Deeds and Words: The Legacy of Charles White

Charles White at LACMA
Charles White: A Retrospective, May 2019 – Los Angeles County Museum of Art 

LAST SUMMER,  when the country was surging with COVID infections and civil unrest, I  heard a protest moving its way through the main thoroughfare adjacent  to my home. Masked citizens carried signs and raised their voices in unified calls for justice. I wondered at once where they were headed to gather. Just a few taps and swipes on my mobile let me know that crowds were headed to Charles White Park. A fitting place for a protest calling for racial justice. 

White, the  artist, made the San Gabriel Valley his home for decades, dedicated his work and  life to addressing inequity and offering not simply uplift but examples and tools for the journey toward social justice.  In 2019, I made it  a point to get out to LACMA to see the wide-ranging retrospective of his work — the drawings, paintings, mural details,  sketchbooks—even early documentary-style photographs.

Immediately, I regretted that I had waited until the last minute to view the show. One slow Sunday morning, walking through the galleries simply wasn’t enough. This was one of those retrospectives that was meant to view more than once, to spend time with each period, medium, approach. The last show that I felt the same way about was the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA, and coincidentally but not entirely surprising, Marshall was a student of of White’s at Otis College of Art and Design.

“When Frustration Threatens Desire by Kerry James Marshall from “Mastry” at MOCA

UA couple of months ago, I was asked to write an essay for Otis on White and his impact on students and on Southern California. It was precisely the right antidote for the at-the-boiling-point trouble we were living in in the moment. White’s own path offered up a series of difficult hurdles, but he kept clearing them, time and again, and always reached back to help others strategize so they had a clear sense of how to clear their way as well.

From the essay:

It is possible to make a portrait with the gifts of legacy. Those deeds and words become textures, hues, strokes, and shadings. Memory assembles itself into an afterimage that reflects that richness, and the depth and breadth of the impact a single figure may have on people, place, and practice.”

As I was working on the essay, reading deeply, and connecting with people who either crossed paths with him in work or social arenas or who knew him as a teacher, most everyone commented on his commitment to recasting skewed narratives about Black people in the United States. Instead White set out to center his work around the celebration and documentation of the contribution of a people maligned and misunderstood: For both him and his subjects: “His art was a shelter and a balm.”

That piece is now live at here 


Honk!: Drive-Time Stories

I HAD one of my first birthday parties at the Bob Baker Marrionette Theater, oh so many years ago. Puppets and sugar, who wouldn’t be happy?  So it will be a thrill to be part of this event next Wednesday evening, November 14.  Join me and these fine folks for a new episode of “Tom Explores Los Angeles” for an evening of  puppetry and storytelling, “told through the windshield.”

This will be one of the final performances at the treasure of an old space that miraculously still sits at that busy crossing where Glendale Boulevard meets Second Street at the edges of downtown Los Angeles.

To purchase tickets, follow this link. 

We will have a reception afterwards and books will be available for purchase.


“Telling My Stories” 

SCENES FROM last week’s opening festivities for “Octavia E. Butler — Telling My Stories” at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. 

A special thank you to curator Natalie Russell who carefully selected 100 objects out of a vast archive of 8,000 to illustrate Butler’s life, work and struggle. It’s a beautiful survey of a singular life. We are all grateful to Butler for gifting her papers to the Huntington so that so many more people can learn about her way of looking at and being in the world. Most affecting is her depth of curiosity, her blinders-on focus. For all the sacrifice and sense of mission, her dedication at moments feels matchless.  

The exhibit is up through August. Come early. Give yourself enough time to wander through. There is much to linger over, digest and celebrate. 

landscapes, soundscapes, dreamscapes


“Arden” — Image Courtesy John S. Reynolds

I HAVE been so buried in duty that I’m late in posting this piece that was up over at Artbound last month, but it’s an evergreen.

There is a particular L.A. that resides in native Angelenos’ minds. They are personal Los Angeles-es — of different moods, eras, compositions.  John Reynold’s work taps into that thread of memory.  He retains it so we don’t have to work as hard.

I profiled Reynolds, a musician  and painter,  whose era of speciality, as he’d say himself,
is “the period of time between the two big wars — First and Second.”

This piece was reported over a long period of time, mostly  because I wanted to be in both of Reynolds’ worlds — the music and the art — and really understand how they both occupied his imagaination. That meant I drove to Disneyland and California Adventure where he has a regular gig as part of several of the “atmosphere” bands. As well he plays clubs and bars, theaters and back rooms across the city and country for huge swing dance followings.

But the art is something that he’s been working on quietly over the years and it evokes, visually, the music that he finds himself most happy sailing around in. It’s also a powerful trigger of memory for those of us who have watched Los Angeles move away from us.

From the piece:

Reynolds knows it can be treacherous business dealing in nostalgia. There are all manner of trick wires, trap doors and uncomfortable — “Whose nostalgia?” — truths to confront. But as a musician and painter who firmly situates himself in the landscape of history and memory, conveying a sense of home, especially in a constantly remade Los Angeles, is its own tight-wire act. The things that both located and grounded you are sometimes gone before you can make full sense of them: “You look up one day and there’s just an empty lot and a tractor.”

For Reynolds, a fifth-generation Southern Californian, history has a heavy presence. It’s palpable at every turn. It’s often a past that most people can no longer discern: It’s been bulldozed, retrofitted, rethought or stuccoed-over. That’s why his creative output, for as long as he can remember, has been dedicated to bringing those stories to the surface and rekindling unfinished conversations about place: “I guess you can say I’m haunted —  in a positive and negative way,” he reflects. “I’m sorry that so much of it — that feeling is gone — but I am glad that I can remember it.” And there’s legacy to protect.

Months ago, I visited his home studio in Glendale and got a sense of his history (he’s the grandson old-Hollywood actress ZaSu Pitts) and over the last four decades has worked in music ensembles that specialize in playing early-20th Century popular music. The mosaic of images below are from that afternoon visit (before our walk around the “ghost” houses of Pasadena).

You can read the piece here at Artbound.  And check John’s page here for info about  upcoming shows.




John S. Reynolds at The Brand Library Art Center – Photo by Lynell George

The Pivot


make room for chance

PROFESSIONALLY, I’VE been traipsing after artists for quite some time. Not just shadowing them, but listening,  watching and chronicling.


Over time, I’ve found myself most drawn to those who seem to make unexpected leaps; pivots that might look like unimaginable next-stops in the artist’s evolution.

It’s a part of the creative process that artists don’t always talk about aloud — the “it’s just the way I work”-reflex of seeking or problem solving.

Sometimes a resolution can be happened upon quickly. Sometimes a fix might leave the seeker at some vague a fork in the road. Other times, that path chosen might lead to what might appear to be a brick wall or disaster — but really it’s a beginning. And they must keep going.

Those who master this art of feeling comfortable in uncertainty and begin trust the process of traveling through the dark can unlock places inside themselves that they never knew existed. Breakthroughs often mean just that — a shattering of the old on the way to the new — and it’s trusting that the road to those new territories will come, but they may come with bumps and ruts and consternating switchbacks.


trust the dark and your dopeness

A month or so ago the editor of LMU Magazine approached with a question about “success”

What are we supposed to do in life and how do we figure out how to do it? 

We had a great talk which had me circling back to some artists that  I have kept in close touch with over the years, and about how much of their “success” has been shaped by chance — more specifically the serendipitous moments that have been the gift of those encounters.

As well, I revisited an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with a  writer freind about how much of our ability to live a fully open creative life is about learning that when adversity  happens — and it always does — that learning to how to mindfully pivot is essential  How to land and roll is the key not just to the next creative pursit  but survival.

From my piece:

We want to map a plan — a life — that’s what both our conscience and the culture tells us; a life/plan that nudges us toward “success” and ultimately a precisely articulated and fully realized you. The trouble with this premise is that what we already know too often obstructs what we might come to know — if we’re open to it. That’s the juncture where chance lies — and where serendipity — and often the greatest possibility can step in.

We think we can outline a foolproof strategy, one that keeps us on track, moving forward, but things break, sever, snap and shatter all of the time. Plans fizzle, promises are broken, things fall apart. Both life and the language we use to describe our derailments and defeats tell us that.

Planning, however, doesn’t stave off the inevitable detours that present themselves: There are moments when patterns are broken for us, and moments when we choose to break them. What happens when we walk into that void, that open question, is the first step toward the unknown and where faith and chance can take us.

As a journalist who writes about people who make elegant, jaw-dropping leaps — creatives who ultimately conceive beyond-category art, music and food, or design vibrant community landscapes or networks — I see many who seem to share a key trait: the ability to pivot, to “see in the dark.” The darkness in this case is uncertainty: blind turns and difficult passages that we all must navigate at some point to find our way to the next phase, chapter, summit. Why, I wondered, are some better at the pivot than others? That facility begins with feeling comfortable in the space of the unknown.

What I’ve been learning as I dig deeper into the project is that all this shadowing, listening, chronicling is finally adding up to learning.

To be continued…

You can read the rest of the essay  here. 

A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

WHEN WE think about the place we’re from, what we are really pondering is something something much deeper than a recitation of street and family names. How you get there and who lived where, tell just one layer of the story.

Here in Los Angeles, for as long as I can remember,  I’ve noticed when someone wants to place (or categorize) you, the first question often is: “What high school did you go to?” Geography/affiliation is supposed to give away an essential clue or bIMG_9665uilding block.  (Or feeds a perception.) But with so many remade Southland neighborhoods, that location on the map we once knew so well for decades, may vanish overnight. Consequently, we hold onto our neighborhoods most reliably,  and most vividly,  in our heads, and through a series of personal sense memories.

Poet, playwright and journalist Jerry Quickley deeply understands this. For the last seven months, in collaboration with Center Theatre Group and the Community as Creators project, he has been working closely with members of two ethnically disparate crosstown neighborhoods — Montebello and Leimert Park –to tell their stories: the histories, struggles and joys.

I’ve been peeking in and out of their work in progress since early last year,  and met with Quickley before he and his team had identified both the community “connectors” (networkers and facilitators) and the writer/actors themselves.  (I’ll be writing a  piece for CTG looking at the process and the community impact). The play, Through The Looking Glasswill fold these individual observations, histories, and remembrances into an on-stage “across the fence” conversation, but one that, as rehearsals already suggest, goes deeper than one might think.

Participants took part in several weeks of writing workshops — asking and answering questions about what it meant to be from a particular place. Drilling toward a working definition meant reaching for precise language and examples. For both groups, the goal has been to shatter misconceptions — starting with their own.

We’re getting close. This past two weeks’ rehearsals revealed something rare and beautiful about creating safe and sacred spaces for dealing with unresolved business  and their attendant emotions — something this city is still rife with.  The play will be performed both in Leimert Park and Montebello with a final performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on February 8.

For more information about the project and upcoming performances click here.


The combined cast of Through the Looking Glass in rehearsal at @CTGLA in DTLA                 All photos by Lynell George

Notes from the Nomad

  FALL IS here just about, though the temps are  still spiking into the high 90s.  It’s typical L.A. Indian Summer. That’s why I had an early-morning visit this week with the artist Dominique Moody. She’s been taking her artist’s residence on wheels on short trips around Southern California.  It’s a tiny house, but one built by a trained assemblage artist. Both portrait and theater, Moody’s Nomad is the product of a series of serendipitous encounters that very early on took root in her imagination. 

I wrote about her for KCET’s Artbound not too long ago. She’s almost ready to take the first of her longer journeys. 

Here are some quick moments from my visit in Altadena. 

More to come.    

What Happened to the Creative Class?


“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury like a vacation home. Just as a democratic nation benefits from a large, secure, and informed middle class, so too we need a robust creative class. Painting a landscape or playing a jazz solo does not guarantee that an individual will become nobler or more virtuous. But a broad-based class making its living in culture ensures a better society. This book is about why they are worth saving.”

— Scott Timberg. from “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class”

We’ll be in Larchmont Village on Thursday discussing the shifting landscape of the arts.
Bring your stories.

The Open-Ended Road

FOR ABOUT two years now, I have been following artist Dominique Moody’s story. I mentioned Dominique here just a couple of posts back as we were finishing up the final stages of this part of her journey.


She has been working on constructing a tiny, mobile dwelling — The Nomad — that will not only both be her residence and her studio — but in many ways a stage.

Moody has been deeply enmeshed in the process of collage and assemblage for decades, but this piece is in certain ways the one she’s been working toward for decades. It will allow her, as an artist, to move into regions where she won’t only be an artist in residence, but an artist with residence — a sense of home, a sense of rootedness — something she has struggled with for much of her life.

The photos below show the NOMAD just a few months back in Pasadena. My full piece about Dominique just went up yesterday, here, at KCET’s Artbound blog.




all photos: copyright Lynell George


LAST WEEK, in just the space of one day, I was reminded both how big and small Los Angeles can seem.

My morning had started with a quick trip up into the hills of Altadena to meet up with the artist Dominique Moody. I’ve been following Moody for over a year as she began work on a large-scale assemblage piece that she defines as a “mobile work of art.” IMG_3082
More on all of that soon when my piece goes live, but in many ways this new phase will allow Moody to use the very landscape she travels through as both medium and canvass.

She’s rounding the corner on completion, so in order to tie up the last bits of reporting we found a corner of time to meet. I had an ulterior motive, I also wanted to take her by a another artist-designed home project I’d stumbled upon. We made the quick commute east and I left my car just feet away so we could have the sensation of walking into this wonderland sunk in the middle of sleepy, otherwise nondescript SoCal stucco-and-bungalow residential street. She was taken by the textures and the colors and the resonances and echoes she has seen in other works much like this (like my earlier Mosaic House visit).

As it so happened, the home is the landing pad of the artist Shrine, whose work has been a familiar recurring motif at outdoor festivals and events like Burning Man and Coachella. I had just happened to stumble on it last year while on a neighborhood walk. IMG_3089Magical, truly. A collision of color and bouncing light. Spires of tile and bone rising out of the spot where most homes would be fronted by an apron of lawn.  We stood transfixed. Looking at swirls of old crockery; doll heads and twisted metal. And in what feels like more meaningful synchronicity than fleeting coincidence, Shrine has a piece — the Empire of Love Shack — in exhibition that just opened last weekend at the California Folk Art Museum on the Miracle Mile. Like Moody, Shrine’s materials are reclaimed from the landscape — all manner of toss-asides and repurposed bits and pieces. IMG_3091
What were the chances? Two artists whose work echo similar impulses, but who travel within distinctly different creative circles — yet live an easy ten minutes away from the other.  The odds, I learned, were a lot smaller than I would have ever guessed.

I went took the long drive across town to take a quick peek at Shrine’s “Love Shack” at CFAM yesterday –this photo doesn’t do it justice … I will be back. With Dominique.