Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paradise Fragment: Only the trying

Dear Beatrice,

In many ways, this is a book about suffering. For me, writing has been one of the ways I deal with pain—I write about it.

But I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. As I read over my journals, even through the “good” seasons of my life, I still find the same old themes of depression, anxiety, fear, cynicism, loneliness. I know, in my mind, that there were amazing things happening right alongside the pain—good and beautiful things. But those are not the things I wrote about.

So I am presented with a challenge, as I near the end of this project. Can I write about happiness and beauty with the same passion and clarity that I wrote about suffering? This is new territory for me, but I will try. There is only the trying.



We are together in this old warehouse on the edge of downtown. The walls are pretty beat up, and the back is cluttered with junk—old cars, washing machines, tires, microwaves, scrap metal and wood, tools, records. It looks like a particularly intense episode of Hoarders.

“This is it,” Mike says.

“This is awesome,” I say, “It’s enormous.”

This is the future home of our new gallery. Landon, Tony, Chuck, Steve, Brian and I look around.

These beat up walls with holes, this grungy concrete floor stained with decades of oil and paint and rust—this is beautiful. This is a start.

We stand outside on Santa Fe, looking across the street at the old Donald Duck juice factory, long abandoned.

“Man, imagine if that was an art colony, like The Brewery in LA.”

“We can start here,” Mike says.

Mike’s dad, an aerospace engineer who worked on Apollo missions, who designs spacecraft, owns these warehouses. He has for years. I have no idea why. Developers have for years tried to buy these old buildings to build condos or apartments, but Pete never sold. So here we are. We have stumbled onto this treasure. A blank canvas.

I once read a book called “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City” about how artists and musicians in Chicago took old industrial warehouses and re-purposed them into studios and galleries and music venues. From the ashes of old school manufacturing, we will make things again. New things. Andy Warhol called his studio “The Factory.” They didn’t make tires or washing machines—they made art.

When we started the gallery two years ago on a corner downtown, people thought we were crazy. An art gallery in Downtown Fullerton? And not just an art gallery—but a contemporary art gallery—a lowbrow/skate/punk/outsider gallery. We showed weird shit we thought was cool. And people came. From sleepy suburban neighborhoods, people came into something new, something different.

At the time, parents and friends asked, “What do you know about running an art gallery?”

Nothing really. We just like art.

I think conventional wisdom is that you need grants and funding and bureaucratic blessing to do something like that. You need some big museum to say, “You can do this.” But I have seen what bureaucracy can do. I have seen the City of Fullerton talk about renovating an old movie theater for years, and nothing happen. I have attended the city museum openings, and been underwhelmed.

Our ethos is DIY—do it yourself. That’s how this shit gets done. So we will do it ourselves. We will patch the holes in this old warehouse. We will do the drywall and painting. We are not contractors. We are people who figure things out and do them.

We will bust our asses. We will get home from a full day of work, and then do some drywalling. We don’t get paid. We don’t have grants or bureaucratic blessing. We have only our hearts and hands. We will have help from friends who share our dream. John says, “I know how to patch a wall,” and he does it. Chuck says, “I know how to do moulding” and does it. That’s how this shit gets done.

In one month, we accomplish more than any redevelopment agency or historic foundation can do in a year. We create the beginning of an art colony. It is human beings coming together, doing things with their hands, each according to their abilities and knowledge.

Mike walks through with a big Polaroid camera, taking pictures. We have to document this. This feels important. It is something bigger than any of us individually. I wander through with my camera. Landon cleaning old windows, Chuck nailing wood, Tony sanding a wall.

Vince, the semi-homeless guy who lives out back, pushes a mop around. Vince talks to himself, but his conversation is very down to earth. He is narrating his thoughts aloud.

“I gotta clean this floor. It’s filthy. That place hasn’t been cleaned for years. I gotta clean this floor. I better change the water. This mop is pretty old...”

Vince looks a little beaten down by life, but his eyes reflect a sincerity. You never have to wonder what he is thinking—he says it all the time.

Part of me wishes everyone was like this—that I could wander around with my video camera, filming Chuck hammering nails, Tony sanding the wall, Landon cleaning the window—each saying aloud exactly what is on their minds.

If I had the courage of Vince, I would say something like this:

“I am filming this. I am tired. This is amazing. We are tired. But this will be amazing. Mike, I can’t believe you made this happen for us. Landon, I know you get sad about the fact that we don’t make money, but trust me, we can do this. Tony, you are a little irresponsible, but you are one of the coolest artists I know. Chuck, you can’t spell very well, but you are good at making things, and you have an eye for beauty. You have a vision with your moulding. Steve, I hope you understand what you got yourself into. Prepare to lose money with us, and to be okay with that. Fuck money! Fuck business plans and all that capitalist bullshit. This is real! This is real! We are doing this! I’m sorry we don’t make money, I’m sorry about that, but do you know how rare and beautiful this is?”

I wander around filming, with these thoughts in my head. My head a little cloudy from fatigue. I think I will sleep well tonight.

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