Archive Page 2

It’s nude, not naked!

What it’s really like to live life in the buff

By Kinsee Morlan and Kia Momtazi, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/22/07

DeAnza Springs Resort sits in the middle of a desolate, dusty desert about an hour east of San Diego. Pavement turns to dirt as the road winds, ending abruptly at a protective gate guarding the entrance. It could be just another remote campground, but the possibility shatters as the gate opens, revealing a wooden sign depicting a naked couple and the words “Relax, You’re Home Now.”

This particular weekend, though, is anything but relaxing. DeAnza is playing host to an official American Association of Nude Recreation (AANR) convention, the main event of which, is an American-Idol-esque singing competition.

The grounds manager, a sunburned man in a tank top and mirrored sunglasses, drives a golf cart, manning a walkie talkie and sipping from a can of Budweiser. Leading the way through the rows of permanent housing, RVs and trailers, he says there’s been an accident—an older gentleman has fallen—so he drops us at the clubhouse and heads toward the commotion. The paramedics, whose uniforms seem especially cumbersome in this particular setting, help the naked man back to his feet.

Inside the clubhouse, a giant cardboard box of old shoes sits in the entrance of the reception area. The shoes don’t seem out of place–the DeAnza décor is anything but fancy. There’s a worn and slightly dirty southwestern-printed couch at the end of the foyer that opens into the dining room, gift shop and bar area; a Michael Goddard painting of martini olives driving an Airstream trailer hangs above it. In the dining room, smiling families sit around wooden tables—fully naked—eating tacos, rice and beans. In the bar, happy-go-lucky middle and old-aged men sip beer—naked or in robes—and flirt with the fully clothed busty bartender.

“I have a theory,” says Dave Landman, owner of DeAnza, as he shows us around, “it’s impossible to be an asshole when you’re naked. It just can’t happen, you’re too vulnerable.”

Landman winks and leaves to prepare for the night’s talent competition, his tattoo of an elephant drinking a martini and holding a golf club wiggling on his right calf as he walks away. We chat with a man on a barstool, who kindly but insistently informs us of proper nomenclature.

“It’s nude, not naked,” he explains. He points to a picture hanging above the bar, an autographed black and white photo of Don E. Arnold–better known as Dr. Death back in his pro wrestling days–and tells us that Arnold is one of the full-time residents of DeAnza.

After multiple shots of tequila and a few beers, we muster up enough courage to get nude.

It’s getting dark by now, and a crowd has gathered around the outdoor stage. Though it’s not really necessary, we slip into the bathroom to disrobe, and then scamper out of the clubhouse giggling nervously, clutching white bath towels, wearing nothing but our tequila-induced sense of confidence. In a flash of extreme embarrassment and self-consciousness, the cliché nightmare comes true. Instead of slipping serenely into a sea of pink flesh, we stick out like painfully sore, stark naked thumbs.

Apparently, nudists—just like we clothing-inclined folk—still like to cover up when it gets chilly. Jackets and sweatshirts appear, but counter-intuitively, several assorted body bits are still left to dangle in the cold.

After the shock wears off, we wrap ourselves in towels, put on sweatshirts and borrowed jackets and enjoy the mostly clothed talent show. The rest of the night is a blur of fireworks, more drinking, Dr. Death dressed in a penguin costume, nude line dancing back inside the bar, more drinking, and lots of congratulations for living through our first public nude experience.

Modern American nudism started in the late 1920s with Kurt Barthel, a guy who took out newspaper ads and organized nude outings in the New York countryside. But most knowledgeable nudists like to cite nudism’s routes to Ancient Greece. Their sort of call to arms is the historical point at which 16th-century puritans, deathly afraid of nakedness and sexuality, outlawed bathing. Nudists laugh at the absurdity, pull the ‘we-were-born-naked’ card and describe the feeling of being naked in public as something magical that lots of people would dig if only they gave it a try.

“It’s just a stunning spectacular experience,” says Jay Goldby, one of three co-owners of Sun Island Resort, the other clothing-optional resort in San Diego County, “for some it’s not, but for many, many people it is.” Goldby points out that while the two resorts host the bulk of local nudists, there are also some “non-landed” nudist clubs that have house parties and travel around state parks, where being naked isn’t encouraged but is technically legal.

Goldby discovered nudism like many people in San Diego—he skinny-dipped at Blacks Beach, and has tried to stay as naked as possible ever since. He and his partners have owned Sun Island for only a few years, but the resort has been around for decades, barely surviving the Cedar Fire of 2003.

Sun Island’s nestled in a canyon, surrounded by sun-baked hills, but the small grounds are covered by sprawling oaks and lush green lawns. The palm trees are still a bit charred from the fire, but most of the buildings and the grounds have been completely rebuilt. Entering the bamboo gates of the resort is like entering a tranquil, tropical island—birds chirp, butterflies fly and a warm breeze gently tickles our skin.

Goldby, an older man with a long scar that runs from his right groin to his ankle and cute freckles peppering his ass, leads us through the grounds and attempts to explain the psychology of a nudist. He says it provides a physical way to shed the cumbersome burdens of daily life and creates a certain level of body acceptance that’s particularly enjoyable for women, who are more known for body-consciousness than men.

In front of the clubhouse, a masseuse wearing nothing but socks and shoes digs her elbows into the back of a man resting facedown on her table. Three skinny, tan, golden-haired little girls scurry through the pool gate wearing nothing but towels wrapped around their necks. For a day that’s 80 degrees in the shade, the nude Sun Island clientele appear to be comfortable and cool.

Jan Hansen is perhaps the most comfortable of the crew. When she’s not naked at Sun Island in the summer, during the school year she’s naked in San Francisco, nude modeling for art students. Hansen relaxes in the shade, playing a semi-serious game of cribbage with a friend, a big, furry man wearing a Monty Python Spamalot hat.

Hansen explains that, for her, being nude is being natural. She says she associates herself more with the naturists of the 1960s and 70s–with her long, flowing grey hair and free-spirited demeanor, she looks the part. Her friend, however, who asked to remain anonymous due to what he describes as a highly conservative job, describes his experience with nudism as personality-changing.

“Before, I hated dancing, I wouldn’t do it,” he explains, “now I love getting out and dancing, you can’t drag me off the dance floor. You just get so much more comfortable with yourself and the people around you. You relax and enjoy your life a lot more.”

If you spend about four or five days or more out here,” he continues, “the idea of putting on clothes and going back outside is horrendous.”

“Outside” is a term used by several nudists at Sun Island including Christine, the stand-in bartender who grew up at the resort. Living at Sun Island wasn’t a problem for Christine—a short, cute Latina–until she hit high school. She became “the nudist,” had trouble getting a date, and tried to hide her way of life by having friends drop her off up the street. At 15, she gave up and moved away, only to eventually return to what she now lovingly calls “the nude farm.”

Now common-law married with three kids, Christine owns a house at Sun Island and doesn’t plan on leaving. She feels safe there, knowing she can see her daughters from almost every place on the grounds. She admits that one or two pervy characters find their way on the grounds per year, but says that people are quickly escorted off the ground as soon as they start exhibiting inappropriate behavior. As for well-intentioned men who inadvertently become aroused, “it absolutely happens,” says Christine, but she jokes that they either roll over on their stomachs or “hang a towel on it.” If they have absolutely no control over their erectile response, however, she says the resort’s not the place for them.

Like many nudist resorts, Sun Island’s a private club that keeps out 90 percent of the creeps by using Megan’s Law, the California state law that requires sex offenders to be entered into a public registry. Goldby scans everyone who passes through the front gate.

“We clearly reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” Goldby says, “and I don’t even have to give them a reason,” Goldby pauses, then retreats to his sense of humor, “but the one thing we don’t say here is ‘no shirts, no shoes, no service.’” or

The Durango Discovery Museum

A video by me.  Originally posted on

Roller Racing in Durango, Co

A BuzzTown video by me.  Starring Jeff Hammett, Vanessa Wilde and others.  Shot at Papa Wheelies bike shop in Durango, Co.

Device Gallery in San Diego

Device Gallery takes art, and us, into the next century

By Kinsee Morlan, first published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/26/2008

Walking through Device Gallery, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future, in which man meets machine in an imperfect and awkward, yet intriguingly beautiful, union. The biomechanical works of artists like Stéphane Halleux, with his darling found-object sculpture of a civil servant holding a briefcase and zipping around via propellers sprouting from his head, remind us of the possibilities. As we strive more and more toward immortality, or at least living a few years longer than our parents, could our unreliable and deteriorating flesh one day end where permanent, more dependable and imaginative machine and metal begins?

In the future that Device Gallery’s current show, Fantastic Contraption, proposes, the answer is yes.

Sound extreme or absurd? Try to think of an old song lyric you swear is at the tip of your tongue and see how long it takes before you give up on your failed firing neurons and run to a computer where Google makes the synaptic connections for you. The man-machine interdependence has already begun. The artists in Fantastic Contraption simply look ahead and show us what we’ve started.

The artwork currently exhibited in Device Gallery is futuristic and mostly mechanical, but there’s also something primordial and organic about most of it, too. Take the installations by Wayne Martin Belger on Device’s easternmost wall: The displays consist of pinhole cameras made of perfectly fused titanium and copper welded to things like vials filled with HIV-positive blood, a real human heart from a deceased infant and a 500-year-old Tibetan skull. All the handmade cameras are surrounded by a few of the eerie prints the cameras have produced over the years.

The dark and freaky nature of Belger’s installations is startling at first—especially to the older La Jolla socialites who’ve been wandering in since the gallery opened its doors in July—but when Amy Brotherton, who co-owns Device with her husband Greg, tippy-toes up behind you to talk about Belger’s work, the vision of both the artist and the show is eventually understood.

Amy will cheerfully explain how Belger starts with a subject, studies it for months, and then, using machinist skills he acquired from his father, builds a pinhole camera out of precious metals, relics and artifacts directly related to the subject. Not until all of that is done, she’ll explain, does Belger finally feel comfortable enough to actually shoot the subject.

Belger explained things himself last month while pulling on a wetsuit and preparing to dive into a tank at Scripps Aquarium to photograph his latest subject, manmade kelp forests, with his handmade underwater pinhole camera.
“I’ve always believed in the rabbit-hole theory,” he said. “You know, if you’re gonna get into something, you should get into something completely and totally.”

It’s this kind of hardcore dedication, deep-rooted understanding and mechanical craftsmanship that Amy and Greg looked for while piecing together Fantastic Contraption. In all of the works exhibited in the show, even the more traditional two-dimensional paintings by Eduard Anikonov, there’s a quality of expertise and know-how that’s hard to find in these postmodern, anything-is-art times. Every piece in the show is just as much about the process as it is about the finished product.

“We wanted to see craftsmanship brought back,” Greg said. “We missed things made by hand. Our contemporary art world has a deficit. We’ve rejected craft in favor of conceptual, and I think people miss that, because I think there’s something very human and—”

“Oh, how did that guy describe it?” Amy interjected. “He said all the work in the show had—”

“Integrity,” Greg finished.

Like a surprising number of artists in Fantastic Contraption, Greg and Amy come from a background in the film and entertainment industry—Greg as an animator and graphic designer, Amy in public relations. The young couple left the hustle-bustle of L.A. and opened Device Gallery, mostly because of their son, Jack, an energetic 4-year-old who loves striking ninja poses and playing with Legos.

“I just think we wanted to do something that we found interesting and pass that on to our son,” said Amy. “You know, my dad always said, ‘I don’t know why you think work’s gotta be fun; if it were fun, it’d be called something else.’ But I don’t want to say that to my son, because you spend so much time working—most of your day is spent at work in the U.S. So I don’t want [Jack] to think you work to make money. I want him to think you can do something that’s fun or interesting.”

“Yeah, you can follow your dreams no matter how insane or impractical,” Greg said, erupting into a fit of his characteristic, semi-maniacal laughter.

Amy smiled, and then explained how Jack has already played at the feet of “Mercury,” the steel sculpture Greg built that stands 9 feet tall in the corner of Device (Greg has several sculptures in the Fantastic Contraption show). Amy says Jack has developed respect and appreciation for works of art; in fact, he even started referring to some of his toys as sculpture.

With all the looming robotic sculptures, crawling mechanical bugs and torture chairs lying around Device, it’d be easy to assume Greg and Amy have a dark aesthetic that will surface in all of their upcoming shows. But the couple says it isn’t so. The next show, Divide and Contour: The Retro Future, which opens Sept. 27, will again look toward the future, but this time (aside from the ray guns by Greg), the future is mostly bright, if somewhat strange.

“It’s not about being dark” Greg explained. “It’s about being different.”

Fantastic Contraption is on view at Device Gallery, 7881 Drury Lane in La Jolla, through Sept. 20. The gallery will hold a special reception with Wayne Belger from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13. RSVP to

Back and forth

Bostich + Fussible turn TJ + San Diego into sound

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/17/2008

The red glow of the giant neon star welcomes dancers to La Estrella. The illumination from the “Dancing Hall” sign lights the cement on Sixth Street, just around the corner from Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. Where the glow ends, the dark, narrow entrance to Dandy Del Sur begins. The two bars face each other like old friends, and indeed, both have been on the block for some time. But over the years, Dandy has become trendier and trendier—thanks in part to Nortec Collective’s track “Dandy Del Sur”—while La Estrella remains in some sort of impenetrable time capsule. On the old wooden floor of Estrella, middle-aged patrons dance until 6 a.m. to cumbia, banda and norteño. Meanwhile, over at Dandy, a younger, hip set sips Bohemia while a jukebox blasts Depeche Mode and Devo, with an occasional Mexican pop song thrown in for fun.

Standing between the two bars is a lot like listening to Nortec Collective. Since the late-’90s, the foursome has been mixing traditional norteño with electronic music, and to anyone who’s spent time in Tijuana, the result sounds almost as if Nortec walked around the city with recorders and added an electronic beat. It’s chaotic, melodic, a little wacky and a hell of a lot of fun.

Tijuana Sound Machine, the newest album by Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible (Ramon Amezcua and Pepe Mogt, respectively), is, as Mogt describes it, an audible trip from Tijuana to San Diego and back again. Fresh from a sold-out show in Mexico City—where the duo played with a small crew of norteño musicians (made up of accordion, trumpet and tuba) and visuals guy Ernesto Aello, who uses a live feed and animated computer graphics to give the live shows extra oomph—Mogt paces his Tijuana apartment clarifying the albums’ concept.

“When you listen from the beginning to the end,” he explains, “the album has to do with living on the border. We arranged the songs so that this car—the car pictured on the album—is driving in Tijuana, crossing to the U.S., then coming back to Tijuana. Ramon is living in San Diego now; he’s been living there since two years ago, so doing this album, we were crossing back and forth, and the album reflects that.”

The track “Reten,” for one, uses samples of radio signals Mogt captured while driving around TJ. It was around the same time 13 people died in a gun battle, and Mogt picked up all kinds of police communications.

“There were a lot of checkpoints around the city,” he recalls. “Soldiers would come to your car with a 15-milimeter machine gun, and everyone was more worried about the soldier—that he’s going to mess up and fire the gun. It’s a very stressful situation. The idea was that if you’re going to be at a checkpoint, you just put on that track and relax.”

Another track on the album, “Jacinto,” uses samples of interviews Mogt did with kids in Tijuana. When asked what color would describe the city, most kids answered red, purple or black. When asked why, most answers related to the violence. Needless to say, Mogt describes it as a “very sad song.”

But then there’s “Mi_Casita,” a track written and produced by Amezcua. The happy-go-lucky song likely reflects Amezcua’s less-stressful life in the States. While Mogt acknowledges that things can be easier stateside, don’t expect him to move across the border anytime soon.

“I’d miss the liberty you have” in Tijuana, he said. “It still seems like it’s a city that has no rules. In some situations, it’s good. When I cross the border back into Mexico, I feel free, but if you saw me in the U.S. driving, I make my stop for three seconds, and I’m very careful. When I come back down here, everybody’s free—it’s still like the Old West. Sometimes, though, it’s not good, because things can get out of control. But I’d miss the trivial things, too, like good tacos and good cantinas.”

Nortec Collective’s Bostich + Fussible play Friday, Sept. 19, at Street Scene.

Better red than dead

Photo by Rob Queenin

With Foundation, contortion rockers Scarlet Symphony are ready to do things right this time

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/16/2008

So. Much. Drama. And yet so little has been written about Scarlet Symphony’s music. So, let’s be contrary and start there: The four-piece band of San Diego natives Gary Hankins (vocals), Aaron Swanton (guitar) and twins Zach (bass) and Josh Wheeler (drums) cranks out the type of rock ’n’ roll that makes you feel stupid if you don’t dance or at least shake around a bit when you hear it live.

Hankins, with the shape and stature of Jack the Pumpkin King, writhes and twists across the stage like Mick Jagger, only wilder and more rubbery, and often ends up intertwined with the microphone chord by the end of the set. Swanton, who’s more squared and machine-like, cranks out the driving guitar riffs and screaming solos, dripping sweat while trying to equal the energy of the crowd, which, especially when the band plays all-ages shows, is as squirrelly and hyped up as the singer. And the twins form an eerily calm and cohesive rhythm section—their fraternal connection cutting through all the onstage chaos.

The crew were standing outside their new El Cajon practice space last week, smoking cigarettes, drinking Pacifico and going through their somewhat contentious past in a rapid-fire manner, which hardly allowed one to finish a sentence before another was off on another tangent. They were noticeably eager to get on with it, get past “the L.A. bullshit,” as it’s now known, and start talking about Foundation, their upcoming full-length set to be released in February. The album could technically be considered their first full-length, since their first release, Vulture, was recorded hastily and then nearly ripped apart by the greedy hands of big-time producers promising big-time deals that never panned out.

The band formed in 1999, Swanton and the twins first, Hankins later. They floored the San Diego house-party and underground scene, and the “they’re gonna break” whispers started quickly. That’s when they recorded most of Vulture, but they only played one real show, at a place on El Cajon Boulevard called Club Venus, before one of Swanton’s good friends died and he moved to San Francisco to sort things out. The band broke up, but the recordings got passed around and the excitement surrounding their bright future got even bigger, driving the band back together in March 2003.

Friendster existed in small circles; MySpace didn’t—but the band still managed to get the sort of word-of-mouth promotion that spreads across a city faster than avian flu. It wasn’t long before L.A. bigwigs were swooping down, clawing at the new glam-rock band with supposed record deals and label interest.

“It was a crazy time,” Swanton says, “because we recorded in different studios and lost all that music. We were trying to make a record—.”

“And every time we looked for outside assistance in progressing—,” Hankins adds.

“We ran into a few walls,” Swanton finishes.

“Yeah,” Zach Wheeler interjects, “and we just lost faith in people.”

“It was a weird time,” Swanton continues, “because the music industry was falling apart. So they got interested in us, but they were in the middle of falling apart, so all these weird things would happen: We’d get courted by a major label, and it would take us so far and so many things would happen, we’d go to the studio and record some things, and we’d go some place and we’d talk and we’d have a lawyer and be, like, is there a contract that’s gonna be handed down? And then everything would be like poof, because now, like, I mean, Capitol Records isn’t even in the Capitol Records building anymore.”

All the record-deal shenanigans led to break-up No. 2 in July of 2005. The Wheelers joined Society!, an Afro-beat band that garnered a lot of local attention, while Swanton and Hankins started UV Tigers, which they admit was just an excuse to continue writing songs. A few years flew by, and the boys decided they couldn’t let such a good thing go—they made their grand reentrance into the scene at the 94.9 Independence Jam in 2007.

“I think now we know,” Swanton says. “We need to record records—that’s all we need to worry about doing: be a band, play shows, record records. All the rest of the bullshit is just bullshit. If some record label says, ‘Hey, I like your record; I’d like to distribute it,’ cool, but—.”

“But we’re not going to be on some leash with some record label,” Hankins finishes.

Josh Wheeler only speaks up when the talk turns to Foundation, which consists of old stuff, new stuff, one live track and a few slower tracks they never play live because the energy always seems too high.

“If this article could focus on the new record,” Zach Wheeler says, “that’d be cool.”

“Yeah,” Swanton adds, “it’s fair to say about the breaking-up thing that we’re all pretty over it.”
Scarlet Symphony play with Say Vinyl and Drowning Men on Dec. 21 at The Casbah.

Breaking Through Shells

Photo by Heather Leavitt

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in Arts Perspective Magazine 7/1/2009

When Alma Schneider sat down to put words to her post-college dilemma of wanting to either buck all responsibility and travel to South America or return to the peanut-butter-and-jelly comforts of her family’s home in Southern California, she wrote Gastropod.

A somewhat dark, but mostly humorous and cerebral, multimedia performance piece ostensibly about two snails (but really about a person’s often conflicting inner selves), Gastropod will go from print-on-paper to actual live stage production when it makes its world premiere at Durango’s Abbey Theatre June 16 through 18. If all goes well, Alma and the Heart Hustle theatrical cooperative she works with will then hit the road, taking the production on a nationwide tour.

And that’s all thanks to the decision Alma made after graduating from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts last year. “This is my priority,” says Alma decidedly, pushing back her dark hair from her dark eyes and readjusting in her seat at a café.

The ambitious 23-year-old didn’t end up trotting off to South America after all. Instead, Alma moved back to San Diego, got a job as a live-in nanny, took the money she’d set aside for the trip, plus the money she saved by not paying rent, and used it to fund Gastropod, her first official out-of-school original production, which she’ll also be directing.

“So, gastropod,” Alma says, eager to talk about her brainchild, “is the scientific name for snails or slugs. It’s the class, and what it literally means is ‘belly foot,’ or ‘belly footed.’ I found that out and I became obsessed with this concept of having your belly and your foot operate as the same organ and what the human implications of that are — what the embodied implications of that are. You know, if your foot is in your belly, can you ever stop moving, or can you move at all? The idea that movement is a sense in your gut and, at the same time, to have your home on your back — that kind of just sprouted this thing of this creature that never really leaves or never arrives.”

The script itself is still changing, but the characters in the two-woman show are crystal clear. Alma wrote the play specifically with two actresses in mind. “Karina and Amanda are hilarious together,” Alma says with a smile.

Karina Wolfe, a native of Durango who says she’s the one who persistently pestered the owner of the Abbey Theatre until he agreed to put Gastropod on the bill, and Amanda Raleigh, an actress living in New York, are the two young performers. They both helped Alma and a few others start Heart Hustle, the mostly female collective of now-nationwide artists who met in high school or college, and have a straight-forward goal of producing diverse, experimental performance art, making sure it’s both accessible and relevant. Gastropod is the cooperative’s first official collaborative project.

The set of Gastropod will be fairly simple, with the production relying more on dialogue, video projections, choreography, and beats and raps (as in rhyming), rather than elaborate set design. Wolfe and Raleigh will be in skin-tight, nude-colored bodysuits. Raleigh will be more mobile, representing the restless side of human nature. Wolfe will be the lethargic one, poking fun at the side of us that would rather just sit on the couch eating Cheetos than do anything.

“Really, they’re two parts of the same person,” explains Alma. “That’s what they’re meant to represent. It’s very Waiting for Godot,” she adds, immediately and modestly recanting, saying, “Not that I’m comparing myself to Samuel Becket but, you know. . . .”

What Alma meant by invoking Godot is that Gastropod is a dialogue-driven exploration of life, growth and decisions that leaves much to be interpreted and figured out by the audience. The play is funny and intense, with a touch of oddity.

“I’d say it’s more absurdist theater,” says the brunette, blue-eyed actress, Wolfe, from behind a pint at Carver Brewing Co. in Durango. “It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. I guess you could call it a coming-of-age story, too.”

The two characters in the play mature and eventually reach a point of forced change.

“At first they try to fight it off,” explains Alma. “Their relationship comes to a boiling point, and they eventually have to get out of there, but they go where no other gastropod has gone before and they . . . ”

Let’s not spoil the end.

Gastropod plays the Abbey June 16 through June 18; $10 for adults, $7 for students. Purchase tickets at the Abbey or Southwest Sound, 922 Main Avenue, Durango. Contact Alma at

The Abbey Theatre is located at 128 East College Drive, Durango;, and is under the new ownership of Chuck Kuehn and Doug Sitter.

Kinsee Morlan is an alternative art gallery owner, an arts writer and collector, and a major art fag in general. She currently works at a public library, a public radio station, and she freelances when she finds the time.

Elevating the underground

Jen Trute's "Sunbathe Barbie at Bombay Beach for Lowbrow Show" is pictured above.

A high-end art museum opens a lowbrow art show

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/20/2009

When co-curator Michael Gross sent out invitations to the Oceanside Museum of Art’s Jan. 24 Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists show, he got one back with a yellow Post-it note attached.

“This is disgusting—appalling—not art—more porno—ad nauseam!” The words came at him like tiny daggers flying straight into his eyeballs.

Gross, a movie producer and artist known for designing the Ghostbusters logo, set the note down, then picked up the phone and called most of the nine artists in the show.

“One of the artists suggested we get it blown up and hang it in the museum!” he mused between chuckles in his New York-cynic sort of way.

If it were any other museum show, the artists probably wouldn’t have been so amused by the seething Post-it, but if Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Tim McCormick, Scrojo, Jason Sherry, Charles Glaubitz, Ron Wharton, Pamela Jaeger and Jen Trute have one thing in common, it’s a lack of pretension and an elevated sense of humor.

In fact, a sometimes sick, other times sarcastic, and often times opinionated sense of humor is one of the most common traits of the artwork that now falls under what’s called the “lowbrow” movement in some circles and “pop surrealism” in others (the interchangeability of the two is still up for debate because some consider pop surrealism a subgenre of lowbrow).

The term “lowbrow” has its roots in the pinup art of the 1950s and gig posters and comic art of the ’60s, but it didn’t really make its way into popular vernacular until the ’80s. By the late ’90s, more and more artists started painting lonely-looking cartoon-like characters set against post-apocalyptic surreal scenes, and few arts writers, curators and gallery owners knew what to call it. That’s about the time the term “pop surrealism” hit the scene.

Really, though, both words are just vague references or attempts by the art establishment to group together a style of work that finds inspiration in things like comics, cartoons, tattoos, hotrods, skateboarding, graffiti, street culture and rock ’n’ roll; is centered around Los Angeles and San Francisco; and has its own bible in the art magazine Juxtapoz (whether adherents to the scene still follow or give a damn about the magazine anymore is currently a matter of debate, several artists say).

Lowbrow art is a lot of things traditional fine art isn’t. It’s funny, often illustrative and narrative and rife with pop-culture references, but, otherwise, it’s all over the place in content and form, taking shape as paintings, sculpture, posters, art books and even vinyl toys. But in no way does the “low” in “lowbrow” mean the painterly skills or technical execution of the work is any less deserving of highbrow appreciation. Artists like Mark Rydon, Frank Kozik, Robert Williams and Tim McCormick, who just turned 40 and has been painting for the better half of his life, are prime examples of that.

“I personally really dislike the term ‘lowbrow,’” McCormick says during one of his dog-walking breaks, which force him out from behind his chaotic canvases and onto the relative calm of the streets of Oceanside. “I remember reading it in Juxtapoz a long, long time ago when that magazine first came out, and I remember people desperately trying to put some kind of identification on the movement…. For me, personally, it doesn’t fit me really at all, but I’ve kinda given up on explaining my work to a lot of people, because, my understanding of art lately—each artist and their work has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. You can group things and put people in groups all you want, but, ultimately, you have to take it case-by-case.”

McCormick and the rest of the painters and art enthusiasts who’ve been either in or watching the lowbrow scene for awhile are the first to recognize and criticize the recent over-saturation and obvious rip-off work of younger artists who slap a doe-eyed character in a dreamscape and call themselves pop surrealists. It’s easy to understand why McCormick took last year off so he could slip out from under the lowbrow umbrella and further develop his own style.

“It’s not like there aren’t good artists within the scene,” McCormick says. “There are good pieces here and there. There are pockets of good work and then overwhelmingly bad and ignorant work from the masses—that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Wading through the beast to find the region’s best pop surrealists was largely the job of Jerry Waddle. Waddle, the bespectacled owner of Ducky Waddles, the underground art-and-culture oasis in Encinitas, has been dealing, collecting and showing contemporary art since the mid-’90s. When asked to co-curate the museum show, he pretty much knew immediately who the first five artists were going to be. The next four took a little time, but Waddle has so many artists in his arsenal that it wasn’t much of a stretch. The guy, after all, has artists like Shepard Fairey willing to show in his tiny shop’s gallery thanks to his collector’s sense and ability to catch on to trends before the rest of the world (Waddle was showing Fairey in his store long before people figured out what the weird Andre the Giant face was all about).

“There are a lot of people who want to be artists or who think they are artists but don’t really fit the true definition of the word,” Waddle says. “There are also artists that would fit into the genre but are more derivative of other artists; in other words, they didn’t have their own artistic voice developed. Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Scrojo, Tim McCormick—all of the artists I chose have their own artistic voice. They aren’t copying or derivative of some already-established lowbrow artist out there.”

Some of the artists Waddle settled on, particularly McCormick, whose new work is deeper and more Goya-esque with intense sex and violence themes, and Fleener, whose new work is aesthetically closer to cubism mixed with Native American and Tiki influences, hardly fit inside the lowbrow or pop-surrealism category anymore, but Waddle says he was more concerned with involving artists who blazed the lowbrow trail rather than those who simply followed the path.

“I do not see it as a necessity for them to stay within their particular style,” Waddle explains. “I feel it’s important for their growth as an artist. They needed to grow out of that and move forward.”

Others in the show—like Scrojo, the poster artist who does all the gig posters for Belly Up Tavern, a music venue in Solana Beach, and whose most recognizable figures are his hot punk-rock chicks with big and perky breasts—are planted firmly and proudly in the lowbrow genre and probably will be for life.

“What happened was the death of the LP art and even the CD art,” Scrojo says, pushing up his signature black-framed, yellow-lens glasses and launching into an explanation of why he’s stuck to music-poster art. “There is no longer a direct connection between artwork and the music coming out, so the only thing left is the gig poster, and it was never thought or planned out that this is what I’m going to do—it was just by divine accident. But, yeah, the gig poster is the last direct connection between rock ’n’ roll and art.”

That’s why, even when people like the irate Post-it sender get offended by imagery like the kick-ass design Scrojo came up with for the Lowbrow invitations—a drawing of one of his voluptuous hot chicks covered in tattoos, which, if you look closely, are actually representations of all of the nine artist’s work in the show—he and other artists like him will keep doing what they’re doing no matter what the art world thinks or how it’s labeled in the end.

An opening reception for Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way. Admission is $10. The show will be on view through May 24.

Reach for the stars at Observer’s Inn in Julian, Calif.

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/10/2009

Mike Leigh does what he loves. His perfectly trimmed mustache and impeccable clothes are the only remnants of his former life as a reserve police officer and businessman. For the last 14 years, Leigh’s been able to turn his longtime astronomy hobby into a profession.

With the help of his wife, Caroline, Leigh runs Observer’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Julian that offers a one-hour guided tour of the night sky along with warm beds and buttered toast.

“When I take people down to the observatory,” Leigh says, crunching along a gravel path toward what looks like a large gray shed with a retractable roof, “to begin with, I use a green laser, which looks like a Star Wars light saber, and I point out the brighter stars and constellations and I try to give a little bit of trivia so people can remember it. And then, after about 10 minutes of showing them the night sky, I take them inside the observatory, give them a quick talk on the different types of telescopes and how they work, and then we start looking through the telescopes. We treat it a little like sipping wine—we go slow, we talk about who discovered the objects, what they are, the dynamics behind the objects, how far away the are, and give them a little personality so that people find it interesting.”

To describe astronomy as “interesting” is understating how Leigh feels about the night sky.

“At 8 years old,” he says as he grabs a two-by-four piece of wood and manually pushes back the roof, “I became infatuated with astronomy by finding Saturn on my own and thinking, Wow, why isn’t everyone fascinated with this? Because if you’ve ever seen Saturn live in a telescope, it’s just awe-inspiring—it looks three-dimensional and it’s just a fantastic site.”

After Leigh shows off his three gargantuan telescopes, he steps outside and looks up into the clear afternoon sky.

“You should see it on a starry night,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “It’s horizon-to-horizon, just a spectacular sky, so many stars.”

The wooden spoons of Tryyn Gallery

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/10/2009

With his white beard and green apron, William Chappelow looks a little like Santa Claus. The fact that he has a workshop out back does nothing to thwart the illusion.

But Chappelow doesn’t make toys; he makes wooden utensils—spoons, mainly—and sells the pieces of cut and crafted wood for around $50 a pop.

The pricey utensils are works of art, though, and Chappelow’s collectors know how many hours, how much thought and how much love he puts into every hunk of wood.

“I’ve been at this now for 35 years,” the craftsman says, leading the way from his Tryyn Gallery, where he showcases his wood works, to his Hissing Camel Gallery, where he shows others’ arts and crafts, then back again to his workshop, where he and his assistants spend hours cutting, buffing and waxing each piece. Chappelow’s plot of land (on the winding Old Highway 80 in Guatay) isn’t big, but the old guy’s managed to put every inch of land to use, building what’s become a cultural refuge in an area known more as a refuge for wildlife.

“It doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this for that long,” Chappelow says. “It seems like maybe four or five or six years, but even after that fairly protracted period of time, I still look forward to every day, and it’s still an exciting experience to step up to the band saw with a limb or a log and kind of study it a little bit to see what it might have to offer, then dive in.”

The band saw is Chappelow’s sketchpad. He rarely draws lines directly onto the wood because he’d rather let the natural grains and curves of each piece guide the blade.

“The first cut often can reveal new direction that a piece of wood might like to go in,” Chappelow explains. “I don’t want an artificial line that pulls my eye away from what that piece of wood has to say. It’s sort of a metaphorical dialogue, I guess you might say. I let the wood have a voice in the process.”

After the process is complete, and Chappelow has his spoon, he picks up the scraps of wood he’s cut away and puts them to use, too. Bigger pieces become knives or paddles, smaller pieces become pendants for the jewelry he makes, splinters become kindling for the fire that heats his home, and the sawdust becomes mulch for friends or ash-glaze for his pottery.

Chappelow tries to use only certified wood (responsibly chopped), recycled wood or wood brought in by customers who want an old tree of theirs to have a new life as a utensil.

“Trees are special to lots of people,” he says, pointing to a box of logs his neighbor brought in after one of their fruit trees died.

And just to add a little personality to his utensils, Chappelow adds funny little tags to each piece.

“People seem to enjoy that a lot, and it kind of gets your imagination started,” he says. “So, instead of just being a knife or a peanut-butter knife, it’s a ‘Stick-to-the-Roof-of-Your-Mouth Knife’ or a ‘Glue-in-Your-Dentures Knife.’”

Chappelow chuckles, kind of Santa-like, then shows off his impressive “Beef Stalk Tomato Soup W/ Jump Lima Beans and Ham-Hawk Stirrer” made out of a beautiful Birdseye Maple.


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