Who Is Magnet Man?
By Adrienne Lawrence
Photo by James Darby
Downtown business owner Blanch Henry first saw the magnets stuck to a lamp post in front of the Serenity Tearoom, her tea and lunch shop located on East Patrick Street.
“That’s when I started collecting them,” she tells the Gorilla. “I was curious who was making them.”
She thought a meter maid or postman might have left the business card-size magnets on the pole. She knew it had to be someone who spent a great deal of time in downtown Frederick because, after spotting her first one, she started to see them in a variety of places.
“After a few days, if I didn’t see a new one on the metal pole, I would walk near the library and along Carroll Street just to see if there were any new magnets posted on those signs,” Henry adds.
But it turns out that magnet man isn’t a meter maid or postman. He isn’t even a comic book hero, though to some he is definitely a man of mystery.
Magnet Man is actually a Fredericktonian named Wayne Burke, who has lived in downtown Frederick most of his life.
From April 2011 to August 2011, with dawn darkness as cover, Burke walked the streets of downtown Frederick putting up magnets with messages and drawings that eventually became coveted by those who noticed—and eventually collected—them. It’s true that Burke is a street artist. But, unlike others who are guilty of destroying property with spray paint or glue, Burke isn’t destructive at all. He purposefully doesn’t damage public property or wreak havoc.
“I confound cops,” says Burke with a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes, “‘cause when they spot me, they don’t know what to do with me.”
If art is defined as the creation of thought-provoking works, then Burke, by definition, is an artist. He expresses creative ideas through the messages he leaves on his magnets.
There are 11 magnets in the series called Made You Look. Some of the statements in this collection include: “Do something else,” “Satisfy all your needs,” “Knowing something doesn’t change anything,” and “You are sheep; don’t be.” Burke crafted 2,360 magnets by hand for this project. There were times when he felt like all he did was make magnets.
But this isn’t the first time Burke has left messages for people in downtown Frederick. His first project was born in 1998, when he started leaving signs on the tourist walking maps that used to grace downtown sidewalks.
“My friends and I used to talk about what might happen if I put random signs on the tour maps,” Burke reflects. “So I just started to make them. It took a while for me to get the hang of what I was doing. The project didn’t even have a name until the 11th sign [was] posted.”
That series, The Hidden Variable Experiment, lasted through 2000. In total, it was about two years and three months of messages. That’s with a new message being posted about once a week.
For that project, Burke created custom designs on his computer and taped Xeroxed versions on the maps. He then weatherized the signs with heavy duty packing tape and, he says, always took care not to damage any public property.
Though The Hidden Variable Experiment was a longer series than Made You Look, he didn’t consider it a success, since he didn’t receive any feedback.
Made You Look, however, had different results.
At one point, Mike McCrossin, who owns The Grapevine, a gift shop located next door to the Serenity Tearoom, and who had also become a mystery magnet collector and fan, remarked he and Henry hadn’t seen any magnets in front of their businesses for several days. Worrying that Magnet Man might have forgotten them, they took one of their extra magnets and wrote a message on it—“Need more”—and posted it.
The message was marvelous to Burke, he says. He was excited to have feedback from his audience, and created a single, special magnet just for them. It read: “Be patient.”
“We got a kick out of that,” Henry says, laughing and remembering the joy of receiving the custom magnet.
Henry and McCrossin’s feedback wasn’t the only message the artist received, however. People were paying attention and collecting his work.
The biggest indicator was counting the number of magnets that people collected.
Then he received the best form of flattery—a copycat.
“Someone was making magnetic letters,” Henry says, adding that she collected the letters she found, thinking they were Magnet Man’s and he was going to spell something out.
Then she realized the person was simply running the alphabet. “They [only] made about 10 letters,” Henry recalls.
Burke first displayed his art for a show in 2000 and then again in 2008, both times at the Blue Elephant in downtown Frederick. His most recent show, however, was held in early October at the Unique Optique eyeglass shop on West Patrick Street.
It was a booking that Henry was not about to miss. Hoping to finally meet Magnet Man as he showed his art and greeted fans, she went to the store. But, much to her dismay, she says, she was too late. A few days later, Burke went to Henry’s tearoom to meet her, where she says she greeted him with a hug.
“If only for her response, this project was worth it,” Burke writes in an email to the Gorilla, noting that he has started a new mystery project that likely will be launched before the December-January Gorilla hits the streets.
“In Marching Orders I gave orders,” he adds. “But in Answer Me [the new project], I’ll ask questions.”
If someone were lucky enough to randomly find an Answer Me magnet, they may discover Burke’s Twitter handle on the back (@madchickenfryer).
“If you happen to be in town and see a magnet, go ahead and take one,” Burke wrote, again in his email to the Gorilla. “I have a friend who has known about this from the start and he told me that he didn’t completely understand what it was like until he participated.”
So, if you miss out on Answer Me, don’t fret. There’s still hope to see the magnets. Burke will have another exhibit at Unique Optique the first Saturday in December, and he assures the Gorilla that he will have some new and exclusive messages to share at that time.