Making a Community Visible

Palm trees. Jazz. Lowriders. If you’re wondering what these three have in common, you’ll have to stop by Metro’s new Hyde Park station to check out Santa Monica College (SMC) Art Professor Carlson Hatton’s largest public art project yet. The station on Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX line is due to open next year. Carlson recently told the Los Angeles Times that growing up with artists for parents shaped him—and also that teaching at SMC “drives his creative impulses.”

After a detour from his native Southern California—which included earning a BFA at The Cooper Union, and then on to The Netherlands for grad school and a stint as laureate at the Jan van Eyck Academie—Carlson moved to Los Angeles. An avid listener of KCRW, he’d hear the words “Santa Monica College” several times a day. Friends who taught at SMC also had the best things to say. The rest is history.

Carlson was caught by surprise when he was selected for the Metro project: he’d almost forgotten! More than 1,200 artists had applied to be among 14 artists who would translate their individual vision into art that would reflect the essence of the neighborhoods surrounding each station. Not surprisingly, this SMC professor found a way to get four students involved in the project.

Sculptor Ago Visconti, an SMC alum and art major at UCLA, was one of them. Ago had spent a lot of time with her godmother, who lived in the area. So when Carlson asked for her perspective, she headed out with her camera. It helped her understand both the possibilities and responsibilities of creating public art. “Especially if you’re not from that area, there has to be a consideration as to who’s going to see this every day . . . and how could that change the perspective of others going through this city,” Ago says. “I really became aware of cultural complexities and representation. That really opened my mind to be conscious of the way that I generate visual imagery.”

SMC alum and artist Joshua Castro—who also transferred to UCLA—discovered the potential of his art when Carlson invited him to attend a critique session at the SMC Art Mentor Program (the program provides highly gifted students one-on-one mentorship to help them prepare portfolios for careers or competitive four-year schools). Joshua helped Carlson research the Crenshaw area—including finding videos and photos and exploring the car culture—and had no idea how public public art could be. Joshua—who’s currently working on art that incorporates old photos he finds at garage and estate sales in an exploration of collective memory—definitely wants to do a project of this scope someday.

SMC in Focus asked Carlson about his students, the artistic process, Santa Monica College, and his work for the Metro.

SMC in Focus: There were over 1,200 artists who applied to do the paintings for the Metro, but they selected you and, like, a dozen other people. How did that come about?

Carlson: My SMC colleague Anne Marie Karlsen has had numerous pieces throughout LA and elsewhere. And she kept encouraging me because she thought my work would translate well to public art. Eventually I followed through and submitted 12-13 pieces to Metro. It was so long—the decision-making process—that by the time they sent me a letter saying, “you’ve been short-listed,” I’d totally forgotten that I’d applied. It was close to two years. You get these kinds of partial acceptance letters as an artist all the time. A friend told me it was a big deal, that I’d be competing against one or two artists. Metro gave me a small budget; I made a small presentation to a long table’s worth of city administrators, architects, and local business owners. There were, like, 16 people and it was incredibly nerve-wracking. But apparently it went well enough . . . and then it was hurry, hurry, hurry, finish this project!

SMC in Focus: How many installations did you end up making?

Carlson: I think ten . . . all of them are pretty lengthy, and massive. Eight of them are 4 feet by 21 ½ feet; two are 8½ feet by 21 feet long.

SMC in Focus: Where are these works now? Tell us about the process.

Carlson: It was a really different process. They basically give you this task and the dimensions, and you produce it in the way that you see fit. I wasn’t producing actual murals at that length—they wind up being translated through a photographic technique, and are printed enamel on steel . . . virtually indestructible. Because Metro wants it to be there for the next several decades, hopefully. So I wound up taking a lot of photographs in my studio, a lot around the Hyde Park neighborhood. I worked with some SMC students who had grown up in that area, and could offer a different take. Of course I’m an LA citizen . . . but it’s different when it’s the neighborhood that you wake up in every single morning. As to the final works, I designed a combination of my studio practice, photographs, then kind of cut [them] up, incorporated photographs that I reworked through Photoshop. So, it was a really interesting fusion of traditional techniques that all went through a digital process.

[Bonus: Check out this one-minute video on Carlson’s process for this project].

SMC in Focus: Describe your work in one word . . . or three.

Carlson: Hmm, one word . . . “layered” would have to be in there. “Complex.” “Juxtaposition”? I hate that word, but it’s a good one for descriptive purposes. Because I think there’s a real collage aesthetic in my work. A lot of things are forced together that don’t necessarily belong together.

SMC in Focus: Did the students help you with the hands-on part of the Metro project?

Carlson: They helped gather images. I picked them specifically because of their interests. One student and I would share music during class . . . we found we enjoyed similar music (jazz, for example, artists like Kamasi Washington whom people have discovered as an amazing saxophonist through hip-hop). I asked this student to provide me with music-related imagery. Another student was really into cars . . . it seemed like there was a constant influence of automobiles in his works. I met with the community during the making of these works—there was a big representation in terms of age. A lot of them remembered a time in the Crenshaw district when there was a lot of pride in cars, low-riders out on Sunday afternoon; they wanted cars within the image. Although it’s for a Metro project, and they certainly don’t want cars (!), it was interesting to work with a community that had certain wishes as to what they wanted present. The process was a lot more manageable than I’d anticipated it to be. So: cars was one that the community wanted. I wanted the influence of music, and nature, because I’d done a bit of research and discovered that there were palm trees that were older than pretty much any other tree in Los Angeles. A lot of them run through that Crenshaw district and were planted in the late 1800s. Another student I brought on because she had a great interest in architecture and could provide me with a lot of Art Deco influence, which runs throughout that region. So the students were responsible for collecting certain types of imagery and whatever else they were interested in.

SMC in Focus: Do you think SMC helped prepare you for this project?

Carlson: I think it definitely prepared me in ways I didn’t fully realize until I was well into the project, but it prepared me for dealing with bigger groups of people. If there’s a meeting with 30 community members, that isn’t exactly like a classroom, but there’s definitely similarities. When I applied, I just applied for a project, and Metro decided which artists would be placed where. It was a real introduction to public art, you know? This is my largest public art project. I’ve done others but with this I had to think about the commuter, the neighborhood, the business owner, the architect and Metro. So it was trying to make a lot of people feel like they were heard, which I think SMC prepares you to do . . . reaching many individuals on different levels.

SMC in Focus: What was instrumental in making you the artist you are today?

Carlson: I think traveling was important. I feel lucky to have been able to leave [Southern California] for a while. My work is very LA in many ways. I grew up in San Diego, but it’s very, let’s say, Southern California. This became much more obvious because I was living in New York, and then I was living in Amsterdam, and later in the south of Holland for some time. It gave me a different, critical perspective on myself and the culture that I grew up within, and also a sense of greater appreciation. And then . . . working in jobs that were probably dead end jobs, but where I developed a certain skill set. I was a fabricator; I worked with fiberglass, which was fantastic, but you don’t want to work with fiberglass for too long. I built Hollywood sets, I built sets for comic book conventions. I did window display work, I worked in ceramic studios pouring molds, all these jobs that I’m happy to no longer be doing enabled me to grow in a way that expanded my art in a manner I couldn’t have learned in school.

SMC in Focus: Who are your favorite artists?

Carlson: I really like Albrecht Dürer. Lari Pittman—there’s a great show of his right now at the Hammer Museum. The Japanese print-maker Kuniyoshi.

SMC in Focus: What brought you to SMC?

Carlson: Living in LA, you hear the name so often. You listen to KCRW, you hear SMC like 20 times per day, at least, which kind of gets it stuck in your head. When I first came to LA, I wound up taking a class at SMC in broadcasting, because I kept hearing, “You should be in broadcasting, you have a good radio voice.” I was in desperate need of work. So I thought I’d get into radio; I took this class, and I realized I’m not that interested in radio, and that they want more than just a deep voice from 1950s era radio . . . so that was kind of out. But it put SMC on my radar. I had some friends teaching at SMC, [Art professor] Marc Trujillo is a good friend of mine . . . everyone had positive things to say about it.

SMC in Focus: Are you glad you’re here?

Carlson: Definitely. I live down the street from LA City College—I could walk there. But SMC is such a nice place to be, and the classes offered here are of such high quality. It seems like just within our department, we have people teaching at UCLA, Otis, Art Center . . . I feel real proud of the group of talented individuals we have here.

SMC in Focus: What do you enjoy most about teaching at SMC?

Carlson: It sounds cliche, but, I guess, the diversity, you know? I mean, racial diversity, age diversity, the socio-economic diversity. It’s really exciting to get a classroom where there are retired Hollywood executives next to kids who are first generation college students. And to get this range of individuals who all come to my classroom, who all bring their different perspectives into one room is really very unique.

SMC in Focus: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Carlson: Pretty young. I grew up in an artistic family. My aunt and uncle were musicians and performed for people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., and my parents were both ceramics artists. One uncle’s a woodworker, my other uncle taught ceramics, so there was a big influence of and appreciation for hand-made things. My parents ran a ceramics studio that I worked in. I would win contests in school as a kid, for drawing contests. And it was appreciated—that always helps, so early on.

SMC in Focus: What is the artist’s greatest responsibility? Carlson: To make others view things differently. There’s a great quote, I think it’s from Paul Clay, who says, It’s the artist’s [responsibility] to make the invisible visible, you know? To make things that others don’t see visible. So essentially you’re a communicator . . . I think there are a great deal of parallels in teaching, which I didn’t become aware of until I started teaching a lot. Then I realized that in both instances I’m communicating, and I’m trying to make something that isn’t obvious, a little more obvious.

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To find out more about Carlson and his work, check out his website. And for more about the Art Department and its offerings, go to this webpage.

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