For years, artist Peter Shire has labored in his Echo Park studio, turning out brilliantly colored furniture and eccentric teapots that have earned him recognition around the globe.
Despite his stature as an artist and designer, Shire has remained a neighborhood guy, still living in the community where he was born 44 years ago.
“He’s kind of like the young old man of Echo Park,” said his wife, Donna, a graphic designer.
Now, Shire is about to leave a permanent mark on the neighborhood. He has designed a 28-foot-tall sculpture that will be place on an Elysian Park hilltop early next year.
“It’s a real important piece, no doubt about it,” said Shire, sipping his dinner, a bowl of Japanese soup.
Shire, who looked a little tired and still suffered from jet lag, had just returned from a 2 1/2-month trip to Japan, where he supervised construction of a sculpture commissioned by a beer company, this one more than three stories high.
Shire has also built public art in West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Las Vegas and Phoenix. But this project will be the closest he has come to home.
The Frank Glass and Grace E. Simons Memorial will be dedicated to a couple who labored for a cause Shire holds dear--saving the neighborhood from overdevelopment. They were members of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, a group that fights development in the 585-acre park.
Simons, a newspaper editor, helped found the group in 1965, and for two decades nurtured the organization, which is still going strong.
Shire’s mother worked alongside Simons in the group’s first battle--to prevent the construction of the Los Angeles Convention Center in Elysian Park.
Shire is not a member of the Citizens Committee. But he has turned out for more than a dozen community meetings in the past two years to oppose development in the neighborhood.
“This place is under assault by the basest sort of real estate desires,” Shire said. “I think there ought to be a law that anyone who builds more than three units has to live in one.”
When completed on Angels Point, the highest point in Elysian Park, Shire’s memorial will echo the downtown skyline visible behind it.
Shire describes his steel and copper construction as “a miniature city.” Abstract-looking bungalows, train tracks, trusses, a wind turbine and a freeway--all raised 12 feet in the air by gray columns--evoke a city skyline, under which visitors will be able to sit in “cement easy chairs.”
“It’ll be this mini-skyline against this major skyline,” Shire said.
But he doesn’t intend it as a homage to the glittering skyscrapers it will overlook.
“There is nothing romantic about L.A.'s skyline,” he said. “It could be Houston.”
Still, Shire sees some poetry in industrial forms, as evidenced by the spigots of some of his famous teapots, which resemble industrial piping. He described part of the memorial--a black half-circle that arches toward the sky--as “a cross between the freeway and the universe.”
This fantastic-looking gazebo would have pleased Simons and Glass, said Sallie Neubauer, president of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, which commissioned Shire’s sculpture from their estate.
“They were always progressive people. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t like a progressive memorial,” Neubauer said.
Shire’s close ties to the neighborhood made him the obvious choice to design the sculpture.
A fourth-generation Californian, Shire never went to school farther than four miles from the house where he grew up. His brother, Billy, lives across the street and his mother lives “on the next hill.” From his back porch, he can see the hospital where he was born.
Echo Park’s Bohemian tradition, ethnic mix and hilly geography make it hard for Shire to imagine living anywhere else, except a certain town in Italy, he said. It “tends to attract people who are looking at life a little bit differently.”
That could also explain why Shire’s parents settled on Princeton Avenue. They were politically active leftists and labor organizers.
Peter’s father, Hank Shire, was trained as an artist but abandoned that career for carpentry. As a boy, the younger Shire learned from his father how to lay tile, install windows, and build furniture and cabinets.
He attended Belmont High School, where he missed classes in order to spend as much time as possible working in clay with an inspirational ceramics teacher named Anthony Scaccia.
After graduation, he studied at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. The school has since become CalArts in Valencia. Not long after receiving his bachelor’s degree, Shire opened his own studio on Echo Park Avenue. He sold some of his first work at his parents’ retail store, the Soap Plant, in Silver Lake.
Shire’s work is displayed in such venues as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Brooklyn Museum, and the White House.
Shire has had an enduring fondness for teapots. Made from clay or metal, they resemble soldiers, weather vanes and little human-like creatures. Dozens of them appear in his house and studio. He estimates that he has made more than 4,000 teapots.
Shire has also received acclaim for his work with Memphis, an Italian-based design group that blossomed in the 1980s. During that time, Shire traveled to Italy to design his brightly colored, cartoonish furniture. His work has been described as quintessentially L.A.
As his vivid palette might suggest, Shire is not among the angst-ridden artists.
“Ever since I met him, he’s been a really happy person, and I don’t know where it comes from,” Donna said.
“It comes from being married to you,” Shire responded on cue.
His exuberance shows up in his house, which he described as “your classic, nondescript, between-the-wars, kind of stucco job.”
But it bears his mark, a psychedelic one. A green and yellow coffee table has wheels that face in different directions. A pink fireplace mantel is framed by geometric shapes: a pink circle, a yellow cube and spiraling columns.
Even a run-of-the-mill file cabinet in his basement studio falls victim to his paintbrush, turning out purple, pink and yellow. Shire admits he can’t leave well enough alone; he’s driven by a desire to remake his environment and he doesn’t always consult his wife.
Donna Shire said that while she was absent from the house one day, he painted part of it green.
“I was really upset that I didn’t have the choice,” she said, as if some resentment still lingered.
But one thing’s for sure: Shire’s house won’t be mistaken for another “nondescript, between-the-wars, kind of stucco job.”
The same has been said of the sculpture he designed for Elysian Park.
“No one will mistake it for some other gazebo in another park. It will have a character all its own,” Neubauer said.