By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
See, McGrath was coming off a streak of bad housing juju. She doesn’t necessarily see it like that, though, and tends to characterize her adventures in habitation as part of the artist’s life she chose, one that also had her working at fast-food joints and mall shops. As far as previous living situations go, she laughs when talking about the giant mansion she lived in while attending Pasadena City College. Some dude had built an oversize home on Lowell Street in El Sereno that was ruled by the Mexican Mafia. After a series of break-ins, including one in which the burglar left a trail of hand-print smudges down the wall and over the window ledge, the cops eventually apprehended the thief. He was found in the basement, where he’d been hiding for months, high on PCP and surrounded by McGrath’s and her roommates’ stuff, including keys, a VCR and more than $500 in cash. Eventually, McGrath and her roommates got kicked out for failing to meet their rent.
That was in 1994. McGrath’s friend and fellow artist Winter Rosebud invited McGrath to move downtown with her in the Spring Street Studios. McGrath liked how downtown felt dangerous. When McGrath and Winter got kicked out of the apartment because it was being redeveloped, McGrath moved across the street to the Fenton building. The view from her window was obstructed entirely by the flashing sign for the dime-a-dance place below. She paid 100 bucks for the 100-square-foot room that, come evening, was awash in flickering red light. She didn’t have a bathroom back then — she had to head over a few blocks to the Biltmore’s gym to shower. Not that she minded; the Biltmore offered a little old-school glamour to take the edge off her daily hassles.
From the Fenton she moved to the Tomahawk. A guy named Greg St. John owned the Tomahawk, and he had a vision of bringing artists together in one living space. He let McGrath trade rent for paintings — artists downtown would often trade art for shelter, clothes or food back in the day. But the Tomahawk eventually fell into decline, in part because of St. John’s tragic flaw: In his desire to help people, he let in too many crackheads.
“It got crazy,” McGrath says, curled up on her zebra-print couch, her hairless Chinese dog Blue on her lap, and her new pup, King Tut, at her feet. “One night some dude knocked on my window, said his girlfriend called the cops on him and asked if he could stay with me. Then there was the guy who asked me to watch his pit bulls and never came back because he went away to jail. But mostly, I had to move because I had to literally step over people doing crack outside my door.”
By this point, her childhood friends Dan and Andrew Banales (see “Brothers Banales”) were living in the Canadian, which had an advantage over the Tomahawk in that most of the crack was smoked out on the street below. The fighting, the stench of piss and crap rising from the alley behind the building, the pregnant crack whores fighting, all of it was worth it to McGrath, who shows at Bill Shire Gallery and has published a popular book of collected works called Everything That Creeps. “There is no way I’d be doing art,” she says, “no way I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for living here.”
Before the current wave of downtown yuppification went into overdrive, McGrath used to watch the comings and goings of the thousands of workers, bankers, politicos, lawyers and drug dealers who flooded the streets by day and vanished by degrees with the darkening sky. The droning buzz of activity that seemed by day to reach as high as the heavens dissolved into a peaceful underwater silence by evening. McGrath would get a bottle of wine and sit in the park on the grass outside of City Hall, or walk around the Gehry-designed MOCA. She and her friends lit bonfires in the street. The cops would either tell them to put out the fires or just grab a beer and hang out. A white van would come around and sell beer; so did a guy on his bike with a little bell and a basket. He was like the addicts’ ice cream man; you’d hear him start his route around 11 p.m. with his trademark call, “ICE .?.?. COLD .?.?. ?BEE-ER!” Sometimes he’d add, “Drug-side service!”
“Back then," she says, her voice singed by nostalgia, "it really felt like the entire world was ours.”
Susan Bolles, a delicate, elfin woman, is sitting in her sun-soaked artist’s studio: 1,000 square feet of organized white space. She is staring at the models for her new series of paintings — plastic bottles filled with translucent candy-colored liquids, lined up like a row of half-licked Jolly Ranchers. “They look so bright and happy, so Barbie, don’t they?” Bolles asks, scanning the assortment. “But they’re toxic chemicals.” Even Bolles’ voice is fairylike, soft and high pitched as she explains how she came to be at the Canadian.
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