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Author Explores the Rich Sources of Creativity in the Golden State

West Words

November 15, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than one example of cross-pollination among creative people can be found in the pages of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work" by Barbara Isenberg (William Morrow, $25, 366 pages). But the book is the single best example of how creativity inspires creativity in the hothouse environment of California.

A former arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has written for many publications during the last quarter-century, Isenberg was inspired to write her book when she participated in an early planning session for the exhibition, "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000," at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Given both my own love of California and my sense that something here truly stimulates creativity, I was immediately intrigued," she explains.

Her curiosity prompted her to seek out and debrief some 57 California-based artists, a who's who of creativity on the West Coast. Her definition of "artist" is suitably eclectic, ranging from visual artist Judy Chicago to choreographer Bella Lewitzky to playwright Luis Valdez; from comic actor Bill Irwin to video artist Bill Viola; from jazz musician Dave Brubeck to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and many others in between.

Some of her choices seem inevitable--we are hardly surprised to encounter artist Edward Ruscha, architect Frank Gehry and novelists Carolyn See and Maxine Hong Kingston. "And could one actually write a book about California," Isenberg wonders, "without a visit to Joan Didion?" A bit more unusual are her choices of rock star Don Henley, TV star Carol Burnett and movie star Clint Eastwood. Now and then, she introduces us to artists who may be new to some readers, as they were to me: animator Jules Engel, for example, who created the Chinese mushroom dance in "Fantasia" and went on to develop such cartoon characters as Mister Magoo; or Betye Saar, self-described "junkie" who was inspired by a childhood visit to the Watts Towers to make art out of found objects and other "junk."

Each one allows us to glimpse the landscape of California from his or her perspective, sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising. To Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, San Francisco in the 1950s "seemed like the last frontier," a notion that has been drawing fortune-seekers of various kinds to California since the Gold Rush. "My grandmother always thought of California as Mexico en El Norte, 'Mexico of the North,"' recalls muralist Judith Baca. "I Love L.A.," Randy Newman's rock anthem, is meant to celebrate what he regards as the "aggressive ignorance" of his hometown: "I like Beach Boy kind of stupid," says Newman. To which novelist John Rechy responds: "It's not a stupid city; it's a very profound city."

Some of the artists recall the moments that inspired their life's work. Carol Burnett, for example, reveals that her trademark Tarzan yell originated in childhood when she and her cousin Janice were "playing the movies." Matt Groening cites "Ozzie and Harriet" as the starting point for "The Simpsons." And Ed Ruscha explains how gasoline stations entered his imagination and then his art on long driving trips between L.A. and Oklahoma to visit his folks.

Some of the conversations in "State of the Art" go deeper than others. Not surprisingly, novelist Joan Didion comes across as darkly philosophical: "I think people who grew up in California have more tolerance for apocalyptic notions," she muses. "However, mixed up with this tolerance for apocalyptic notions, in which the world is going to end dramatically, is this belief that the world can't help but get better and better." But each one of the conversations has been polished and presented to us with immediacy and intimacy.

Isenberg insists that California deserves more credit than it gets for inspiring and supporting artists in their work. "Much has been written about California as the locus of exotic cults, colorful eccentrics, Hollywood debauchery, gang warfare, jammed freeways, fires, floods, earthquakes, riots and other natural and unnatural disasters," she explains. "But what has long intrigued me is why so many accomplished painters, writers, composers and other artists have spent their creative maturity working here despite all that."

Each of the artists in "State of the Arts" answers her question in a unique way--and that, in itself, is the best answer.

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Hearst Castle may be the single most famous building in California. Mythologized in "Citizen Kane," used as a stand-in for ancient Rome in "Spartacus," the sprawling mountaintop retreat of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst near San Simeon has been visited by more than 30 million people since it was opened to the public in 1958. To this day, it is a dreamlike and oddly unsettling sight on the drive between Cambria and Big Sur on California 1, an exercise in architectural extravagance that is both inspired and slightly mad.

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