While I set out to write about urban development, I could not get there without writing about home, art, and working process. Part 2 will address issues I could not cover in this writing; issues dealing with photography, development and environment, but first things first.
It was love at first sight. The little old house had our names all over it. I did a double take as I drove past, in disbelief over the depth of the lot. The giant flat yard had dozens of shade trees and I recall writing the word “perfect” in the margins of my newspaper clipping from the real estate section.
The house has served us well over the last seven years and we have done our best to shore up her tired spots, keeping true to the spirit of the house’s design. When the painters were stripping off the old exterior paint a year ago to repaint, they coincidentally found the same cheerful green we had just purchased, already there on the bottom layer – the house’s original color. In our city, a house built in 1919 is a rare survivor. In fact, it was spared the wrecking ball some 30 odd years ago and moved from a neighborhood a few miles away when that neighborhood faced development. It’s not the only old house in Los Angeles, but it’s ours.
In the last few years, working from home, I began to feel this house saved me. After years of working in large creative groups, the shift to working in solitude was a bit of a shocker. I had worked so much, that I often wasn’t home long enough or in daylight hours to really experience the pleasures of what 92 years of good craftsmanship had to offer. Los Angeles is known for it’s harsh angular light. In fact, exterior photographs taken in LA. often have little graphically in common with photos from New England, for example. In Southern California, there is more contrast, more extremity. In New England, there are more middle values. Ironically, that relates as much to the culture and nature of the two places as to their photogenic character.
After living in ten different L.A. locations over the last 22 years, the light in this house, and around it, is special. It made working on the photo gallery more pleasurable. The house itself takes up only a third of the corner property so the land accommodates some thirty trees – sycamore, birch, apricot, grapefruit, persimmon, crape myrtle, lemon, avocado, pepper, eucalyptus, all of which allow the most flickery, gentle light. If the sun is out, it feels like everyone’s idea of California here. Minus the surfers and ocean view. The inside of the house has pretty much the same quality of light with an abundance of original 9×11 blown glass windowpanes. Old, rattling panes are anything but energy efficient, but for one, who apparently lives for light, it is heavenly.
In my years of editing photography in journalism, I stopped making art. My last exhibition closed a month before I took my first publication job and as a result, art died on the spot. I’m not saying that I stopped taking pictures, but as my primary task was assignment editing and concept development, making photographs was secondary. While I took many in service of my publications, they were made specifically to fill editorial orders. It was fun and it was creative, but it wasn’t art.
It’s amazing how things start to come back as soon as there’s a little space. I had new ideas within weeks away from the job. I started one series and left it midway, doubting its efficacy, but I know now that it’s something I’ll get back to. I began to see things at home that I found myself isolating in new ways. The magic of this place is worth noting largely because it allowed me to find my way back to the love of making images. It took a year and a half to take picture making seriously and actually consider it a body of work. Rust takes a long while to chip off. I’ve only mentioned it to a few people, only shown it to two of my closest friends, and still I have little desire to jump into the fray of struggling for outward attention or reward. Although here I am, writing about it.
I mentioned the fact that I was making new photographic work to Chris Rauschenberg as we walked across Santa Fe during the recent photo reviews. I’m not sure why. He’s someone I knew only peripherally when I lived in Portland, but I think perhaps, because we knew each other as young artists, I felt at ease in sharing it with him. I’d kept the art making pretty private until then. Somehow speaking of it seemed like a big deal. When I said it was good to be working but I had no plans of showing work, he asked why not? I realized I didn’t have a reason, but maybe I’d have to work a while and see what comes.
I used to believe that making art without audience was narcissistic. But that was in the ‘80s and ’90s and much of the most exciting art was based in activism. Activism is nothing without audience. Years later, I find I need beauty and nature to take the edge off a rough, exacting world. My hesitance or indifference, until now, to expose myself to the rigors of public scrutiny has as much to do with a belief the work is in progress and needs to find its way as it does in the simple fact that I’ve spent so much energy putting others into the spotlight rather than myself. Ultimately though, the pleasure of making art may well surpass anything it’s outward presentation could hope to achieve. The process really does matter and I’m not sure I care to mess that up, yet I am sharing a few images here, as it’s only right.
People often ask what I’m doing. Even when we opened the gallery, they asked what else I was working on, as if it wasn’t enough to organize exhibitions. Money is the great legitimacy, I suppose. I try to think of it as necessity not legitimacy, but I live in the world and it is more challenging now to feel legitimate without earning a good deal. I do find writing gratifying and while I write about myself now, I will continue writing about the work of others later on. I’m certain that at some point I’ll find another outlet for larger interests and presentation of work by other artists. Now that my gallery is closed and assignment editing is in the past, I search to find that next thing. It often occurs to me, however, that the new thing may well be the old thing – the illusive making of art.
Meanwhile, the light at my house keeps teaching me new lessons. One body of work seems to lead to another and even though it’s far from the conceptual work I did in the ’80s and ’90s, it has visual links to both those periods and most importantly to my family and its collective love of gardens. My son once asked me how I could possibly know the identity and names of so many trees. I replied that I certainly don’t know the names of most trees but that the ones I do know came from having heard my parents and grandparents as they looked fondly upon a pink blooming Mimosa or the screaming red fruit of a Sour Cherry tree. It’s one of the best things I inherited, which gives me the most pleasure. I try to point out to him that the amazing fragrance he loves in the summer night air is Orange blossom, that the sweet scent will soon be sweet fruit. Even as I say it, I realize I am repeating my mother’s words and I see in my mind the still photo memory of the grove across the street as my family moved into another old house in another old California town when I was fifteen.
Memory, photographs and gardens are inexorably linked for me and while the new work will run its course at some point, this muse, this old house has allowed me to find an inroad to art and a connection to the past and present. It has reminded me of important things, deeply rooted familial history and the simple pleasure of lying on the grass, looking skyward or watching a beam of light move across a room, spotlighting the most mundane of things as they become objects of reverence.
Our House, Part 2, will follow