Dozens of Angelenos drive by elaborately tagged walls every day, yet only a few notice the artistry. Fewer still give a passing thought to the artists.
But put that same graffiti in a gallery, said photographer Dennis O. Callwood and ceramist Keiko Fukazawa, and neither is easy to dismiss.
Callwood and Fukazawa challenge assumptions about “juvie” kids and their so-called low culture through works produced in collaboration with youth at Camp Ronald McNair, a locked-down rehabilitative facility in Lancaster, Calif.
Twenty -six of these collaborative pieces – collages in Callwood’s case and reassembled bisque vessels in Fukazawa’s – will be on display at USC’s Institute for Genetic Medicine through Oct. 31.
Callwood, a Los Angles County probation officer, didn’t set out to collaborate with his charges. At first the 21-year veteran of the correctional system (and 1984 alumnus of the USC School of Fine Arts) was simply intrigued by some of the gang members’ tattoos. So he began photographing them in black and white.
When he’d accumulated so many images that he was having trouble matching them to names, it occurred to him to ask the kids to sign their pictures.
The very first teen he asked wasn’t content merely to sign, Callwood recalled: “He grabbed the photo and started decorating.”
Color was later added by a member of the Cherryville gang, who wanted a red pen to match his gang’s color.
These initial works, in which the youth responded to their own portraits on the print or frame, led to several other collaborative experiments, Callwood said, as both play and political message. Multi-media collages from the “Eye Series,” featuring stick-on eyes purchased at the Wacko novelty store, are what’s on display at USC.
Fukazawa, an adjunct instructor at USC, first discovered what she calls the “reborn vessels” as an artist in residence at a minimum-security women’s prison in Norco.
But it was only after she met Callwood – and he suggested working with “his” kids and began ferrying her pottery to Camp McNair – that the form really flowered.
Fukazawa begins by building a giant jug or plate and firing it once. She then “controlled-breaks” the bisqueware and parcels out some of the pieces (retaining others to paint herself).
Though she specifies colors – blues, greens and yellows, for instance, when working in the style of traditional Italian majolica – Fukazawa does not predetermine patterns or require particular images.
The “quilted” results sometimes surprise even her. True to her initial idea, the reborn vessels “transcend the old reality.”
Asked if she and Callwood are complicit in glorifying criminals, Fukazawa answers categorically, “We are not promoting gang activity. [The kids] are a part of society. It’s a truth, a fact we can’t deny. And these voices need to be heard.”
Not only is the product enlightening for audiences, but the process is therapeutic for the kids, said Callwood. In his art classes, warring gang members had to “find common ground through art.”
Both artists feel there’s a high aesthetic in graffiti.
“It’s a new American language,” Callwood said. “Hip-hop culture has pretty much replaced rock ‘n’ roll.”
Married in 1998, the pair is exhibiting together only for the second time. Their first show was at Cal State Bakersfield earlier in 2002. The third, they hope, will be a reprise of USC’s “Art and Deviation” in a 500-year old jail in Italy.
USC’s Institute for Genetic Medicine is on the Health Sciences Campus, at 2250 Alcazar Street. Viewing hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (323) 442-1144 for information.
Contact Inga Kiderra at (213) 740-6156.