Sprout Sensation : Shifting her focus from confrontational works, performance artist Leslie Labowitz-Starus turns to farming.
Radical feminists didn’t say “fierce, feminist and in your face” back in 1980. But if they had, it might have well applied to Leslie Labowitz-Starus. “I was angry,” she says of the years she spent doing sociopolitical performance art at the Los Angeles Women’s Building. “I think we all were.”
The problem was, by 1979, with nearly a decade of political performance art protests against incest, rape, battering and media exploitation, she was too worn down, burned out and emotionally drained to continue. And that made her feel guilty. There were women who were looking up to her, depending on her. She went into therapy to try to recover her former fire and drive, but it turned her life upside down instead. One day in the middle of a session, her therapist quietly asked a simple question: “Do you think the fact that your mother was a Holocaust survivor could have affected your life?”
“The dam broke,” Labowitz says. “It just all came pouring out. I was immobilized for three weeks, I was in such pain.” She came out of it changed. Over the next year, she abandoned confrontational performance art pieces to grow sprouts. Not so much as a farmer but as a kind of public art. “I did sprout performance art,” Labowitz says. “It healed my soul.”
Labowitz doesn’t look like a farmer. Traipsing around Sproutime, her 2 1/2-acre Canoga Park sprout farm, she wears an emerald on her left hand, a bracelet watch, red lipstick, a tie-dyed T-shirt, lime socks and purple sneakers. As she sits in a folding chair in the doorway of her humid washing/packing shed, she comes across as trusting, open, low-key and non-confrontational, traits much valued by the artists who now depend on her for their livelihood. After talking to her for a hour, you feel that an old friend is bringing you up to date on the continuing saga of her life.
It’s a compelling one, especially the part concerning her mother: “She spent 18 months in Auschwitz,” Labowitz says as a way of explaining what led up to her own decision to leave performance art for farming. “Only she and her sister came back. She lost her entire family. Every Jew in the village died.”
When the war ended in 1945, Labowitz’s mother, Freda, was 23, terrified and traumatized. Labowitz’s father, a 39-year-old American soldier, came to the Czech village where he had been born, met Freda and asked her to marry him. Leslie was conceived on their wedding night.
Now Labowitz’s story jumps forward 2 1/2 decades to a summer in 1970 on an Israeli kibbutz. Labowitz, a student at Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute, is spending the summer in Israel trying to get a handle on what happened during World War II. There she meets Harry Starus, who presents himself as a German Jew also in need of answers. They are young, idealistic. The most natural thing in the world happens. “We fell in love,” Labowitz says.
There is just one problem. Although Starus is German, he isn’t Jewish. “He lied to me,” Labowitz says. “He assumed I wouldn’t see him. By the time he told me it was too ironic.”
When Labowitz went home at the end of the summer, she knew two things: There was no way she could not love Starus, and telling her mother the truth about him would be the hardest thing she’d ever done. “Some members of my family wouldn’t talk to me for 10 years,” Labowitz says. “I told my mother, expecting the worst. It took me two hours. She cried. It was horrible. But at the end she said she would always love me and I would always be her daughter.”
Labowitz and Starus were married in 1971. The following year, she graduated from Otis Art Institute with a master’s degree in fine arts and moved to Dusseldorf as a Fulbright Scholar. “I was innocent when I went to Europe,” she says. “In Europe I learned to do political performance art.”
When she returned in 1977, Labowitz hit the feminist art world with both feet running. She worked at the Women’s Building, a cultural center just east of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles devoted to feminist art and cultural change. She corresponded with feminist artist Judy Chicago (best known for “Dinner Party,” a collection of dinner plates adorned with labia-like flowers) and developed a long-running collaboration with Suzanne Lacy, a well-known performance artist who is now dean of fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
Her specialty was performance art as calculated guerrilla theater, calling news conferences, using public spaces as stages, making the audience part of the performance. She put together a media creation called “In Mourning and in Rage” on the City Hall steps as a protest against the sensationalistic and, to women, degrading coverage of the Hillside Strangler case. The mourners wore stylized headpieces that made them seven feet tall.
“A hearse met them at the Women’s Building and drove them to City Hall. It was like a funeral. Holly Near wrote a song.”
In collaboration with such artists as Lacy or with other feminist organizations, she created performance pieces about degrading record album covers, “Record Companies Drag Their Feet”; incest, “Bedtime Stories”; and violence, “Take Back The Night,” a mass public performance in San Francisco’s North Beach district.
It was her intent to challenge people. While still a student at the Otis Art Institute, she had once done a show, “Menstruation/Wait,” in which she sat on the floor, waited for her period and talked about how she felt. “They almost threw me out of school for that,” Labowitz says. The faculty convened an emergency session to complain that whatever she was doing, it “wasn’t art.”
“They didn’t understand,” Labowitz now says. She was making a feminist statement: “The personal is political.”
In November, 1978, she and Lacy conceived the “Take Back the Night” performance art and street drama in San Francisco in which 3,000 women streamed toward a candle-lit and decorated Madonna (the idealized woman) being carried through the streets as if in a religious parade. But the back of the Madonna was open and inside was a skinned lamb, draped in scarlet with pornography pouring from its entrails. It was a protest against what many feminists saw as the false virgin/whore dichotomy that women faced when it came to sex.
“I had the attitude, ‘Let’s not take this sitting down. Let’s fight for ourselves. Let’s take charge of our lives.’ I always had in me the need to make things better,” she says. What she didn’t have was the “skill or personal boundaries not to feel burned out. I didn’t know how to rejuvenate my soul. I was tired all the time. I didn’t have energy. I went from rape to battering to incest and by the time I got to incest I was sad. I got headaches. I cried at the drop of a hat. Naturally, I went into therapy. I felt guilty that I couldn’t go on--'I have all this work to do.’ ”
The crisis came in April, 1979, while doing the tapings concerning the incest issue. “I couldn’t go to the last taping and I felt guilty about not being able to go,” Labowitz says. “I was too sad.” Instead, Labowitz went to her therapist, who asked if her professional Angst was in any way connected to the fact that her mother had spent 18 months in Auschwitz.
Suddenly, Labowitz understood what she had been trying to do for the last 10 years with her performance art. “It was a fight for my mother. I was saving my mother. My mother was nine months out of Auschwitz when she had me. I was the outcome of her experience. She was terrified all the time. And a lot of the terror and danger that she saw in the world came to me.”
Before year’s end, Labowitz had shifted her focus. She wasn’t so much interested in confrontation as healing, nurturing, growth, renewal. For this, she needed a new metaphor, and she came up with sprouts. Sprouts were healthy, healing and beautiful to look at. Labowitz not only grew sprouts and gave performances with them, she sold them to supermarkets. She had become a farmer. “It healed me,” Labowitz says. “It transformed my spirit.”
It also brought in money. “I made the most money my first year,” says Labowitz, who in 1979 began by growing sprouts in the back yard of her Venice home. “Prices were high. There was no competition. I did all the work myself.”
Although she was raising and selling sprouts, Labowitz still thought of herself primarily as an artist, albeit one who used sprouts in her work. She did a performance art piece in a New York City gallery in which she covered a whole wall with hanging trays of sprouts.
“Leslie transformed the place into a kind of sprout garden,” remembers Jacki Apple, a Los Angeles media artist who was curator of the Franklin Furnace gallery in New York when Labowitz put on her show there. “She did a monologue, lying on a platform next to a wall of food, on life and death and rebirth.”
The problem was making a living. Performance art was so ephemeral. As soon as the performance was over, it was gone. There was nothing to sell. Even if there was, the whole trend in the ‘80s was toward theatrical art, she says. And that wasn’t Labowitz. “I’m not an actress.”
There was another reason: Labowitz wanted to have a child. “I was never home. I was mothering others, traveling all over the county. I couldn’t be a mother, a business person and a career artist. It was too hard. My family couldn’t have survived.”
Up to this time, Labowitz had always considered herself an artist whether she was successful or not. But she quickly discovered, she says, if she was going to make a go of it, she would have to treat Sproutime as a business--not an easy task, she says, for someone so “unskilled in the ways of the world.”
She made a decision to learn about business the same way she had learned about art, which was to throw herself into it. “I was infatuated with the idea of an artist running a successful business,” she says. She found a manager, learned bookkeeping, hired employees and, after several years of struggling along in her back yard in Venice, bought the farm in a residential/agricultural area of Canoga Park. “It’s the only agricultural property I could find within one-half hour of downtown Los Angeles,” Labowitz says.
Between 1988 and 1992, Sproutime grew at a rate of 20% a year. Today, Labowitz sells two dozen different varieties of sprouts (from Mung bean to wheat berry) to eight Mrs. Gooch’s stores and at 13 different farmers’ markets from San Pedro to Camarillo, a total of 2,000 flats a week. Except for her production workers, who are three young Salvadoran immigrants, almost all of her staff members are artists: a songwriter/singer, a mask maker, a composer/songwriter, multimedia performance artist, a visual artist and a photographer.
“Artists like to work for Leslie,” Apple says. “They don’t feel divided. They don’t feel what they are doing in this job is in opposition to what they are doing in the rest of their lives.”
In the meantime, Labowitz now leads the life of a typical working mother. “I have a child in school,” she says. She lives in Mar Vista with her 10-year-old daughter, Aria, and husband, Harry (a social studies teacher at Lennox Middle School). “I make car payments. It’s a typical family struggle.”
It’s a business struggle too. Finding capital is a problem. She’s had to weather the recession, the Gulf War, the rains and most recently the riots. Although some people would say Labowitz is a businesswoman now, she prefers to think of herself as “an art lifer. I left art and went to life. My studio is the place where I work. I may pretend that I am a business person, but the spirit of the business still comes from my artist identity. If I were not an artist, this place would be very different.”
Most of all, it wouldn’t be a place where artists would work without compromising their ability to also do art. Basically, Labowitz says, she’s an artist’s impresario. “I couldn’t survive as an artist. Now I’m helping other artists to survive.”