Where Others See Blight, Artists Find Beauty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their wearable graffiti--high-tops, skirt and kimono on her, pants and suspenders on him--Keiko Fukazawa and Dennis O. Callwood don't exactly melt into a crowd.

At first glance, the fabrics could be taken for colorful abstract prints, but closer inspection reveals the graphics, with their recurring themes of death and despair, angst and anger, as unmistakably the work of juvenile taggers and gangbangers.

Even if they were dressed in ubiquitous black from head to toe, this couple still wouldn't fade into the woodwork--he, at 60, with shaved head and closely cropped gray beard, surveying the world through dark John Lennon glasses; she, at 47, with a chic, hard-edged bob and a disarming way of protesting in quite good English that her English is quite terrible.

Both are artists, Fukazawa a widely collected cutting-edge ceramist, and Callwood--whose day job for 21 years has been as a county probation officer--an avant-garde photographer who explores social issues such as racism and disenfranchisement through the lens of his camera.

Married for four years, they currently are exhibiting together for the second time. Their show, "Art and Deviation," in the gallery at USC's Institute for Genetic Medicine through Sept. 30, presents graffiti as an art form rather than as urban blight. And they do it in a unique way, incorporating it into their own art.

That Fukazawa and Callwood came together in the first place is the stuff of a sitcom. Meeting at a Christmas party in Pasadena in 1995, they discovered a common bond: Her work is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; he had recently been represented in a group show at LACMA; both were teaching art to the incarcerated.

Callwood was instantly intrigued with Fukazawa. She found him interesting and comfortable to talk to but recalls, laughing, "in the middle of the conversation I got up to get more food." He gave her his business card. "I had a friend, an artist, who liked exotic people," Fukazawa says. "I thought maybe he was good for her. I never thought of the possibility of our dating."

Callwood persisted, but when he called her, she was always "busy." Then, in April 1996, Fukazawa invited him as a guest artist to her ceramics class at the California Institution for Men in Chino. It was not romance that was on her mind; she just thought he could get through to her students.

But by November 1996, she said yes when he invited her to a MOCA opening, telling her she could bring a friend. To his dismay, she did--a male friend.

Undeterred, he sent her a dozen yellow roses on Christmas Day. How friendly, she thought, romance still not on her radar. She called to thank him, and they decided to go to a movie. Over three months of dating, she began looking at him differently; a year later they were married. It was while Callwood was at Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a juvenile correction facility in Lancaster, in the early '90s that he became intrigued with graffiti as art.

The camp director asked the staff to create some programs for the teens incarcerated there, and he, quite naturally, chose art.

At the time, Callwood was readying photographs for a San Francisco exhibit on the modern primitive movement--tattoos and body piercings and the like. At camp, he saw tattoos galore and decided to photograph these kids who were incarcerated for vandalism, robbery, probation violation and, yes, tagging. When he showed them their photos, "They started writing on them"--gang graffiti.

Callwood realized his black-and-white photos and their graffiti "went together as one piece." Later he would expand on the concept, creating collages such as those in his "eyes" series in the USC exhibit, in which photos of stick-on eyes on improbable objects such as a sardine can or the bottoms of feet have been transferred to canvas and embellished with graffiti borders. Some are playful, some political, some both.

Later, Callwood decided to create a "safe place" at camp for his graffiti artists to express themselves, painting with acrylics on designated walls. "They wrote about their girlfriends, their gang, how they got involved and why." Using color markers, they decorated fabrics. "The idea was, there was no right and no wrong" creatively. The only rule: Rival gang members had to work side by side.

"The kids didn't see themselves as artists," says Callwood. "They saw it as a joke because a lot of them were incarcerated for graffiti. And here I was saying it was great." But he believed in their talent and wanted to "convince them to go back to school and show them they could be good graphic artists."

County policy forbids his following the 17-to 19-year-olds to see how they fared after their release, but he knows of one who went on to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Callwood's camp project was phased out after three years when the camp became more disciplinary, and in February, Callwood moved to a post at Camp Routh, a fire camp in Tujunga.

One former student, Gerardo Alvarez, 24, of Eagle Rock, who is now a private security guard and, on the side, a tattoo artist, is quick to say, "All the art I learned, I learned inside, basically," while incarcerated in 1994-95 for assault and battery. Alvarez, who specializes in tattoos with gothic themes, says he "had never written on walls or the street or anything like that" before being sent to camp, although he had been in a gang.

Not only did Callwood's class hone his drawing skills, Alvarez says, but it also improved his life. "Sometimes I was stressed out while I was incarcerated. Being a teenager and losing your freedom for a year.... One time I just didn't really care about my life. He'd keep telling me, 'Keep drawing, keep drawing.' "

Callwood remains intrigued with the possibility that graffiti, which most dismiss as vandalism, can be channeled in positive ways. "It is an art form, an expression unique to America and the whole hip-hop culture," and a form being exploited by mainstream culture. He understands that he will be criticized for glorifying graffiti but emphasizes that in doing so he is not glorifying gang life.

And he hopes that if people will take time to understand the kids' expression of their anger and frustration and help them find markets for their work, "we can remove the poverty and perhaps remove the graffiti" from public spaces. "It is a language. They're pushing the boundaries of this new language that is now going out to the world. They're the ones who created it, and they should be going to DreamWorks and to Disney and doing it themselves."

Meanwhile, teaching ceramics to female drug abusers at the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, Fukazawa had begun experimenting with break-it-and-put-it-back-together art. For one project, she had the inmates write memories of their mothers on ceramic shards. The result: a big black-and-white vessel that now sits in her living room, which includes this inscription: "I remember my mother for her Irish humor, her sainthood and her cinnamon rolls."

This "reborn" vessel was, she says, "kind of a metaphor for the breaking of these women's old reality, and putting back something transformed."

Around this time she met Callwood. She was intrigued with the notion of letting his graffiti artists decorate shards from the bisque pieces from her kiln with oil markers and then responding to their art with her own as the unifying element. Soon he was taking her broken pieces to the camp.

She learned quickly that, in expressing themselves, the young graffiti artists "had three or four things in their minds--a wife, a girlfriend, a baby, whatever they left outside; time, watches, killing time; a lot of death images, skeletons--and promoting their gang's name."

Sometimes a kid would draw Garfield or Mickey Mouse. Fukazawa, in turn, might draw a pop figure from Japan. As she became intrigued with the "common thread" of violence that linked the graffiti with centuries-old conflicts between ruling families, she would incorporate a symbol such as a Medici crest. A geisha or an image inspired by an erotic Japanese woodcut might be drawn on a vessel next to graffiti with sexual content.

Before smashing her pieces, some of which are 3 or 4 feet high, she would draw grids inside to help her in reassembling them. Then she'd cover the head of a hammer with a thick piece of fabric and smack the bisque with the side of it to get clean breaks.

From a distance, her graffiti ceramics are just pretty pieces in a rainbow of colors. But close up, one sees images of fire, crosses, daggers, swastikas, snakes, a hangman's noose. And there are inscriptions: "Only my death will set me free." "9 more weeks until I go home." Says Fukazawa: "Calligraphy is almost a dead art form. This is a 20th century art form."

If graffiti art was a big leap for Fukazawa, she has always broken with tradition. In Tokyo, where she grew up, she was frustrated because university art students were expected "to paint like the professor," who was very traditional. "I was interested in abstract painting."

Later she apprenticed in a ceramics studio near Kyoto that turned out pieces for the tourist trade. Again, "there were so many do's, have-to-do's. Two years, that was enough. I said thank you very much, I'm going to California. I'd read in a magazine of many things happening on the West Coast in avant-garde ceramics, beautiful, strong pieces." Home now for the couple is an art-filled 1920s bungalow on a tree-lined Pasadena street where Fukazawa keeps a studio. Callwood works from a studio on the Westside, an arrangement that gives each physical and mental space. He crams a full workweek at the fire camp into a 2 1/2-day shift starting Saturday and ending Monday, devoting much of the other 4 1/2 days to photography. He says, "I'm like two different people. At work, nobody thinks I'm a serious artist, while other artists don't think of me as a probation officer." During the school year, Fukazawa teaches two ceramics classes at Cerritos College and two at USC.

With their complicated career schedules, dinner may not get to the table until 9 or 10, and, if she's the cook, it's apt to be fusion dishes, Japanese and Western, such as spaghetti with codfish roe and dried seaweed. Time spent together often means going to other artists' openings, of which Callwood never tires. In turn, he says, "she takes me to Japanese movies," although he long ago abandoned attempts to learn the language.

Both artists will soon be moving on. Callwood wants to do portraits of the Chicano artists and writers who contributed to Con Safos (Reflections of Life in the Barrio), a radical journal published in East L.A. from 1968 until it folded in 1974. It showcased Chicano art, literature and folk culture and explored the social and political issues that were emerging with the explosion of the Chicano movement. These men are aging now, and Callwood wants to "let people know about them."

Fukazawa, reared in a tradition-bound society where "nails that stick out get the hammer," wants to "take a look at my country and my adopted country" in exploring new directions. "I want to share something as an immigrant artist."

Their graffiti art is not for sale and won't be sold, Callwood says, unless it is to set up a nonprofit organization to benefit troubled youth.

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USC's Institute for Genetic Medicine is on the Health Sciences Campus, 2250 Alcazar St. The gallery is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call (323) 442-1144.

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