Mastodon Mesa's Zōo at Melrose Trading Post, Where You Can See Artists in Their Native Habitat

Chris Weisbart welcomes visitors into his habitat from a sci-fi podium.
Chris Weisbart welcomes visitors into his habitat from a sci-fi podium.
Graham Kolbeins

Here's a classic Sunday scenario: going to see an animal at the zoo. Except this time, the zoo is actually inside the Melrose Trading Post, a Sunday flea market held at Fairfax High School, and the animal is an eccentric artist. That's the idea behind experimental gallery Mastodon Mesa's new collaboration with the Trading Post, called Zōo.

Every Sunday, an artist will create a habitat for themselves in the morning and work in it throughout the day, attracting curious Trading Post-goers. Zōo began on September 4 with a one-month residency by graphic artist Tara Milch; it will continue over the next twelve months, and feature just as many artists and other undefinable makers-of-stuff.

Mastodon Mesa's Zōo at Melrose Trading Post, Where You Can See Artists in Their Native Habitat
David Maupin

"When zoo designers create habitats for animals, they analyze the animal's habits and needs, and try to reproduce an environment that responds to those needs as best they can," says Mya Stark, co-founder and director of Mastodon Mesa. "So, what environment would you need if you were your own singular species?"

If Stark were a species, she'd be a tropical bird: fast-talking, colorful, and flying around from idea to wacky idea. As it is, she's a gallery curator whose innovative shows have included a "touching show" (in which various artists imagined ways of communicating that involved touch rather than speech) and a "call-and-response" show, which included an infamous parrot live action role-playing incident. It turns out that the owners of Mastodon Mesa's old gallery space didn't appreciate dozens of gallerygoers role-playing parrots. Stark found herself packing up boxes the next day.

Without any future plans for the gallery, Stark -- who is also the director of development and outreach at Cinefamily -- then met with organizers at the Greenway Arts Alliance, an arts non-profit on the campus of Fairfax High School, as part of her day job. When she told them about Mastodon Mesa, they invited Stark to organize a show at the Melrose Trading Post and let her imagination run wild. Finally, Zōo was born.

Confused Trading Post-goers stop to look at Weisbart's holograms and other wacky creations.
Confused Trading Post-goers stop to look at Weisbart's holograms and other wacky creations.
Graham Kolbeins

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Right now, it looks as though the show will feature a number of eclectic L.A. creators, not all of them visual artists. The first one up was Milch, comic book author, illustrator, and member of the Paw Paw club. Her habitat is pretty simple. "I'm recreating my little room there. A chair, and all my favorite books, and figurines around my room to make my favorite habitat, and I'm just drawing comics," she said at the time. Her fun animal facts, posted on a sign next to her tent, included the facts that "her favorite pokemons are Togepi, Jigglypuff, Eevee, and Mawile" and that "she can be seen drinking a glass of milky maté everyday."

Though curious visitors stopped to observe her daily habits, they were hesitant to come inside and visit the artist in her natural habitat. "A lot of people will actually come inside first, and then ask me how much something costs, and I have to explain that nothing in here's for sale. Then they look at me like I'm really strange," Milch laughed.

A smattering of "fun animal facts" about Weisbart. Take note: he believes that "if you can't fix it, you don't really own it."
A smattering of "fun animal facts" about Weisbart. Take note: he believes that "if you can't fix it, you don't really own it."
Graham Kolbeins

Unlike Milch, C. W. Moss, a self-proclaimed "maker and doer," is planning on actively leading people into his habitat. Moss, who is most well-known for his graphic novel Unicorn Being a Jerk and who frequently dresses in a unicorn suit at events, is going for an interactive approach. "One of the ideas I kind of planned on doing was a Mad Libs take on a personal story," he explains. "I want people to understand something in their lives they might be uncomfortable with, and talk about it without becoming too volatile. Mad Libs might be able to make it seem fun."

Are unicorns involved? Moss says, probably not. "With the Mad Libs, I don't think I'll bring Unicorn out, because it's a pretty approachable thing, but if it were a harder sell, I'd bring Unicorn out." Moss' residency begins in February though, so he's got time to figure things out. "Maybe we'll just end up doing square dance lessons instead," he says.

Stark hasn't just brought in visual artists and illustrators. Chris Weisbart, a media designer at the Museum of Natural History, recently began his residency in "making cool stuff." Weisbart, who builds fun, interactive multimedia installations for the museum, and often teaches at Machine Projects, is bringing his technical savoir-faire to Mastodon Mesa. He's working on a haunted house for Fairfax Elementary School, so expect some cool-creepy things from him. In particular, he's been thinking about Disney's Haunted Mansion, on which he teaches a class. "They have this projected head inside a crystal ball, and a statue that talks, so I'd be working on something like that. I thought it would be cool to do that in the round and get people to talk about that stuff," he says.

A hologram spells out "Hello" to passersby.
A hologram spells out "Hello" to passersby.
Graham Kolbeins

Whatever Weisbart ends up making each week, it will definitely be unexpected. A recent weekend's hologram experiments already made Trading Post-goers stop in their tracks. In fact, all of the artists are relishing their role in confusing Melrose Trading Post attendees. Some, like Moss, are looking at their residency as a challenge. "99.9 percent of people will not be at the Melrose Trading Post for Mastodon Mesa, and that's exciting," he says. Exciting, as long as Zōo attendees behave. "We made a sign that says, 'You can feed the artists, but ask if they're vegetarian first,'" says Stark. So bear that in mind before you try to chuck a tamale in there.

Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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Melrose Trading Post

7850 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

323-655-7679

www.melrosetradingpost.org

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