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Where Others See Blight, Artists Find Beauty

Ceramist Keiko Fukazawa and photographer Dennis O. Callwood put a unique twist on graffiti

September 03, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their wearable graffiti--high-tops, skirt and kimono on her, pants and suspenders on him--Keiko Fukazawa and Dennis O. Callwood don't exactly melt into a crowd.

At first glance, the fabrics could be taken for colorful abstract prints, but closer inspection reveals the graphics, with their recurring themes of death and despair, angst and anger, as unmistakably the work of juvenile taggers and gangbangers.

Even if they were dressed in ubiquitous black from head to toe, this couple still wouldn't fade into the woodwork--he, at 60, with shaved head and closely cropped gray beard, surveying the world through dark John Lennon glasses; she, at 47, with a chic, hard-edged bob and a disarming way of protesting in quite good English that her English is quite terrible.

Both are artists, Fukazawa a widely collected cutting-edge ceramist, and Callwood--whose day job for 21 years has been as a county probation officer--an avant-garde photographer who explores social issues such as racism and disenfranchisement through the lens of his camera.

Married for four years, they currently are exhibiting together for the second time. Their show, "Art and Deviation," in the gallery at USC's Institute for Genetic Medicine through Sept. 30, presents graffiti as an art form rather than as urban blight. And they do it in a unique way, incorporating it into their own art.

That Fukazawa and Callwood came together in the first place is the stuff of a sitcom. Meeting at a Christmas party in Pasadena in 1995, they discovered a common bond: Her work is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; he had recently been represented in a group show at LACMA; both were teaching art to the incarcerated.

Callwood was instantly intrigued with Fukazawa. She found him interesting and comfortable to talk to but recalls, laughing, "in the middle of the conversation I got up to get more food." He gave her his business card. "I had a friend, an artist, who liked exotic people," Fukazawa says. "I thought maybe he was good for her. I never thought of the possibility of our dating."

Callwood persisted, but when he called her, she was always "busy." Then, in April 1996, Fukazawa invited him as a guest artist to her ceramics class at the California Institution for Men in Chino. It was not romance that was on her mind; she just thought he could get through to her students.

But by November 1996, she said yes when he invited her to a MOCA opening, telling her she could bring a friend. To his dismay, she did--a male friend.

Undeterred, he sent her a dozen yellow roses on Christmas Day. How friendly, she thought, romance still not on her radar. She called to thank him, and they decided to go to a movie. Over three months of dating, she began looking at him differently; a year later they were married. It was while Callwood was at Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a juvenile correction facility in Lancaster, in the early '90s that he became intrigued with graffiti as art.

The camp director asked the staff to create some programs for the teens incarcerated there, and he, quite naturally, chose art.

At the time, Callwood was readying photographs for a San Francisco exhibit on the modern primitive movement--tattoos and body piercings and the like. At camp, he saw tattoos galore and decided to photograph these kids who were incarcerated for vandalism, robbery, probation violation and, yes, tagging. When he showed them their photos, "They started writing on them"--gang graffiti.

Callwood realized his black-and-white photos and their graffiti "went together as one piece." Later he would expand on the concept, creating collages such as those in his "eyes" series in the USC exhibit, in which photos of stick-on eyes on improbable objects such as a sardine can or the bottoms of feet have been transferred to canvas and embellished with graffiti borders. Some are playful, some political, some both.

Later, Callwood decided to create a "safe place" at camp for his graffiti artists to express themselves, painting with acrylics on designated walls. "They wrote about their girlfriends, their gang, how they got involved and why." Using color markers, they decorated fabrics. "The idea was, there was no right and no wrong" creatively. The only rule: Rival gang members had to work side by side.

"The kids didn't see themselves as artists," says Callwood. "They saw it as a joke because a lot of them were incarcerated for graffiti. And here I was saying it was great." But he believed in their talent and wanted to "convince them to go back to school and show them they could be good graphic artists."

County policy forbids his following the 17-to 19-year-olds to see how they fared after their release, but he knows of one who went on to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Callwood's camp project was phased out after three years when the camp became more disciplinary, and in February, Callwood moved to a post at Camp Routh, a fire camp in Tujunga.

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