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Simmering Talent in O.C. Suburbs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For many kids, growing up in Orange County in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s meant living in a pop paradise. But for young artists and musicians, suburban culture offered even more: the freedom for growth and the grist for rebellion.

Beach culture was all about sun and surf and sex. Disneyland was a fantasy come to life. Pop music and comic books told stories about love and loss and power.

Life in suburbia was also full of rage and pain for creative kids who refused to conform to conservative standards. For young women, older standards of femininity were clashing with new ideas about identity and self-empowerment.

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“Heathcliff and the Femme Fatale Go on Tour” features the brooding hero of “Wuthering Heights” and the slinky dames of 1940s film noir. No, it’s not a cartoon or a movie--it’s an eye-popping, meticulously detailed painting series by Los Angeles artist Carole Caroompas, recently on view at Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica.

“It’s about how women are depicted in terms of their dark side and having this sexual power,” she said.

This might seem an unlikely subject for someone whose teenage life in Newport Beach in the 1960s revolved around parties, surfing and the surf bands that played the Rendezvous Ballroom and local clubs.

But pop culture and the way it intersects with archetypal notions of male and female behavior are the motivating forces behind her work. It just took awhile for her to figure out how to put her interests and talents together.

In grade school, she and a friend would draw “these really funny women with really big hair and tight dresses and high heels.” But she never took her skills seriously until friends at Orange Coast College begged her to join them in an art class.

“I really liked it, and it was easy,” she said. While her friends struggled, she did well. But English literature was her first love, and she majored in it after transferring to Cal State Fullerton.

As things turned out, her early interest in literature, stoked by the paperbacks she bought at a tiny bookstore on the Balboa Peninsula, has had a lasting influence.

“I start with language and move on to the visuals,” she said. “I sort of go through the process the way one would start to write a book. I do a lot of reading and take extensive notes, and then I come up with a list of titles. I’ll take one title and start doing line drawings on tracing paper [to work out] the image and the composition.”

Midway through her junior year in college, after prodding by a supportive art teacher, Caroompas wondered if she should change her major.

Until then, she had hardly seen any real works of art. A class trip to an Henri Matisse exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum helped her realize that painting could be as worthwhile as literature.

Her parents had always urged her to make something of herself, but when she called them to say she’d decided to major in art, “it made them very nervous,” she recalled.

“So I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll teach.’ Which I do [at Otis College of Art and Design]. But at the time I wasn’t being really serious” about making a career in art.

Things got very serious in the master’s program at UCLA, where the other students were mostly men, rather than the supportive girlfriends she had had as an undergraduate.

“I remember feeling I really had to prove myself,” she said. “I had to live up to certain male standards of what ‘serious’ art was. And then, right out of graduate school [in 1971], the feminist movement started at CalArts. I was in a consciousness-raising group with [artists] Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago. I was the youngest one, having to prove myself again.”

In 1997, the Otis College gallery held a 25-year retrospective of her work, “Lady of the Castle Perilous,” which impressed reviewers with its fierce and unusual reworkings of fairy tales.

With her tattooed arms, black bob, vampish eyeliner and ever-present cigarette, Caroompas--now in her early 50s--could be a poster girl for “downtown” style. But even the Mary Quant-style Mod look of her teenage years marked her as different from the suburban mold.

“When I was a kid, being conservative was just normal,” she said. “I think I first started to see the difference when I was in college and we would go up to clubs in Hollywood. I saw a difference in people’s attitudes, what they talked about, what they looked like, how they dressed.

“But it was funny: When I was still living in Orange County and went to Los Angeles, people would think I was from Hollywood, so I had already made some kind of transition.”

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Kim Shattuck--singer, songwriter and lead guitarist for the Muffs--is known for her screaming as much as her bouncy melodies.

She nearly had to stand trial for assault and battery a few years ago after dumping a bottle of water on a cop who, she said, told her she couldn’t bring it into UC Irvine’s Crawford Hall, where she was on a punk rock bill.

Fortunately, the policeman didn’t show up at her court date: “What a wimp,” she said.

Although Shattuck is in her early 30s, you might think she’s still playing out a punk rebellion against a suburban youth. She doesn’t view it that way.

The oldest of three children whose mother didn’t work outside the home (her father was a family therapist), Shattuck calls her childhood “really ‘Leave It to Beaver'-ish. Everything was pretty normal and nice.”

But there was a darker undercurrent in her young life. As a “gawky, skinny” elementary school girl in Mission Viejo, she was disliked by other kids.

“I ran around and was obnoxious,” she said. “Something would wind up getting broken. Their little [toy] horse or something.”

Perhaps it was then that she started living in the private realm of thoughts and dreams that she calls “my bubble.”

Her earliest pop memory was listening to the Ramones on the radio as an adolescent and thrilling to a wall of loud guitar sounds. Yet even as a small child, she said, “I was always listening to songs in my head, in my bubble life.”

When Shattuck was 10, the family moved to a tract house in Orange, where she prowled a bookstore for nonfiction and eventually started buying her perky, slim-fitting “early Laura Petrie” outfits from thrift shops.

In her yearbook from El Modena High School in Orange, there’s a photo of her graduating class sitting on the bleachers.

“The jocks were in front, the smart people next and the unpopular people in the back,” she said. “I think I’m in the very back.”

And yet, she remembers that kids pretty much “liked the same things and had the same ambition--making money.

“I always had the artistic aspiration, which wasn’t an aspiration of theirs, but nobody gave me [trouble] about it,” she said, pausing for a moment. “But maybe I always lived in my bubble.

“I wasn’t in any hurry to grow up and become this worldly person. . . . I didn’t go drinking. I didn’t experiment with any wacky substances. I was just hanging out. Being creative. I gravitated toward photography. That’s what I really did well.”

Arty Photographs Weren’t Appreciated

As soon as she got her driver’s license, she’d tool around aimlessly, trying to get lost and hoping to find “weird signs” and unkempt building sites to photograph.

While studying photography at Orange Coast College, she tried to apply her skills at a part-time job at the Orange City News. But the newspaper didn’t appreciate her arty, deliberately blurry shots, and after various disagreements, she was fired.

That’s when Shattuck finally got serious about making music. She bought a guitar and tried to teach herself how to play.

“I practiced a million times and threw my guitar across the room 100 times and stomped my feet and swore,” she said with Muffs-style gusto.

Then, at a vintage clothing store in Orange, she met Melanie Vammen, keyboardist for the all-girl Pandoras, which she joined as a bassist--after hurriedly teaching herself the rudiments of bass.

“When I wanted to join the Pandoras, my mom had an anxiety attack. She thought I’d become a drug addict. ‘You’ll run around with some wild people,’ she said. But I didn’t become a drug addict [even though] I’m probably more wild attitude-wise than a lot of people I know. My mom’s proud now. She was really happy when I started my own band.”

In 1991, Vammen and Shattuck broke away to form the Muffs with Shattuck’s then-boyfriend, Ronnie Barnett.

Their self-titled debut album came out on Warner’s Reprise label in 1993, got good reviews and sparked a tour of the United States and Europe. Since then, the band has undergone some personnel changes and produced the well-received “Blonder and Blonder” (1995) and “Happy Birthday to Me” (1997).

“I base everything I [write] on real-life experiences,” Shattuck said, referring to songs of torpedoed romance and other bad breaks. “I think real life is weirder than fiction.”

Writing Tunes ‘Is Kind of Like Therapy’

“Self-hatred” is the theme of Shattuck’s songs on the Muffs’ upcoming CD, “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” The CD is to be released June 15 on the band’s new label, Honest Dan’s, a division of Fat Wreckchords in San Francisco. “As long as I get it off my chest, I’m fine afterward. It’s kind of like therapy.”

The band hasn’t struck it rich. Until recently, Shattuck lived at home with her “really cool” parents, who cut her more slack once she hit her 20s.

“They were never materialistic, my family,” she said in a rare pensive moment. “I think, being a girl, maybe they thought I could have a more frivolous career. But they never said anything like that.”

Although Shattuck lives in Hollywood now, she often visits home.

“A lot of people look down on people who come from the suburbs,” she said. “They think you can’t create art out of that. But art is in the person. . . . I have my own brand of angst.”

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Tomorrow: Jazz trombonist Dan Barrett and performance artist James Luna found their inspiration among the people and places that made up suburban Orange County in the Fifties and Sixties.

Editor’s note: Cathy Curtis was The Times’ visual arts critic from 1988 through March of this year.


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