Strip mall signs. Taco trucks. Small business mascots. Many an artist has documented the visual landscape of Los Angeles’ streets, but few have felt it as strongly as Billy Kheel.
For his last show, “Sunset Stitches,” at Trencher, a cafe in Echo Park, the 40-year-old Silver Lake artist crafted painstakingly detailed felt-applique soft sculptures based on local commercial signage -- including the revolving podiatry clinic beacon at Sunset Boulevard and Benton Way known colloquially as “Happy Foot, Sad Foot.”
Kheel, who has an Etsy shop, will be exhibiting at the Renegade Craft Fair in Los Angeles on Saturday and Sunday. Among his other handmade works, which he calls “Vegan Taxidermy,” Kheel will be offering ornament-sized versions of Happy Foot and Sad Foot (as shown in the photograph above, with Kheel) for $25.
“I am not interested in making cutesy cupcakes or putting a bird on something,” Kheel says of his work. “I like to flip felt on its head. It can be cuddly and crafty, but it’s also sporty and used in athletic pennants and varsity jackets. That dichotomy interested me and I started using felt to make images. Then I got interested in taxidermy and it became sculpture. “
Indeed, though he studied oil painting at Wesleyan University, Kheel found his calling five years ago during a how-to-make-plushies class at Blue Rooster art supplies in Los Angeles. “That was my first introduction to 3-D work,” he says. “I did a stuffed Old English beer bottle.”
He moved on to make giant felt applique sports pennants based on baseball and football cards and a series of felt trophies of game fish such as marlins, and a dorado with a Dodgers logo.
A father of two, Kheel, who has taught a workshop at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, aimed to elevate the material of cheaply manufactured kids’ toys, and discovered the work of Chain Gang L.A., a local custom workshop that specializes in jacket stitchery for car enthusiasts. In the past couple of years, he has turned to strip mall signs for inspiration.
“The one I absolutely had to do was Happy Foot, Sad Foot,” Kheel says. “It’s been immortalized in a book by David Foster Wallace and a song by the Eels.”
Kheel, who sells his designs as pillows and wall pieces (complete with grommets for hanging) for $80 to $120 and also does custom commissions, has also immortalized the Circus Liquor clown, the Burrito King donkey and now-defunct signs including the Pioneer Chicken chef.
“The Circus Liquor clown is the scariest thing ever,” Kheel says. “And the Pioneer sign was a covered wagon with an Italian chef holding a chicken. You have to wonder what they were thinking. These are such idiosyncratic funny characters. They were not market-tested, they would never be designed for a new business, and yet they take on lives of their own, and then some of them disappear.”