A Mouse Who Paints Still Lifes, and Other Curiosities of Reseda's DIY Art Show

Tilly and Marcus, two of Cumbow's creations, eat lunch during a break from painting.
Tilly and Marcus, two of Cumbow's creations, eat lunch during a break from painting.
Photo by Chloe Cumbow (reprinted, with her permission, from Flickr)

It's a hazy Sunday afternoon in Reseda, and Chloe Cumbow is gazing down at a 2-foot-high set on her dining room table: a white canvas cube, professionally lit from three sides. Inside, a 3-inch-tall felt mouse stands before a painting of a cup and saucer propped on a tiny easel. The mouse's name is Tilly.

Outside of the set, the table is strewn with full-sized paintbrushes and tubes of acrylic. Cumbow, 60, in a gold-flecked tunic sweater, her silvery blond hair pulled into a ponytail, is using her only day off work to catch up on her January art project: painting portraits of everyday objects - paintings ostensibly created by Tilly.

"I have to rethink the Tilly project," Cumbow explains, careful not to break character and let on that anyone but the mouse is painting the 3-inch canvases - an integral part of her project. It's Jan. 26, and Cumbow needs to get to 31 paintings by the end of the month. "Tilly got herself in trouble with those giant canvases."

Cumbow is making a piece of art every day for the month of January as part of Fun-a-Day, a community art project dreamed up 10 years ago by West Philadelphia's Artclash Collective, which has since spread its DIY, post-punk ethos via independently organized projects in about 30 cities. Artists (and the art-curious) are called on to start the new year creatively with a daily practice, then show their work at a local, unjuried show at month's end.

"At Fun-a-Day shows, anything goes," says Nick Lally, 34, one of the Artclash founders. "The shows are a great mess of things. ... It's nice to see it all together."

Of all the places Fun-a-Day might have popped up in L.A., Reseda may seem the least likely. Located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, it's a bedroom community with two art-supply stores and no permanent galleries.

But Cumbow, who moved to the Valley from Providence, R.I., two years ago, has proven an ideal driving force to pull off the show in a neighborhood whose artistic cred is on the rise.

Cumbow grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. She remembers escaping tensions at home by assigning herself daily paintings, each with a different color crayon, and eventually was allowed to paint murals on butcher paper along the hallways of Vermont Avenue Elementary School.

Since leaving home in her teens, she has lived all over the country, sewing costumes for children's theaters in Palo Alto, hand-stitching elaborate quilts in Massachusetts, designing metal furniture settings in Providence and restoring vintage car insignias in Florida. Along the way, she had five kids, now ages 22 to 38.

In April 2012, a family crisis drove Cumbow home to the Valley, where she had lived for the last spell of her youth. She took the first job she could find, working behind the counter six days a week at a bead shop on Reseda Boulevard, and, because she didn't have a car, renting an apartment within walking distance.

She missed walking everywhere in downtown Providence, showing up with her digital SLR at art venues, parades and fashion shows. She felt stuck in the Valley, and lower than she'd been in a long time.

Tilly paints tomatoes
Tilly paints tomatoes
Photo by Chloe Cumbow (reprinted, with her permission, from Flickr)

Then, in August 2013, after Cumbow had been in Reseda for a year, she spotted a new mural going up on the north wall of Continental Art - a Michelangelo triptych looking out over half-restored 1950s Buicks and orange trees bursting with fruit. For two weeks, Cumbow photographed the progress of the artist, Levi Ponce, a rising young muralist from Pacoima, and posted her photos to her Flickr site.

"When Levi showed up and was doing that mural outside the bead shop where I worked, I felt like God sent the mountain to me," Cumbow says. She realized there was an art scene in her neighborhood after all: Ponce has covered a mile stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima with fine-art murals that nod to the neighborhood's strong Latino culture - from portraits of Danny Trejo and Ritchie Valens to the Mona Lisa as La Adelita and the Girl With the Hoop Earring. Meanwhile, the 5-year-old Valley arts collective 11:11 has organized art walks in Topanga and Canoga Park, in addition to pop-up shows in Reseda, North Hollywood and Tarzana.

As she met local arts and community organizers, Cumbow thought back on the project she had enjoyed in her last two years in Providence: Fun-a-Day.

Cumbow pitched Fun-a-Day to the Reseda Neighborhood Council organizers. It wasn't a hard sell. And local business owner Natalie Tansut donated a large commercial space, formerly occupied by the Zoe Christian Fellowship, for the Feb. 28 and March 1 shows.

And so on Jan. 1, 20 Valley residents began their projects.

Retired museum educator Diane Siegel photographed a different stretch of Reseda Boulevard each day; textile artist Julie Kornblum crocheted palm-sized rosettes out of repurposed materials.

Meanwhile, all over Reseda, large, colorful hearts started popping up on street corners and outside vacant buildings, calling out, "Put an Art Gallery Here," "Put a Coffee House Here" or "Put Used Records Here." The I <3 Reseda hearts are made by prolific local arts activist Spike Dolomite Ward and her 11-year-old daughter, Sophie.

Hearts have appeared around Reseda asking for art galleries, coffee shops and other establishments to move into vacant buildings
Hearts have appeared around Reseda asking for art galleries, coffee shops and other establishments to move into vacant buildings
Photo by Chloe Cumbow (reprinted, with her permission, from Flickr)

Halfway through January, Cumbow gathers with a dozen Fun-a-Dayers in the former church home to plan the show. The maroon carpet is stamped with white footprints and the ceiling glows with track lighting, but the space is massive, with a stage, sound control booth and display windows running along Baird Avenue.

Artist Shirley Broger offers to perform live hula-hooping demos, while art director Sanae Guerin, who has driven up from Silver Lake, offers to design postcards advertising the show.

Guerin did Fun-a-Day for the past few years in New York with her daughter. Like Cumbow, Guerin recently moved back to L.A. after a long absence and had been looking for new people to share Fun-a-Day with.

After the planning meeting, Cumbow sits on the steps of the stage with her 22-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who has just arrived on the bus from Las Vegas. None of this is new to Jasmine, who wears dark eyeliner and an easy smile; her youth was spent at art auctions and assisting at her mother's art classes.

Cumbow says she didn't start meeting people in Reseda until she started the Fun-a-Day project. "I finally feel like I'm getting back on the horse," she says.

Jasmine casts her gaze across the emptied room where the organizers will meet again in three weeks, once they finish their daily projects. "It gives you something to look forward to," she says.

"Yeah," Cumbow says, smiling. "It does."

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