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On the Town

To Mom, It Was Trouble; To Mudpeople, It's More

'Living sculptures' are taking their smear campaign, or 'walkabouts,' to the L.A. River.

April 25, 2002|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mud--it's not just for spa treatments anymore. Or, for that matter, for throwing pots, building bricks or making kiddie playing pies. The soft, damp earth transforms Mike Mollett and his band of Angelenos into a tribe of urban primitives, the L.A. Mudpeople.

Even by quirky Los Angeles standards, the Mudpeople are in a class by themselves. Dressed only in loincloths, strategically placed leaves and giant head-covering masks, they smear their bodies with mud and walk--slowly, deliberately--around their surroundings.

"Essentially, we're living sculptures," explains Mollett, who founded the group 13 years ago. "We're an antidote to speed, stress, goals and time in this urbanizing society. As Mudpeople, we do not speak, so people must come up with their own answers as to who we are and why we're there, which may also put them in a position to wonder about themselves, and why they're moving so quickly."

Angelenos might encounter the Mudpeople again this weekend at the Los Angeles River. As part of the Arroyo Arts Collective exhibitions this weekend, six upstanding citizens once again will shed their clothes and "mud up" to explore the river basin.

Mollett--a poet, teacher and performance artist--decided to try his hand with the glop in 1989, after being inspired by pictures of Colorado mudpeople. He booked himself and a few others at a now-defunct reggae club as a one-off entertainment. The group donned plaster of Paris mudheads, slathered their nearly naked bodies with mud, and walked around checking out their environment. Mollett got hooked on the ritual--not to mention the liberating effects of near-nudity masked by mud--and became the de facto leader of the tribe.

"As a mudperson," he says, "you need to be able to just hang out, observe the environment and what's going on inside yourself. It's somewhat of a spiritual process, so you need to let go--of goals, of directions and of needs, I suppose."

In ordinary civilian life, the lanky 50-something Mollett dresses normally--in jeans or khakis and funky tees--and works as a substitute teacher for preschool through fifth grade. He's witty and articulate, fitting for one who has been part of the poetry performance scene for nearly two decades.

'We Use All Kinds of Mud'

The ranks of the L.A. Mudpeople have ballooned to up to 40 over the years, and they've participated in more than 50 events, including the Doo Dah Parade, the International Festival of Masks and the World Festival of Sacred Music. They've journeyed to Joshua Tree National Monument and Santa Barbara.

The Mudpeople also schedule their own "walkabouts," which in the past have explored the Bunker Hill steps downtown, Melrose Avenue and Old Town Pasadena. (In one of its earliest incarnations, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, then about 15, took to the streets of Venice in a handmade mud head.)

For these walkabouts, or any performance, the Mudpeople get to the location first--it keeps their cars cleaner that way--and then strip down and "mud up."

"We use all kinds of mud. We get mud from Silver Lake, there's Hollywood mud and mud from the Gold Rush part of the state. Then there's the commercial mud--from the art store--potter's clay. That is purchased and that's what we use the most. I ask people who get around to bring me mud, but I love L.A. mud. It's the darkest--a dark umber, black, really--and it's great."

Mollett says that he prepares the mud ahead of time, about an hour before trundling off to an event. "We use half a dozen different colors each time. We've gotten rather sophisticated. Some of us are artists, and we love colorful mud; we love texture."

And what a texture it is. Mollett likens the mud to pudding. "Chocolate, caramel or butterscotch pudding," he points out. "One color we use as a base and then start slapping, applying, slathering. It's the thickness of an ointment."

Mollett's cohorts in the upcoming outing include four other men--Tom Erickson, Danny Serfaty, John Forker and Helen Van der Neer (a waiter at Canter's, an accountant, a musician and a transvestite massage therapist, respectively). Then there is the lone, albeit valiant woman, Lorraine Perrotta. Perrotta, an acquisitions librarian at the Huntington Library, has been a mudperson since 1992 and has participated in most of the group's excursions.

"I do it because it's a way to experience the world in a completely different way," she says. "It's a way to be transformed."

Further validating their status as urban anthropological wonders, the Mudpeople have been featured in National Geographic magazine. Huell Howser of PBS' "Visiting" featured them on his show in 1996. He continues airing the episode several times a year, because, he says, it has evoked the most response.

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