To curator jill moniz, there is a tendency in the art world to overhype formal education. “In the art world now, there’s so much emphasis on school. But I had been working for a long time with artists who didn’t go to school and yet somehow managed to be true to their own narrative, and do work that was comparable, if not in some ways, I think better than their peers coming out of art school.” She’s, of course, not alone. The focal shift towards artists outside the establishment isn’t new, but the trend is often populated by specifically untrained naive artists. Moniz subverts this concept with her recent curation at Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum, Work Over School, a collection of artists who didn’t go the route of formal art school, but nonetheless were educated in professions—architects, engineers, designers, executives—that later influenced their art. The result is a show with a thru line that is not discipline or era or even truly background, but parallel journeys from each unique background to the world of visual arts.
As a jumping off point, moniz began with Fred Eversley, an artist whose first life was in engineering. Graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 1963, Eversley came to California to design laboratories for NASA’s Gemini and Apollo projects. When a car accident left Eversley briefly unable to work, he tried his hand at photography, and then photographs encapsulated in plastic. Eventually, he “got hung up with” the plastic itself and has been doing that ever since.
Eversley’s pieces in Work Over School are predominantly resin pieces, sleek sculptures that play with shape and light, clearly drawing on and alluding to his background as an engineer.
Moniz was inspired by Eversley’s working predominantly in materials that she refers to as “the tools of the trade” of engineering, and that he stayed true to his practice despite a “meteoric” rise in the art world. “He was really the bed rock of this idea in a way, and I cast about looking for artists that I had worked with in the past, or who I really admired, and realized that there were enough of them doing really outstanding work where you could see their past life really clearly.
One of those artists is Miguel Osuna, whose art builds on his architectural background with vast explorations of lines and gradient. His most striking work in the show, “Ebb and Flow, Lead and Follow,” is a gargantuan pen on paper piece composed of massive meandering loops made up of smaller ones, covering a parchment that weaves through space.
This, as well as many of the other pieces, were created for the show under moniz’s direction, as she wanted to ensure all of the artists, through their different mediums, would come together in a cohesive show experience. “I had asked them to make new bodies of work, and driven them to make things that fit into this larger visual narrative that I was interested in. I guess that I was surprised by how willing they were to work with me in that way. Miguel Osuna said that he felt at times that he was the brush and I was the hand.”
Lisa Bartleson, a former biochemist who now creates bio-resin pieces on canvas, welcomed the collaborations with moniz. “As uncomfortable as it can be sometimes, she really pushes you to the point where you’re about to break through something. It’s maybe something she can see before the artist can. So it’s challenging in a good way.”
The show also includes Mads Christensen, whose training in electrical engineering informs his pulsating light sculptures; former clothing designer Gerard Basil Stripling, whose imposing steel sculpture, “Clarity,” welcomes viewers into the show; Susan Feldman, whose mixed media pieces are informed as much by her graphic design background as they are by her experiences with motherhood; Cola Smith’s ceramic totems; the collage work of former marketing executive Dana Bean; and art director Valentin Toledo whose “Dioses y Guerreros,” a tower of ceramic, glass, rock, metal, and wood, brings to mind a deconstructed and reconstructed dinner party, from dish to guest.
Though the materials in the show span resin to ceramic to stone to light itself, it’s the formal schooling outside of the art world that connects them all. Specifically, Bartleson isn’t definitively for or against formal schooling in the arts, but knows that her process worked for her. “I don’t know if I had gone, if it would have changed my work because mine really came out of pure necessity. I’ve since developed that through a lot of trial and error and using the resources of other artists and friends who have mastered their own particular talents.”
Eversley was extremely pleased with the path he took, conceptually and practically. “I am very happy that I studied something else. I think it gave me a broader basis of existence and also objectivity of the world than you get in art school. I knew that I could always go back to engineering if the art did not work out.”
As serendipitous postscript, CAFAM was founded by Frank and Edith Wyle, the former of whom was the president of Wyle Laboratories during Eversley’s time there, and was responsible for first hiring Eversley. And Eversley explains that CAFAM, the home of Work Over School was something he was there for the inception of.
“Frank Wyle brought me to California to work at the lab, and the Easter that preceded that, I met him. Steve Wyle, Frank and Edith’s son, was my fraternity brother at Carnegie Melon. So he invited me out for Easter, and it was at a conversation during the Easter vacation at the Wyle Ranch that the whole idea came about, during a discussion about opening a combination craft art and restaurant similar to Serendipity, a restaurant that I went to as a kid in New York.”
Though Eversley may have been there for CAFAM’s beginning, moniz praises its present. “It’s [CAFAM Executive Director] Suzanne Isken’s vision, who is making craft and folk such a powerful space in Los Angeles, and the art scene in Los Angeles. She is dedicated to artists and to artists from LA, so I’m just super grateful to her for working with me and all of us, and it was just an honor to be in that space.”