“I’ve always been attracted to vehicles that go fast,” says Tommy Hollenstein. In the late 1970s, as a Dogtown disciple, the teenage Tommy practiced and honed the art of skateboarding in the “Toilet Bowl,” a revered drainage ditch near the corner of Platt and Victory in Canoga Park, right down the street from his parents’ house. Later, at Chaminade Prep, Tommy turned his sewer-skipping skateboard into a sand-and-sun surfboard, and the Pacific became the center of his new world. One of his teachers owned property at the private Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County (which runs from Gaviota State Park for 8.5 miles of pristine coast and features some of the best surfing on the coast). At Pepperdine University he joined the surf team and could often be seen carving a cutback turn at the Ventura County line. “Fitness guru Jack LaLanne’s son was one of our team members,” recalls Hollenstein, now 48. He went to Pepperdine for three semesters. “I started dealing dope there and thought I didn’t need school anymore.”
One of five children raised in the Valley by an ex-Marine Corps mom and a restaurant-managing dad, Tommy always pushed everything to the extreme. Like many kids of that time and place, Hollenstein enjoyed mood-altering substances. He enjoyed them so much that by 1985, he knew he was done. With 28 days of clean time under his belt, he took off on his mountain bike through Bell Canyon. He had done the trek before and knew every nook and cranny. What he didn’t know was that a contractor had just recently dug out a 5-foot-deep trench just below the trail. At top speed, it was too far to leap and too deep to roll out. “I was going too fast to stop and too slow to jump it,” he laments. When he awoke he was a C4/5 quadriplegic (neck broken between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae). He was 24 years old and would never ride a bike again. Hollenstein spent the next six months in the hospital.
Before the accident, Hollenstein had signed up at the Nick Harris Detective Academy in Van Nuys to become a private eye. “It was a nine-month program and I was one day shy of completing it when I broke my neck,” explains Hollenstein. When he emerged from the hospital, he returned to the school for the final exam — a mock murder case in a neighborhood park. Despite being a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, Hollenstein was the only one in the class to solve the “murder mystery.” He was given the Future Private Eye of the Year Award.
“I went to work for the guy for nine months doing missing persons.” It was not exactly what he wanted to do. “Before my accident I wanted to do high-tech stuff,” he says. “You know, electronic devices and bugs.”
Hollenstein became disillusioned and drifted into drug taking, drug dealing and other nefarious activities. That lifestyle ended rather abruptly with nearly 20 gun-toting FBI agents finding 2 kilos of cocaine in his convertible VW Rabbit while he sat parked outside a restaurant waiting to move the merch. The feds recommended a six-and-a-half-year prison term. The judge gave him a break: six months house arrest, five years probation, 40-year suspended sentence, a $2 million suspended fine and, even more bizarrely, a $50 cash fine on the spot. Hollenstein spent the next few years working out, doing physical therapy and trying to figure out what the hell to do with his broken life.
Since he was 5 years old, Hollenstein had wanted to be some kind of artist. He had briefly gone to food-art school in San Francisco, where his “Mona Lisa” was a detailed Noah’s Ark filled with animals he had carved out of a watermelon. He quickly realized this was not his thing, but the desire to create visual art never left him. In physical therapy they tried to teach him how to paint with a brush in his mouth, but it just wasn’t for him.
Hollenstein’s break came when a representative from Canine Companions approached him. Begun in 1975 in Santa Rosa, Canine Companions for Independence is the largest assistance-dog organization in the world. Two years after his accident, he got his first service dog, a yellow Labrador named Weaver. The dog helped Hollenstein sell hospital supplies. “Weaver was the one who gave me back my independence and gave me the confidence to move into my own apartment,” says Hollenstein. “The bond between the dog and I was just phenomenal, and as he started to get older, I really wanted to have something as a memory of him on my wall other than a photograph. So I kept thinking that someday I’m gonna roll through paint and have him walk through the same paint. It’ll be like tire tracks and paw prints.” Hollenstein put it off for a while until Weaver began getting sick.
“The dog had a stroke before I had time to do the painting, so I figured I’d better hurry up. I poured a bunch of paint on a board, then I rolled through and he walked through it. That’s how I did my first two paintings.” He realized he could take this further.
In 2005, Tommy Hollenstein had his first gallery show, selling nine paintings, two of them to actor (er, rapper) Joaquin Phoenix. Since then he has sold works to rocker Slash and musician Nick Hexum of the group 311, and writer Dean Koontz has a work on order. Lisette Ackerberg owns abstract works by the likes of Franz Kline, Frank Stella, David Hockney, de Kooning and Picasso. But on her bedroom wall there is a Hollenstein piece called “Unseen.”
Now with his new companion, Hiley, a female yellow lab/golden retriever, Hollenstein no longer has to sell medical supplies; he is a fulltime professional painter. And as a tribute to his late companion, Weaver, Hollenstein sends 10 percent of every sale to Canine Companions.
As Hollenstein and Hiley moved through ART LA at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica a few months back, he was warmly greeted by one well-wishing scenester after another. Hollenstein had rolled into the cloistered L.A. art world and carved out a place for himself.
When he suffered his accident back in 1985, Hollenstein recalls, “I remember thinking that I was not yet ready to die. I asked God to give me another chance.”
Next month, Tommy Hollenstein shows his work in Paris.