Monday, July 24, 2017

Photo Essay: Arto Tile, Made In California

I'd never heard of the company Arto Brick before, but I'd seen its work.

Whether it was the tile restoration at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel or the Spring Street-facing courtyard of Los Angeles City Hall...

... the Ace Hotel or the above-ground pavilion entrance to the Mariachi Plaza subway station in Boyle Heights...

... or the fancy wine bar on Melrose (zinqué) and the fancy taco place that replaced St. Nick's on Third Street (Toca Madera)...

...I'd been surrounded by the company's tile and brickwork since I'd first started coming to LA 17 years ago. I just didn't know it.

Maybe it's because there are so many other tilemakers from Southern California whose names have big marquee value, like Malibu Tile, Catalina Tile, Gladding McBean, and, of course, Batchelder.

Arto, on the other hand, has been both designing and handcrafting bricks, cladding, wall tile, and pavers at its factory in the South Bay city of Gardena for over 50 years now—without the celebrity status.

Its owners and operators, brothers Vod and Armen Alajian, have kept the business feeling like family—even after the 2014 passing of their dad, Arto, the namesake and founder of the company.

Though Arto the man, born and raised in Egypt as a child refugee from the Armenian Genocide, began his career in craftsmanship in Cairo by making leather shoes with his father (Vod and Armen's grandfather), he eventually found his way to the U.S. in 1962.

At one point, Arto did work for the Adamson family (of Malibu Tile fame), but it was delivering milk and not making tiles. It wasn't until later that he started his work in ceramics with his mentor, clay artist, ceramicist, and sculptor Irene Berchtenbreiter.

That's when he turned his new craft into a business—Arto the company—with the help of his brothers, nephews, and whoever else he could wrangle.

And now Vod and Armen (pictured above) have taken the reins and kept the same spirit, employing childhood friends and making their other employees part of the family.

On the factory tour, you can literally see newly-fired floor tiles (like those found at the Roosevelt) drying in the sun, in both the "Mission Red" and "Cotto Gold" colors.

They may look like terra cotta, but the energy crisis in the 1970s forced the company to switch over from clay to concrete.

The art is really in how to make concrete (and now, cement as well) have an "old world" look...

...but also carry the cost savings of a less energy-dependent material (and maintain quality while increasing recycled content).

The artistry is even more evident in the "deco" tiles that the company's design division, Arto Tile Studio, has been producing...

...reviving that classic "California" look of vintage, decorative tile...

...with literally every piece painted by hand.

And that means they can be fully customized with whichever colors and glazes you want—either within their predesigned line drawings or as a completely new design.

Color variation, of course, is inherent in any product that's as handcrafted as these are. But that's what makes any Mission Revival home, Arabesque patio, or Roman-style pool look authentically antique (a.k.a. Antik) and yet very Californian.

Just like real clay, travertine, or limestone, the concrete and cement bricks and tiles are designed to evolve over time—developing a patina that will supposedly "enhance the character of the material" and serve as "a record of the life around it."

Because no matter what you're made of or where you're from, you can't help but have some California rub off on you if you spend enough time here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Before Malibu Was Malibu
Photo Essay: Taking Pause at Serra Retreat
Photo Essay: Tile House, Hollywood Hills
Photo Essay: Midwick View Estates, Unfinished & Foreclosed
Photo Essay: Aimee's Castle on the Lake
Photo Essay: Searching for Gold Under Scotty's Castle

Sunday, July 23, 2017

In Praise of The Goat Gaze

"The Male Gaze" gets all of the attention by gender academics. But right now, I don't care how men see me or even that men see me.

Men can gaze at me all they want, if they even want to, but I don't want to devote any thought to it.

It's impossible, though, to happily go through life without anyone or anything gazing at you—and without being able to gaze back.

So, I figure: if not people, then animals.

Cats might stare at you—out of curiosity or intimidation—but once you meet their gaze, the challenge is on. They'll retreat, or they'll attack.

The best thing you can do with cats is not to avert your eyes altogether, but to "slow blink." You look at them, slowly close your eyes, keep them closed for a beat, and then slowly open them back up.

It works like a charm—and the kitty likely will mirror the behavior back at you, like some ancient bowing ritual.

Aiming your slow blink in the general direction of a cat—rather than keeping your eyes open and locking them with theirs—says to them, "I trust you enough to close my eyes in your presence, and likewise I pose no threat to you."

It's not love, per se—but it is a contract of loyalty, and it feels good.

Dogs, on the other hand, have the gift of the good gaze. They stare directly into your soul, and they allow you to stare into theirs.

Dogs are better able to articulate the muscles in their faces, too, which is why they seem to have so much more personality—and emotional connection to humans—than cats do. Cats, of course, do smile, but you have to have gotten really close up to them in order to be able to see it.

But there's another domesticated animal that both gazes and smiles at you—just as much as a dog does, though it's considered a "non-companion" animal.

Hence, the "goat gaze."

I've experienced it myself in my encounters with goats, of course...

...but personal experience can be unreliable, since it's easy to anthropomorphize animals you spend a little time with.

Goats are goats and not humans—nor dogs, nor cats—so, in order to understand goat behavior, you've got to study goats in a goat world. (I say this with some level of hypocrisy, having just taken a yoga class with baby goats wearing pajamas, which isn't a very natural thing for goats to do.)

About a year ago, the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology Letters published a study on the gazing behavior of goats—specifically, that directed towards humans—that more or less confirms the evidence I've amassed empirically.

Using dogs as a comparison—since domesticated canines communicate with humans through eye contact in a way that wild wolves do not—the authors found that goats similarly need human-facing contact in order to complete a task.

That is, they need to be looked at, as much as they need to look.

You might not expect this from an animal that was domesticated primarily for production—meat, milk, offspring—rather than for companionship.

But, of course, goats also make great companions.

And when you're with them, it's not enough to be present.

You need to be paying attention to them.

That's why when others were perfecting their "mountain" poses and attempting the one-legged Vrikshasana without toppling over, I found myself still sitting on my yoga blanket, letting the goats—the mamas and the daughters—come to me.

At one point I think I had four goats next to me and on my lap while the rest of the class was practicing their Chaturanga—earning me the nickname "The Goat Whisperer" among my classmates.

But I think it's just because when the goats looked at me...

...I looked back.

And that is considered, on both our parts I guess, an "enhanced communication skill."

In my experience (though not that of the researchers), it doesn't have anything to do with food—a prime motivator for both dogs and cats.

In fact, at this yoga class, we had no treats to ply the goats with—and yet they came and sat on my lap and crawled on my belly and jumped on the back of a fellow yogini anyway.

And somehow, the authenticity of the interaction with them made it a much better experience—though I didn't do much more than five minutes of the yoga class.

My time was better spent scratching a pajama-wearing baby goat behind her ears, under her chin, and down both sides of her neck. And besides, if I would stop—to pet a different goat, to scratch my nose, or to get a drink of water—she would start to bleat and nose at me so I'd turn my face towards hers.

This behavior of goats—which is dependent not only on the orientation of the human body but also of the human head (that is, whether or not you're looking directly at them)—has been seen not only in dogs but also horses.

And perhaps the most telling of all is that these goat behaviors, which aren't exclusive to the kids but are shared by the adults, are also found in human toddlers.

That makes more of an impediment to practicing yoga, but it also provides an impetus to actually try yoga. More than a few other people at these classes are trying yoga for the first time—just because of the goats.

And the goats—not just their presence, but also their gaze—is what's brought me back to yoga, after years of trying it and hating it.

This particular "goat yoga" experience at Lavenderwood Farm in Thousand Oaks was the best one I've had so far, with the friendliest, cuddliest goats and the most respectful, least narcissistic students.

But I don't think I'll stop there—because the more I learn about goats or cows or cats or birds or alpacas or mules or horses, the more I learn about myself and the world around me.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Yoga With Baby Goats
Goat Yoga Revelations

Monday, July 17, 2017

LA's Grand Central: Where Old and New Neon Collide

When you talk about "Grand Central" in LA, it's not in reference to a train station. Our Grand Central doesn't have a "Whispering Gallery" or a transit museum or a tunnel that leads to the Waldorf-Astoria.

What Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles does share with Grand Central Terminal in New York City (besides a tunnel, though I'm not sure where the LA one leads) is an eclectic food hall.

So what does Grand Central Market have that the "Dining Concourse" in Manhattan doesn't? Lots of neon signs.

Visit Grand Central Market, and you'd think that the art of neon is alive and well in LA, with so many new vendors using the "liquid fire" to advertise their businesses.

And it's true, neon is alive in the City of Angels...

...but for decades, headlines and preservationists have been calling it a "dying art."

Others say it's having a resurgence in LA—and that may be thanks to some of those new eateries and retailers that have embraced the electrified propaganda and the nostalgia that surrounds those colored tubes filled with noble gases.

Here, they kind of have to—since signing a Grand Central vendor lease means you to agree to install a neon sign.

And that's how it should be for these upstart, non-legacy tenants, especially if they're going to be moving into buildings that are over a century old (the Homer Laughlin Building was built in 1896, and Grand Central opened on its ground floor in 1917)...

...and intermingling with veteran businesses that have been vending there for 15 or even 50 years.

Sarita's Pupuseria has been operating out of Grand Central since 1983.

Torres Produce opened in 1985—and its owner has already had to relinquish one of his stalls to make way for a member of the "new wave" to arrive.

La Huerta, a so-called "orchard" of candy and snacks, opened in 1999, nearly 20 years ago now.

Although its ownership has changed a few times, China Cafe has been slinging California-Chinese food on Broadway since 1959.

And one of the market's oldest and original tenants from its grand opening day, Valeria's, stands in stark contrast to its similarly-named neighbor, Valerie—which was one of the first of the "new guard" to come into Grand Central in 2013.

What was once a one-stop shopping destination for spices, meats, breads, cheese, and other grocery staples—in addition to a grab-and-go meal—is still a destination of sorts, but now it's drawing a different kind of crowd.

Among its long lines and crowded tables, you'll find diners and drinkers clamoring for craft beer, gourmet coffee, artisanal cheese, and house-made pastrami.

It's not all that different, actually. But the prices have gone up—and the people who frequent the market now are those who can afford them.

I'll admit that when I first visited Grand Central Market back in 2012—when it was untouched by gentrification—I didn't like it very much. Now, I quite enjoy getting a bite to eat there before a show at the Million Dollar Theatre next door. And I can't wait to see how it continues to evolve (especially if the lower level can be spiffed up a bit).

I just hope that neon clause in the lease continues to be enforced.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Treasures of an LA Tourist Trap, Universal Studios
Photo Essay: The Neon of LA, and Its One Darkened Dragon
Photo Essay: Fremont Street Experience, Vegas