Solo Art Show: Tiny’s Coffee SE

For those of you in Portland, listen up: for the whole month of August I will have pictures up on the walls at Tiny’s Coffee SE.

I was trying to remember if I’ve ever had a show of JUST my illustrations. I’ve shown my canvas work here and there, and illustrations have popped up in group shows, but I think this is the first time they’ve taken over an entire public place.

The last show here was a photography show with uniform enlargements that could easily be seen across the room. My work — painted by hand on paper — is not large, so I’ve tried to group them invitingly to make people yearn for a closer look. In some areas this worked fairly well.

In others, well…better luck next time.

Remember though that most homes do not have vast empty walls but rather have a menagerie of existing features to work around. And the nice thing about small pictures is you can tuck them into almost any space.

These two didn't make it into the show, though they are available. These two didn’t make it into the show, though they are available.

This show is a culmination of about six years’ worth of work. It features pictures from all sorts of different adventures I’ve had during that time: working the recycle crew at the Oregon Country Fair, my trip to Los Angeles for the Manifest:JUSTICE show, volunteering with the Portland Opera,  and several Cyborg Anthropology pictures are available as well. One of the fennel pictures is even there. All sorts of good stuff.

The show is up through the month of August. Come by and see it, won’t you?

Day 6: The Getty

The last notable thing I did in LA was visit the Getty Center, which was something a friend of mine had insisted I do. It is a Great Big Free Place Filled With Art.

It is named for J. Paul Getty, an oilman named by Fortune magazine in 1957 as “the richest living American”. The bulk of his estate went towards a trust he had set up for the arts, called — what else — the Getty Trust. The vast number of artifacts within the museums began as J. Paul Getty’s own personal collection, as he was avid collector of both art and antiques.

His life was a checkered one. He was a brilliant businessman — did well during the Great Depression and learned Arabic so he could expand oil operations in the middle east, and no doubt made lasting connections there and in Europe where he lived out the remainder of his days. Yet he was also a miser, famously installing pay phones throughout his stately home in England. Additionally he seems a bit barren of human emotions. There is a chilling story of his grandson’s kidnapping by Italian gangsters — and the relative lack of humanity regarding the ransom. The grandson did badly after this ordeal — traumatized no doubt both by his relations’ businesslike calculations and by the physical mutilations he’d endured. 

So one has mixed emotions, standing before the bust of J. Paul Getty in the foyer of the Getty Center visitor center. Why he created the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust I am not sure. I am grateful for it though, because I had a lovely day reaping the benefits. It is the wealthiest art institution in the world, and includes this Getty Center as well as another museum complex called “the Villa,” (which Getty himself had built up around his home stateside, to better house his art collection), as well as the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Conservation Institute. 

The Center is unreal. Everything is well organized and calculated, like a clock. It is placed atop a hill, and from the parking garage you enter what I had called a tram but what I have since learned is a HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR, which is much better. They should print both words on their brochures and all signage throughout the grounds, for I regret riding a hovertrain and not being aware of it. 

HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR!
HOVERTRAIN FUNICULAR!

The buildings are made of an eye-aching white stone called Travertine, sourced from the same quarry in Rome that gave us the colosseum.  

Along the walkways the stone is polished smooth, but it is left rough on most of the outer wall facings, as well as along the stairway down to the gardens. The rough stone has a fascinating texture, featuring tons of little surprises.

The whole place is like something from another planet. All columns and staircases. It is not the most intuitive of spaces but it sort of doesn’t matter, because it is pretty clear that no matter where you wander you’ll be rewarded. 

I only ended up with half a day here, which is no where near enough time for such a huge place, so I stuck with just one exhibit: the visiting Turner exhibition.

This day I was struck chiefly by the compositions, and I spent a great deal of time making studies.

Turner’s watercolor and gouache studies were new to me (I think? I don’t remember seeing them) and were particularly electrifying because they were usually done while he was traveling. As studies for bigger paintings. 

Just like me! I wrote in my sketchbook. 

Day 5: Echo Park

I stayed in the Echo Park neighborhood, and whenever I wasn’t taking in sights in an official way I was wandering around looking at murals and wondering about oldish buildings on or about this section of Sunset Avenue. The first night in Los Angeles I made my way down to the neighborhood’s namesake. 

Modeled after Shipley Park in Derbyshire, Echo Park started its life humbly as Reservoir #4. It was created in 1870 by essentially damming one side of a ditch and redirecting water from the Los Angeles River. The hope was to spark a real estate boom in the hitherto undeveloped west side with this ready source of drinking water.

The plan failed — attracting not the hoped-for residential pioneers but instead a bit of light industry such as the Los Angeles Woolen Mill — and in 1891 the land was turned over to the city as a public park. Over the next eight years the slapdash reservoir was carefully manicured into a charming little oasis — trees were planted, paths were built, and an island was created on the north end of the lake by piling up sediment scraped from the lakebed. Silent film studios located just down the road along present day Glendale Avenue began using the park extensively in its shoots, as nothing sells a good pratfall like a little a splash into a non-dangerous body of water. Keystone Studios — where Charlie Chaplin got his start on the silver screen — was particularly fond of the park, and the “Keystone Cops” were often bumbling around and (to the chagrin of city planners) trampling the flowers.

Studios were eventually barred using the park in such vigorous film shoots, though I imagine it is still used in gentler ways. 

As the city began to close in around the parks borders, Echo Park remained a quiet little paradise offering visitors a charming view of downtown buildings, a little boathouse with canoes for hire, and a serendipitous lotus bed that sprang up mysteriously around 1920. In 1978 a Lotus Festival began to celebrate what had become a treasured icon of the neighborhood. 

Alas, all good things must be tested. In 1980 the Lady of the Lake statue was removed and put into storage due to vandalism. (She was placed back on the lake in 1999, on the opposite shore, facing the opposite direction.) In the mid-2000s the lotuses shriveled up and vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. (“Perhaps as the result of pollution,” supposes LA Magazine.) In 2011 a $45 million renovation project began. Crews dredged the lake of the many years of sediment build up (not unlike the revamping of Portland’s own Laurelhurst Park), replaced the lotus beds and added a few new ones, and placed the Lady of the Lake back in her original location. The boathouse is restored, and though there were numerous paddle boats moored on the dock the first night I was there, I have no idea if they operate regularly. I hope they do, because I love stuff like that. 

“Cleaned up” too often means “the good grit is gone”, and I’m happy to say there’s still a lot of good local flavor to be found in the park. Literally, in fact: vendors with little grills made out of metal shopping carts are to be found throughout the park, selling hot dogs drenched in hot peppers, tamales, and of course, my shining star, my forever friend, elotes.

I think I may have heard about these from my Angeleno, but I wasn’t sure. What I was sure of was the smell, and the delightful sight of charred corncobs in neat little rows all up and down the rack. My eyes grew wide and hungry, and my man in a baseball cap and crisp guayabera looked at me and smiled.

I pointed to the cart. He indicated one with his tongs. I nodded, and raising a hand, rubbed my thumb along my fingers. (how much?).

My man held up 2 fingers.

I nodded. 

He picked up a cob, shucked the leaves into a bucket, and rammed a skewer stick into one end. He then picked up a wedge of lime, and poised it above the cob, and raised his eye brows.

I nodded.

He squeezed juice all up and down the cob. He indicated a tub of something with a rubber spatula sticking out.

I nodded. Joy rising.

He rubbed what turned out to be mayonnaise all up and down the cob. He hovered the cob over a plate over that very special Mexican cheese that comes in little tiny nubbins and does not melt quickly or readily, but rather stays to make sure you’ve noticed and are having a wonderful time. My man indicated. 

I nodded. I am grinning ear to ear by this point.

He takes a fork and deftly sprinkles the cob all over with the cheese. He then indicates a largish tin shaker, the top red from so many previous cobs of service.

I nodded. 

My man dusts the cob liberally with a chile powder. He offers me the finished product and I hand him my two dollars.

And for a long time, amid the lotus flowers, the ducks, and the people, I eat. 

 

Day 4: Uber and opening

It goes without saying that yesterday I should have taken Uber from my venue. How was I to know?

My budget really didn’t extend to things beyond my transit card (all paid up for the week,) and there was something a little intimidating about this Brave New World of sharing, though by and large that nervousness turned out to be completely groundless. The biggest fear I had was about the AirBnB host, who I was vaguely nervous about for no reason at all and who turned out be almost like an extended family member by the end of the week. Like staying with an uncle.

For the rest of the week I lean very heavily on Uber just for certainty and convenience more than anything else. A promotion was going on while I was in LA, and so long as you rode “carpool” (that is, the driver can opt to pick up other people) your fare was only $5 within a certain well-populated radius (my trip out to the Getty the following day would be more expensive). That’s more than a bus ride, but far less than a taxi ride in most cases, and it was a flat-rate. 

The app is seamless and very comforting to the overwhelmed traveler — no money ever changes hands, you can set it up to automatically tip drivers, and the “rating” system goes both ways: you rate your driver, but they also rate you as a passenger, which behooves everyone to be on their best behavior. 

The place I spent the most time this day was the Farmer’s Market, which is pretty spruced up and next door to an upscale shopping area, and wasn’t exactly what I had been hoping for. But it did have a nice eating area, and a big bowl of gumbo really helped sooth my nerves. And it also had a few excellent surprises, like these hand carts:

and a place where I could get a handful of coconut jellybeans, which remind me of my grandmother.

It also had a nice upstairs seating area where a person could sit and process things and watch sparrows stealing french fries, flying in and out of the pane-less windows. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my wristwatch.

A fabulous device, completely mechanical, running solely on the motions one’s body makes through the day (with the occasional wind in the morning to make sure we’re all set). Not once did my wristwatch betray me by running out of battery juice as my cellphone did every single day, usually when I needed it most like navigating a tricky transit mishap (like last night) or to call Uber as I was going to do from time to time this day and next. 

Fortunately my watch was made before they thought of planned obsolescence. When I got home I replaced my phone but not my watch!

Later it was back to the venue for the REAL opening. It was a madhouse. A huge stage out front for music, food carts, three open bars, and thousands of people crammed into the little space. 

It was thrilling to walk into the show behind a whole bunch of people who had not yet seen anything in it, and I felt very fortunate to have seen the whole thing in a much more intimate setting. As I filed in, I was directly behind these kids:

A woman handing out little flyers about the show looked at them and said,

oh babies. BABIES. This show is for YOU. You kids. 

Whereas the night before everyone was connected somehow to the show itself, tonight there was a constant refrain of, “are you one of the artists?!” and a flattering glitter and wide-eyed admiration that was scarcely warranted.

I met lots of nice people, said hello to the people I had met the night before. At one point Ron Finley walked up to me as I was looking at the police car, gave me a big hug. 

We chatted a bit. I found out that he was the one who provided all the plants for the car exhibit, and was worried about keeping them alive for the duration of the show. He thanked me for painting him, said it was an honor, and as we parted ways he gave me another huge hug and a kiss on the top of the head. D’AAAW!

I later bumped into his sons downstairs, introduced myself properly, and we all exchanged cards. I congratulated Delfin for selling one of his paintings, and he said he hoped we’d all get red dots. He and his brother Kohshin are much better artists than I will ever be, and it was incredible to see their paintings in person. 

I chatted with a bunch of people. A cuban woman who works with (I think) the California endowment and who was really into my work. (Again, why didn’t I write her name down?!) A film maker who’s trying to start a gallery. The guy who made these stamps. I found Sofia at last towards the end of the night and we resolved to be art pen pals, and as I write this I owe her a letter back. 

And, at the end of the night, it only took 20 minutes to be driven straight home. 

Day 3 : transit mishaps

Most guidebooks I have looked at tell the visitor that LA is a car city. You can’t really get around without a car, they warn, you’ll be stuck without one.

These travel guides must not talk to locals, because according to Wikipedia, LA boasts the third-largest public transportation system in the country — and a dizzying number of bus, shuttle, and light rail routes spaghetti themselves all across this city. My former Angelenos told me to ride the bus, and one even let me borrow a TAP card. Ridership is robust. I never seemed to be on an empty bus, not even at midnight.

I was in LA to take in the sights, not to look for parking, so it was a no brainer for me to go this route. The bus route. My initial feelings here were reinforced by my wonderful encounter with Ann, and my subsequent hassle-free adventures on transit.

Save one very notable exception

I left the Manifest:Justice artist preview around 10pm, with the reasoning that I did not want to stay out too late. I stumbled into my AirBnB room (about 20 miles away) at around…1:30am. 

Not ideal. 

When I told people what I’m about to tell you after the fact I was reprimanded — for both trusting the public transit system but also for traveling this late, through those neighborhoods, alone. People started seeing me off with don’t get raped! instead of so long! (Do we need to talk about this, LA? Are you a missing stair?)

I’m not sure if this is over-caution on my friends’ part or over-confidence on mine. It may be a blend of both. I’ve never been the sort of person who worries about walking around alone at night, though at barely 5’1″ and dressed like a character from a Wes Anderson film it’s not like I exude street cred. I walk upright, with purpose, and try to look like I know where I’m going (even if I don’t). I am not naive, but I also don’t believe in being fearful of a situation that reads as innocuous just because of the neighborhood’s demographics.

LET’S GET ON WITH IT

First connection is a breeze. I walk up to the platform, feeling victorious, and eventually the train comes. I sit sleepily with a few other people nearish me. I’m in a happy place. The night has gone well. Happy music playing in my big headphones.

I am near the front of my car and I see in a window’s reflection that some biggish, swaying figures are making a ponderous way up to my end of the car. They appear to be stopping at various people sitting well behind me. Things are being said but it’s not loud. 

I see the woman in front of me (a black woman slightly younger than me, sitting facing perpendicular, so I can see her in profile) glance towards them, tense up a little bit, but otherwise remain in the same position. I do as she does, and remain just as I am. One of the guys sits down in the row across the isle, and faces me (or rather, the side of my head.) As he’s situating himself I make brief eye contact with the woman in front of me, a look that for the both of us says I see you. It is vague but comforting. I have a witness.

I can’t quite hear what the dude is saying to me when he sits facing me, across the isle, talking to the side of my head. We have a seat and the isle between us but I hear a reference to my red shirt (it’s orange, actually, but um. You know. He’s all in black.) I remain sleepy looking and the same, total cold fish, as if he isn’t even there. After about five minutes of this he and his other two guys get off a the next stop. As they leave the woman in front of me closes her eyes wearily and shakes her head. 

I get off at a metro station, ostensibly to take another train to a bus. And I wait. And wait. And wait. The crowd is…uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes the guy from the train shows up with his bros, and they are sort of circling around a bit, which seems less ominous than before, but still makes me feel uneasy. After 40 minutes I move over to a different part of a platform, next to an older lady and her extremely-young-for-her man friend, a old white guy in chinos and his Asian escort, and a family with little kids sitting on the floor playing a game of some kind, which altogether feels more wholesome. It’s pushing midnight.

ACTUAL DIRECTIONAL FACTS FROM HERE ON OUT ARE BLURRED BECAUSE I WAS EXHAUSTED AND ALL TURNED AROUND

I am waiting with everyone on the [my way] side of the platform, and twice there have been trains that come for the side. The third time this happens two thirds of the people get on it, and I hear an announcement that Red line is coming every 20 minutes, but the purple line is coming every 10. I can take either to my next stop, so I go up the platform to look for the purple line.

But I see no signs indicating the purple line, and after examining each one as cool as I can, a casually sharp man with long braids asks me if I’m lost. I take off my headphones and admit that yes, I am. (No sense in denying it.) I think I’m looking for the purple line.

We get to talking. He tells me that in all likelihood, the purple line isn’t going to come at all. Apparently after 10 the trains are impossibly wayward and often either don’t come, or show up on the wrong platforms. He indicates the platform. Mostly the trains will only show up on that side, going any which way. This is appalling but very good to know, and I thank him. 

I have resolved at this point to get onto the next train no matter where it’s going, because I’ve been waiting over an hour at this point. (If it goes to Union Station, fine, and if it goes out towards Hollywood, fine.) The train comes and we both run down the steps to get on it. We’ve been chatting about tranist and all sorts of things, he shows me video of his little mini schnauzer wearing rain booties. I tell him about the show I’m in. We talk about where that is, and evidently it’s very near his church. I think I’m going to go see it, he says. I give him my card and tell him to email me and I can give him the actual address. (He never did, and I wish he could have because I forget his name and if he hadn’t said anything to me about the trains I may have been stuck there to this day.)

So we both get off at a stop, and I get up there hoping to catch a bus line, and see no stop marked for it. I am just bouncing from corner to corner looking. I see a 204 bus going in the right direction, but I’m not sure if the route will continue all the way up to Sunset, which is what I need. I run up to check stop numbers and the bus pulls away. A tall, older man in a tweed jacket asks me the same question: are you lost? 

I tell him I’m trying to get to Echo Park via Sunset, and pointing I say, should I have gotten on that bus?

Yes, he says. I tell him the bus number I was actually looking for, and he thinks a moment and says I think that bus stops running at 9. 

So I resolve to wait for the next 204. Dante tells me he’s just come from a fashion show rehearsal, something he’s brand new to, and that he was about to go get ice cream at Denny’s across the street. He said he’d wanted to talk to me because he REALLY liked my look.We talk about clothes. After a few minutes I tell him that I don’t mean to hold him hostage, and we waves it off, saying that he wants to keep me company while I want for the bus, since people are less likely to mess with a 6ft tall black man than a little white woman, alone, and I agree and thank him.

So we stand there and talk for almost 20 minutes. He has a daughter studying psychology, she’s 19. He does his runway practice walk for me. But he also keeps talking about how he likes white women, he likes slim women, he likes people my size, etc. This makes me vaguely uncomfortable, but people waiting for the bus are starting to congregate (about 5 other people) so I figure if there’s a scene I’ll be able to make a decent ruckus and garner support. And I actually give him my card too, because he was interested in what my artwork looked like. 

In the end of course, nothing happens, he’s just a somewhat old fashioned borderline creeper doing a gentlemenly thing and waiting with me for the bus so I don’t have to be alone — a target for worse creepers. And when my bus comes we shake hands, I thank him, and he heads to Denny’s for his ice cream. 

The 204 does indeed stop at Sunset, and from there it’s familiar territory since I rode the #2 up to Hollyhock House and back earlier today. Google maps says I’ll have to wait about 40 minutes, but a bus comes within 5 (Mazel tov! an old guy next to me breathes) and by 1:30am I am home. 

So, that sucked, but could have been a WHOLE LOT WORSE. 

Day 3 : artist preview

Ron Finley lives in Los Angeles. 

I know the man is busy and has better things to do than meet someone who admires his take on One Of The Major Social Issues Of Our Time In A Way That Is Human And Manageable, but a person can dream, and in the idealistic phase of planning the trip it went on my list of: wouldn’t it be super if.

I went so far as drafting an email to him, but in languished in the Draft folder because really, who the hell am I? 

The day I arrived in LA and logged onto the internet from my AirBnB for the first time, I saw on twitter that Ron was working on something for the Manifest:Justice show. 

What!

So I dug out the email and sent it, adding a link to the write-up I’d already done, and saying I was in town for the show, wouldn’t it be nutty to see you there. 

Fast forward to the actual opening. (Or rather, the artist’s preview of the opening). I budgeted a LOT of time for my first transit journey down to the venue, and ended up in the area about an hour ahead of schedule. I wandered down from the train platform towards a rec center and a series of fields, where several different sports practices were in progress. Lots of tough talk at football practice, the kids were probably in middle school. You could hear the metallic crack of baseball bats from the adjacent field, obscured by giant oak trees and the bleachers. Parents chatting in camp chairs. Little siblings playing chase games on the metal risers, laughing and making booming stompy sounds on the metal seats. All chummy and friendliness down there. And then, finally, to the venue.

Manifest:Justice was housed in what used to be the Baldwin Hills Theatre, which today is tucked behind a strip mall. (Yosi wrote up a nice little thing about the venue here.) 

As soon as I found the correct driveway and walked up to the front doors, I saw the edges of a container garden, made up entirely of the sorts of things that had made it on my brainstorm sketch paper just a month before. A janitor’s mop bucket. A discarded drawer. A radio flyer. Before I even saw him — frustratedly trying to affix some tiles onto the side of a raised bed —  I knew this was Ron Finley’s creation.

He was busy, and annoyed, and so rather than come up to him all gushy and starry eyed I sat — glowing with deep content — in one of the painted lean-back chairs and started drawing. 

I did not hover, I did not want to be annoying. I did ask him if he needed help at some point, which prompted him heckle his sons, (who evidently had not offered), and caused me to do a little sassing as well which I later felt a teeny bit bad about.

The artist’s preview was mostly intended for all of us to meet one another and some of the Key Bigwigs who helped get this thing off the ground, but of course it was hard to focus on any of that because the work was so good.

Everything was curated VERY well. Although everything was stylistically different and could easily have become jarring — the unrelated mismash that group shows can become — here everything flowed together, one thing naturally leading to another, so that audible “oh”s could be heard when a particular piece made a point that other work was building to. There were little alcoves off the main rooms that are vaguely themed — a money room, a power room.

My work was in one of these alcoves, in what I mentally referred to as the vicarious arts and crafts room. Appropriate and not unexpected. I feel very strongly about all this stuff, but stylistically I really can’t compete with hoodies folded into flag boxes, or the enormous Lady Liberty bust, hands covering her face in sadness or shame. Now with the Ferguson police car, smashed up, plants apparently growing up and out through the broken windows, a tray of tomatoes nearby with a sign adjuring folks to “eat or smash!”.

Is installation the best way to get a political idea across? 

I don’t think my approach is too saccharine necessarily, but also I have a different experience of all this, and so my work seems less visceral. Less urgent. I want to find the urgency, but I doubt I can capture that visceral THIS IS MY STORY feeling you get from a lot of these works. It’s reporting from a war zone — and how can I tell the solider’s story from my victory garden on the homefront?

I was taken to task with this self-defeating outlook a few days later, from a woman with the California Endowment, whose name I have alas misplaced. She said: this is your story. This is everybody’s story. We are all in it, experiencing it. This is absolutely your story. 

We were provided an open bar and glorious (at times, confusing) hors d’oeuvres. I met some people but mostly hung out with a fellow I-came-here-alone lady artist named Sofia Enriquez whose work is amazing and whose weird goofiness meshed with mine excellently. The world has me and Sofia to thank for the tomatoes smashed into the hood of the Ferguson police car, sprinkled with dirt. 

At one point we were standing around eating and Ron Finley walks up to me.

“So. How do you know me?” 

People don’t always get to their emails. I start from scratch. “I heard about you on NPR, I’ve watched your TED talk, and then went on to listen to other interviews. I am deeply moved by your gardens, because I think it is a great response to all of this nonsense that is going on nowadays,” (I wave my hand around. We are standing between the 15 ft cardboard bust of Lady Liberty with her face in her hands, Treyvon, and the Ferguson car. He nods.) “And so, when I started to think about what to do for this show, I thought of you and I painted a picture of you.”

Recognition dawns on his face. “I just read your blog today.”

“Oh really?!”

“You sent me an email!”

“I did!”

“And today, you were sitting in one of my gardens. “

He shakes his head, a quiet smile on his face. He says: “It is a small, small world sometimes.” 

So that. That happened. Nothing else could happen this whole trip and I would consider it a success because of that.

Before the thrill of this encounter wore off, I tottered down towards the lightrail platform for my transit journey home. 

And OH WHAT A JOURNEY. 

Day 3: Hollyhock House

Today, on the recommendation of my AirBnB host, I visited Hollyhock House, one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright buildings you can tour.

It is STUNNING inside, and a pretty interesting story behind the whole thing that I only got a taste of and would like to look into more. It was commissioned by a wealthy oil heiress named Aline Barnsdall in the 1920s, and was originally conceived as the living quarters that would compliment a larger theatre complex, which would be a sort of public service to the people of Los Angeles. (Barnsdall was a fierce supporter of the arts and apparently quite the leftest firecracker).

She was also opinionated, as was Frank Lloyd Wright, so one gathers from docent stories that the working relationship was a tumultuous one. Construction cost something like three times what it was originally supposed to. Eventually Wright was fired from the project, and the larger theatre complex dream was never realized. In fact, no one ever even lived in the house.

It’s such a shame too, because the thing about consciously built spaces is that they’re MEANT to be lived in. It looks like a dreary bunker from the outside, but on the inside it’s actually quite warm in a geometric sort of way. The furniture (both imitations and originals reside in the house now) are arranged at such charming, inviting angles, that you can’t help but want to cross the guardrail and plop down in the couch to see what the mantlepiece low-relief looks like from that angle (the angle at which it was probably meant to be seen). To look back over your shoulder at the music room or the entrance hall, to see who might be wandering through the close passageways designed to accentuate the sense of spaciousness in the rooms.

The fireplace — in addition to the sculptural elements — originally had a water-feature as well, I think cascading water into a pool of water surrounding the fire itself. (Reminds me of the Japanese Garden concepts I seem to recall form my tours at the Gardens here in Portland — there should be stone, water, and plants in every garden). Alas, the current restorations do not extend to that, but then California is in the middle of a drought, and any Coloradoan from the high plains will tell you needless water features are vapid and dangerously self-indulgent.

While there had been half-hearted renovations here and there since this ’60s, in 2012 the grounds were closed so that a more substantial going over could be undertaken at great expense. (It’s only just opened back up in February!)

Among the things that needed attention was the paint on the walls — the original greenish-golds were given a kick via copper flecks mixed into the paint, and these over the years had oxidized into a sooty black. Now the metallic sheen is achieved with mica. I am told in the twilight — or in the half-light of the sort of overcast days that makes this Portlander swoon — the walls shine with a lustrous warmish gold.

I’m not sure how freely people could wander around before the renovation, but now visitors wear hospital booties, and peer into the roped-off rooms from the hallways, encouraged by the innumerable stories from the knowledgeable docents.

Yesterday was all art-for-the-people, in various forms, but as this was both modest-entry-fee-required and possibly the only architect non-architect buffs have heard of, so the patronage was quite different. All high-brow khakis and crisp button up shirts and grey hair died blond. Aside from me, the only other visitors not dressed for a cucumber sandwich at high tea was a middle-aged couple from the Bronx who had a glorious habit of leaning far over the guardrails and otherwise being loud and openly curious. We had a swell time.

The grounds afford views of the hollywood sign and griffith park observatory, and a nice view of the city. The day I was there all the jacaranda trees were in purple bloom. I had a longish picnic lunch right where this picture was taken, and then walked all the way around the house — which may or may not have been officially sanctioned (there were no walkways to encourage this) but I was definitely not the only one tramping through the wilder parts of the slope to do this.

I then trickled back up Sunset — looked in at some shops, got a smoothie, then “home” to freshen up for the art show.

Day 2, Part 2: Watts Towers

From the glittery land of Civic Improvement I take the blue line south down to Watts, where Regular Folks Live. 

After a few false starts I make my way from third to seventh, along the vacant lot and tiny houses. Once I turn the corner around a church, I can see them.

 These towers were made by a man named Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant and self-taught laborer. He started them in 1921 and finished working on them in 1955, when age and fighting the city for permits became prohibitive. 

They are made entirely by hand, out of a hand-mixed concrete surrounding iron rebar, often sourced from scrap.  The tallest tower is almost 100 feet tall, and they dwarf the viewer and everything else around them. 

There are roughly seventeen towers in all. No two are alike. He built them around his house and basically filled up the property line. Each rope of the towers is ornamented with broken glass, cups, tiles, and anything else pretty and shiny he picked up. Lots of mosaic work both in the structures themselves and the surrounding decorative fence, which is surrounded on all sides by a much larger fence. A sign says they do tours inside the fence: Fri – Sun, 12p – 3p. 

There is an orange sign behind the fence that says the following:

How Simon Rodia Built Art

Step one: Find scrap metal rods or pipe and bend them to fit your ideas.

Step two: Cover with wire mesh

Step three: Coat thickly with hand-mixed cement

Step four: Quick place pottery, glass, shells, rocks or similar items in the cement before it dries.

Step five: Let the world enjoy

Next to the towers is a little art center.

I managed to get there an hour and a half before they closed, and inside were two very earnest docents. The center houses a gallery, several artists-in-residence who have studio space behind the gallery, and a little back room which had an incredible exhibit of folk instruments (some apparently original tribal african artifacts, some reproductions, and some folk instruments inspired by those instruments.) This room is also where one of the docents obligingly set up the ten-minute video about Simon Rodia for me. (I was the only one there apart from the artists in their studios).

The main gallery’s show was called: “50 years and I still can’t breathe.” 

So? Right. On. Topic.  

“50 years” is actually a reference to the Watts Rebellion, which I knew nothing about — save for the LIFE magazine articles framed in the show. It’s basically exactly what is happening right now. (A petty crime arrest leading to death and then massive backlash). 

“I can’t breathe,” of course, is a reference to Eric Garner. 

So that was a powerful room. So many of the pieces were incredible, and a few gave me chills. I was particularly moved by the work of Toni Scott, and before the day was done I dug around for her email address so I could tell her so.

As I was leaving, someone told me to make sure I visited the turtles. Turtles?

Turtles! There were like 30 of them, in a beautifully tiled enclosure. The man in the first picture was finishing a mosaic that runs along the inner wall.

Within the turtle pond area there is also a community garden, and it looks as though there are several other in-progress sculptural elements being worked on throughout the grounds. The whole place was powerful and positive and delightful. I am very, very glad I went down there.

Day 2: Ann’s tour

GET READY FOR PHOTOS. I was not economical with my snapshots. Partly this was because the weather during my first two days here was incredibly hot, and I alas did not bring either of my straw hats. (I missed them very badly on this trip.)

I also just crammed a lot of sight seeing into this day, and it was not conducive to a lot of sit-and-drawing. I shall remedy that on future outings, because I would have liked to take more time to soak it all in. I was eager to tackle Ann’s list though, and it was a long one.

Most of Ann’s destinations were routed through Union Station, and the first suggestion was to head back there and really look around. It is sort of two buildings in one. The Bus Terminal side is where I came in yesterday (and today), is all golden bricks on the outside, very grand and modern (in an old school way — modern like 1960s).

If you come in at the top, (the floor above the fishtanks) you are greeted by a giant mural.

LA is covered in murals, and I regret that I did not spend lots of time with the ones I saw. (I blame the heat sizzling up my unaccustomed Oregonian skin). There was a particularly beautiful one on a…federal building? mere blocks from here. But they are everywhere, and they are all a sight to behold. This one is domed by a gorgeous ceiling with intricate glasswork.

Underneath we see hints of the true era of the building in the typography of the signage.

The passageway is very interesting because you pass additional passageways that lead to train platforms.

You aren’t supposed to go up through those passageways unless you have a reason — in fact there’s posted signs everywhere telling you NOT TO, so you can’t really see anything other than the main passageway you’re walking through. But you CAN hear the sounds of trains, leaking up through all those passageways. It’s like walking through corridors of possibilities.

Most of the rest of the building is in a high art-deco style, with very ornate embellishments throughout.

Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Gorgeous ceiling Gorgeous ceiling

Every detail was so perfect. I honestly spent an hour on the western side of the building, taking photos and marveling. This is no forlorn wooden bench in an empty room. Union Station here is a major transit hub, servicing Amtrak, inner city rail, city buses, shuttle and express buses to various locations in the metro area, and of course a taxi waiting area. This was the first place I could have picked up an Uber yesterday. It feels more like an airport. There’s lighted lists for departures and arrivals. There’s a little shoe shine stand in the center with a news stand and a few refreshment places.

It seems like it has undergone massive renovation in preparations for the 75th anniversary of the building in 2014. Everything is clean, colorful, and beautiful. The waiting area features roomy bench-chairs have upholstered leather cushions. The original ticketing booths were roped off, but I hope to God they actually use those, because what could be better?

As you leave you are greeted with a mess of palm trees, and spread of whitewashed adobe buildings that lead you to Olvera Street — the birthplace of Los Angeles. And the epicenter of cute.

The first thing you actually see (apart from this darling thing, excellent for people-watching) is the Biscailuz Building, built in 1925 as a conference headquarters for the United Methodist Church. Today it searches as the Consulate-General of Mexico. And of course the first thing you really notice see is the mural of St. Francais’ Blessing of the Animals, painted by Leo Politi in 1979.

According to the plaque, the building is named after a county sheriff who ‘assisted Christine Sterling in preserving the area’. I’m not sure how he assisted her exactly, there is surprisingly little information about Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz online. I at first assumed he provided the inmates that served as Sterling’s restoration crew in 1928, but these were actually provided by Police Chief James Davis, who sounds like a fairly ruthless character. Maybe they just didn’t want to name a Christian conference center after a man who “emphasized firearm training” and became entangled with allegations of corruption.

Christine Sterling’s name comes up several times on signs on Olvera Street. She is the reason the oldest building in Los Angeles is still standing, and the person we have to thank for the overall feel of the place — an odd mixture of romanticized historical stereotype and celebration of heritage. Alvaro Parra has a great write up that explains more about Sterling and her vision of “a Mexican Street of yesterday in a city of Today”.

Because the reclamation and rechristening of Wine Street was a calculated act of marketing, it’s a tricky place to wrap your head around. There’s a Disneyland-ish, movie-set-like feeling to the area. It’s beautiful, of course — nice textures and colors and smells everywhere you look. (And what else — that’s precisely how it was designed.)

It’s hard to know what is “real” (that is, original to the 1800s), what is staged to look “real” (that is, inserted in the 1920s), and what has been restored to either state due to earthquakes. And whether any of that matters since it is all part of the complicated timeline of the place.

However, it was a grand place to eat my picnic lunch, and it was fun to stand around in ancient home compounds restored/saved from the days when California was still Mexico.

From here I walked to City Hall, which is of course bustling with official activity. There were hints of something special — more secret paintings tucked in behind blinding white stone — but inside was all grey and official business.

It felt a little weird to breeze into here, all sunshine and floral cotton, and pass through a metal detector just to see some scenery. I was a felt a little sheepish as the security guard asked me to state my purpose.

….I…I’ve been told there is an observation tower on the 27th floor?

He winked at me and said, did anybody tell you to go to the 3rd and 4th floor too? No? Well, make sure you do.

Boy was he right.

In Portland such a dazzling display would come with plaques explaining where all this glamour comes from, or why it exists. I haven’t looked that hard online, but as yet this is all a beautiful mystery to me. The most I have learned about the building was that it was built in 1928, has been retrofitted for earthquakes, and wa featured quite a bit on mid-century television. (It was Clark Kent’s Daily Mirror in the 1950s, and the building played itself in Dragnet, as the show (at least on the radio) took place in Los Angeles and the police officers worked out of…city hall!) I have since learned that the the concrete in the central tower of the was made with sand from each of California’s fifty eight counties and water from its twenty-one historical missions, which is exquisite. But no word on why these floors are dripping with adornment.

These photos were taken from the 4th floor, looking down at the third, and when I got off the elevator on other non-restricted floors briefly it looked like most of the building is not like this, but in fact the sort of Bureaucratic Drab typical of city office buildings.

To get up to the 27th floor — where the observtion deck is — requires a musical-elevator sequence. (Take a floors 1-10 car and then transfer to a 11-22 car, from there a 26 car, which leads you to a grand staircase to the top.) One is briefly on the 22nd floor which appears to exclusively house the Mayor’s office. On his door it also says “gang reduction and youth development”

There is only one big room on the 27th floor and it appears to be where the Mayor gives press conferences. There is a podium with the city seal on the front, and great tall windows that were closed with big red velvet curtains, so it was fairly cool up there. You exit through green doors and enjoy a 360* view of the city, with signs pointing out various landmarks, which helped. LA is a bewildering, vast place, but I could at least see where I had been, and sort of where I am staying.

I am ending this because it is HUGE and I feel like there needs to be a break in the narrative. But we are getting to the most important part of my day: Watts Towers.

Day 1: Arriving

By the time I reached Union Station I had been in transit about seven hours. City bus to light rail to airport, airplane to fancy shuttle bus to Union Station.

The fancy shuttle bus was suggested to me by my AirBnB host in one of our final logistics emails. I was grateful for the tip — the flat fee was MUCH cheaper than a taxi would have been, and it gave me at least an hour to relax just one last time before the burst of mental activity that comes from trying to navigate a new place. And fortunately Union Station at Los Angeles does a lovely job of trying to calm passengers down.

The place was covered in plants and tilework, and featured a gorgeous, ENORMOUS pair of fishtanks flanking the main foyer. I did not linger — as I didn’t want to keep my AirBnB host waiting too long — but I did think, I need to come back here.

THE CONFESSION

I fly with confidence and I tend to bus and subway with a similar confidence, which can get one into trouble if one is not careful. I blame New York for this: my first real encounter with public transit was the New York subway system, and I had to navigate not only myself but my mother, who is a dear but didn’t take to the rapidity of adopted city life as quickly as my 17-year-old brain did. (We were only there a few days).

I also fall into that trap of not wanting to seem like a tourist, because TOURIST sends the dual signals of CLUELESS and OUTSIDER, which when you are a traveling alone can seem like bad signals to send. I don’t mind the whole gaping at things / taking pictures / staring in awe, because I do that anyway, a lot longer than most civilians. And it’s definitely not about blending in, because that’s NEVER been something I go in for. It’s just the Obviously Not From ‘Round Here thing I dislike.

Where did this come from? I didn’t grow up with these silly notions — we traveled a lot and played tourist in our own hometown, because what good are sights that remain unseen? I think Portland may have instilled this tourist-dread to me, because the demographics of Portland are shifting very quickly. The story often boils down to: Californians being ‘left behind’ by the technocrats move up to my neck of the woods where by local standards they are rich, and buy eye-sore condos that stand atop the ashes of beloved historic buildings. These transplants thereby drive the rents up, attract incomprehensible restaurants, clog our dainty streets with their big cumbersome cars, and drive away what made Portland worth coming to in the first place.

The story is obviously way more complicated than that — and that story does not take into account the historic displacement of people of color via red lining nor its countless previous instances of indelicate gentrification — and of course not EVERYONE who visits Portland falls in love with it and wants to stay. But it may be where desire to “pass” as a local comes from. This deft stepping from one bus to another without looking at a map.

It is something I need to shake, because it was to be my undoing on two notable occasions on this trip. The first happened now: as I hopped onto a bus and left Union Station. The direction was right and the route was right, but as soon as it pulled away from the curb, I thought, how am I going to know where my stop is?

Undoubtedly I assumed a look of mild panic. Or maybe it was just how I was dressed, (not like LA women), clutching the tell-tale SUITCASE which was not fooling anybody. I was from out of town, from another PLANET really, utterly alone and without a soul to turn to. Until, that is, an older woman across the isle from me caught my eye and smiled.

Are you from out of town?

I said yes, just flew in, and she smiles and welcomes me to Los Angeles. Her name is Ann. She’s lived in LA over ten years and LOVES the city. She takes transit all the time. You don’t need a car in LA!

I agreed, telling her I intended to spend my whole week here without renting a car.

She grins and says that’s GREAT. You’re doing it right. No need to spend your visit stuck in traffic.

She crosses the isle and begins to point out landmarks as we pass them. She asks me what I’m here for, I say an art show, and she says oh! You’re an artist! She begins to suggest things to do — things an artist might enjoy. I pull out my notebook and start to try and write these things down, and she says, you know what, you email me. I can give you a better list that way.

She fishes out a little slip of paper with her name and email address on it, and I hand her my card. And finally, with a little urgency, I tell her, I don’t know where my stop is.

I give her the neighborhood, and the cross streets, and tells me that I am actually on an express bus, that may not actually stop where I need it to. (Blast!) But before I can stop her, she is up and talking with the bus driver, and cajoles him to stop at the cross street I mention. What a gal! I thank her, we shake hands, and I walk up the hill towards my home base.

The view on the way to home base.  The view on the way to home base. This is the porch of my AirBnB, where I spent essentially ALL of my time.  This is the porch of my AirBnB, where I spent essentially ALL of my time.

Not twenty minutes later, after settling in a bit, I email her to assure her that I have indeed made it to my destination, and to thank her for rescuing me.

In response, Ann sends me an itinerary.

This is only a piece of it, transcribed onto paper for the following day. It was organized by region, little tours including points of interest great views, and things of artistic and cultural importance. And each tour was routed clearly via transit around Union Station or the neighborhood I was staying in.

It was such an incredible gift to be given, and such a generous thing for this woman to do for a complete stranger. I resolved that the following day — my first full day in Los Angeles, I would adopt Ann’s itinerary.