Friday, January 20, 2017

Photo Essay: A Presidential Retreat in Palm Springs

Wait, this is the desert?

It's no wonder that U.S. presidents like to come to Sunnylands.

And it's no wonder this is pretty close to where Barack and Michelle Obama went after transitioning the power of the White House over to our new Commander-in-Chief.

What Camp David has been to U.S. presidents and other dignitaries on the East Coast, Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage has been on the West Coast.

After all, who wouldn't want to come here for a retreat or a meeting to discuss international relations, AIDS research, and homeland security?

It's certainly welcoming.

It's the kind of place where you could put your differences aside...

...and really get something done.

But Sunnylands wasn't built as a facility for politics or even political recreation—not originally, anyway. It was simply the winter residence of Walter Annenberg, the creator of TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, and his wife Leonore, who stayed there five months out of the year from 1966 to 2009.

Of course, in addition to his success in publishing, Annenberg also became the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. It was he who introduced Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher.

For their main residence, the Annenbergs didn't select a historic style but rather commissioned architect A. Quincy Jones to make a statement with a midcentury modern design.

For its first 40 years, the Annenbergs entertained U.S. presidents (seven in total), fellow ambassadors, and celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the like—sharing their oasis in a grand gesture of hospitality.

But by the year 2012, when they'd both passed on, their plan that Sunnylands "be used to advance world peace"—and that the public would finally have access to it—was set into motion.

While the public is allowed "behind the pink wall," as they say, past those Mexican lava stone walls...

...around the cul-de-sac with that Mexican totem pole...

...and even through the front door...

...all photography privileges are revoked as soon as you walk in.

After all, it's still a matter of national security.

It's a funny thing, because Richard Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after resigning from the presidency in disgrace, while Reagan celebrated multiple New Year's Eve celebrations there. (They still keep a dish of jellybeans out for him.)

Walter and "Lee" were actually both buried on the 200-acre property, so they're still sort of around to play host and hostess to whomever may come for a visit. (After all, Lee was "Chief of Protocol"—a.k.a. hospitality and diplomacy—during the Reagan administration.)

They were both philanthropists, born into Jewish families, who loved arts and nature.

Walter himself perhaps put it best when he said:

"A man's service to others must be at least in ratio to the character of his own success in life. 
When one is fortunate enough to gain a measure of material well being, however small, 
service to others should be uppermost in his mind." - Walter H. Annenberg (1951)

They donated both to the Met Museum in NYC and the United Negro College Fund (the largest donation the organization has ever received).

Perhaps that's why our new president hasn't shown much interest in visiting Sunnylands, preferring to retreat to his own Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

But that's OK, because Sunnylands will continue to be open to the public and anyone else who wants to come visit, play nine holes on its golf course, stroll its gardens, watch the birds, and taste the olive oil pressed from the fruits of its own olive trees at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Annenberg Community Beach House, Hearst's Lost Gold Coast
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints
Photo Essay: USS Iowa, The Last of the Battleships

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Photo Essay: A Different Type of Church

We may not all have religion, but we all have a church.

Some worship at the temple of money. Others bow down to an altar of booze or a shrine of sex.

For years, music was my religion—and I took the sacrament every time I visited a record store and flipped through the racks.

If I were listless or loss, I'd get on my knees to dig through the crates and find salvation in some rare import or collectors edition.

There was nothing to confess and nothing to forgive, because I'd be baptized every time I walked through the door.

But it's been a long time since I went to church and lined up for communion. Ever since I left my music industry career (hopefully, for good), I no longer feel like a member of the clergy or the congregation. And every time I've tried, I just haven't felt the same exultation.

So I stopped trying.

I don't think much of my former churchgoing days, but I was reminded of them when I visited a different house of worship yesterday: Church of Type.

This is the kingdom of letterpress—an analog and archaic art form that was once embraced by record labels, musicians, and concert promoters alike (until they ran out of money).

And as I flipped through the plastic-sleeved posts and prints that had been printed from hand-carved wood blocks and hand-set type...

...I felt a twinge for the old days of my belief system, before I cast it aside.

In 2006, I'd visited Nashville because it was a music town—and while I was there, between visits to the Grand Ol' Opry and Ryman Auditorium, I'd made my pilgrimage to the studio where so many of those old concert posters had been created, Hatch Show Print.

Without Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Church of Type in Santa Monica might not exist.

But letterpress isn't the opiate of the music industry anymore—so it's moved on to other types of liturgy.

And at Church of Type, instead of merely promoting something else (like a boxing match or a political candidate), these prints have begun to convey their own message...

...featuring stories written on the fly by the print shop's owner and founder, Kevin Bradley.

After all, he said, everyone else he met when he moved to LA from Tennessee in 2013 ended up being a writer or a screenwriter.

He thought he might as well join their ranks.

Although it might make his work a lot easier (and faster), Bradley doesn't use any computers to create his prints.

And what he doesn't carve himself, he has spent a lot of time collecting.

Some of his wood blocks are literally hundreds of years old.

He's been averse to try to buy any of them off the letterpress old-timers who are apt to use them till they die...

...but he's not too shy to tell them, "I'll take 'em when you're done with 'em," put the money done now, and wait for the call.

This craft isn't for everybody, You've got to have a knack for reading (and spelling) in the mirror image of what the final product will be.

But not a lot of other people are out there doing this antique approach, so Bradley can really make it his own.

After spending two hours at Church of Type, my fingertips were black-dusted and I was sneezing the fumes of ink out of my nose. By some grace, I'd giddily come across a rare find that I subsequently spent too much money on.

And I felt redeemed—for leaving the music industry, for being in LA, and for finding a new church.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Book Arts at the International Printing Museum
Photo Essay: Inside the Los Angeles Times, From Written to Printed
The End of an Era

Friday, January 13, 2017

Photo Essay: Night of the Living Neon

There's always this struggle between art and commerce—a conflict nearly as old as Man versus Man and Man versus Nature.

If you love to create, you have to find a way to support yourself either by selling those creations or doing something else for money.

I love to write, but I can't live off poetry and photo essays. So, I've rented my writing skills out to proofread books that other people have written about estate planning, dentistry, fatherhood, religions, and so on.  I've edited tomes on diabetes and arthritis. I've written press releases about music I don't listen to.

I prefer taking money to do work-for-hire writing (or fixing someone else's writing) over forsaking my preferred art form and doing something else that sucks my soul.

If you're lucky, you get hired to do things your way, in your style, so that you can be proud of the end result—even if it's not exactly your thing.

Fortunately for neon artist Lisa Schulte, there's still a commercial demand for neon signs—even if it has waned since its heyday.

There are still Hollywood productions that need them...

...and pop stars who want to be photographed in front of them.

It's not that the neon signs aren't art...

...or that they don't have artistic value...

...because they most certainly do.

But when you're an artist, sometimes "selling" becomes synonymous with "selling out."

Schulte actually got into glass-blowing and -bending as not so much of a neon aficionado, but merely as a light junkie.

So, she taught herself neon, but also backlit plastic and incandescent bulb signs—all of which tend to fall under the same category of signage and commercial archaeology.

For over 35 years, Schulte has amassed a gigantic collection of her work...

...which can be seen in the 15,000-foot showroom of her company, Nights of Neon.

Pretty much everything there is for rent or for sale...

...although the collection feels pretty perfect, just the way it is—which is why it's not surprising that the company rents out the space, too.

Not everything at Nights of Neon is for show—because there are several works-in-progress... various stages of completion.

Pretty much everything in the custom fabrication process is in-house, including the sketches...

...the glass tubes in various colors (that range from "Bromo Blue" to gold, green, red, pink, and white)...

......the noble gasses...

...and the electronics (and electricity).

But Schulte has got something else at Nights of Neon, too: her own art studio, for her own art.

It was only in 2010 that she started focusing more on exhibiting in galleries and museums rather than in movies and music videos...

...and what she's created so far is an interesting mix of what you'd expect with the commercial stuff (like words and letters, which have been jumbled up in her "Broken Promises" piece)...

...and what's a surprising representation of Art versus Nature.

Schulte salvages fronds from a queen palm tree, as well as other pieces of sturdy wood, and painstakingly wraps them in glowing glass tubing—without strangling them too tightly or burning them.

Schulte has earned the nickname "Neon Queen," but that's something of a misnomer.

After all, most queens don't actually do very much.

Obviously, she's also an entrepreneur, managing to stay in business since the 1980s. But she's also a collaborator, creating works with street artists (and building her "Warrior Army").

But none of that really detracts from the work that she and her team does at Nights of Neon—because when you see it, it's really spectacular.

It's not a shrine to a dead art form—or a "boneyard" of cast-offs—because pieces are constantly moving in and out. Some new ones get added, while others are sold off.

It's a living thing.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Behold, the Museum of Neon Art
Photo Essay: Hats Off to the Museum of Neon Art
Photo Essay: The Treasures of an LA Tourist Trap, Universal Studios