton’s previously-unseen oil paintings, pastels and drawings, many of them are based on personal photographs and much of it revealing an obsession with pop culture, comic book characters and the entertainment effluvia of several generations of mid-western American life.

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There were, as one reviewer has noted, “articles about working in youth talent shows in the 1950s and ’60s; photos and drawings of celebrities and politicians; paintings of summer festivals and theaters; strange hand-drawn cartoons; shelves of VHS tapes with spines decorated to reflect their contents, everything from Top Gun and Titanic to specials on the Beatles, George Wallace and Napoleon.”

Most importantly, they got a close look Anton’s collage notebooks: a baker’s dozen of thick handmade scrapbooks, serving as his memoirs, which he’d titled Almost There.

These notebooks turn out to be a random collection of press clippings, as well as pen and pencil drawings, writings — mixed in with more personal items, like family photos, and hand-written notes — that Anton had compiled over a period of more than sixty years.

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Read more about Peter Anton and Almost There below.

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The filmmakers arranged to show his work at Intuit [The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago], a well-regarded art gallery in Chicago’s West Town devoted to “outsider artists.”

Soon art lovers and critics would finally be able to see a career-spanning retrospective of his life’s work — his memoir scrapbooks, oil and pastel paintings — displayed at a collaborative gallery show.

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Then, ten days after the exhibit opened, the filmmakers learned that part of the reason Anton became a recluse in the first place was that he had previously arrested, convicted and sentenced for “distributing obscene material to children” in 1980, when he was 49 years old.

News reports showed that Anton — who’d operated a private talent school in his home — had taken nude photos of young girls (ages nine to twelve) in his basement. He was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

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They also learned that, around the same time he was being charged, the health department of East Chicago, Indiana, had condemned Anton’s decaying home, but he had decided to continue living there anyway.

Neither the filmmakers or the curators of Anton’s art show at Intuit had known these factoids when the exhibition was being put together, and they had to decide what to do next.

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In the end, the exhibition’s board of directors decided to allow the exhibit to remain unaltered, with only a disclaimer explaining the discovery, hoping that these revelations would spurn further discussion of the art.

Rybicky and Wickenden also helped him find new lodgings at a local senior center, which required them becoming involved in salvaging, sorting and then moving decades of hoarded junk.

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They also have to trap his one surviving cat, Myriah — at one time Anton says that he had twenty cats living with him in his ramshackle house.

Almost There was distributed by the Chicago-based non-profit Kartemquin Films, the company notable for producing and distributing Steve James’s award-winning Hoop Dreams.

Watch Almost There on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.