Touching Our Private Parts 

Frank Moore's performances feature nude grope-a-thons with no plot or apparent point. Is it possible that they're art?

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If Moore was offended by his listener's comment, he certainly didn't show it. "I didn't get where I am by having thin skin," he says. If he did, he'd probably be dead and long forgotten.

Doctors didn't give Frank Moore much chance of having a life. His severe cerebral palsy prevented him from walking or talking. As Moore tells the story in Art of a Shaman, "When I was born, doctors told my parents that I had no intelligence, that I had no future, that I would be best put into an institution and be forgotten." His parents refused to discard their first-born son, thank you, and Moore is convinced that had they fallen for the doctors' pessimistic assessment he would have died long ago.

He was born during the postwar baby boom and lived the transient life of a military brat. His father was a master sergeant in the Air Force, his mom a housewife. His mother used to "spell him out," reciting letters of the alphabet until Frank gave her some kind of recognition. But he spent the first seventeen years of his life unable to communicate with anyone outside of his family or the people he encountered in a series of generally unwelcoming classrooms.

Moore is not paraplegic or quadriplegic, a mistake people often make when describing him. Nor is he paralyzed. He can move his arms and legs (and yes, he can get a hard-on), but the movement is limited because he's spastic. His head is more steady, which is why he uses a head-pointer to communicate and operate a computer. At age seventeen, Moore devised his communication board and head-pointer, which first enabled him to begin his break from isolation. He also took up painting, using a brush attached to a hardhat. Because of his limited range of motion he could only reach a quarter of the canvas at a time, so he was forced to learn to paint sideways and upside down.

In high school, he showed overt signs of an antiauthoritarian streak when he debated a GI about the war in Vietnam, which Moore opposed. Afterward, Moore recalls, his teacher took him aside and warned him that if he was too political he would "ruin it" for all the disabled people who followed him. Moore recalls looking at the situation rather differently: "If I was not political, that would be limiting it for those who followed."

At Cal State San Bernardino, Moore began playing pranks such as rolling into the Marines' recruiting office and asking to join because he wanted to "push the button." He also began thinking about doing an all-nude play. To his surprise, school officials gave permission, but he couldn't find any actors. Perhaps people didn't want to expose their bodies in public or paint themselves with baby food.

Although his communication board had enabled him to interact with people outside his family, Moore still felt like an ugly freak. He bought into the idea that doctors and society had pounded into his head since birth -- the "frame," as he would later call it -- that he was an "ugly cripple, a burden no woman would want." But one day in his late twenties he had an epiphany: He turned off all the negative voices in his head and decided to view himself as beautiful. He also stubbornly chose to remain independent as possible, henceforth relying on loved ones to do the dirty work of feeding and clothing him.

In the early '70s, Moore headed east and moved into a 300-person commune in Massachusetts known as the Brotherhood of the Spirit. There he met his first wife, Debbie, who later went on to form her own nude performance troupe called the X-Plicit Players. Debbie had come to the commune after dropping out of Princeton. One day while walking through the hallway she passed Frank, who got her attention by pointing frantically at his board. After a while, she figured out he was asking her, "Would you look into my ear?" It may have been an excuse to get her attention, but nonetheless they went on a hunt for Q-Tips.

"The first time I saw Frank I felt curious about him because his body seemed so different and I love different bodies," Debbie recalls. Still, says Frank, he had to chase her for a good while before she finally fell for his charms. "He had an intense ability to listen," she says. "I fell in love with the quality of communication we were able to have." When they decided to get married, Moore wrote in a poem, his future mother-in-law was not pleased with her daughter's choice, suggesting that she "marry somebody else ... and adopt Frank."

Eventually the couple left the commune and moved to Santa Fe. They paired up with a man and a woman and started a four-way marriage, which ultimately grew larger, and included Linda Mac. Although a side effect from a bladder operation in college left Moore unable to father children, the communal family, which unraveled years later, produced two boys who consider him to be one of their parents. "When my kids were being born," Moore recalls, "we found out that the hospital wouldn't even let me on the ward. A crip would upset the other mothers!" A midwife friend of Frank's came to the rescue and delivered the two babies at home as he watched.

The defining spark of Moore's artistic vision was kindled during the Santa Fe years, when he painted a nude commissioned by a local rich woman. The experience made him realize that art gave people permission to do what is usually forbidden. So he began seeking out strangers on the street to pose nude for his paintings. Eventually, however, he came to consider painting too static; he wanted something more direct, more engaging. He literally wanted to touch people. Moore experimented with what he called "nonfilms," a series of private performances in which he and his artistic subjects "played" with each other. Still, there was something missing in these private duets. Moore wanted to do things on a grander scale; he wanted to take his act public. And what better place to do it than the anything-goes Bay Area?

What he did when he got here even shocked the country's most open-minded region.


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