Tag: Art

Interviews

From Ghost World to Your World

by Spring Warren

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

An Interview with Daniel Clowes

Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. He launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent. In April the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Daniel Clowes: A First Survey, on view through 12 August of this year.

Spring Warren: You were born in Chicago, but you’ve been in California now for going on twenty years. What brought you here?

Daniel Clowes: I came to Berkeley for a reading on a particularly nice day in February. It was 80 degrees and I wound up meeting my future wife at a signing.

Warren: Wow. Love and weather.

Clowes: Yeah. We had a long-distance relationship and then she said why don’t you come out to Berkeley and I couldn’t think of any reason not to, you know? The first time I went back to Chicago, there was freezing rain and I had to walk to a bookstore to do a signing where I knew nobody would be because it was the worst weather in the world. I just wondered how people ever settled there.

Warren: Now you’re living in paradise.

Clowes: That’s right.

Warren: You once said that when you close your eyes, you see Chicago. Not California?

Clowes: I saw Chicago for a very long time. I’m not usually dealing directly from experience in my work, but dealing with my own inner life. My stories tend to be based in emotions that have been with me for a long time. But now I feel like California is seeping in or some version of California is multiplying with images of Chicago, so there are palm trees mixed in with the urban blight and my vision of the landscape is now much more Oakland than Chicago.

It took a very long time to tap into the California thing, a self-satisfaction that we have in California—and I’m as guilty of it as anyone—that comes from living in a place like this where the weather is nice and there’s a certain beauty to the landscape that you don’t have anywhere else. I found that sort of off-putting at first and then came to see California, like the East Coast, as one of the two places that you go in America to be as far away from where you come from as possible.

Warren: Which might contribute to a certain colorful eccentricity of characters that show up in your work?

Clowes: I feel like that’s certainly true in this area. I spent many years living right in Berkeley and they’re almost intolerant of non-eccentrics. . . . Like you wouldn’t be welcome if you wanted to sell insurance. But even though I live in a real pocket here where the values are really liberal and you know, everything is very sort of progressive and artsy, all you have to do is drive through the Caldecott Tunnel into the suburbs and then immediately you’ll start seeing Romney stickers and stuff like that.

Warren: Do you sketch in Oakland public spaces—for instance, are the coffee houses in Wilson actual places?

Clowes: All of the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful are based on actual places in and around Oakland, but rather than draw them accurately, taking photos, or doing location sketches, I’m more interested in drawing my memories or impressions of those places, expressing how it feels for me to be in those spaces rather than to transcribe their exact particulars.

Warren: Is there anything about Wilson, the character, that is particular to California? That is, if Wilson the book was set in New York, would he still be the same guy or was there something about Oakland or California that spawned him?

Clowes: He strikes me as uniquely Californian in some way. In New York, for instance, his personality would be easily explained by the anxiety of living in such a dense high-pressure environment, but in the context of Oakland, his peculiarities seem much more self-generated.

Warren: Does the current, rather dismal state of the State of California show up in your narrative line? Like the Bush era being reflected in Death Ray?

Clowes: I am certainly very interested in what’s going in California but I’m not consciously trying to deal with that in my work, though I think anything you immerse yourself in will come out in your fiction; I am sure you know.

Warren: It would seem so with the art world here—your work seems in keeping with the experimentation in narrative form that California is known for.

Clowes: Maybe in a general, zeitgeisty kind of sense, because I really have no connection at all to that world here. I feel kind of purposely out of touch with that stuff.

Warren: Certainly the zeitgeist of comics changed in the nineties—they became more about social commentary than ever before, and graphic novels shifted to being okay for grownups to read. What was going on in the Bay Area then, and were there particular artists in California you were influenced by?

Clowes: Certainly Robert Crumb and some of the other Underground Cartoonists of the sixties were based in the Bay Area, and they had a great impact on what we were and are doing. Among California artists, my favorites are the architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and above all, Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo, The Birds, and Shadow of a Doubt are three of the greatest Northern California films, along with Coppola’s The Conversation.

Warren: I heard from one of the curators that there was great excitement over your upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California. That artists like Alicia McCarthy and Barry McGee and Ruby Neri are all great admirers of your work. Do you interact with these artists?


© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: I don’t know them personally. I actually know who those three artists are, but that’s because they’re like the biggest of the big.

Warren: Maybe at this moment they’re having a conversation along the lines of “I’ve never met Daniel Clowes but I know who he is, ’cause he’s one of the greats.”

Clowes: No, I doubt it. I doubt it extremely.

Warren: You lived in Berkeley for a while. Were you relieved to move to Oakland because of a certain second-tierism you’ve mentioned?

Clowes: Yeah. Oakland feels like the weak sister to San Francisco, and you know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is really the neglected half of the city compared to the north side. When I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn, which at that time, was not cool. And it was certainly the lesser part of the city when compared to Manhattan, so I’ve always found myself in those sorts of neighborhoods and I often wonder if I actually feel more comfortable there and that’s why I wind up there, or if it’s just sheer coincidence.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: You also worked for Cracked magazine.

Clowes: Yeah. The sad little brother of Mad.

Warren: I saw a photograph of you, perhaps around that time, posing with some fans in a comic shop, and you wrote about how uncomfortable it was, that you didn’t really know these people and they had your comics in a box in the adult section.

Clowes: Always. Even as a teenager I was interested in comics and wound up being sort of pen pals with some other guys who did comics in that area. You know, you see somebody’s address who’d written a letter to a comic and you’d write them a letter. That’s how you’d meet people back before the Internet days. And you wind up going over to their house for some party or something. We’d all like comics, but I had nothing else at all in common, you know. Even the stuff they liked about comics was the stuff that I actively disliked about it, and it made me even more alienated. You can talk to somebody for a few minutes, however, and the way they respond to the work, you can surmise a lot about them. You see the parts of the work that they respond to and you do feel connected to them in a way that’s much more profound that you’d imagine.

Warren: In all the interviews and public appearances that I’ve read and seen, you’re just fantastically popular, scads of people in the audience, very erudite, self-possessed. I imagine you being put up in the poshest digs with chocolates on the pillow. That hasn’t always been the case?

Clowes: Back before there were graphic novels, when they were just comic books, I would be invited to a comic store in another city and I’d drive fifteen hours to get there and wind up staying on the guy’s floor. Then you’d go to the signing, and you’d realize it’s just the comic shop owner and his five friends. When you’d go out to dinner afterward, you’re like held hostage until three in the morning. I remember one time staying at somebody’s house, sleeping on their couch, and to get to the bathroom, they said you have to go through this door and our roommate’s asleep in there. So I enter this room where this guy was asleep and he woke up yelling, “Who the hell are you?!”

Warren: That’s all changed?

Clowes: Even recently I agreed to do a little slide show for one of my books, and at every single venue they didn’t have the right adapter for my computer and the audience had to just look at my back while we’re trying to figure out the computer. I figured they hated me by the time I could do anything. It rarely goes well.

Warren: You said at readings that people are sometimes disappointed that you are not Enid from Ghost World?

Clowes: Yeah. I mean, I’ve certainly had that feeling of meeting an artist of some kind and you feel like you’re going to connect with some character that you really respond to and you realize it’s just a guy who made that up and spent hours and hours revising it to get it to feel the way it did and it didn’t just spring straight from their id onto the page. It’s something that takes a lot of effort and solitude to come up with.

Warren: Speaking of solitude—when you were thirteen, you idolized Wally Wood [one of Mad magazine’s founding artists] and said at that age you wanted to be a cartoonist even more than you wanted to draw cartoons. That you loved the idea of obsessively drawing all night when no one else was awake, with a cigarette dangling from your lip and a jar of pencils at hand.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Do you now like being a cartoonist more than you like to draw?

Clowes: Back when I was sort of looking to be like Wally Wood, the actual act of sitting down and drawing was often a struggle. I was really trying to learn how to do this stuff and had a vision of how I wanted it to look, a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then to achieve that was much more difficult than I ever imagined it, so I was just constantly frustrated and I was always throwing my pencils on the ground and storming off. I never would finish the day feeling like I did a great job. I would always think Goddammit, I’ve gotta fix this tomorrow. It really was very unsatisfying. It’s only been in the last ten or fifteen years that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do or what I set out to do, or at least I don’t put the pressure on myself to do something that I know is impossible. I kind of know what I’m capable of and so it’s much more fun. Your brain gets acclimated to doing this thing and now I feel utterly at ease when I sit down to draw. It’s tremendously challenging still and there’s still frustrations, but it’s something I can’t not do at this point.

Warren: You’ve talked about how a lot of your projects took off when you thought that your career was over. For instance, Eightball happened because you couldn’t bear to do any more Lloyd Llewellyn, and Wilson came at a time when you were struggling with this weighty tome of a book and really didn’t want to keep waking up in the morning to work on it.


© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: So now that you are a celebrity, maybe even a commodity in some way, does this create expectations that could interfere with your work—like you’re being asked to create the millionth Deborah Butterfield horse?

Clowes: (laughs) You know, I certainly don’t, there’s nothing of that in my daily life. Nobody ever calls me and nobody ever recognizes me on the street, so that there’s no sense of that at all. I mean, really, I feel more anonymous than I ever did. Back when people actually wrote letters and stuff, I used to get thirty–forty letters a week from people and anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. Now there’s no response at all. So while I’m very self-conscious in many ways, I’m not at all in terms of the work I do. I don’t really think about how anybody’s going to receive it until it’s basically done and it’s too late, and then I start to agonize over it. When I’m working, it’s a very personal thing, not for anybody else, and I’m only thinking about myself. I mean, the one exception to that would have been Mr. Wonderful, that I was doing for the New York Times Magazine. I was actually thinking about an audience, but that very quickly changed.

Warren: You’ve been very free in terms of shifting styles. Wilson, in particular, is noteworthy, as within the comic itself the work goes from more naturalistic illustrations to highly stylized ones in the turn of a page. It seems a sort of lens in which one views the exact same things happening to the same characters in a totally different way. And even when you sort of go more, maybe, classically cartoony, it reads even more tragically, you know, in a really intriguing way.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: How did you arrive at this collection of styles?

Clowes: When I first started, I did all these little strips while I was with my dad in the hospital, stick figures. The work was all just about the writing and the rhythm of the comic strips that had nothing to do with the drawing. When I got home and it finally dawned on me that I was gonna have to do this as a book, I set out to come up with a style that would work for all of these strips. And I found that a certain style would work well for some of them and not for others, and vice versa. I was getting very frustrated by that and I just couldn’t figure out if I was just gonna do some sort of middle-ground style that worked fairly well for everything. . . . Finally, I started looking at all my drawings and trying to figure out what style I was gonna pick, and I realized that all of them together were what I needed to do and that my brain had kind of solved the problem already and I just hadn’t noticed it.

You know, the result was really what the book was about and what I was trying to get across. [It] was something you can really only do in comics, where you can shift a style like that and all of a sudden it shifts the perceptions of the reader, but not to the degree that they get lost. They still follow the story, and after a few of these shifts, they’re used to that and it’s not jarring at all. The shifts become a way that colors the events that are going on. I found you could play with emotion to such subtle degrees by shifting the style; it was endlessly enthralling to work on that every day.

Warren: Wilson, the character, didn’t occur to you first as an image, is that right?

Clowes: With Wilson, the character just emerged without me even knowing what he looked like. He just existed as this stick figure that had a fully formed personality from the very first couple of little thumb-nail drawings I did of him, and it was just a matter of note-taking, just like writing down everything he said. He became one of those very rare characters that can lead you rather than you leading them, and so I just let him go. I would give him a situation and think, what would he do with this? And then, next thing I knew, I’d have a six-panel strip. That was a very different experience from most projects, which are much more of a struggle to get it all to work and for the character to come alive.

Warren: Is starting out with stick figures a pretty typical way for you to work?

Clowes: No. No. I work differently every time.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: When people have asked is Wilson really you, you said something along the lines of being more the person that would be victimized by Wilson.

Clowes: Yeah. I don’t think it was conscious, certainly, but if you look at the guys that Wilson victimizes throughout the course of the story, they’re all basically versions of me.

Warren: All tall, lanky guys.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren:Wilson follows a man through his middle years. Ghost World is about teenagers. I love the way that your work bounces back and forth between these two age categories and it seems there are a lot of similarities between them—facing big changes in your life that might be exciting and might be terrifying—and you’ve got all these big questions about why am I here and what should I be doing, and also some huge feelings of hating the rules of the world, just rejecting them. Is this just my imagination that you’re working back and forth between these two places?

Clowes: I think they’re both really interesting times. When you’re a late teenager it’s kind of your one opportunity to define yourself and so the pressure is on. And I think that’s a really interesting dilemma to have to face. Then in middle age, I feel like it’s very different than what I imagined it was gonna be. You think of yourself as not being so plagued with self-doubt when you hit a certain age.

Warren: That’s for sure.

Clowes: And if anything, if anything, it’s certainly, possibly, worse.

Warren: I have noticed that at two in the morning.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Wondering if that story line is going to work or not . . . Do you agonize over narrative? I mean, when people think of comics, they think about the visuals carrying the story.

Clowes: In comics, really, the writing is the drawing in a lot of ways.

Warren: But it’s not like the words don’t matter, that if you can draw a picture you can necessarily make a strip.

Clowes: Yet, when I’m writing I would never think in terms of blocks of text or, you know, in terms of dialogue or anything like that. I think in terms of how the images are going to go together and tell the story. And I would hope that in any of my books, if you couldn’t read English, you could still figure out what’s going on in the story. The visual component would let you know the basics of what’s happening. And that’s what’s really interesting to me.

Warren: You do all of your work from top to bottom, your own inking and coloring and lettering?

Clowes: Yeah, absolutely.

Warren: That’s unusual. Do you ever think, gosh, I just hate lettering. I’m sending it out to have it done.

Clowes: I love the lettering, but I hate, I hate doing the computer coloring. That’s the one thing that I think at some point, I could at least hire somebody else to do all the computer files and I could pick the colors, but I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. I have, like, separation anxiety. It’s hard to let go.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: There’s something about seeing the forms and colors in place to know if it’s really right.

Clowes: Yeah. That’s true and you know, there’s something about getting a book back from a printer and knowing I did every mark on the page. There’s nothing at all that’s not mine except for the UPC code on the back—which if I could do it by hand, I would.

Warren: It must be interesting, then, to relinquish your work to a museum to present it to the public. How did the exhibit for the Oakland Museum come about and what’s it like to go from comic book to museum wall?

Clowes: A curator named Susan Miller first approached me around five years ago with the idea of putting together a museum show, and through her tireless efforts and some luck it wound up going to my favorite local museum. I’m very curious how it will feel to see people experiencing the work in such a different way. My hope, of course, is that they will see the original pages as artifacts of the process of making comics and will seek out the books, which are the actual final works.

Reviews

Constructing the Edge

by Anthony Raynsford

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Architecture in a Turbulent Age

Book Review: Design on the Edge, A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, edited by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell, College of Environmental Design, Berkeley, 2009.

In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)

This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.

This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?

Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.

The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)

Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.

During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)

Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.

Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.

At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.

Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.

It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.

Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.

Articles

War Furniture

by Jason Weems

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body

The influence of husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames is ubiquitous in American culture and encompasses an array of expressive forms from architecture, interior design and furniture to the graphic arts, cinema, photography and educational exhibitions. Most well known, the Eameses’ chairs with their smooth surfaces and biomorphic contours have become signature forms of postwar California culture and icons of modern design.

Photograph of Eames Splint in Use, circa 1943. (Source: Donald Albrecht, World War Two and The American Dream, 1995, P. 60) Image Courtesy Of The Library Of Congress.

Surprisingly, the roots for these objects lay not in the sleek and optimistic postwar aesthetic that shaped the corporate office, airport, or suburban home, but rather in the carnage and injury of World War Two. Although Charles Eames had first experimented with molded plywood construction under the tutelage of Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the late Thirties, it was in wartime Los Angeles that the design duo embarked upon their first large-scale fabrication in that medium. 1 Their product was not furniture but leg splints. In 1942 the United States Navy commissioned the Eameses to produce lightweight plywood traction splints for use on warships. The splints needed to be strong and durable enough to hold up under stress, yet also sufficiently light and nimble to facilitate easy navigation of confined shipboard spaces. Most important, they needed to provide a stable armature for the wounded human body—whose integrity and function had been compromised by laceration, fracture, burn, and other physical traumas. Like their later furniture, the Eameses married their technological innovations in compound molding to their organic and functionalist design aesthetic in order to craft a splint whose support surfaces conformed to the natural shape and composition of the human body. By war’s end, over 150,000 leg splints had been produced.

Treated too often as a footnote in the narrative of their contribution to modern design, the splint in fact played a seminal role in shaping the Eameses’ design philosophy. 2 The splint project required the designers not only to focus on the human figure in a conventional way, but also to reframe their consideration of it in terms of damage and dysfunction. If modern design had heretofore treated the human body as an idealized abstraction, these conventions appeared suddenly inadequate in face of the raw corporeality of rendered flesh, shattered bones, and ruptured psyches. Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised—a task that included Charles’s use of his own body in modeling and testing the splint—pushed the Eameses into a new mindset. If healthy bodies were culturally inoffensive, wounded and disabled physiques (then and still today) invoked feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, pity, distrust, and even humiliation and shame. The etiology of broken bodies, in other words, was as much cultural and psychological as it was physical.

Charles and Ray Eames (Evans Products Company, Molded Plywood Division, Manufacturer). Leg Splint. 1942. Plywood, 3 7/8″ × 42″ × 7 7/8″ Image Courtesy Of San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Designing for these circumstances required the Eameses to bolster their usual attention to functionality and aesthetics with a new consideration: empathy. The Eames splint became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices, not only because of its innovation in materials and artistry, but also for the way that its anthropomorphized contours made it feel and look like an organic extension of the limb to which it attached. Just as the physical act of pulling traction returned the disfigured limb to normal form, the splint’s visual and tactile naturalism provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit. Unlike other splints that made little effort to deflect the artificiality of their materials and structure, and thereby mediate the divide between natural body and industrial prosthetic, the Eames design pursued the possibility of a more organic and empathetic interconnection of subject and armature. Cutting a new path through the technophilism of wartime research, their splint positioned the body—and more importantly, the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam.

 

When the Eameses returned to peacetime projects at war’s end, they continued their concern for the needs of both mind and body. Though they did not pursue further design work with splints and prosthetics, their postwar furniture retained the substance of wartime lessons. Designed for normative (and idealized) bodies and standard spaces, the Eames chairs and lounges nonetheless retained an ethos of empathy. The Eames chair, for example, became a paragon of effective design precisely because of its deep adaptability to needs of the weary body. Its celebrated visual aesthetic, though rarely discussed in these terms, is perhaps best understood to be an outgrowth of this compassionate functionality.

Charles And Ray Eames Lounge Chair And Ottoman, Introduced In 1956. Photograph By Casey Marshall.

While there are limits to the correlations to be drawn between the desecration of wartime injury and the weariness of middle class bodies, the Eameses’ practices also have important implications for more contemporary understandings of disability design. In privileging the integrity of the body as their foremost criterion, they inverted a tendency in disability engineering to think primarily to the conditions of the technology rather than those of the human form and psyche. Likewise, their application of lessons learned from devising leg splints to designing furniture challenged the hierarchies, distances, and divergences that American culture usually asserts between normative and differently constituted bodies.

Notes
1. The literature on Charles and Ray Eames is too extensive to list here. The most thorough scholarly discussion on the topic is: Patricia Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). For more focused consideration of the Eames chair, see the recent anthology: Martin Eidelberg, Patricia Kirkham, et al., The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (New York: Merrill Press, 2006).

2. One account that does consider the splint’s production history in detail is the comprehensive Eames chronology: John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (New York: Henry Abrams, 1989), 27–35 passim. I also discuss the culture of wartime research in Los Angeles and its impact on the Eameses’ design philosophy in my forthcoming essay: Jason Weems, “Vision at California Scale: Charles and Ray Eames, Systems Thinking, and the Diminishing Status of the Human Body After World War Two” in Where Minds and Matters Meet: Technology in California and the West, ed. Volker Janssen (Berkeley: Huntington Library/University of California Press, forthcoming).

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Pay Me No Mind

by Jim Hinch
(above: Pay Me No Mind by Fabian Debora (2010, acrylic/canvas)

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

A former gangbanger paints a new LA

The image is stark. An East LA gang member, neck swathed in tattoos, stares out over a burning Los Angeles skyline. Clouds brood above. Behind the gang member four children stand at a cliff edge as if about to plunge off. The scene is apocalyptic, intimidating, especially when seen in person. The six-by-four-foot canvas, hanging on a wall in a downtown Los Angeles café, looms like some unwelcome dispatch from the city’s dark side.

The scene is also familiar, at least to anyone versed in recent trends in Chicano art. The acrylic painting, titled Pay Me No Mind, is by a former East LA gang member named Fabian Debora. It looks remarkably like the work of another, more famous Chicano artist named Vincent Valdez, whose 2009 painting BurnBabyBurn depicts LA’s fabled grid of nighttime streetlights twinkling while in the distance a raging wildfire consumes surrounding hillsides. The similarity is no accident. Debora, whose purchase on the LA art scene is more tenuous than Valdez’s, interned for Valdez two years ago and describes Pay Me No Mind as an effort to channel his mentor’s signature, hyper-real visual style.

And yet, for all their surface likeness, the two paintings, and the artists who painted them, could not be more different. Their differences tell a story. Vincent Valdez is a rising art star, educated at the Rhode Island School of Design, exhibiting his work in museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He paints like many latter-day Chicano artists, employing visual irony to address wider themes only tangentially related to traditional barrio concerns.

Fabian Debora, born in America to Mexican parents, grew up the son of a heroin addict and joined one of East LA’s oldest and most violent street gangs as a teenager. He wrestled for years with drug addiction and at age thirty tried to commit suicide by running across the southbound lanes of the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5). It was only after what he describes as an encounter with God during that suicide attempt that he entered rehab and began seriously to pursue an artistic career. Fabian paints like a man eminently grateful for his hard-won state of grace. Pay Me No Mind, he informed me, was intended as an inspirational image, an effort to illustrate that pivotal moment when a gang member, or anyone gone astray, finally decides to make a change. The light shining on the gang member’s face is meant to signify divine illumination. The gang member, turning away from the burning city below, decides at the same moment to become a responsible father, shielding his children from the flames of his former life. It is a far different vision from that of Valdez, who in an interview described BurnBabyBurn as a visual representation of the social “turbulence” generated by Los Angeles, that symbol of American racial tension and economic inequality. Fabian’s aims are simpler. “I find the divine in the image of a gang member,” he told me. “Art is the closest thing you can get to the essence of God.”

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Pay Me No Mind by Fabian Debora (2010, acrylic/canvas)

Most contemporary artists dedicated, like Vincent Valdez, to stylistic innovation and cultural critique, do not as a rule incorporate such bald religious sentiments into their work. Fabian Debora is not a typical contemporary artist. His biography is not standard MFA fare. More importantly, he has maintained roots in a part of America uniquely suited to fostering his peculiar artistic mix of visual sophistication, street savvy, and spiritual engagement. Fabian grew up, lives, and works in the heart of immigrant LA. His neighborhood, Boyle Heights, is known for its rich history of migration, encompassing waves of Jews, Russian Orthodox, African Americans, Japanese, and Mexicans. It is also marked by another defining characteristic of immigrant communities: its religiosity. In line with a recent Pew study showing that immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, are more likely to be Catholic and to believe in God than native-born Americans, Boyle Heights is anchored by Fabian’s childhood Catholic parish, Dolores Mission, LA’s poorest, which at various times in its ninety-year history has provided sanctuary for undocumented migrants, staged neighborhood Christmas festivals at which Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem is reenacted as a Mexican border crossing, organized neighborhood mothers to combat gang violence, and run an elementary and junior high school attended mostly by the children of immigrants. The neighborhood is a place where faith and immigrant life are deeply intertwined.

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BurnBabyBurn by Vincent Valdez (2009, oil/canvas)

The same goes for the rest of LA. Thirty-four percent of Southern Californians are foreign-born, according to the United States Census, which is America’s highest big-city concentration of immigrants. Like New York a century ago, Los Angeles in recent decades has spawned an immense religious infrastructure ministering to newly arrived migrants struggling to find their place in a nation often hostile to their presence. The Islamic Society of Orange County in the city of Garden Grove, one of America’s largest mosques, offers worshippers a complete kit of civic services, including a mortuary, a preschool, an elementary and junior high school, and meeting rooms for weddings and other community activities. In Hacienda Heights, an LA suburb a few freeway exits away from Fabian’s neighborhood, the fifteen-acre Hsi Lai Taiwanese Buddhist temple, the largest in the western hemisphere, organizes summer camps for local youth, teaches Cantonese, produces radio and television broadcasts, raises money for disabled children, operates a printing press, and runs an art gallery.

There are more Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese—almost 4.5 million—than in any other American archdiocese, and Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights was omnipresent in Fabian’s upbringing. As an artistically talented student at the parish school, he was encouraged to draw the Virgin of Guadalupe for religious festivals. When he was expelled from Dolores Mission in eighth grade (he threw a desk at a teacher who ripped up one of his drawings), he was sent to see the parish priest, Father Gregory Boyle (a Jesuit who went on to found Homeboy Industries, a celebrated gang intervention program now headquartered near downtown Los Angeles). Boyle became a mentor. He sent Fabian home that day with a pointed request: “I want you to draw something for me.” A few years later, after Fabian had drifted into gang life and begun bouncing in and out of jail, Boyle convinced Fabian’s probation officer to allow his charge to work as an apprentice to Wayne Healy, one of the founding fathers of LA’s Chicano mural movement. In Healy’s warehouse studio, Fabian met veteran Chicano artists and recent art-school graduates. He learned to paint and worked with Healy on a mural outside the chapel of Eastlake Juvenile Hall, where Fabian himself once had been incarcerated.

Although Fabian ended up wrestling with drug abuse for several years before finally cleaning up and embarking on an artistic career, he never forgot Boyle’s redemptive Jesuit vision. He even narrated his bottoming-out suicide attempt to me as a kind of born-again experience. He’d found himself running toward the freeway one afternoon, he said, after fleeing from his mother’s attic, where she’d caught him smoking methamphetamine. Scrambling up a retaining wall, he heard voices: “You don’t deserve to live. Kill yourself!” He stepped out into traffic. “I saw a turquoise Chevy Suburban coming at me. I looked at the grill of the truck. The smile of the bumper was like a demon. I felt the impact of the truck, but it wasn’t the truck. It was something greater and higher than myself pushing me to the center divider. I looked up and saw clouds and birds and peace. I realized that God loved me so much he got me to the center divider and showed me who I could be.”

That was five years ago. Today, Fabian works a day job as a lead substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries and paints in a loft overlooking downtown LA. He has worked on seven murals around Los Angeles and exhibited his work at a few university art galleries and on the walls of Homegirl Café, a restaurant adjacent to Homeboy Industries that recently exhibited Pay Me No Mind and other canvases in a series Fabian calls Childhood Memories. Working for Boyle, Fabian spends much of his life within the shelter of that LA immigrant religious infrastructure. His job shows in his art. He has painted gang members bowing at the feet of the Virgin Mary; flowers wilting at an impromptu street-side shrine; a gang member mourning the destruction of a recently razed Boyle Heights public housing project; and another gang member hoisting up a small child with the words, “Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo“—You Are My Other Self. “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it,” Fabian told me. “Art allows me to do that.”

It is no accident, I think, that an artist like Fabian has emerged in Los Angeles. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine several years ago, critic Josh Kun observed that “a rapidly expanding pool of young Southern California artists is actively redefining what it means to make Chicano art in the new millennium.” Fabian Debora is one of those young Chicano artists, but he has charted a path different from many of his contemporaries. His work is rooted less in his city’s ascendant place in the international contemporary art scene and more in LA’s current status as America’s immigrant capital. While many young LA Chicano artists, educated at top art schools and courted by international galleries and museums, seek artistic horizons beyond the barrios that once spawned the Chicano movement, Fabian remains tied to his community, painting with the same hunger for inspiration that brings so many recent migrants to LA’s myriad religious institutions.

His “Pay Me No Mind” is a perfect illustration. Borrowing from Vincent Valdez to create a recognizably apocalyptic scene, the painting then turns that scene on its head by telling the story of a man stepping away from, not falling into, his own private catastrophe. The gang member at the painting’s center is modeled on a friend of Fabian’s named Richard Cabral, who, like Fabian, left the gang life and got a job at Homeboy Industries, baking bread at the organization’s Homeboy Bakery. The children behind Cabral are Fabian’s own four children, who range in age from three to eight. The clouds are painted to draw the viewer’s eye upward, toward the sun breaking through: new life, the presence of God. The painting says to a community hungry for good news: “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it.” To repeat, it is no accident that an artist like Fabian should emerge in Los Angeles. America’s immigrant future is playing out in this City of Angels. If Fabian Debora’s art is any indication, that future will involve finding the divine not only in the image of the gangbanger, but in the face of a new America itself.

Photography/Art

Cal-20

by Matt Black
all photographs © Matt Black

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

California’s interior colony

I spent the months leading up to last year’s midterm elections in California’s twentieth congressional district, a sprawling, dusty territory hugging Interstate 5 along the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. With a US Census map on the dashboard, I repeatedly drove the length of a region recently named the poorest congressional district in the nation.

A man walks past a line of deserted storefronts. McFarland, California.

Using measures of health, education, and income—the Human Development Index—this dusty stretch of agricultural land and small farmworker towns ranks dead last among the nation’s 435 congressional districts. This hidden pocket of poverty is so deep that it surpasses even the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia in terms of pure human suffering: about 640,000 of the most desperate lives in America, just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills.

Although the average farmworker in Cal-20 makes just $10,000 per year, the district’s approximately 5,000 square miles encompass some of the richest farmland in the world. This is far from an impoverished land despite the intense poverty of its residents: its fields produce everything from tomatoes and cotton to lettuce and pistachios, fueling the engine of California’s $38.4 billion agricultural industry and lining the pockets of some of the state’s largest and richest landowners.

During my drives, I would occasionally pull over and study the map, trying to imagine the mapmaker who, knowingly or not, had taken a highlighter to California’s hidden underbelly—corralling some of the poorest towns in the state, like Mendota, Huron, and Lamont, along with slices of West Fresno’s and South Bakersfield’s hardest neighborhoods; shaping his gerrymandered amalgam of poverty with surgical precision; slicing streets down the middle and cutting towns in half. In another time, such a skilled cartographer would have given his map a name—California Profunda, say—and decorated the margins with sketches of vast ranches and humble settlements.

On Election Day, as incumbent Democrat Jim Costa faced off against an (ultimately unsuccessful) Republican challenger, I went to Lost Hills, a town of about 2,000 a few miles off Interstate 5. After half an hour searching for a polling station, I stopped for directions at the double-wide trailer that serves as the town’s post office. “I don’t live in this town, so I can’t help you,” the postmaster said, seemingly eager to put some distance between himself and his dusty surroundings. Ana Lomeli, twenty-three, walked by me in the parking lot. She told me the polling place was in Wasco, twenty miles away. “They probably don’t bother to put one here because no one votes in this town anyway,” she said.

A labor camp resident at her home. Huron, California

As I traced the contours of Cal-20, the car’s radio reception would often wane, and my dial would inevitably shift downward to the self-proclaimed “50,000 watt blowtorch” of the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno’s KMJ, a conservative talk station with a typical right-wing lineup. As I passed through the streets of Lost Hills and saw a Oaxacan immigrant mother lug a five-gallon jug of drinking water home in a shopping cart, the disconnect between what I was seeing and the bombast I was hearing was profound, the overheated voices less abrasive than just utterly irrelevant to the surroundings: a fuzzy dispatch from some rich and distant country.

What initially in my journey had felt like an exploration of a strange anomaly started to feel like something deeper, the discovery of a hidden country, California’s own interior colony, a dominion exploited for its natural wealth but ignored and neglected by its overlords. Passing by the fields of Cal-20, one could easily see residents paying their tributes one underpaid man-hour at a time, but their suzerain, lounging fat and content in some far distant place, could only be imagined.

A homeless farmworker cooks his breakfast. Mendota, California.

Men in a parking lot wait for work. Huron, California.

A shepherd corrals his sheep. Lemoore, California.

A man closes his roadside stand. Huron, California.

Unemployed men gather in an alley. Mendota, California.

A shepherd opens his pasture’s gate. Coalinga, California.

A farmworker clears tumbleweeds. Lamont, California.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Art in the Land

by Alex Schmidt
photographs by Kim Stringfellow

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

Seeing through the sprawl

1. The Question

One doesn’t visit the historic ranch house of cowboy-turned-actor Will Rogers to gawk at Hollywood extravagance. The cozy home sits nestled above Sunset Boulevard, in a leafy Pacific Palisades canyon. All of the old stuff in it—Rogers’s furniture, his cowboy boots, his western-themed knickknacks and art—are said to be exactly as he left them, down to their placement over fireplace and atop table. So, to a ten-year-old wandering around the house, it can make for a different sort of awe—the feeling of physically standing in the reality of another person from another time.

For me, the Will Rogers house was the seed of what would become a long running (and, until recently, mysterious) fascination with tours that touch the past. From the Palisades, it wasn’t too far a leap to the ghost towns of Southern California, where I’d road trip out to discover cultural remains of the desert. I never considered these trips critically; they were a hobby, and viscerally enjoying them without thought was its own reward. But I learned recently that physically experiencing local sites—touring—is an interest I share with other Southern Californians. The strangeness of that coincidence makes the question unavoidable: Where does our collective local, physical-aesthetic obsession come from? The centrality of landscape in Wonder Valley provided a clue.

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The Wormus Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead

2. Invitation

I took a summer trip out to the desert near Joshua Tree to experience a prime example of the touring impulse in Southern Californians—artist Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead. Speeding down a glimmering, black, two-lane highway in a Jeep with Stringfellow, windows down, hot air blasting in, speakers blasting out, we were hearing the piece—and experiencing it at the same time. Jackrabbit Homestead does not exist without somebody driving around in the desert. For it to work, you have to download a bunch of MP3s and play them as you drive a prescribed route. Historians and local residents talk about the one-room homes that dot the landscape, relics of the federal government’s 1938 Jackrabbit Homestead Act, which enticed brave souls to colonize the desert, offering cheap land prices. Stringfellow and I would stop to park near the tiny houses—most of them crumbling and abandoned—get out of the car and walk toward them in the brilliant, baking sun, as meanings and interpretations from the history we’d learned buzzed in our minds.

One clue as to why Kim Stringfellow and so many others, including the LA Urban Rangers, Esotouric tours, and the EATLACMA project, feel compelled to take people to places is the visual transparency of landscape here. Like the desert, scenery in Los Angeles is unobstructed. The presence of mountains makes for a constant awareness of geographic features (in LA, the ocean lives in the backs of our minds). The Southern California landscape is horizontal, compared to New York’s vertical one. We can see vistas in Los Angeles in a way that residents of other major cities cannot, and not only because the city is laid out flatly—it’s a relatively treeless landscape. To drive a New England thruway is to be inside a tunnel of trees. Driving through Southern California, landscape is laid bare.

The relationship to land, given the centrality of the car, is key. The map of the city is ingrained in the minds of drivers in a way that it might not be for people who travel smaller geographic areas on a day-to-day basis. Yet just as cars connect us with broad landscape in an important way, they also disconnect us from it. The heat in Wonder Valley, as we walked through the landscape, was an intense and all too real experience in itself. But many Angelenos rarely walk for more than a block on a regular basis and fail to experience land as a physical thing, a point for those who argue that LA is an unreal, fake, and disconnected sort of place.

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The Kenney Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead

3. Accepting

More and more artists and organizations are offering tour invitations, and Southern Californians accept. The people who took off work early one Thursday morning for a tour of the Grapevine may have been seeking a corrective to that feeling of falseness and disconnection. Once, the Grapevine was the major thoroughfare connecting Southern and Northern California. Now, if you make your way up the 5 from Los Angeles, you eventually get to an exit called Grapevine, but the old road exists in pieces. Our tour, the organizer promised, would give the place meaning in a whole new way.

The organizer was the Center for Land Use Interpretation. In the growing world of Southern California tours, the CLUI occupies a special place. It is an uncategorizable entity that exists somewhere between educational, academic and artistic. The Center mounts art exhibits at its Culver City headquarters and a couple of times per year takes a group of people to Southern California oil field sites, landfills or, in the case of the Grapevine tour, “a place meant to be passed through.”

Nick Bourland sat near me on the bus. Home on a break from his east coast college, he took the tour at the urging of an art student friend. A native Angeleno, he had never been on a tour bus in his own city. “Normally, I see people here getting on tour buses, looking for obvious things, like celebrities’ homes,” he told me. Making our way through the developed landscape, we learned about the history of sites surrounding the old Grapevine—a water pumping plant, CalTrans, an Ikea fulfillment center. This, we concluded, was an unusual experience in celebrity-centric LA.

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Interior of the Gray Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead

The inherent bond between history and place—could there be a better antidote to the cliché of LA as being all about surface? Matthew Coolidge, director of CLUI, has probably thought more about the connection between LA and tours than any other person. Of the mushrooming innovative tours in the city, he says, “Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, and there will be more over time, that put the city in a mirror that’s more than where it can fix its hair and trim its moustache. It’s a mirror that’s not just narcissistic, but turns us around to see where we’ve come from and what brought us to this point.” These tours can be seen as efforts to wring every bit of meaning out of a place that is so often said to have none.

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Interior of the Guerre/Beckman Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead

4. The Answer

Land and history are antidotes to the increasingly virtual nature of our current existence. Rather than being told or shown, when we touch a thing or experience a place, it becomes part of us, in a way that tertiary media that presents it to us cannot. In this way, Los Angeles and its mediated surface may be the perfect paradigm for our misty, nebulous era—and the tours that combat it a telling illustration of physical human yearning.

I was worried that our changeable times may have gotten to the Will Rogers house, or that my mental remove from the emotional tour experience might blunt the place for me. But when I visited recently for the first time in two decades, the docent presented the house as being just as it once was, saying that as we walked around we’d get a feeling for “Will Rogers, the man” and how people lived in his day. Indeed, the old Indian blanket is still draped over the couch, the ink stains on his desk remain, and the metal countertop in the kitchen is as cold now as it was when Will Rogers’s family touched it a century ago—and when I did as a ten-year-old. I felt a little shiver of meaning. I had touched the past—my past, the past of this place, and, now, our combined histories. The feeling stayed for a while as I drove down the hill, and disappeared as I turned onto Sunset, reentering LA’s fast moving traffic of now.

Photography/ArtReviews

Walking East of West LA

by Lynell George
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

The photography of Kevin McCollister

It’s the other point of entry, this eastern spine of downtown Los Angeles, along the Alameda corridor where Union Station thrums with passengers departing, arriving, connecting. And drifters, who hover somewhere in between coming and going. This is the juncture, the elusive middle space, that writer/photographer Kevin McCollister loses himself in. He has become eloquent in visually evoking the poetic hang-time of the destinationless.

Late on a Sunday afternoon, amid the flow of flip-flopped and sun-hatted weekend travelers, McCollister looks like he, too, could be coming or going. With quick, hard-to-read eyes and a taut, reserved energy, he blends into the ambience of anticipation, looking for something that’s not a train or taxi or a “score”—but something. He has arranged himself at one of the concourse’s small tables at the edge of the flow with an iced coffee and his two cameras, a Panasonic Lumix and his Canon D40, still zipped away in their soft black cases. His face relaxes in a greeting, not quite a smile, but welcoming and forthright.

He’s already working, scanning possibilities: the resigned mother with the hysterical six-year-old; the bent woman on a walker fed up with panhandler sob stories; the timid security guard she’s buttonholed who nods between his “yes ma’am”s. McCollister’s eyes finally pause on a man with a dramatic flounce of dyed blue-black hair and a wool scarf flung not-so-nonchalantly about his neck despite the eighty-degree heat. He’s holding court at a table with three other men—all of whom look like they’ve walked out of another era or circumstance. McCollister risks another surreptitious glance, but doesn’t make a move for either camera. Something’s missing, not quite right—the moment. “That one has a story,” he says. “If I wait long enough I’ll find him again.”

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Brian, 2010 © Kevin McCollister

What is a train station if not a point of departure? A gateway into stories. But you can’t buy a ticket to the places McCollister takes you. His Los Angeles is not the high-gloss of turquoise pools, movie stars, and mile-high, listing palm trees. Rather, it’s the city’s broken seekers, its mix-and-match architecture, its abandoned asphalt roads—the beauty in its lonelier, hidden contours.

While he is certainty documenting LA, his images evoke something chambered and contemplative, startling in their quietude.

His book and the blog that inspired it, East of West LA, elicit a Los Angeles that feels personal, like memory and fantasy fused, a Los Angeles that is private but not at all exclusive. “Kevin is seeing what’s not seen about LA,” says Brooks Roddan, who found the images compelling enough to publish in book form. “He’s seeing, I think, the differences between the perceptions of LA and the realities. The story is: there’s more here than you imagined, and what you imagined is not here at all.”

The blog, which McCollister launched five years ago, has built a small but loyal following (well over 100,000 visitors, and a steady hundred views a day). It wasn’t conceived as one of those photo-a-day exercises. And he has some rules: “No Rolls Royce convertibles. No swimming pools. They seem to be covered adequately. But,” he elaborates, “I don’t want to get too lofty about what I understand or don’t understand about LA. It’s much more of a model or muse to me than an object I’ve studied to enlighten anyone. If you’re an artist and you’re able to sketch somebody’s thumb, that doesn’t mean you understand their childhood.”

That thumb, in McCollister’s work, is an apt metaphor, full of clues. The fine particulars—an empty farmácia bathed in aqua fluorescence, a Hollywood Boulevard James Brown impersonator, wig slightly askew, flashing a set of ruined teeth—sketch a far more complex LA story of struggle, blind faith, and persistence. By isolating an object—a single, soft-lit doorway, late-night street musicians serenading empty sidewalks, a transient’s forlorn tent—McCollister “finds” LA by holding onto something we might gun past in a rage on the 110, or something we linger beside every day but see past. We observe Los Angeles through his prism, an LA edited down to an oblique gesture, to a wry, visual non sequitur. It’s an LA only seen in stop-motion, an LA that uncharacteristically can only be navigated, McCollister knows, with patience and by foot.

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Betty and Darla, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

A case in point: This stretch of the Alameda corridor just outside the station doors is a complex nexus. In the amber light, compositionally, it’s loose, messy, and full of possibilities. Downtown’s chessboard of skyscrapers gather to the west; the central jail looms northeast; and the old Pueblo de los Angeles, from whence this all sprang, is only a crosswalk away. This is one of those locations where the city’s standard operating definitions, east of the world’s imagination of Los Angeles, don’t quite work. “From here,” McCollister says, “I can walk to Boyle Heights or Lincoln Heights. Or maybe I’ll just walk up to Broadway, it just depends.”

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Old Woman Stares into Sun, 2011 © Kevin McCollister

When you step off into one of his images, you realize it isn’t that Los Angeles is mysterious; it’s been misread, its elegance and edginess elided from our imagination. The images, particularly those emptied out of humans, force a new reading. He knows he’s channeling ghosts—Fitzgerald, Chandler, even Bukowksi—a certain sort of discontent which writers have for so long attempted to express.

He cordons off Saturdays and Sundays for shooting, mornings before 10 a.m., evenings after 4 p.m., the off time from his full-time job as an administrative coordinator at the Writer’s Guild. “LA is tricky for photography because it’s so much sunlight, so much glare,” he says. He rarely photographs late at night, yet his images of an emptied-out LA convey a sort of nighthawk quality. What makes McCollister pause is not just the image, but what’s tethered to it: “Definitely a mood. Not adulterated too much. It’s just whatever emotional content [is there].” He admits that what speaks to him is often “pretty melancholy, pretty singular.”

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Woman Ordering Food, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

We reach Olvera Street, usually an explosion of tourist-geared sound and color. Today it’s overrun by television vans, heavy cables, and sun canopies—all quite contrary to what he’s after.

The quiet, unembellished city he seeks doesn’t always make itself known. “I may come back with nothing,” he warns me. “I can spend hours and hours and think I have something . . .” he says, letting the thought trail off. He makes a quick survey and the camera comes out, the small Lumix, bumping against his chest, ready.

He crosses another narrow street and into the busy courtyard at the old church—Nuestra Señora de Reina de Los Angeles—la Placita. People trade pleasantries with him, the regulars he’s come to know: men and women selling bottled water, wooden bracelets decorated with religious figures, simple rosaries. Still others, crouched on the sidewalk, ask for change. He pauses near a fountain at an altar crowded with votive candles, scattered prayers, and mementoes—a child’s shoe, a hazy sonogram, silver milagros. A woman, her black hair slated with gray, stands near the fountain. He sees a possibility, something in her face, the incline of her head. He raises the camera, then stops. “There’s this feeling,” he explains later, “that photographing someone praying might be just a little too distracting or intrusive.”

He presses on.

If you’d asked him twenty years ago, McCollister would have defined himself as a writer—a poet, primarily. He had come from elsewhere, winding from Cleveland to New Orleans, where he worked on a river boat, Delta Queen, then Boston, where he studied film and screenwriting at Harvard Extension. Photography hadn’t been on his radar. Neither was Los Angeles, which upon an early visit in the ’80s he had dismissed as crowded and unlivable.

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L.A. River, 2007 © Kevin McCollister

Just six years ago, when he set out on this endeavor, this little side project (“call it creative practicality”) was pure hobby, not vocation. His brother had married a woman from Taiwan and relocated. “She had a blog and I didn’t know what a blog was,” McCollister recalls. “I just wanted to have a dialogue with her and perhaps a half-dozen other people—just pictures of LA.” It was a simple plan. “I thought it was going to be [a] ‘This American Life’ thing where I would . . . talk with people, but it’s not that way at all. It just sort of mushroomed.”

He bought himself a hundred-dollar camera and set up his blog, christening it, with a wink, The Jimson Weed Gazette. He started posting, sometimes just text—lists, observations; or a combination of image and reflection. Over time, as he learned more about his camera and its potential, McCollister says, “[It] took on a life of its own without me even making a conscious decision.” He was writing less and less, he says. “The photos were just doing all the work.”

The poetry is still evident. The power of a single object, the oblique framing, the ratio of dark to light, and the elliptical situations in his photographs reveal his emotional awareness. Los Angeles isn’t just sunshine and excess. He has put his stamp on the place. The name-shift—East of West LA—was part of the project’s evolution, as was the blog’s initial brazen claim, now its tagline: I’m photographing LA—All of it.

That vow caught Brooks Roddan’s eye. Roddan was already familiar with McCollister’s writing through a mutual friend, the poet Micahel Lally, and had asked for some poems for a possible book. “The poems I’d responded to, the best poems, were all walking poems; a man walking through neighborhoods as if he was seeing LA for the first time,” Roddan says, “seeing things only a poet both aware and innocent could see.”

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Bryson, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

Time passed, and Roddan learned that McCollister had stopped writing poems and had refocused his energies. He began visiting the blog, stowing away the images in his head. Once they reconnected, Roddan had a different plan. “‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘I think your poems are now photographs and your photographs are now poems. Let’s do a book of your photographs.’”

Precisely what Roddan saw in the poems filtered directly into the images: an open-ended seeking. McCollister says, “I don’t usually have a plan, I just walk with the traffic lights—whichever one is green.” We wind over the hard, hot concrete through Mei Ling Way, past crowded souvenir shops, restaurants smelling of hot oil and scallions, gentrified art galleries side by side with retro furniture stores, and finally onto an empty courtyard on Chung King Road, canopied by hanging cherry-red paper lanterns.

The only business open at this in-between hour is a shop with a pulsing red neon sign announcing FONG’S ORIENTAL WORK OF ART. But what has enraptured McCollister isn’t the retro neon, or the curiously tangled name, or the gathered men playing cards near its front doors, or anything at all telegraphing Chinatown. Instead, he has installed himself before the shuttered doors of what looks to be a recently vacated business. Its cloudy window reveals nothing but scattered newspaper, trampled cardboard flats, and a chair and table shoved against a blank wall. The sight stops him cold.

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Old Man, Abandoned Building, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

He raises the Lumix, snaps once and then again. He keeps going. Finally, he shows me the image on the camera’s screen, and I see what he sees: not simply an abandoned table and chair, but something painterly, something out of the realm of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth—a silvery hint of sunlight, a ghost trailing on the wall. There’s sadness there. The frame is full of questions. What do all these remnants mean? Was this the end of someone’s story?

It feels like something in that frame, and he’s relieved. “There are some nights where the sky is the limit, where I’ve taken four hundred or as little as ten. But of those four hundred there can be zero,” he says. In other words, he knows to be cautiously optimistic. It’s the waiting that’s nerve-racking—that drive home hovering between anticipation and result—the hope that he has captured what was conveyed. There’s a piece of mood that has to go with the image, some essence of LA escaping.

What the work seems to most skillfully convey about LA is that it can’t be both destination and dream—though we all struggle to make it so. These images, procured through patience, through slowing the city down, reveal that conundrum.

“LA has this real end-of-the-road feel to it,” McCollister reflects. “It’s such an undeniable destination point for so many types of people—rich, poor, talented, untalented. You come because you need something. And sometimes you have to wait a very long time. And sometimes the waiting can drive you crazy.”