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

July 10, 1992|PAUL CIOTTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She made a decision to learn about business the same way she had learned about art, which was to throw herself into it. "I was infatuated with the idea of an artist running a successful business," she says. She found a manager, learned bookkeeping, hired employees and, after several years of struggling along in her back yard in Venice, bought the farm in a residential/agricultural area of Canoga Park. "It's the only agricultural property I could find within one-half hour of downtown Los Angeles," Labowitz says.

Between 1988 and 1992, Sproutime grew at a rate of 20% a year. Today, Labowitz sells two dozen different varieties of sprouts (from Mung bean to wheat berry) to eight Mrs. Gooch's stores and at 13 different farmers' markets from San Pedro to Camarillo, a total of 2,000 flats a week. Except for her production workers, who are three young Salvadoran immigrants, almost all of her staff members are artists: a songwriter/singer, a mask maker, a composer/songwriter, multimedia performance artist, a visual artist and a photographer.

"Artists like to work for Leslie," Apple says. "They don't feel divided. They don't feel what they are doing in this job is in opposition to what they are doing in the rest of their lives."

In the meantime, Labowitz now leads the life of a typical working mother. "I have a child in school," she says. She lives in Mar Vista with her 10-year-old daughter, Aria, and husband, Harry (a social studies teacher at Lennox Middle School). "I make car payments. It's a typical family struggle."

It's a business struggle too. Finding capital is a problem. She's had to weather the recession, the Gulf War, the rains and most recently the riots. Although some people would say Labowitz is a businesswoman now, she prefers to think of herself as "an art lifer. I left art and went to life. My studio is the place where I work. I may pretend that I am a business person, but the spirit of the business still comes from my artist identity. If I were not an artist, this place would be very different."

Most of all, it wouldn't be a place where artists would work without compromising their ability to also do art. Basically, Labowitz says, she's an artist's impresario. "I couldn't survive as an artist. Now I'm helping other artists to survive."

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