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 Volume 13, Issue 61  |  July 30, 2021


A year in review: How four Festival artists responded to the tumult of 2020 

By Marrie Stone

Photos by Jeffrey Rovner

When the pandemic spread across the U.S. border early last year, most of us were caught unawares. By mid-March, everyday life no longer felt normal. Addiction and homelessness, already on the rise, began to skyrocket. Racial unrest gripped the nation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing in September left the Supreme Court in a state of uncertainty. As the country readied itself for a presidential election like no other, an economic fallout crushed small businesses and drove unemployment upward. The effects of all these events continue to escalate and reverberate across the U.S. It’s a lot to process.

But that’s what artists do. They process. They absorb their surroundings, integrating images with emotional experiences. They churn the world through their imaginations to create something resonant that speaks to the times. Often those creations represent anxieties. Maybe they reflect hope or articulate aspirations. Sometimes they simply hold space for sadness. Regardless, art gives its audience a visual place to process their emotions.

With the Festival of Arts shuttered last summer, most exhibitors used the time to create, focusing in on the work that already made them successful. A few artists, however, were moved to respond to the events taking place around them, or otherwise adapt their work to their new isolated environments. Here are some of those stories.

Hugh Foster addressed addiction and homelessness head-on

Hugh Foster had just launched his photography studio in an industrial park in Santa Ana when the pandemic struck last March. With businesses shuttered, the 4,200-square-foot building attracted some local homeless, many of them suffering from addictions. This is how Foster met Pineapple. 

Pat Reyes Mendiola, known by locals as Pineapple, is a 53-year-old Guamanian man who’s lived on the streets of Santa Ana for the past 15 years. Suffering bouts of schizophrenic-like episodes and addicted to amphetamines, Pineapple’s story struck Foster hard.

Foster had recently become aware of a small Appalachian village in West Virginia – population 400 and falling – whose local pharmacy distributed more than 9 million pills to its residents in less than two years. The town’s pharmacist filled an opioid prescription every minute, making $500,000 a month off fewer than 400 drug-addicted residents. For Foster, the story highlighted the daily struggle so many homeless endure, and Pineapple put a face to the crisis. 

A year Pineapple

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Pat Reyes Mendiola, known on Santa Ana’s streets as Pineapple, has lived drug-addicted and homeless for 15 years

Foster began photographing Pineapple, capturing the physical and psychological tolls of addiction. Six weeks ago, inspired by one of the most famous paintings of the French Revolution, Foster and Pineapple recreated The Death of Marat. Marat was a radical politician and journalist, and a threat to the establishment. He suffered a skin condition that forced him to soak in a bathtub several hours a day. It was there he was murdered on July 13, 1793, the name of his assassin written on a scrap of paper he still held in his hand.

A year Foster Marat

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Photographer Hugh Foster poses with his portrait of Pineapple reenacting “The Death of Marat”

Pineapple brought his loaded speed pipe to the photoshoot. Foster had a few old bottles of pharmaceuticals in his possession. Together they staged the scene, replacing Marat’s bloody knife with a pile of white powder and naming pharmaceutical companies as the killers.

“He’s family now,” says Foster. “I’m happy to call him that.” Pineapple is an artist in his own right, creating sculptures out of garbage. He’s done some work for Foster and knows he has a bed if he wants one. So far, he doesn’t. “He’s just got a piece of concrete,” says Foster. “But it’s his, and he protects it.” 

The series, “On Life’s Terms,” is on display at Booth #13 through September 3. A portion of Foster’s sales will go toward Pineapple’s care. 

A year Foster booth

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Hugh Foster’s photos will be on display at the Festival of Arts through September 3

For Dennis Carrie, black lives always mattered

Dennis Carrie may not have adapted his work in response to 2020, but the racial reckoning that began last summer brought new resonance to his portraits. Before becoming an artist, Carrie was an educator, teaching mathematics to high school and college students. He brings that love of teaching to his art. 

“The people I paint are often well-known historical figures, but others are obscure,” says Carrie. “In both cases, I want people, especially young people, to pay attention to our history. Education is important.”

While Carrie focused past exhibitions on scientists and presidents, this year’s exhibit is dominated by strong African-American figures. “I choose subjects that serve as examples of extraordinary character and integrity,” Carrie says in his Artist Statement. Alongside Abraham Lincoln, portraits of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Nora Holt hang on Carrie’s wall.

A year Carrie wall

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Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and an unknown soldier in the Union army hang on Dennis Carrie’s wall

“Not many know about Nora Holt,” Carrie says. “She was a composer, a music critic, and had a classical music program in Harlem in the 1950s and 60s. She was married five times. She was quite an entertainer and singer, as well.” She was also the first African-American to receive a master’s degree in the U.S., composing more than 200 works of music over the course of her career.

A year Carrie Holt

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Dennis Carrie poses with his oil portrait of 20th-century composer Nora Holt

Carrie’s portraits also highlight the largely unknown stories of the 179,000 black soldiers who fought in the Union Army, 40,000 of whom lost their lives. “They played an important role,” Carrie says. “And a different role. I was so struck by their images. Photographs from that time were pieces of art themselves.”

Carrie resists the notion that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, and our ongoing racial reckoning, inspired his current collection. “I’ve always been consistent in my motivations, and I’ll continue going in that direction,” he says. “But we could all use a little reflection.”

The oil-painted portraits in Carrie’s current exhibition were all painted during the pandemic. They’re on display at Booth #40 through September 3.

The Getty Museum Challenge inspired Carrie Zeller’s artistic transformation

When the lockdown hit last year, the J. Paul Getty Museum responded with a creative challenge to artists. The task was simple, though not necessarily easy. The March 25, 2020, tweet read: “We challenge you to recreate a work of art with objects (and people) in your home.” The response was immediate and overwhelming as images flooded social media from around the globe. For Carrie Zeller, the challenge not only proved an entertaining way to take her mind off the pandemic, but it changed the trajectory of her career. 

Zeller’s photography first appeared in the Festival of Arts in 2019 with colorful images from Jamaica and Nepal. She’d planned to continue exhibiting her photos in the 2020 show until the Getty Challenge transformed her into a mixed-media collage artist.

A year Zeller wall

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Collages of Frida Kahlo, Lucille Ball, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are on display at Booth #104 through September 3

Zeller accepted the challenge three times. First, seizing on a Time Magazine cover of Lucille Ball from 1952, Zeller staged her photoshoot. She recreated Lucy’s studio using a mirror to mimic the lights, tinfoil for a tripod, and wood samples to fill in the background. She donned a wig, fashioned an outfit, did her makeup, and shot the scene over the course of three days, making minor tweaks and adjustments along the way. Then she collaged her face into Lucy’s for an effect that is shockingly accurate. 

“A lot of people were picking the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, but I wanted to do something very vibrant and colorful,” Zeller says. “I hadn’t seen any magazine covers, and Lucy brought out my inner comedian.”

But Zeller truly found herself in Frida Kahlo. “When I made Frida, my inner artist came out,” she says. “I honestly feel like I collaged myself within Frida, because she lives within me.”

A year Frida

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Photo by Carrie Zeller

This collage-in-the-making depicts Zeller’s process, collaging her own face into Frida Kahlo’s portrait

Zeller’s creations became her companions during isolation. She talked to them, and they told her what they needed. “I feel like Frida told me to put a skull in my hair. I don’t use skulls in my work, but I realized she was facing her mortality and we were also facing mortality. She led a very isolated life after her accident, and I connected with that during the pandemic. It just felt right.”

When Justice Ginsburg died in September, Zeller challenged herself again. The portrait became the most three-dimensional piece in the series as Zeller used blocks of wood and various cut-outs to add depth to Ginsburg’s face. “She really asserted herself,” says Zeller. “Though she was the easiest to work with. Of course she was.”

A year Zeller Ginsburg

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Mixed-media collage artist Carrie Zeller poses with her homage to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Zeller says the three women came to represent different aspects of her own personality. Lucille Ball brought out Zeller’s zany comedic side. Kahlo allowed her to express her creativity and artistry. And Ginsburg tapped into her feminist streak, asking her to explore civil rights and social justice themes in her work. 

“I’m learning so much about these women from my own work,” Zeller says. “I always want to grow, and I always want to learn. That’s when the best work comes out.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frida Kahlo, and Lucille Ball are all on display at Booth #104 through September 3. 

Michael Ward’s series strikes home

Acrylic artist Michael Ward was always drawn to images of homes. He’s painted dozens of small houses with hints that suggest life inside, but – unlike the prior three artists who focus on faces – in Ward’s work, the viewer rarely glimpses anyone. Lawns are often neat, but sometimes unkempt. The owners might fly a flag. Occasionally there’s a dog. Mostly, though, we get the idea that lives are being lived, we just can’t see them. A particularly poignant theme for the pandemic.

A year Ward wall

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Acrylic artist Michael Ward’s “Safe at Home” series reflects the isolation, loneliness, and economic hardships of 2020

But the striking thing about Ward’s latest series, “Safe at Home,” isn’t the homes. It’s the businesses. The barber shop and smoke shop look a little past their prime. Haddock Roof Company’s motto – “Our concern is you!” – feels appropriately 2020. It’s a bygone business, forgotten by time and left behind. Then there’s the Hotel Schuyler, once offering rooms and apartments with a live nude girl modeling studio downstairs. The building is gutted, its concrete façade crumbling into the bricks below, graffiti marking the boarded-up windows. The cars suggest a different era, but the scene reflects last year’s collapsing economy and shuttered businesses. Ward included the church, he says, to offer a little hope.

When his daytime work as a graphic designer dried up last year, painting became his solace and therapy. He turned back to old slides, images from his childhood neighborhood in Long Beach and houses from his youth. The inclination for a lot of folks last year was to somehow make it back home. Ward achieved that goal by painting it. He called the series, “Home is where the house is.”

A year Ward recliner

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Michael Ward showing his “Class of 2020” piece

Ward points to his “Class of 2020” piece. “I felt like we were all in the Class of 2020 last year,” he says. When gyms closed, Ward started walking his neighborhood and came across a brown recliner abandoned on the sidewalk in front of the senior sign. “You have to wonder,” he says, “did someone pass away?” Whether death, eviction, or simple spring cleaning, the painting evokes a sense of loneliness and loss. High school proms and college graduations were traded in for lawn signs last year. Memories were certainly made, just not the ones we wanted.

Michael Ward’s acrylic paintings, all created during the pandemic, are on display in Booth #45 through September 3. 

Editor’s note: This story is a part of our new Arts Section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

 

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