It's 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and the sun has just risen over eastern Los Angeles. One by one, people ascend the stairs to Fritz Haeg's home, high in the hills of Glassell Park, overlooking the city. They are here for Haeg's latest project: the L.A. Seminary for Civic and Embodied Arts.
Haeg, an artist, architect and community advocate, has spent the past nine years turning front lawns all over the world into edible gardens. But he's back home in L.A. for the summer, with a group of curious artists once again at his house.
The home includes three stories of geodesic dome–topped living space and sprawling gardens. “Since I've lived here for 15 years, it's always been a place for semi-public activity,” he says. But this is the first iteration of the seminary, 12 consecutive Saturdays of mindful activity and thoughtful conversation, which Haeg frames as “less like a school and more like a retreat.”
So, on this sunny morning, participants quietly make their way into a small canvas dome set up with a circle of yoga mats. The smaller dome, in an art-imitates-life-imitates-art way, has ended up at Haeg's home after years on the road as the setting for workshops — Queer Home Economics at London's Hayward Gallery, Animal Lessons at SFMoMA. Sometimes part of a larger exhibit, sometimes an art piece on their own, the happenings within the dome came from a realization Haeg had: “When you're in a dome, naturally people focus in on the center and on each other. People in a circle is, like, the primal communal space.” Now that Haeg is done traveling, the small dome has become a yoga studio.
Which is why the 10 seminary participants start the morning here, sprawled out on yoga mats. It's unclear who might be the instructor (a recurring theme of the seminary), since everyone sits side by side. That is, until Michael Gervais, an L.A.-based yoga and movement teacher wearing jean cut-offs and wielding a large twig and a bottle of San Pellegrino, begins leading some simple poses.
After a half-hour of yoga, he asks everyone to move in closer. “Grab the hand of someone across from you. Now grab a different person's hand. Now, we're going to untangle ourselves without talking.” It's the kind of team-building exercise you might have done on your first day of fourth grade. But everyone is game to wiggle around in the rapidly warming dome, holding onto each other's sweaty hands — it's just another art exercise.
Then it's time for a walk in the hills. The main concern of the walk is the talking stick, a large forked twig, which Gervais has brought along as an exercise in mindfulness. “I know it's tedious. But if anyone totally hates it, they can just throw the stick,” he offers. “I like it,” Haeg says.
At first, the stick's presence is slightly awkward. Then the conversation launches into a discussion of its presence, and its meaning. “What if this was the only way you could talk?” Haeg offers.
“What if we could split the stick up into a bunch of pieces?” asks Danielle Bustillo. An artist, she worked with creative partner Joey Cannizzaro to found the Best Friends Learning Gang, a collaborative learning workshop where gang members teach themselves such ambitious things as taxidermy and tattooing (next up: making synthetic diamonds).
“If I weren't able-bodied, I wouldn't be able to grab the stick,” offers Mimi Zeiger, an art and architecture writer.
At the seminary, a schoolyard activity often turns into a full-blown philosophical debate. It's agreed that the stick is probably fascist but that, in a democracy, without a talking stick there is chaos. “Yoga is inherently fascist — someone is standing there telling everyone else what to do,” says Lucas Wrench, who dyes eggs as part of his art practice. Gervais laughs at this: “It's true.”
Back at Haeg's home, Gervais leaves the stick near the door. Haeg sets out bowls of fresh fruit, pistachio bread, jam and coffee, and the group settles into “a conversation about conversation,” spurred by the morning's walk.
“The group is impoverished when certain people aren't participating,” Haeg says. The talk naturally moves back to pedagogical games, assigned seating and the role of a dinner-party host.
Clad in a red tank top, shorts and Birkenstocks, Haeg, born in 1969 in Minnesota, is more of a host than anything: He gathers people's bags and puts them in a corner of his home, boils water for the coffee and helps guide the conversation. He also organizes the lunches.
Lunch is always an event, stretching from 1 p.m. until 3:30 or 4. Around a table filled with quinoa, heirloom tomato salad, vegan chocolate-raspberry torte and garden flowers, talk turns to being an artist. “Economy is a thing that we don't talk about, or we talk about in an opaque way,” says Liz Glynn, one of the day's visiting artists.
“People learn a lot more than you think. You don't have to be like, 'this is how you do things,'” says Clare Kelly, who runs Hesse Press.
Conversations at the seminary often return to an examination of education. “These kind of ideas are everywhere,” Haeg says, because “the systems in place for artists to get an education today are profoundly screwed up.” Many seminary participants are young artists graduating with MFA debt, trying to navigate their futures, or else working on “lifelong projects,” as Zeiger, already accomplished in her field, describes herself.
The seminary's stated topic is “civic art.” “That kind of work is not normally supported by art institutions,” Haeg says — leaving it up to group members to carve a space for themselves.
“I have never been in an art community that deals directly with art in the community — it's always through a filter of a gallery or a museum,” says Justin, an artist known for his “Glasselland” sign (he requests to be identified only by his first name).
At this school there are no teachers, and no grades. “Fritz is both host and a seminarian — he's just as invested in the conversation as us,” Bustillo says of her experience.
“It's like this secret art farm,” Cannizzaro chimes in, laughing.
There might not be any teacher, but there is a final project. Reid Ulrich has spent the summer organizing the Sundown Stock and Exchange, a hybrid exhibit/marketplace where seminary participants, along with friends such as Mark Allen and Bettina Hubby, will sell or exchange work over Labor Day weekend at ForYourArt on the Miracle Mile. “There will be gifting, sale and negotiation,” Ulrich says. “It's using Labor Day — which was a day created to celebrate the achievements of workers — and doing that for artists.”
Although the open-to-the-public event is a culmination of this summer's work, “the most interesting things that are going to come out of this are going to come later,” Haeg promises. “This summer was about initiating momentum that can continue. It's not something that can be measured.”
Still, the artist intends to carry the spirit of the seminary with him to the ForYourArt exchange. He'll be there himself, knitting.
“People can come with their own yarn or wool and I'll knit them one of my triangles. And we'll have to negotiate how they're going to pay me,” he says, adding slyly, “You're not just pushing a button. You'll have to have a conversation.”
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