Oddballs: 9 People Keeping L.A. Arts Weird
The capital-A Art World loves its temple-esque grandeur and its Sotheby's auctions where Impressionist Painting Y or Futurist Sculpture Z sells for the price of a small island. Lately, L.A. has been on the ascendant in the art world, and fortunately, the city will always have its art makers who will work happily in the weird spaces where engineering and art make sweet bedfellows, where a parking garage displaces the opera house and where poppy seeds make for better artillery than bullets. And they're all in our 2012 People Issue.
9. Jay McAdams and Debbie Devine: Theater Without Taboos
On a Saturday night last year, 99 theatergoers sat in chairs that were a bit too small, with those flip-up school desk attachments dangling from the sides. Jay McAdams, the executive director of the 24th Street Theatre, took to the stage to introduce La Razón Blindada, a two-person play about Argentine political prisoners, which was named Production of the Year at the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards in 2011.
But McAdams speaks "pretty bad Spanish," he says, and the translator for his speech couldn't make it that night. So he asked if there was a Spanish-speaking audience member to help him. The volunteer evidently wasn't enthusiastic enough for McAdams, a former actor on Days of Our Lives and a theater producer for the past 20 years. McAdams tried to amp things up. "We're excited!" he said, pumping his fist.
Then McAdams' cellphone rang. It was an actor backstage, asking if they could start doing the play already.
McAdams and his wife, Debbie Devine, the venue's artistic director, are gringos who produce Spanish-language plays. Their productions have toured in Mexico and El Salvador, but their home base is this former carriage house in the working-class West Adams district, about a mile from the University of Southern California.
Fifteen years ago, then-USC president Steven Sample brought in McAdams, Devine and others to found the theater as a neighborhood-outreach program, and the university remains a major funder.
But it was the couple's idea to also turn the space into a classroom, after a curious group of kids stopped by the building during its renovation. McAdams explained what a theater was, but the kids didn't understand. "They said, 'You mean like a nightclub?' " he recalls.
Now kids from the neighborhood take free theater classes, and arts field trips at the theater are offered to students from all over L.A.
Both McAdams and Devine are stage veterans, and Devine continues to work as head of the drama program for the Colburn School of Performing Arts. Before arts education funding took a hit in the L.A. Unified School District, there were "plenty of artists that would go to school auditoriums," Devine says. "We would never do that. Because we really honestly believe that they have to come to the temple."
The theater's initial English-language productions weren't as successful as its education programs. Most of the neighborhood adults speak only Spanish. Eventually, McAdams and Devine switched to Spanish-language plays with English supertitles.
For year 15, McAdams and Devine are marking the occasion by putting together a traveling theater company. The actors are adults, but the shows will be geared toward kids. "And we're not doing, 'Hey, boys and girls, la la la,' " McAdams says, poking fun at traditional youth theater. "We're going into this with no taboos." --Amy Silverstein
8. Dan Goods: Thinking Outside the Lab
Standing in his studio at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Dan Goods places a small cube of gel in a visitor's hand. He looks the visitor in the eye.
Then he gets out the blowtorch.
"Trust me," he says with a grin.
The flame hits the translucent cube, but there's no heat coming through the cube's bottom. When the flame is extinguished and you pass your hand over the top, it's barely warm.
As an artist who works with space engineers, Goods gets to gobble up scientific data and create digestible tidbits -- and make art come alive. That means playing with substances like this aerogel, a baffling material made of 99.8 percent air, which is used as insulation from heat in spacesuits and in the Mars rovers. It's also the stuff used to collect dust from a comet being studied. Goods has used the substance to create smoke-like light displays in two exhibitions, one at JPL and another at the Technorama Museum in Switzerland.
He is used to generating some awe. With his quick movements and child-like sense of "wow, that's cool," Goods isn't exactly a typical lab employee. For nearly a decade, he has been JPL's only "visual strategist" -- and, in fact, the only visual artist working as a regular employee at any NASA center. He has crafted installations about finding planets around other stars, including one where he drilled a hole into a grain of sand, and another, at Pasadena's Museum of California Art, showing what it might be like to explore the surface of Jupiter.
One of Goods' roles is to help scientists and engineers harness their idea-generating energy -- that's why he has set up brainstorming communal spaces for them, including Left Field, which looks like a preschool playroom crossed with a robotics lab. The furniture is modular, and shelves are packed with play enhancers like Legos and pipe cleaners. The process of taking things from abstraction to a concrete idea works in both art and science, he explains.
Goods also launches independent art projects outside the lab. He recently was preparing to install a huge, data-driven sculpture at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as a dynamic "digital mirror" for a BMW store in Paris.
His work often returns to the themes of science and challenging materials. Inspiration is everywhere. While Styrofoam computer packing may be a nuisance, for Goods it might also be an opportunity to build robots. He hopes that engineers who see such creations will be inspired to think outside the box.
"I can give them a different perspective or help them communicate what they're doing," he reflects. "Sometimes, I can see the bigger picture, and I can help remind the scientists of why they're doing it."
Asking questions and creating wonder at a place like JPL is just part of the artist's job.
7. Christy Roberts: The Guerrilla Johnny Appleseed
Considering she leads her own militia, Christy Roberts is surprisingly charming in person. The Upland native isn't exactly secretive about her plans for global rebellion, but then again, this former high school cheerleader is hardly your garden-variety survivalist.
For one thing, her California Poppy Militia is armed with seeds rather than bullets. Whenever it rains, Roberts and her nonhierarchal army commit not-so-random acts of benevolent sabotage by scattering poppy seeds in deserted public spaces throughout the state. What would seem at first to be a fairly innocent form of guerrilla gardening is actually an elaborate and provocative art project that works on several levels.
Beyond exploring obvious issues about environmental degradation and the use of public land, Roberts also raises intriguing questions about the effect of bank home repossessions on nature, and whether a void is really blank.
Two years ago, the 30-year-old conceptual artist was "dealing with absence," she says, reading desolate poems by Sylvia Plath, worrying about her dad's cancer diagnosis (he has since recovered) and finding herself obsessed with the profusion of vacant lots sprouting up in Southern California during the recession.
"I had to memorialize the vacant lots before they were built on," Roberts explains. "I felt like I had to save the absence."
She wanted to fill empty public land with gardens but felt guilty that the plants would just be ripped out by government landscapers. Then Roberts remembered that it's illegal to remove California poppies, the state flower. She went on a poppy spree, distributing seeds along freeway off-ramps.
Dressed like a Caltrans worker in blue jeans and caution vest, Roberts didn't attract much attention. "If you do anything with enough authority, people will think you're supposed to be there," she says.
She does other projects as well. Last year, as part of her thesis exhibition at Claremont Graduate University, she created her own functioning public ice rink out of recycled plastic, along with "a video-projected climate," where she blended images of warm- and cold-weather California landscapes with her own original ambient music. She received an A+.
Roberts topped that, however, with "Deforested, Defrosted," a 2011 show at Track 16 gallery in Santa Monica, where she again created her own rink. The twist this time was that Roberts -- wearing ice skates and a shiny purple dress paired with roller derby-style pads and a crash helmet -- had to stay balanced on large, slowly separating chunks of ice, artfully evoking polar bears' shrinking ice floes.
"I was interested in trying to do something that wouldn't work," Roberts confides, but she surprised herself by regaining her balance after a series of spectacular crashes. Roberts sustained "some pretty nasty bruises," although she says her background as a cheerleader helped her know how to fall. At first, "It was all about failure, [but] it became about hope in a way I was not expecting." --Falling James
6. Franklin Sirmans: His Fun Is Showing
The art world sometimes takes itself too seriously. Franklin Sirmans doesn't. But that doesn't mean he isn't a serious player. He just knows how to have fun, even while doing significant work.
The proof in Sirmans' pudding are shows such as "The Beautiful Game: Contemporary Art and Fútbol," organized to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, and "One Planet Under a Groove" from 2001, examining the influence of hip-hop on contemporary art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat "was making music in the late '70s, doing hip-hop before you could really call it that, and was with all of those graffiti artists," Sirmans says. "It was about all of those things coming together."
Like Basquiat, one of his main topics of expertise, Sirmans combines a little bit of everything, and does it with a touch of style.
On a stroll around LACMA one Wednesday afternoon, there are few faces around -- the museum is closed, and the people on-site are mostly security guards. But all of them seem happy to see Sirmans. He's a friendly guy.
He was recruited as department head and curator for the contemporary collection at LACMA in 2010 from the Menil Collection in Houston, where his shows included the highly successful "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith" (2008), inspired by poet Ishmael Reed's exploration of the connections between artistic expression and spirituality.
Originally from New York, where he met his wife in high school, Sirmans admits that, while he wasn't looking to leave the Menil Collection, the LACMA offer came at a good time. "We had friends in L.A. already and embrace the diversity of geography and people here," he says. "With a baby on the way, it felt like good timing to put us all somewhere less familiar for this new beginning."
He pauses at Metropolis II, Chris Burden's sculptural installation, which resembles a Micro Machine race course. Sirmans likes to bring his daughter here on Sundays to watch the 1,100 Lilliputian cars drive around the tracks. "Everybody can figure out something about that piece that really excites them," he says.
In November, Sirmans was named artistic director for this fall's Prospect New Orleans biennial, an international contemporary art exhibition, which he'll plan simultaneously with his day-to-day work here in L.A.
While curating shows may seem glamorous, that day-to-day can be rather routine: "Checking email, meetings, thinking and looking at art [in books], a walk around campus for some of the real thing," he says.
But sometimes brilliance comes of all that emailing. Last year, Sirmans' exhibition of work from LACMA's contemporary collection, "Human Nature," helped incorporate the work of minority artists into the 20th-century canon. L.A. Weekly critic Andrew Berardini called it "the first [exhibition] I've seen in Los Angeles that wholly reflects this changed makeup of a changed world."
Naturally, Sirmans has a few more ideas up his sleeves. "Just don't ask me what they are," he says with a wink. "I'm still trying to figure out what could be perfect here. That's the hard part." --Megan Sallabedra
5. David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim: The Doll Makers
The first conversation Uglydoll creators David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim ever had was about the meaning of the word "ugly." Ugly means unique, interesting, different. Ugly, they decided, is good.
They were in design school at Parsons at the time. He thought she was cute and made a point to sit next to her in illustration class. They shared the same vision, it turns out: to tell a narrative through products -- toys in particular.
Inklings of the "uglyverse" became apparent when Kim's student visa expired. She moved to Korea, leaving Horvath behind in the United States. By then a couple, they wrote each other letters. He signed one with a cartoon drawing of a googly-eyed little guy with big paws, a big head, a serving apron and a mouth set in a grim, determined line. Deciding he was a hardworking guy, they named him Wage.
Kim sewed that drawing into a doll made of soft felt and mailed it to Horvath. It had a simple, funny charm. When he received it he was so excited, he wanted to call her. But it was nighttime in Korea. Instead he ran over to visit his friend Eric Nakamura, who had just opened the store Giant Robot on Sawtelle in West L.A. "OK," said Nakamura, examining the doll, "I'll take 20."
"He thought I was pitching a product," Horvath recalls.
Kim sewed the dolls. Those initial 20 sold out in one day. "I was horrified," Horvath says. "We were going to send people there to look at them. It didn't make sense." But Nakamura ordered 20 more. Then 40 more.
Thus far, it was just Wage and one other guy -- Babo, which means "idiot" in Korean. But Horvath and Kim had more characters floating around in their heads: Jeero, pronounced like "zero," five-suckered Cinko, one-eyed Wedgehead and Ice Bat, cool as ice.
In that first year and a half, Kim sewed nearly 1,500 dolls. "My fingers are changing colors," she told Horvath. "We either need to stop or do this for real."
They found a factory and began production, then distribution. People began incorporating the dolls into their daily lives. They'd send Horvath pictures of Wage buckled into the backseat of the car. Or sitting at the dinner table. "What does Jeero eat?" they'd ask. "Can he reach the sink?"
Horvath is 40 now, and Kim is 36. Now married, they've been building the uglyverse from their L.A. home for the past 10 years. And no, they're not sick of it yet. In fact, they're working on the screenplay for an Uglydoll movie with Universal. They've also just released an Uglydoll party-supply line.
"Probably there are people out there who can't stand the dolls," Horvath says. "But we had a clear vision of what this should be and what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives."
He keeps this in mind when he is called upon to speak to kids. "If grown-ups tell you it's all in your imagination," he says to them, "that's good. Keep doing it." --Gendy Alimurung
4. Luis Rodriguez: Coming Clean
In 1993, Luis J. Rodriguez published a book about fighting his way through the mean streets of East L.A. He wrote about friends he'd lost to gang warfare, drugs he'd snorted, girls he'd screwed. And he wrote about how art, and activism, had saved him -- how they had helped him leave behind la vida loca. Called Always Running, it became a sensation, earning Rodriguez a six-figure paperback deal and selling a half-million copies.
Last year, Simon & Schuster published the sequel: It Calls You Back. Rodriguez's second memoir, which came after well-received volumes of poetry and fiction, focuses on the difficulty of fully abandoning la vida loca. Years after leaving it, he found himself still wrestling with its siren call.
Rodriguez writes about marrying, having two kids, holding down a series of factory jobs. But he and his wife divorced; he drank too much. Violence beckoned.
He writes about a night when his son Ramiro was 4 -- "loud, ornery -- the way a kid should be." But Rodriguez, drunk, picked up the boy and threw him against the wall. "As a toddler, my son always looked up to me, always wanted to know what I was doing, was always interested in my talks with him," he writes. "After that day, things weren't the same."
Ramiro, too, ended up running with a gang, and was eventually sentenced to prison on charges of attempted murder.
An in-demand speaker at schools and prisons, Rodriguez also runs a nonprofit community center and bookstore in the San Fernando Valley with his third wife, Trini. Tia Chucha's, named for Rodriguez's "crazy" aunt, aims to connect an underserved neighborhood to the transformative alchemy of art.
At 57, Rodriguez is small and soft-spoken; a goatee mostly covers the feature that led to his gang nickname, "Chin," and the tattoos of his crazy years are barely visible beneath his short-sleeved shirt.
Sitting in Tia Chucha's, he explains that he and Trini moved back to L.A. in 2000 after 15 years in Chicago to be closer to family. Married 24 years, they have two boys together, both of them heading to college next year.
"You can see how a stable family life can help kids," he says, and his son from his first marriage, Ramiro, is clearly on his mind. "My oldest kids are great, but they went through hell and back."
Writing this memoir, he says, "it really was my failure that I had to look at more than anything." After Ramiro was born, "I transformed holding him. I made a vow that I would be the best dad. Two and a half years later, my wife and I broke up, and I abandoned him. I was sincere when I vowed that -- and yet this happened.
"The rages, the addictions, even the violence -- that's what I meant by 'it calls you back.' Every day you make that choice of will I do that -- or not?" --Sarah Fenske
3. Andreas Mitisek: Where Opera Dares to Go
Andreas Mitisek is sitting in the Long Beach Opera's modest church-rental office near the southern terminus of the 710 freeway, days after wrapping the first performances of the current season.
"It all started with the opera in a parking garage," says Mitisek, the company's Austrian-born artistic and general director, in his thick, Schwarzenegger-esque accent. That's when Long Beach's oldest professional opera company abandoned a traditional performance space for a 2007 production of Grigori Frid's one-woman opera The Diary of Anne Frank.
The phrase "opera in a parking garage" casually rolls off his tongue, as if it were perfectly natural for the art form to be presented in a ghostly concrete structure meant to store cars.
It's the same nonchalance with which he says "opera in a pool," "opera in an abandoned furniture store" and "spaces of unexplored theatricality." But opera, of course, is not usually performed in these unconventional locales. It has lived for centuries in temples like La Scala and the Met.
"Theaters are safe, in the sense that you never have to shift your perspective," he explains. "But if you go to a parking garage, your sensitivity is different. You're in a parking lot and you're uncomfortable -- and it's a story that is uncomfortable. So, of course, once you're there it all makes sense, but you have to be willing to go there."
Always interested in "peculiarities and unusual things that are off the mainstream," Mitisek has had a hand in presenting nontraditional operas since he was an influential member of Vienna's anti-State Opera "free scene" movement.
Since taking over Long Beach Opera in 2004, Mitisek has expanded both its size and its audacity. Donations and subscriptions have increased exponentially each year, and the company continues to present U.S., West Coast and SoCal premieres of rare works from such composers as John Adams, Vivaldi and Philip Glass -- each guided by Mitisek's innovative interpretations.
February's production of the 1968 tango-themed Maria de Buenos Aires, for example, was staged at San Pedro's 80-year-old Warner Grand Theater. Mitisek chose to combine characters, pare down the text and use projections and dramatic lighting in lieu of intricate set design to turn the ornate movie palace into the site of Argentina's "Dirty War."
Mitisek's vision is radical but welcome in an industry struggling with declining ticket sales and aging audiences, so much so that the also-adventurous Chicago Opera Theater would rather share Mitisek with Long Beach than not have him at all. Starting this fall, he'll head both companies, splitting his time between cities and fostering synergies between the productions.
"I started out not liking opera, which is why I have a lot of compassion for people who say they don't like it," he says. "But what they have in their head about opera is only the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to see." --Sarah Bennett
2. Jonny Edwards: Ax in the Box
When in character as his alter ego, Jonny Coffin, Jonny Edwards sports a black trench coat, gloves and a top hat. With his flowing dark hair, chiseled features and dramatic makeup, he exudes an aura of sinister mystery. Completing the look is his highly curious black guitar case, which is shaped like a coffin, made from wood and vinyl, and lined with plush velvet.
Edwards makes these cases himself, and through his company, Coffin Case, has sold a quarter million of them, by his count, to everyone from Lucinda Williams to Johnny Depp. Metallica's Kirk Hammett recently commissioned one.
A musician who plays metal and punk, Edwards was struck by inspiration after growing tired of his old, dilapidated guitar case in the late '80s. Instead of laying out cash for a new one, he used his carpentry skills to construct his own. The coffin shape, he believed, expressed the anguished, anti-establishment fervor of the scene he was a part of. Plus, everyone seemed to love it. "On my way to the stage," he recalls, "people would ask, 'Where'd you get that case?' "
But it wasn't until Edwards went broke in the mid-'90s that he realized his creation's business potential. He patented the design and launched his company, and before long, he'd nabbed Slash and Keith Richards as customers. The celebrity clientele helped draw the interest of regular folk, and nowadays Coffin Cases are sold in hundreds of stores worldwide.
The diverse designs include everything from camouflage to an image of a machine gun-wielding Al Pacino from Scarface, complete with red and purple interiors. The high-end cases are even fitted with elaborate silver hardware, hand-painted with macabre designs and shined with a lacquer finish.
The company has diversified as well, offering cases for drumsticks, microphones, chef knives and even handguns, not to mention guitar effects pedals and purses. Edwards promotes them all in his Tales From the Coffin catalog, which resembles a horror comic book. He's now planning a line of clothing and accessories based on 1950s horror-TV hostess Vampira and possibly Bela Lugosi, the celebrated Dracula actor.
A Venice resident who comes from mixed European and Native American stock, Edwards is committed to bringing to his old-fashioned horror tropes a 21st-century marketing plan utilizing, among other things, mobile apps. At his North Hollywood office, he flips open his laptop to display one of his ads, a video of a stunning platinum blonde in bat-wing sunglasses in a swimming pool. What's that she's floating on? A Coffin Case, of course.
"It starts as fantasy," he says, explaining his approach. "And we turn that fantasy into hard goods."
Perhaps befitting someone who has appropriated the imagery of vampires, Edwards won't reveal his birthday, describing himself instead as "ageless." He's quick to clarify that, like Dracula, he finds coffins more life-affirming than morbid, insisting: "They're about everlasting life." --Daina Beth Solomon
1. Kit Quinn and Tallest Silver: The Great Pretenders
Kit Quinn and Tallest Silver keep their legal names off the record. The best friends' fear is that, as their images circle the web, boundaries blur. Online, strangers want to get too personal. And they've already been recognized at stores and amusement parks.
Quinn and Silver are 23-year-old cosplayers, showing up at such conventions as San Diego Comic-Con dressed as pop culture icons in stunningly accurate detail. Silver, a pretty redhead, does a mean Poison Ivy. Fittingly, Quinn often plays Ivy's best friend and fellow Batman nemesis, Harley Quinn.
At conventions, photographers swarm as though they're celebrities. "Some things are more socially acceptable in that situation," Silver says, "but when you step away from it, that would have been really creepy and not OK" in regular life.
Silver knows that when she's wearing a cleavage-revealing outfit, eyes dart toward her décolletage. "I stare at your chest," Quinn says, to which Silver responds, "I do, too. It's right there."
They don the tiny costumes of female superheroes at conventions a lot, but what made them Internet-famous was quite the opposite. Last year they started Gender Bent Justice League, a cosplay group that swapped characters' genders. Silver became Batma'am and Quinn transformed into Superma'am, both without any of the usual sexiness. The league became a protest against gender roles in comic books.
Their noms de cosplay are nicknames adopted back in high school and inspired by the cartoon series Invader Zim. By now, though, even they call each other "Kit" and "Silver."
The two share a San Fernando Valley apartment known as the Hall of Justice, a nod to Justice League, the all-star superhero troupe. Inside, a project board boasts costumes in progress. While chatting with a reporter, Silver flips through sketches of designs she has made for friends.
Their passion for costumes began while they were teens living near San Francisco and grew after they started college. Quinn came to Los Angeles to study theater and film at USC. She has the low, strong voice of a stage actor and hopes to someday do voice-overs. She now acts and does makeup and costuming for her filmmaker friends.
Silver, meanwhile, studied anthropology at UC Santa Cruz but now spends a lot of time drawing. Quick-witted and energetic, she's often the ringleader.
The hobby borders on a job. They often host events and sit on panels. They spend months working on costumes -- Quinn likes to make her own patterns, while Silver prefers to work with thrift-store finds. Quinn has even shown up to conventions with her hands bloody after laboring over last-minute fixes. But the work has its rewards, like when the characters' creators compliment their costumes.
One year, Paul Dini, the famed comic book and television writer who worked on the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum, recognized them as Quinn and Ivy, and told them how amazing they looked. "I had to look at his badge," Quinn says. "Paul Dini couldn't be talking to me!" --Liz Ohanesian
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.