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The Lore, Lure of Tomato Trucks : Installation: Artist wants to bring a slice of farmers’ lives and some serious ideas to little towns. Exhibit is now in Costa Mesa.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years after brain surgery, artist Corey Stein is free from the epileptic seizures that once threatened her life. After the operation, however, she plummeted into depression while withdrawing from anti-seizure drugs.

Determined not to cave into the blues, the Los Angeles artist decided “to try to have fun again.” So she cast aside the lofty, heady, conceptual art she’d been doing and made an installation born of her long-held affection for, of all things, tomato trucks.

“I love tomato trucks,” the exuberant, dry-witted artist said recently.

“Corey Stein: The I-5 Artist,” at Laguna Art Museum’s South Coast Plaza annex, is a preview of a larger exhibit that Stein hopes to take on the road-- specifically, up and down Interstate 5--in a tomato truck in summer of 1996. Among the tomato-truck incarnations in the installation are a beaded semi loaded with glittery red tomatoes, a miniature 18-wheeler and an acrylic painting of a huge tractor tire.

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The show also is about tomato farmers and tomato truckers, and, despite Stein’s initial aim purely to have fun, it addresses disabilities, spotlighting a paraplegic who runs a tomato farm in Los Banos (in Merced County) from his wheelchair.

Further, it explores Stein’s own disability, the epilepsy that caused her grand mal seizures, and has helped her deal with the pain she kept to herself for most of her life.

“I thought about it a lot,” she said, a tiny red tomato dangling from one ear, “but I never talked about it. I was just mad for like 25 years.”

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Born in Los Angeles, Stein, 31, saw her first trucks transporting tomatoes to and from tomato farms along the I-5 during her family’s trips to visit relatives in Seattle.

“They were like slugs” that left behind red trails of squished tomatoes, she said in an interview at the annex. “I thought that was cool. I just liked the colors of it and all the details.”

Subsequent sightings came during her years at California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, where her dorm room overlooked the same Golden State Freeway. (A 1987 graduate, Stein cites conceptual artist John Baldessari as her greatest influence there, and he remains a staunch supporter of her work.)

Last year, she delved deeper into the tomato farming culture after attending an International Trucking Convention in Anaheim. There, she purchased a children’s coloring book titled “Where Does Pizza Come From?”

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“If you think this is a weird show we’re doing, you should see the coloring book,” she said. “It’s put out by Hunt’s, Ragu and the California Trucking Assn. . . . It’s an educational coloring book with 10 quiz questions: How many tomatoes does it take to make a bottle of ketchup? What three trucks did you learn about? What kind of trucks are tomatoes carried in? What kind of trucks are bottled tomatoes carried in? What is a low bed?”

Hoping to learn more, Stein hired a photographer and trekked to a tomato farm off the I-5 in Los Banos, not knowing exactly why she was going or what, if anything, the trip would yield.

“I needed fun,” she said, “and this was fun.”

In Los Banos, Stein learned more about tomato farming and trucking and watched farm workers harvesting tomatoes, “going a mile-a-minute picking out bad tomatoes.” She also met Alan Sano, the paraplegic tomato farmer who supervises the farm and works on tractors, trucks and harvesters.

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“They had taken one row that had already been harvested, and totally flattened it, and that’s what he wheeled on,” Stein said. “He wheels over to the harvester, gets up onto the harvester, fixes whatever is wrong with the harvester, gets back in his chair and wheels away onto his truck, drives away. . . . (He had) no problem-- nobody was helping him or anything.”

Stein returned home, her mind and sketch pad filled with images of tomatoes, trucks and the disabled. She still didn’t know where she was headed, or how to link the three elements.

Then, one day, “It made perfect sense: All of these things are not fully understood by the general public,” she writes in an exhibit pamphlet. “If you’re not a tomato farmer, you don’t realize how difficult it can be to grow a tomato. If you’re not a truck driver, you may have preconceptions about what kind of people drive trucks. If you’re not disabled, you don’t understand the feelings and challenges the disabled face.”

Stein set to work creating and gathering more material for the show, including related collages made by Los Banos elementary school children in a weeklong art course she taught. She incorporated photos of Sano and his farm, taken by Bruce Wright, including one showing Sano climbing a rope to get to another wheelchair in his farm’s two-level shop.

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“He climbs a rope to get to the upstairs wheelchair,” Stein said, “he gets in the upstairs wheelchair, he gets whatever he needs, then he climbs down the rope and gets into his downstairs wheelchair.”

Stein got the idea to take the show on the road from her brother, filmmaker Garth Stein, whose documentary “When Your Head’s Not a Head, It’s a Nut,” about his sister’s surgery, aired on public television in 1993.

Stein’s plan, if she can line up funding, is to drive a tractor-trailer along I-5 from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego, stopping at art museums, schools and community centers, which would achieve the “cross-fertilization” she is after.

Her two-fold aim is to “get the art to all these little places in the middle of nowhere” where contemporary art isn’t commonplace, and to bring information on disabilities and tomato farming to Costa Mesa, Seattle, Portland and other big cities where the agriculturally illiterate “eat tomatoes but don’t grow them.”

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Stein intends to get her commercial trucker’s license--she’s read about “waivers” for epileptics who haven’t had seizures for a period of time--so that she can drive the truck.

By doing so, she hopes to help change what she believes is a negative image of truck drivers as well as to dispel the idea that epileptics and people with other disabilities cannot drive trucks. While Stein has the use of her legs, her truck would be outfitted with a wheelchair lift to make it accessible.

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Stein’s last solo show, at Santa Monica’s Sherry Frumpkin Gallery in 1992, peripherally addressed her epilepsy. It contained 70 whimsical drawings inspired by a personality profile test she had to take before her brain surgery.

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The I-5 project, however, has helped her go a step further in coming to terms with a demon she long repressed.

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Among other items on view is a four-by-four foot mixed-media work in the center of which is an etching on metal inspired by Raphael’s “Transfiguration.” In the painting, which alludes to 16th-Century religious persecution of epileptics, is a youth, his body twisted by a violent seizure.

Also displayed is a Life Science Library reference book published in 1965 that contains this information, now outdated:

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“In 17 states, epileptics can be sterilized against their will and in some cases, sterilization is mandatory. . . . Though the ranks of epileptics have included such great figures as (Islamic prophet) Mohammed and (French composer Hector) Berlioz, federal laws forbid epileptics to immigrate into the United States.”

Said Stein: “As a kid, I’d look at this little horror book, and read it once every two years and freak myself out, and not talk about it to anybody.

“I’ve found out it’s easier to talk about other (types of) disabilities,” she said, “but that’s definitely one of the reasons I’m doing this show, to face it more.”

* “Corey Stein: The I-5 Artist” opens today at Laguna Art Museum satellite at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Hours are 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sunday. Through April 2. Free. (714) 662-3366.

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