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Escape From Arcata 

One counterculture artist has had enough; seeks EKA salvation

Artist Dennis Handy looks at home at his perch behind the desk in his converted Arcata studio/gallery, and his stocky frame, gray beard and casual manner would seem to mark him as a natural fit for the town. Paintings and vintage ?’60s concert posters cover some of walls, and his large white Norwegian forest cat, Kerouac, stretches out among a few of his smaller abstract stone sculptures. Partially carved works in progress of marble and alabaster sit in the back garage area, which is also filled with the cultural materials and bric-à-brac that Handy has gathered over a lifetime -- a large, round, rusted ship anchor, classic commercial signage from the ’40s and ’50s, even a mummified sea otter. The gallery space up front is half-empty though, and it looks like a move is afoot, which turns out to be the case. The 64-year-old artist isn't happy with his current home base in Arcata, and states it in no uncertain terms. When he moved here five years ago he had high hopes, but he has decided to make a move to Eureka.

As a young man, Handy passed through several subcultural worlds. Born in Newport Beach, he became involved in both surfing culture and the nascent beat scene in southern California, and traveled widely in the West before relocating to the Monterey peninsula. Self-taught as an artist, he developed a reputation as a meticulous craftsman. He's sold his pieces through galleries in New York, Santa Fe and Big Sur, and ended up teaching at Carmel High School for 10 years. He then retired to build a large sculpture studio -- Terra Outsider Studio, in Gold Beach, Ore.

After several years of isolated living and working on the Rogue River and some personal setbacks in his life, he decided he needed to get back in the cultural mix, and passing through Arcata he thought it would be a good fit for the next chapter in his artistic life. He also had ambitions to open a gallery performance space, and in 2003 he had the opportunity to purchase a spot on F Street. He felt the art scene in Humboldt was in an exciting new phase, and wanted to be a part of it. "I'd go down to see how the kids who were starting the Accident Gallery were doing, go see Leslie at Synapsis," he says. He was particularly inspired by the work of the developmentally disabled displayed at The Studio in Old Town Eureka.

For several years, his Paradox Gallery in Arcata featured not only his own work, but the work of other artists as well. He also attempted to use it as a performance space, with mixed results. He wanted to make a venue where he could pay the entertainment. Not too pretentious. An open mike. He hosted several performances, but had a problem with folks drinking and smoking outside the gallery. It was for him a harbinger of problems to come.

According to Handy, Arcata suffers from a bland complacent artistic culture, one more suited to calendar art and Hallmark cards than aesthetic exploration. "I kept seeing that Arcata was this bowl of cheerios," he says. "Then I'd go to Eureka and say, 'Well, that's edgier.' I'd come back to Arcata and think, what a bunch of apathetic motherfuckers. I went on several studio tours and didn't see anything worth a shit. I'm not saying these are not nice people, not to say they aren't talented. There's a squiggly edge between crafts and fine art, but the art in Arcata was just boring. How many rippling seascapes do you really need to see?"

The street scene in Arcata has been particularly dispiriting to Handy. "I've lived in a lot of towns, crappy ones, and really high end towns," he says. "I've never in my life seen such a filthy place as this. Fecal matter all over sidewalks. These are out-and-out lazy-ass bums. White people with dreadlocks." He also feels that the pervasive marijuana culture has helped to sap Arcata of its creativity and vitality. "God knows I've smoked a few joints in my life," he allows. "But can you work behind smoking dope? I can't. Dope smokers are, for the most part, unreliable." He's had problems with transients hanging out on the roof of his gallery, and thinks that the downtown area is underpoliced.

Handy feels that many residents of Arcata aren't fully aware of the declining situation or don't really care, especially because many of them don't actually live near the downtown area -- or, as he calls it, "ground zero." He says there's a misguided tolerance in Arcata that's led to the current state of affairs. He has no illusions about Eureka, but feels it's more amenable to the creative spirit, and its varied and diverse neighborhoods suit him better. Despite Eureka's reputation, he feels that there are still areas where he can have the best of both worlds -- a quiet studio space to live and work in, and a more challenging art scene in which to exchange ideas. "I'm not going to be hanging out in downtown Eureka saying 'Signify Eureka,' but I need an oasis where there's no students, no ball park," he says. "The art scene in Eureka is much more vital."

"I enjoy driving over the Samoa Bridge, I like looking at the bay. It reminds of the upper bay in Newport, where I grew up. The town of Eureka leaves a lot to be desired, but for my taste in art it's much better. There's a lot of things I love about Arcata -- the Farmers' Market, the record stores, the bookstores and places like the Co-op. I love the guys at the Arcata Eye." Those things aren't enough to keep Handy in Arcata though. He sees a lot of potential for a city squandered, and sees its highly touted ideals to be greatly overrated.

"There's a responsibility to being liberal, there's a responsibility to alternative lifestyles," he says. "Freedom has a cost. It has to do with a lot of self discipline. You've been given this gift and you must honor the gift. The lack of honor and self respect [in Arcata] just amazes me."

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Jay Aubrey-Herzog

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