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Notes from a traveler


I HAVE BEEN VISITING HUMBOLDT COUNTY regularly since 1990, and, besides my friends and the spectacularly beautiful countryside, one of the great pleasures of being here is the lively, vibrant artistic community. So I was particularly dismayed to read about the 86 percent cut to the California Arts Council budget last August. The long-term impact was seen recently with the announcement that the Eureka-based Ink People faced closure due to a funding shortfall of $2,500. Considering the range of projects they deliver, that comparatively small sum seems a bargain and it's shameful that they have to beg.artwork by Sarah Jackson

One of their most visible projects -- certainly for me and so, I suppose, for other visitors here -- is the Rural Burl Mural Bureau. Their public murals in Eureka are a great advertisement not only for a thriving artistic community, but also for a locality that prizes creativity and has a sense of humor. I have come to love Duane Flatmo's cartoon alley cats (G Street, between Fourth and Fifth), his seedy dogs (E Street, again between Fourth and Fifth) and the surreal urban streetscape he created by the Post Office on H Street. His current show at Gallery Dog (214 E St.) is typical of the art scene here: There's so much good art around that it often has to hang on the walls of shops for want of gallery space. Flatmo may be a celebrated muralist, but he's not too proud to compete with scented candles and fancy soaps.artwork by Anthony Johnson

[Pictured above, "High Impact" by Sarah Jackson; right, "Untitled" by Anthony Johnson]

Eureka and Arcata have gift shops galore -- for a helpless holiday shopper like myself, both towns are shopping heaven. Last year I discovered a shop in Eureka that has officially become my own personal favorite, beating off strong competition from exotic emporia where I live in London, and other great shops that have captured my heart in New York, San Francisco and Berlin. OBJX (Second and G streets) represents the last word in tastefully idiosyncratic merchandising, where the space and its disparate contents achieve an overall cohesiveness that turns the place into one big installation that yields as much pleasure in browsing as a library, department store and art museum. All this from one shop! The selection of goods on sale ranges from carefully chosen art books and cards (the Humboldt gift shop staples) to a selection of carnivorous plants, garden gnomes, antique crucifixes, stuffed animals, old dolls and mannequins, faded advertisements and one-offs like the old U.S. mailbox standing guard near the counter. That such a varied selection can all be made to appear like objects of desire is a feat in itself; that the whole shop resembles an installation that has been carefully curated by a discerning eye to produce a pseudo-Victorian sepulchral environment is nothing short of spectacular. From wonderful antiques to salvaged junk, this is not so much a shop as a realization of a creative vision so confident that I find it hard to believe the owner is not besieged with offers from fashionable urban multinationals.

Talking of creative junk, the current show at the Morris Graves Museum is worth seeing. Billed as "the Ninth Annual Junque Arte Competition and Exhibition," I confess I approached it with misgivings, expecting a parade of recycled "joke" artworks. My snotty misgivings were happily subverted by some surprisingly powerful works of art. Deborah Kallish's "Racket" is a simple study of a sleeping figure sketched over a newspaper story about domestic noise, which imposes a dignified calm on its salvaged materials, whilst Sarah Jackson's "High Impact" is a hunched figure fashioned from broken toys that speaks with a horrifying eloquence about the lasting damage of shattered innocence. Nancy Tobin's "Untitled" is a sculpture fashioned from a shop display dummy "Playtex Living Bra" and over 20 dolls' heads arranged like a floral lei, each connected to the "bra" by a plastic tube from its mouth. Fascinating and repulsive, this piece resonates with the tension between male desire and biological obligation as the perfectly formed, unsagging breasts suckle a herd of hungry children. My personal favorite is a sculpture created from three pieces of salvaged rusty metal where two parts are used to make a plinth for the third, which is a twisted section of a large manual saw. Transformed from rusty junk to gracefully mounted artwork, the elegant simplicity of this discarded piece of a saw respects the found object by leaving it essentially unchanged and allowing it to redefine itself as an essay in fluid abstraction. Well done, Anthony Johnson, for "Untitled."

These are my personal favorites in a show that, although it awarded prizes for works that were essentially sculptural one-liners (for example, Ryan Heppler's cardboard rocking chair and Shelby Walker's goldfish made from old lifejackets), once again proved the ingenuity and creative depth in this artistic community.

The Morris Graves Museum speaks volumes about this same community. An excellent building, whose salaried staff of just 4.25 persons and an army of willing volunteers manages to mount a year-round exhibition program. But take a look at the sheer size of the artistic community here, and this municipal gallery suddenly appears very small, with little hope of expansion in the current economic climate. It amounts to a small facility for such a huge community.

It's surely time that the tired old paradigm of budget cuts always hitting "luxuries" like arts organizations was rethought here. Given that Humboldt is such an inspiring creative center, shouldn't someone consider actively investing in the arts? Look at such successful examples as the Bilbao Guggenheim and London's Tate Modern: Both were huge initial expenses, but have more than repaid their investment with tourist revenue and a raised profile for the creative industries in each country. Nearer to home, San Francisco's MOMA set new precedents for successful fund-raising as virtually every brick was donated from business sponsors. Humboldt's artistic community is not merely a luxury but a vast potential resource that defines the character of North Coast California.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week, Art Beat columnist Linda Mitchell asked if she might skip a column since she is busy editing The Palette, the Humboldt Arts Council's annual publication. With amazing serendipity, an e-mail query came from David Gleeson, a British art critic who was passing through Humboldt County. Gleeson has written for magazines in London, Madrid, St. Petersburg and for Art in America and Art Papers here in the United States. He also serves as press officer for the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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