For nine remarkable seasons, KCET’s flagship program, Artbound, has offered Southern California viewers in-depth portraits and micro-documentaries profiling artists, creatives, can cultural activists across the broader region from the border to Santa Barbara, coastal communities to the Inland Empire, Palm Springs to the high desert.
Over the years, the extended family of producers, directors, and journalists (including yours truly, from Seasons 1-9) were responsible for hundreds of videos and written stories covering a kaleidoscopic range of content from the worlds of fine art, fashion design, street art, ethnographic traditions, industrial design, architecture, books, music, guerrilla gardening, performance art, indie film, rogue radio, cuisine, and political art. As the seasons progressed, its format evolved toward the more thematic and long-form, and the new season — their 10th — is now underway with the most ambitious of achievements in that arena.
Their format is such that once episodes premiere on air on Wednesday nights, thereafter they live online in perpetual free streaming at the show’s KCET site, as well as the national PBS site, and basically every streaming platform you can think of — as do all nine previous seasons by the way. So far in S10, two episodes have been released, a third drops this week, and two more are coming up the following Wednesdays. It’s a short season at 5 shows, but each is an hour long and contains in-depth footage, researched source materials, interviews and more. I wasn’t involved in the production of this season, so I got the chance to just watch as a regular viewer, which has been a moving and educational experience.
Episode 1 is titled “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience.” Its premise was inspired by a prompt from architecture and culture critic Alexandra Lange, and it explores not only the fairly well appreciated contributions of Japanese American artists and designers to the indelibly brilliant mid-century visual identity of American culture — but the specific and direct impact of the internment camps on the lives, materials, aesthetics and social engagement of their best-known work. From among many choices, the episode focuses on five figures — Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita and Gyo Obata.
The documentary does a masterful job of contextualizing their experiences within the framework of the careers and materials they went on to choose later in their lives. For example, Asawa’s fondness for weaving with wire is grounded in her early garden chores and the barbed wire at the camps; and Noguchi once volunteered to live in camp to run an art school there, with mixed results. Its content is often pensive and emotional, but the pacing and lively editing keep the story moving forward in both intimate and big-picture ways. And while echoes of the current geopolitical climate and its threats are impossible to avoid, the program’s intertwining of cultural critique and personal testimony tells a much more nuanced history.
Episode 2 focuses on Edith Heath, the inspired matriarch of the Heath Ceramics legacy, its foundational expression of the “California lifestyle” and its earthy, effortless casual chic. Heath was a pioneering businesswoman who through undeniable design talent and skillful literary capacity, built a company that began in the 1940s but continues its expansive design and social activism work to this day.
Episode 3 offers a captivating, profound and fantastical tracing of the Día de los Muertos holiday through its cultural roots in pre-hispanic Oaxaca, as it evolved into a global mass pop culture phenomenon — particularly via its proud Los Angeles incubation at Self Help Graphics & Art in East L.A. The episode pays special tribute to altar artist Ofelia Esparza, a master of confectionary, expressive tour de force works of beauty and remembrance.
Coming this week — to TV on Wednesday, June 5, and the perennial, ubiquitous cloud thereafter — is Episode 4, “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel in Los Angeles.” Viewed through the lens of history, the role played by church singers and musical artists in Los Angeles, and South Central in particular, came to have a national impact on R&B, soul and social history during the 1960s and '70s, when the music was integral to the birth of world-changing social justice movements. Like everything Artbound does, this episode exhibits a particular mastery of threading together the intensely personal within the sweep of human history.
Episode 5 follows on June 12 with perhaps the show’s most unexpected episode, in both style and substance. “Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles” offers a reality show-style hour resulting from several intensive interviews, posh openings and hectic fly-on-the-wall days spent with the high-profile art dealer and one-time MOCA director. Picking up in the weeks before the inaugural of his eponymous new gallery in the fall of 2018 with that landmark Ai Weiwei exhibition, and continuing through its follow up, a rather epic group show of figurative sculptures. A candid look at the way big ticket art gets sold, the episode also presents this legendary and accidentally controversial art dealer as a pretty genuine guy, who loves art and artists and just wants to “attract interesting people, do fantastic things” and pay the rent. Right before he sells Ari Emanuel like a million dollars worth of art.
Each episode will also be streaming online following its broadcast on kcet.org/artbound, pbssocal.org/artbound, and linktv.org/artbound as well as on Amazon, YouTube, Roku, Apple TV and the free PBS App.