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Sprout Sensation : Shifting her focus from confrontational works, performance artist Leslie Labowitz-Starus turns to farming.


Radical feminists didn't say "fierce, feminist and in your face" back in 1980. But if they had, it might have well applied to Leslie Labowitz-Starus. "I was angry," she says of the years she spent doing sociopolitical performance art at the Los Angeles Women's Building. "I think we all were."

The problem was, by 1979, with nearly a decade of political performance art protests against incest, rape, battering and media exploitation, she was too worn down, burned out and emotionally drained to continue. And that made her feel guilty. There were women who were looking up to her, depending on her. She went into therapy to try to recover her former fire and drive, but it turned her life upside down instead. One day in the middle of a session, her therapist quietly asked a simple question: "Do you think the fact that your mother was a Holocaust survivor could have affected your life?"

"The dam broke," Labowitz says. "It just all came pouring out. I was immobilized for three weeks, I was in such pain." She came out of it changed. Over the next year, she abandoned confrontational performance art pieces to grow sprouts. Not so much as a farmer but as a kind of public art. "I did sprout performance art," Labowitz says. "It healed my soul."

Labowitz doesn't look like a farmer. Traipsing around Sproutime, her 2 1/2-acre Canoga Park sprout farm, she wears an emerald on her left hand, a bracelet watch, red lipstick, a tie-dyed T-shirt, lime socks and purple sneakers. As she sits in a folding chair in the doorway of her humid washing/packing shed, she comes across as trusting, open, low-key and non-confrontational, traits much valued by the artists who now depend on her for their livelihood. After talking to her for a hour, you feel that an old friend is bringing you up to date on the continuing saga of her life.

It's a compelling one, especially the part concerning her mother: "She spent 18 months in Auschwitz," Labowitz says as a way of explaining what led up to her own decision to leave performance art for farming. "Only she and her sister came back. She lost her entire family. Every Jew in the village died."

When the war ended in 1945, Labowitz's mother, Freda, was 23, terrified and traumatized. Labowitz's father, a 39-year-old American soldier, came to the Czech village where he had been born, met Freda and asked her to marry him. Leslie was conceived on their wedding night.

Now Labowitz's story jumps forward 2 1/2 decades to a summer in 1970 on an Israeli kibbutz. Labowitz, a student at Los Angeles' Otis Art Institute, is spending the summer in Israel trying to get a handle on what happened during World War II. There she meets Harry Starus, who presents himself as a German Jew also in need of answers. They are young, idealistic. The most natural thing in the world happens. "We fell in love," Labowitz says.

There is just one problem. Although Starus is German, he isn't Jewish. "He lied to me," Labowitz says. "He assumed I wouldn't see him. By the time he told me it was too ironic."

When Labowitz went home at the end of the summer, she knew two things: There was no way she could not love Starus, and telling her mother the truth about him would be the hardest thing she'd ever done. "Some members of my family wouldn't talk to me for 10 years," Labowitz says. "I told my mother, expecting the worst. It took me two hours. She cried. It was horrible. But at the end she said she would always love me and I would always be her daughter."

Labowitz and Starus were married in 1971. The following year, she graduated from Otis Art Institute with a master's degree in fine arts and moved to Dusseldorf as a Fulbright Scholar. "I was innocent when I went to Europe," she says. "In Europe I learned to do political performance art."

When she returned in 1977, Labowitz hit the feminist art world with both feet running. She worked at the Women's Building, a cultural center just east of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles devoted to feminist art and cultural change. She corresponded with feminist artist Judy Chicago (best known for "Dinner Party," a collection of dinner plates adorned with labia-like flowers) and developed a long-running collaboration with Suzanne Lacy, a well-known performance artist who is now dean of fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

Her specialty was performance art as calculated guerrilla theater, calling news conferences, using public spaces as stages, making the audience part of the performance. She put together a media creation called "In Mourning and in Rage" on the City Hall steps as a protest against the sensationalistic and, to women, degrading coverage of the Hillside Strangler case. The mourners wore stylized headpieces that made them seven feet tall.

"A hearse met them at the Women's Building and drove them to City Hall. It was like a funeral. Holly Near wrote a song."

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