Olivia Beall is sitting outside the Café Tropical smoking a cigarette.
“Breakfast of champions,” she says, her head at a coquettish tilt.
Beall (pronounced “Bell”) is 38. She wears a sleeveless vintage dress and a tan. She has been coming to the Tropical since 1993, long before Silver Lake became as gentrified as it is today — meaning before the TV and film people started outnumbering the art and music people buying houses here.
The Tropical, with its famous Cuban pressed sandwiches, fresh-squeezed orange juice and baristas who have regulars’ strong and perfect café con leches waiting for them as soon as they walk in the door, is an institution. Beall is one of those regulars, and she’s always felt at home here — at least she did until recently.
She always imagined herself fitting in someplace between the bohemian intellectuals who made the Tropical an Eastside hub and the homeless who bummed cigarettes along the sidewalk outside — though there have been noticeably fewer homeless in recent years.
“I used to be like the queen of the loafers,” she says, and then corrects herself, pushing a disobedient piece of bang off her forehead. “I don’t really mean queen. I mean, I felt like ‘the queen.’ I assumed that position. But I feel like I’m ready to move on.”
Beall is at a pivotal moment in her life, one that has less to do with her biological age and more to do with the events swirling around her. She feels ready to become a lady, confident to, as she puts it, “manifest a new reality” for herself. She plans to start work on what she hopes will be her first gallery show of paintings. She’s been thinking about this for years and feels the time has now come.
Beall is an abstract thinker and an abstract painter. And like many artists, she has an original way of speaking. Her mind gravitates toward ghosts, art, psychic energy, astrology and the history and culture of the city in which she lives.
One ghost in particular frequents her mental landscape. Her father, a poet who made his living building cabinets and installing kitchens, died last year of colon caner, at the age of 69. That event understandably has left a transformative impression.
She feels that if her father had not given up his poetry dream, he might not have died so young. He had settled, for financial security, into his own father’s line of work and ended up dying of the same cancer that killed Beall’s grandfather — despite the fact that her father, unlike her grandfather, she says, was “a vegetarian, nonsmoking teetotaler.”
The message Beall derived from her father’s death was that we must follow our spirit’s calling or, if you are a disciple of Joseph Campbell, “your bliss” and not get lost in the world of simply surviving.
For the past decade, Beall has survived by painting faux finishes on houses and working as a freelance scenic set painter.
A month ago she got a job painting a McMansion for a new reality TV show. She walked into the suburban home and realized right away that her father had built the kitchen. As she painted, something shifted in her. She could sense his presence around her more than she had when he was alive. Differences of opinion and personality kept their relationship from being harmonious, but now she was feeling a connection. Later, she snuck into her dad’s nearby backyard while her stepmother was out and meditated there.
That experience seemed to complete the digestion of his death, which had begun the year prior, with a series of heavy rainstorms that hit while he lay in the hospital dying. During those days she says she spent hours walking in the rain noticing “how sad and beautiful the world is.”
Beall began painting at 14, when a couple of artists moved in across the street from her family’s Sycamore Avenue apartment and decided to take her in.
“I would go over there and drink cocktails and paint,” she recalls. “My paintings back then were corny because I was still working from my childhood.”
Enthralled with her neighbors’ lifestyle, she started taking large amounts of drugs to develop her “artistic eye.” She was accepted to the prestigious L.A. County High School for the Arts, listened to punk rock and started moving through L.A.’s art scene. She became, as she describes it, an “underground art spirit.”
She had what seemed like an endless stream of jobs for which she was hired because she was pretty and fired because she was crazy. She worked at La Luz de Jesus Gallery on Melrose, and for Matt Groening’s first art show she was hired to walk around dressed as one of his Life in Hell characters: a one-eared version of a Playboy bunny in six-inch stilettos, carrying a bowl of Trix cereal. She painted the floors at Zero One Gallery for a Daniel Johnston show. She lived in a van in a friend’s backyard and a storefront on Sunset Boulevard next door to a space owned by Beck’s mom — from whom she used to steal electricity.
The drugs did start to change the way she looked at the world. Her paintings, then mostly watercolors, revealed themselves to her in the trees and in the objects around her — splashes of color in her mind’s eye.
Sometimes she would dumpster dive and sell the things she found to people she'd meet outside the Tropical or at the now-gone Onyx Café. She was set on rejecting her parents’ life and living the one she saw out the back window of their Buick Regal.
“Things were so wildly artistic in the ’80s,” she recalls. “People from New York had not moved here. There were like a handful of cool people. You would be walking down the street and see Exene with Dave Alvin, or Tom Waits.”
Now she’s ready to stop watching so much of the world and instead create one of her own. She’s aware times have changed and she is older. She’s not completely clear on what her new paintings will be like. But they will surely feature her near–de Kooning sense of color and develop out of her organic style of application.
She says she was confused by MOCA’s recent show, “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,”because the artists were all from the 1970s, and she hoped that it was also going to take on the issues that are occurring right now, like the homogenization of the female image in today’s culture.
“It’s like we could start that whole revolution over today,” she laughs.
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She recognizes that many of the artists showing in the Chinatown galleries have impressive academic backgrounds, but she is not going to let that slow her down. She is set on just “making good art and a lot of it.”
Though she does joke about changing her last name to something more splashy and postmodern — like Penis.
Then a friend who has stopped by Olivia’s table suggests that instead she change her first name to Liberty — Liberty Beall.
Olivia smirks at the suggestion: “Freedom.”