This is the last portrait of John Lipsey, my friend and long-time resident of one of the most difficult undeserved neighborhoods remaining in LA county, the infamous “Scottsdale” in the City of Carson. This is the place neighboring with my old studio of 14 years where my award wining Love My Neighbor project originated and made a well-recognized impact as an art intervention project since 2016. “Scottsdale” Carson is the perfect symbol for all the systemic failures in our inner cities as well the treasures of humanity who are abundant there and form the bedrock of our society despite their economic rock bottom.
John is a remarkable example of such a human treasure. He loved sitting for me. As we worked he shared with me many of his memories.
John was from Mississippi. When he was just 6 years old his Dad went to get food for him on a pouring rain, got drenched and died of double pneumonia. As John put it “in 1947 Mississippi “antibiotics were too good for blacks”. I asked him if he remembered segregation. He sure did. The bathrooms at bus stops. The movie theaters. When him and his friends went to the movies, they’d sit in “blacks only” section on a balcony. Some white kids would go in a section above them and spit on them. And throw trash. And urinate. He remembers Emmett Till’s body pulled out of Tallahatchie River. John was on the bank of that river that day. A witness to history.
Remarkable in his observations, he told me during the sitting as I started a development stage of my first portrait of him: “It’s the first time I am seeing real me”.
This is the third portrait I did of him. John has recently passed away but his remarkable personal story, reflecting the story of the nation and the story of inner-city strife and humanity is what I wanted to crystallize in this painting as a tribute to my friend.
As one of Carson’s founders, Mary Anne O’Neal, is a true icon of the Carson community. A great-granddaughter of slaves who grew up on a farm in Arkansas, this 91-year-young woman leads her life by example. In a world of “its all about me,” she believes in today’s “unfashionable” notions such as serving others before oneself and helping a neighbor in need. Mrs. O’Neal is an inspiring, vibrant and kind human being, the kind that binds the world together. A rare soul, but one that still exists in every community.
This is the live drawing study for a painting. These kind of works rely entirely on the strong, truthful and emotional portrayal of a unique individual. The painting that I had in mind for Cirilo had to be a complete embodiment of this approach.
The strength and conviction of the character portrayal was essential to hold this complex work together. Developing the dimensional understanding of the underlying forms and of the proportional underpinning to their organization was the key to achieve it. That was the purpose and the function of this drawing that I executed in three live sessions.
Following my concept that special neighbors exist in every condition, I was fortunate to find a remarkable and inspiring character in Cirilo Campos, a beloved 75 year old “Scottsdale” gardener.
He came from the Guadalajara region in Mexico in 1965 and called “Scottsdale” home for 19 years. He has worked here non-stop for 30 years and would not quit. At his age, he is still the hardest working, fastest walking and the heaviest lifting on the whole crew. He would not sit or even slow down until the very minute he could punch his card for a lunch break. Working right is his way of life. In that place of not many sentiments, there is no one who would not love and respect him because it’s simply impossible.
Mr. Lipsey is from Mississippi. When I did this portrait he was 77. He came to LA in 1972. When he was just 6 years old his Dad went to get food for him on a pouring rain, got drenched and died of double pneumonia. As Mr. Lipsey puts it – in 1947 Missisippi “antibiotics were too good for blacks”. I asked him if he remembers segregation. He sure does. The bathrooms at bus stops. The movie theaters. When him and his friends went to the movies, they’d sit in the “blacks only” section of the balcony. Some white kids would go in a section above them and throw trash on them. And spit. And urinate. He remembers Emmett Till’s body pulled out of Tallahatchie River.
Mr. Lipsey is one of the oldest residents of “Scottsdale” Carson. Some old timers call him “The Seed and The Root”. He is a big man of not many words. He’s got a certain manner of speaking that sometimes it’s even difficult to make up what he’s saying without starting to listen very intently. Once I got “attuned”, I was amazed by the spot on kinness of his immediate judgements and observations. He is a great sitter. Once he finally took a break, got up and looked at the beginning stage of my drawing he said: “You drawing inside out”. I was blown away because this is exactly how I describe my approach to the students and very often see their puzzled expressions. Not with Mr. Lipsey. He amazed me few more times throughout our fabulous sessions.
Remarkable in his observations, he told me at the middle of last session as I begun to develop the drawing: “It’s the first time I am seeing real me”.
Ricardo Echevarria, “Ricky” was for years my next door neighbor. His indoor soccer field was directly next to my Carson studio.
Ricky is a survivor of a horrendous car crash that left him in a coma and his face disfigured. After many months of reconstructive surgeries and recovery, he was left unrecognizable even to his neighbors. To hide from prying eyes, he covered himself in tattoos that would grab all the attention. Ricky healed fully, his face is now truly beautiful and he regrets his tattoo decision.
Now he gracefully shares the gratitude for the miracle of his recovery with others. He is supporting the local children’s soccer team and has built and runs a fully-regulated professional indoor soccer rink for the kids and adults. In the time since finishing his portrait last year, Ricky’s youth soccer team, “The Kickers” won …trophies and is currently the California Champion.
Ricky’s face and demeanor carries a truly noble and refined expression of victory over unimaginable suffering and adversity. A local hero that every neighborhood should have.
Uncle Lincoln has been my good friend and neighbor at Carson studio for over ten years.
He is a native Hawai’i ukulele master who, along with his wife Auntie Sissy, a hula dance teacher, is deeply involved with preserving and revitalizing the Hawaiian culture and its way of life. “Ukulele Player” is an emotionally-charged representation of a truthful and authentic dedication to one’s cultural heritage.
Drawing Mr. Leon live was a very special experience. At the time I did the drawing, Mr. Leon was 101 years old and Carson’s oldest resident. He was from Puerto Rico. In the middle of our first session, I realized he was a D Day Veteran. It was a cathartic moment. With his permanently diminishing physical strength, making each word was a deliberate task that required massive concentration of precious energy, he’d say once and again: “I was in D Day”.
At this moment, his entire demeanor would change as if he heard the hell of incoming fire. His features would inexplicably take a forceful expression of complete determination.
These were moments of pure Beauty. Inside his feeble body, the same Spirit would wake up that led him out of the landing craft and through the water and onto the sand of Omaha.
Later, I found out from his son that Mr. Leon was a company C368 engineer in a general service regiment. He was part of the fourth wave on D Day with army serial #32704097.
“There was German fire coming down on us from the top on the right,” Mr. Leon was telling me as I kept drawing, completely overtaken by a sense of awe “Then the guys who were there before us got on’em from the side…they had to turn their fire away from us and on them, soon they were shooting no more. That’s why I made it through the water…that’s why I lived. Someone died so I lived.”
He also told me what I never heard before. On his landing craft, the order to jump out was given too early by their officer. The water was still too deep. Those who jumped first drowned under the weight of their gear.
It was amazing to see how in his diminishing body, some ideas that formulated over a lifetime still gave him the burst of forceful conviction. What he was saying felt as if it was overheard from another world.
One of his recurring thoughts worth pondering today: “Politicians are all the same. They want to get everything for themselves, that’s all. All of them.”
Another thought that was important to him and he would repeat again and again: “Learn history, if you know history, you know what’s going on today”
Mr. Leon passed not long after our meeting at a beautiful age of 102, a true hero next door whose bravery and wisdom will live forever.
So much wisdom and dignity in this disappearing generation of true fighters.
Throughout 2020 – 2021 Alexey Steele was not slowed down by the pandemic and dopted his award-winning program with innovative remote live portrait sessions and live casts translating his pandemic experiences into a new body of work of the Love My Neighbor Series. Alexey Steele kept showcasing special neighbors through his art in a technology powered virtual sessions.
This portrait of Mr. Lipsey Alexey Steele did right in midst of the pandemic. Mr. Lipsey was one of the elder residents at risk in one of the toughest remaining neighborhoods of LA county, the infamous “Scottsdale” ” in the City of Carson where the Love My Neighbor Project originated and where artist conducted his emergency relief work continuously during the pandemic. “His expression in his mask struck me with the depth of his emotion, resilience and determination” says Alexey
Janet Cameron Hault is a long time Culver City resident and Poet Laureate for Culver City.
Dr. Hoult has a rich history of service and contribution to a cultural and civic life in Culver City and was instrumental in establishing its Artist Laureate Program. During the pandemic Dr. Hault was also at a higher risk of contraction and of a severe impact of COVID-19 due to her age and underlying health conditions. In order to fulfill my vision of portraying Dr. Hault live for the Love My Neighbor project in midst of the health emergency, I have developed a distant-live approach.
Dr. Hault remained in self-isolation in her home maintaining contact with me via Facetime session which was transmitted to a TV screen at my studio while I was working on this portrait as if my model was sitting right in front of me. To make the live session public it will be streamed live to Facebook and viewers will be invited the same way as if the session were held at public venue in Culver City as was originally planned.
In addition to the goals of Love My Neighbor project this portrait also meant to raise awareness of protecting most vulnerable segments of our society at the time of pandemic while reaffirming our enduring ability to persevere, overcome and recover as a community.
Showcasing personal stories of my heroes are an important component of the Love My Neighbor Series and overall project. The portrait sessions with Rich Yamashita were special and powerful.
Members of Rich’s family as Japanese Americans were interned into US concentration camps or exiled from California to a designated areas during WWII. Instead of letting bitterness take hold the family stoically persevered.
Throughout his highly successful life, including his ten year leadership of local cub scout pack 79, Rich adopted as his personal motto and philosophy the old Japanese principle “ Ichi – go, Ichi – ei” – Once In a Lifetime. He also embraced scouting as fully reflecting his belief.
Rich shared with us the source of his embrace of scouting. During the tragic events of WWII in America, which swept his family, many civic organizations in US turned their back on Japanese American prisoners. Only very few, one of which, boyscoutsofamerica, had never betrayed or left behind its scouts unjustly imprisoned in their own land and continued serving them behind barbed wire.
We learn hard lessons of history and building better future remembering them.
That Rich’s story affected me deeply. Right as I was drawing him. This is why I do everything to make my portraits live.
This portrait is part of my ongoing “Love My Neighbor” Series dedicated to the diverse and remarkable often overlooked everyday heroes whom, in my view, form the bedrock of our community.
The portrait was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic with the specially developed by me “distant-live” method with my model posing remotely from their house via Face Time while I was working on the portrait in my Long Beach studio. The sessions were livecasted to Face Book and were part of my Artist Laureate tenure in Culver City, Ca.
George Kahn is a long time Culver City musician and my next door neighbor in the Blanco Park neighborhood. Along with his wife Diana, an esteemed singer herself, he put his art in the service of our neighbors during the most uncertain and fearful months of the Covid pandemic. In a remarkable socially distanced Singing Rudman project, together, we were able to help lift the spirits of our neighbors in the darkest hour with the essential and healing power of art.
George is the perfect example of a local quiet hero that the Love My Neighbor project celebrates.
Candance Denise Pilgram-Simmons is my amazing Culver City neighbor. Her beloved by many All That & More boutique is around the corner from our house. She is a long time Fox Hills neighborhood resident and a neighbor of my inlaws there. Her all embracing smile is a Fox Hills icon. She is a living, breathing embodiment to a Love of her Neighbors.
Her Love has a history as deep as it is meaningful. She knows inequity not form the books or media. Candance’s Father came to California in 1957 from Lexington Mississippi. There he picked cotton for ten years of his young life, from the age of seven to seventeen. He grew up through segregation. He moved to California for better life that he knew up to that point and married his high school sweet heart. The family settled in South Central in the land of Crips gang, street wars, violence and multitude of beautiful neighbors.
The harsh reality formed Simmons family values – hate takes you no where, it destroys you internally, the power to persevere through adverse world is Love and giving help to others. When it was time for Candance to build her own life, these were the principles on which she decided to build it. From South Central she chose to come to Culver City. She remembers driving here with her mother and falling in love with it. Fox Hills was a place of aspiration for many in South Central African American community. She came to Culver City for its safety, for its police response time, for its diversity. The Meadows in Fox Hills was a place of dream. It is said that several members from the 1980’s Lakers team lived in the Meadows. Upon moving there she went through her new neighborhood door to door introducing herself. Many embraced her immediately, someone never even open a door.
Inspired by her Mothers’ ethos of helping people and taking risks, Candance eventually opened her boutique store that became part of the community. This loyal community following is what helped Candance and her business to persevere through the economic ravage of the COVID19 pandemic. While Harvard was getting millions in government small business assistance the main street family businesses took the brant of the economic wrath from which it would take years to recover. In a very real and survival way it is the principles learned from her Mom and Dad that helped Candance to make through it. “The love is what carried me through the pandemic” say Candance, “We have to experience love that we see, the love that we share with our neighbors, our community and our world.”
As we talk with Candance in her store, the widely beaming couple enters, some of the loyal friends and patrons: “To me Candace is a blender, she blends all different people together” says James Maull of Baldwin Hills.
It is very special and meaningful that with the portrait of Candance Simmons as part of my ongoing Love My Neighbor Series we are celebrating United Against Hate Week in Culver City.