Artist Christopher Doran, aka Click Mort, used to leave oddly shaped, altered toys on the shelves of stores in Los Feliz. “Nobody knew what the heck was going on,” says Margaret Wynn, Doran’s longtime friend. He worked for Gentle Giant toys back when he did this with the help of a few co-workers. Soon after, he started crafting the ceramic figurines he called “recapitations.” He’d buy collectibles off the internet, then painstakingly take them apart and rebuild them — he’d have a reptile with its arm around a goose, boys who are half carrot clamoring onto a doghouse, or a cheetah-headed man helping a young boy fire a rifle. They were intentionally unsettling objects that turned the intended sweetness of these figurines into something else entirely.
Doran died on Oct. 20 after a long illness. A lifelong Angeleno, he was born in Mar Vista in 1954. “Christopher is someone who epitomizes Los Angeles. He was so committed to who he was. There was no noodling around,” says his friend Nina Gregory, senior editor for NPR’s Arts Desk. Doran began playing guitar as a kid, and Wynn remembers the young Doran as a “withdrawn, hermitlike guy.” He idolized The Cramps and, for five months in 1984, played guitar for them. Years later, he would play with The Loafin' Hyenas, too, but mostly he played music for himself.
His foray into visual art began after he got clean in the late 1990s. He was charged with making cakes for the members of his recovery group, and found the conventional decor boring. He would alter the cake toppers, and then started buying figurines from 99-cent stores, Wynn recalls. The guerrilla toy drops around Los Feliz began next. By the mid-2000s he would hone his own specific approach. He’d use a high-speed, diamond-edge Dremel saw to decapitate the figurines he often found on eBay, many of them saccharine, vintage and mass-produced. “He was timid about his work,” says Gregory, who owns more than a dozen of Doran's sculptures. He had no formal training and, during his days at Gentle Giant, had been surrounded by craftspeople with technical training. Still, he submitted work to one of La Luz de Jesus Gallery’s annual “Everything but the Kitchen Sink” shows, and went on to have multiple shows at the gallery. His most recent show, in 2015, included a toddler with a dog face playing a violin, and a panther in a religious robe, which he called St. Faustina, Patron Saint of Merciful Deaths.
“Click Mort was more than just an artist on our roster. He was a dear friend,” says Matt Kennedy, the gallery’s director. La Luz de Jesus also published Doran’s book, The World's Best Loved Art Treasures. Director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), a collector of Doran’s work, wrote in the book’s introduction: “[T]he thing that represents my soul best of all is an alligator’s body with a little nurse girl’s head on it. At least one person in the world — namely Click — finds that lovely. I know he does because he spent countless hours crafting it.”
Another collector of Doran’s, comic writer Merrill Markoe, found his work because of the book. Doran had made a Best Loved Art Treasures Facebook page. “I thought, ‘What unspeakable crap is this going to be?,'” Markoe writes via email. “But there they were. Dozens of creatures in a world of amazing little creations: a hummingbird with the head of a hippopotamus. Two adult-sized ceramic rabbits doting over a tiny naked human man.” She commissioned him to make two large sculptures for her living room. Musician Andy Prieboy, who lives with Markoe, says of the work, “It’s purely intuitive, it’s funny, it reflects a form of aggressive creativity with its own logic and rules.”
Gregory believes Doran's accessibility was among his best qualities. “Like with a Hieronymus Bosch, children can understand,” she says, then adds that she doesn’t mean to simplify the art by saying this. It has a visceral appeal, intuitively smart but not elitist. “Each piece celebrates a milestone in my life,” she says of the art in her home. She owns a ballerina with a cat head and a dog in a clown suit wiping tears from a little boy's cheek.
In the last few years, Doran had begun to suffer from arthritis; it became impossible for him to make the figures, which required such detailed handiwork. “He bought himself another 20 years when he got clean,” says Wynn, noting that he made all his sculptures in that time. “It was a good run.”
Wynn, who also lives with Doran's art, describes him as having “a very twisted sensibility. They’d look like one thing when you started looking at them, then there was a slightly sinister undercurrent — these were cute little toddlers that were deeply wrong.” She says, “People refer to them as whimsical, and he really hated that.”
CORRECTION: This post was updated to correctly identify the band as The Loafin' Hyenas.