Local artist Roy Anthony Shabla recently painted a public utility box near Florence Avenue and Arrington Road, one block east of Lakewood Boulevard. It's part of the city's public arts initiative approved by the City Council last year.
Below is a Q&A provided by Shabla discussing the project, titled "We Are Now," and arts as a whole in Downey.
Q: When talking about art, especially modern art, sometimes I don’t know where to begin. So let’s start at the most basic level. Can you tell me about the colors? How did you choose them?
A: The City of Downey has selected a very deep cobalt blue to unify public utilities ~ new traffic signals, street lights, and electrical boxes are appearing in this color ~ and my decision to use blue begins there. I think the cobalt blue being used by the city is too dark, verging on deep purple, and since I knew I couldn’t change that color, I decided to select colors that would have a conversation with it. If, in a room, you have a dominant color that isn’t quite right but you can’t change it, this blue for example, the way to diminish the effect of that color is to add to the room several hues of that same basic color. By introducing several other shades of blue to the environment, the blue of the public utilities becomes part of a cohesive whole instead of an odd color choice standing alone. The eye will actually see the odd color in a more attractive way.
But there is more to it. The colors blue and black together create an emotional or spiritual effect that cannot be achieved by other colors. The combination of blue and black in a piece of artwork activates something in the DNA of the viewer that has the ability to encourage introspection or deeper thought. Studying a blue and black painting stimulates a physiological mechanism in the brain that wants to look beyond the superficiality of mundane life and contemplate the great mysteries. It shines a light in the dark corners of the soul ~ the viewing of the painting is actually the light, or activates the light. It is like staring into the night sky, into deep space. You become a meditative adventurer.
The other outstanding color in this piece is gold. Metallic gold has a long tradition in both religious art and religious decorative arts because of its identification with spiritual elevation ~ think, for example, of the haloes in Renaissance paintings; think of antique Buddhas. This is not the color for a marriage bedroom, this is the color for a temple. In Asia, when a valuable ceramic is broken and repaired, the damage is not hidden, it is celebrated. The restorer paints the repaired crack or chip with gold to highlight the history of the ceramic, not hide it. Gold, then, also pertains to the preciousness of history. And this artwork is all about history.
Q: Is that where the words come from, WE ARE NOW?
A: This painting is done in several layers. These are like layers of history.
My home is old. Over the years, each owner painted the woodwork a different color. When I sand through the layers, I see the history of a door or a window, layer by layer. The history itself is beautiful and gives depth and resonance to the present. In Europe, a city may have been built on top of an older city ~ digging beneath the old world can reveal the ancient world; modern cities did not spring out of nothingness.
Layers pertain to us personally ~ physical, emotional, spiritual… skin, muscle, bone… mother, grandmother, great grandmother ~ just as layers pertain to society, to civilization. Public art, especially graffiti, can be a layered thing, can be the result of years of expression by various artists. When I look at layers, I see a series of moments in time: the day someone painted this door blue, the day someone posted a sticker on this wall. Layers do not denote a nebulous and monotonous running of time; layers denote specific moments in contrast to the nebulous, monotonous running of time.
By painting this painting in layers, I am suggesting a history, a series of important moments which define an object (such as a door or a wall or a person or a city). As public art, I am suggesting the history of civilization itself and the history of graffiti (which dates back to the pyramids of ancient Egypt and possibly earlier). This electrical box in Downey California is the current example of a long line of worldwide artwork which dates back to prehistory. All modern art stands on what came before it. And this is merely the current layer.
Instead of YOU ARE HERE, it is WE ARE NOW!
Q: What is this art saying to people right now?
A: A great piece of art is not a punchline, a single idea, a simple joke. A great poem is more than that, a great story is more than that, a great painting or sculpture is more than that. This painting will speak to different people in different ways ~ some positively, some negatively ~ but it will speak in the way that the viewer is able to hear. While I think the piece is describing the history of art, others may see the history of the cosmos… others may see nonsense and waste… If I could explain the meaning of art I would be a great man indeed. Making art is challenging enough. I will leave analysis to the historians.
But if I were to suggest an idea pertinent to the City of Downey, 2012, I would look at this piece of art which resembles old barn doors and reminisce. Many years ago when graffiti began to appear on abandoned barns in the American countryside, people were outraged. Yes, old barns are beautiful icons of the farmland America was once known for… but family farms are going the way of the dinosaurs. Graffiti artists did not create foreclosures or abandoned buildings; graffiti artists made use of something no one else was making use of. And by marking the abandoned barns, the artists brought attention to the fact of the changes in society, in the world.
In Downey, blight has been rampant. Some buildings have been unused and empty for ten or fifteen years. Downey is half ghetto/ghost town, half thriving community. If this art could speak to people here and now, I hope it would encourage the Downey government to enter negotiations with Downey landlords who leave buildings abandoned. Other communities use empty storefronts for temporary art galleries and performance spaces. Here, we have a great disconnect between community culture and available space.
Q: Can you talk about the site?
A: I chose this electrical box both because of its location and its shape. The site is proximate to my friend, Ronnie Contreras’ new barber shop, Number 34. I curate a monthly poetry series, Hair Club for Poets / Reading with Scissors there. I also curated an art show, Contraptions ~ an exhibit of funky and mechanical junk art there. It was a wonderful event that will have other incarnations. So I like the idea of this location being a cultural center, especially since the artwork itself is about culture.
I also like the shape of this electrical box. Most of these boxes look like miniature phone booths (if you are old enough to remember phone booths) but this one is shaped more like an altar or a television set (basically the same thing in our society). In some ways, it looks like an open book. Since most graffiti (graphics) is actually “writing” (scritti), the open book shape lends itself both to the idea of cultural history and public art. The location, the shape, and my ideas about public art for this painting came together into a perfect nexus.
Q: What kind of response have you gotten?
A: Primarily, the response to this work has been wonderful. People have been enchanted with it and want to look at it over and over. Partially, this is a result of the colors ~ as stated earlier. While I was working on the painting, a salesman for Nestle’ came to ask me about it. He was very kind and we had a nice discussion about art. (He will also supply product samples for the gift bags of my next art event.) On the other hand, a woman came out of the Farmers Insurance office to ask about the work. She was not “kind” or sympathetic to the art and later denied me use of electricity for sanding the layers. As I said earlier, art speaks what the viewer is able to hear. The beauty salon next door supplied electricity for awhile, then the Sunshine Realty did. The realtors were very enthusiastic about the art.
Q: What do you think about the renaissance of the arts in the City of Downey?
A: This is a great thing. I have been waiting years for it to happen. I was born and raised here and always had to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York for culture. Now, the Downey Arts Coalition (of which I’m a member) and the Downey Art Vibe and other creative organizations are claiming the right for Downey itself to be a center for the arts. It’s fantastic. This past year, I had an excellent solo show of my large paintings at Mari’s Wine Bar. I curated the Contraptions show at number 34 on Superbowl Sunday. We have two monthly poetry series and a monthly art opening. Many other projects are in the works. Things are definitely happening.
The city itself is also coming through. The response to the “commissioned” paintings on the first few electrical boxes was heard by the local government. While that work is competent, it is merely decorative, not evocative. It doesn’t elevate the city. The community asked for both local artists and real art and the city responded with a “call for artists” to Downey residents. If my painting were in a gallery, it would be $10,000. By funding this project, the city is at once acquiring a piece of public art for pennies, unifying the creative community, and galvanizing some respect for public spaces. It was wise of the city council to listen to its residents.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts for this interview?
A: I am very grateful for the love and support the Downey art community and art organizations have had for me and my work. There is discussion of a museum show when the Downey Museum of Art stabilizes and later this year, another solo show at Mari’s Wine Bar. There is talk of producing a small, avant garde play of mine by the Downey Arts Coalition and several other projects. And people are already asking for another incarnation of the Contraptions art show. It is a wonderful time to be an artist in Downey.
WE ARE NOW is my gift back to the community. Not only is it a piece of public art but it is a public altar. Returning to your first question about the colors, here is another perspective: In feng shui, these colors pertain to “success in career” and “prosperity luck from heaven” (the majority of feng shui work pertains to the flow of money) and I offer this object, this piece of art, as a prayer that the businesses in proximity to it will have great success and give back to the arts community, support art and cultural functions, and help create a greater cultural community. Downey will be the better city for it. And it all starts with this layer: We are now.