It started out as an ordinary project for L.A.-based photographer Allan Amato. He met David Mack, a writer and artist who created the comic book series Kabuki. Amato took some portraits — “I like photographing people if I want to get to know them better,” he says — and then added some painterly Photoshop elements. He sent the photos to Mack, who added his own art. Amato quickly realized that he had the basis for a new series of works.

“There aren't a lot of gallery opportunities for photographers,” says Amato while sitting inside La Luz de Jesus on Thursday, the night before the public opening of “Temple of Art,” which is up through Dec. 28. Photography, he notes, can be reproduce; “It doesn't have a one-of-a-kind element to it.”

However, if Amato took photos of artists and then let the subjects embellish the pieces, that would give the works a unique edge. He mentioned the idea to Mack, who in turn introduced the photographer to artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kent Williams, both of whom are well known for their work in comics. Amato contacted a few of his friends. He mentioned the idea to Matt Kennedy from Los Feliz gallery La Luz de Jesus, who thought it would be a good idea for a show and, maybe, a book too.

“At the time, it was very pie-in-the-sky,” says Amato, who is primarily a commercial photographer. Yet it only took a few months to get a publishing deal with Baby Tattoo. From there, the project mushroomed.


Gail Potocki and Molly Crabapple are amongst the artists who contributed to "Temple of Art."; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Gail Potocki and Molly Crabapple are amongst the artists who contributed to “Temple of Art.”; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

On Friday night, “Temple of Art,” the gallery show, opened at La Luz de Jesus. (The book isn't available yet.) Many of the collaborators — amongst them Mack, Stephanie Inagaki, Satine Phoenix and Coop — were in attendance.

The works range in size and style. Some painted on their photos. Others added sculptural elements. For some of the artists, the task proved to be a challenge. “It took me months to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Inagaki. Ultimately, Inagaki's “Temple of Art” contribution led to a change in her own work. The L.A.-based artist began incorporating more color and collage work into her pieces.

At the opening, cameras picked up footage for an upcoming documentary tied to the project. “Temple of Art” is now more than a fun collaboration between artists. It's a story about how creative people work.

“Most people are pretty uncomfortable when a shiny black box is being pointed at them by a stranger,” says Amato. To settle the nerves, the photographer opens a session by talking to the subjects as he snaps pics that probably won't be used. With this series, Amato asked the artists how they work. Then he would talk about how he works. Amato started recording those warm-up interviews on his phone. By the time he had finished the photos, he could see the beginnings of a film. Last summer, Amato and his producing partners raised a pinch more than $80,000 on Kickstarter for a documentary, also called Temple of Art.

Stephanie Inagaki's contribution to "Temple of Art."; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Stephanie Inagaki's contribution to “Temple of Art.”; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

“I feel that I'm right on the cusp of some kind of a weird zeitgeist,” says Amato. At the same time that he was working on “Temple of Art,” Amanda Palmer (an executive producer of the documentary) was working on her new book, The Art of Asking. Amato and a few “Temple of Art” collaborators worked on the cover. Both projects are based on the experiences of building lives through making art. Amato says that he hopes this “it's-okay-to-be an artist zeitgeist” continues to show others “you can find your way.”

Amato, who is 40, didn't start out as a professional photographer. He worked in advertising, then decided to take a break from that and got a gig bartending in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, he landed in Houston and thought about what he could be doing with his life. “What I want to do doesn't necessarily have to be a reasonable chain of events because life is unreasonable,” says Amato. “Life can end at any second, or life as you know it can be wiped out by a hurricane or any one of a number of things.”

Photographer Allan Amato poses with artist Coop in front of their collaboration for "Temple of Art."; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Photographer Allan Amato poses with artist Coop in front of their collaboration for “Temple of Art.”; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Amato figured that if he wanted to be a photographer, he should move to either New York or Los Angeles. He only knew one person in New York. Since he had two friends in L.A., he opted to drive west, crashed with one of his friends for a few weeks and got to work. Eight years later, he has shot album art, advertising campaigns and lots of celebrity portraits.

Where “Temple of Art” takes a look at the artists' journeys, the story behind the project is also one about friendship. Amato only knew an estimated “8 or 9” of the 57 participants. He would shoot artists who would suggest others to include. A pal in New York brought in 20 east coast artists. For some, “Temple of Art” became the catalyst for new friendships. “We sort of merged all of our circles of people together and they became one big circle and they all just started collaborating together and going out together,” says Mack. “We all still friends and hanging out today.” 

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