Every morning he rises around 5, pulls on his jeans and shirt and shoes, all speckled and splashed with paint, and braces for another day as a scenic artist for one of TV’s lowest-ranking soaps. Breakfast for Tahir Fatah is a small bowl of yogurt, a strong a cup of coffee and a cigarette. On the way out the door, he can’t help but pause in front of a painting he had troubled over the night before: Is that light slicing across the canvas too severe? Does that clot of blue in the corner really need to be there? Behind the wheel of his 1974 Volvo he tunes into National Public Radio to catch the latest on the war. He still has family in Iraq and wonders whether his people, the Kurds, will ever tear free of the religious and nationalist fanatics. “They both know only one way--oblivion,” he says, and as he tools up the 101, he fears the United States will get the shakes and pull out, leaving his people to fend for themselves. Ten minutes later, he is on the studio lot where “Passions,” the soap he works for, is filmed.
This morning, he might be asked to fashion an angry ocean backdrop, because the script calls for two members of the cast to set sail on a skiff headed to a maritime hell. Harmony, the soap’s upscale seaside community, which Fatah describes as “one of these little beach towns where people are into crystals and dolphins and Hummers and I don’t know what,” sprawls with mansions. This means Fatah might be marbling yet another gaudy staircase or reworking a portrait of the vainglorious Alistair Ephraim Crane, whose spiritual degeneracy, he admits, would take a Velasquez to fathom.
Up and down ladders, swinging around big brushes and trowels, fetching or mixing paint, the 65-year-old artist moves with the muscular sureness of someone 20 years his junior. In his 13 years at the studios, he has conjured Roman columns, burl-wood libraries, underwater worlds. “I remember, one of my first jobs was re-creating the inside of a sewer system. All grays, browns and shadows, wet and crumbling cement. For two weeks I put everything I had into it. When I was done, I stood back: Beautiful, I thought, moody as any abstract painting. A week later, they tore it down and threw it into the trash.”
Fatah has gotten used to watching what he’s created one day razed the next. And as a fine artist who strives for permanence and purpose with every brush stroke, the irony that his day job services such a fatuous and makeshift world is hardly lost on him. In fact, the irony might have crushed him years ago had he not discovered--while painting faux brick fireplaces and winter wonderlands--that some of the deepest lessons of his art were waiting to be learned. “I might have ended up like one of these old wheelbarrows,” he says, showing with a hand how it wobbles side to side. “Instead, every day, I was gathering up ideas and bringing them home. Even when I did not know it.”
It is commonplace that actors support themselves as extras until their chance at stardom arrives. But there are also novelists who read scripts, musicians who edit sound, singers who sing jingles--all making ends meet in the hardscrabble back lots of the entertainment industry while they ply the higher aspects of their art on weekends or at night.
From the early days of the movies, fine artists who double-time as scenic artists have been fixtures among this blue-collar crowd. “When I began in the 1970s, Hollywood was a great place for a painter to make a living,” says former scenic artist Ron Linden, who is the director of the Los Angeles Harbor College Art Gallery. “We’d put in our hours at the studios, then come home and do what really mattered to us. There was a whole group of us, close-knit.”
They were inspired by the generations that preceded them--academically trained painters from Europe or the East Coast who came to Hollywood to meet the film world’s red-hot demand. There was George Gibson, whose backdrops for “The Wizard of Oz” and “Oklahoma” took scenic art to undreamed-of heights. And there was the Paris-born Emil Kosa Jr., who won an Oscar for his work on “Cleopatra.” “Their talent was immense,” Linden says. “They could produce windows that appeared transparent. They would put up giant architecture with vanishing points that extended to the edge of the canvas, skies and mountains and seascapes or Hopper-like urban backdrops.”
Weekends, they would ditch the studio workshops and head to the Sierra Nevada or Mojave or the California coast, where they would paint plein-air. Among them were members of the California Art Club (originally the Painters Club of Los Angeles), landscape artists who dreamed of doing for California what Thomas Cole had done for the Hudson River Valley 100 years earlier. They put together shows and impressed the critics before Modernism ripped the rug out from under them, flipping representational art on its head. It would take many decades before the beautiful work of these landscape painters looked anything other than quaint.
Hans Burkhardt, a Swiss ex-pat, committed Modernist and political firebrand, was one of the most powerful painters Los Angeles has ever known. He moved back and forth between the two worlds of scenic and fine art over several decades, painting for MGM during the ‘40s and ‘50s and for the Dinah Shore show on NBC.
“Burkhardt is one of the most important American painters of the 20th century,” says Jack Rutberg, owner of the La Brea Avenue gallery of the same name. He was also one of the toughest. Back when studio workers were organizing for a union, he painted devastating tableaux of the forces involved in their lockout and vilification. In one, “Studio Scab, Ronald Reagan,” the then-actor hangs lifeless from one of two concrete walls that appear to be closing like doors upon a bleak horizon. More excoriating still were his “War Paintings,” heavily textured, nearly apocalyptic interpretations of some of the more brutal episodes in modern American history, from Hiroshima to My Lai to the first Gulf War.
Burkhardt’s paintings were an unthinkable departure from what he was required to do for Hollywood, but the radical disconnection didn’t disturb him. “Burkhardt had a powerful Swiss work ethic. He was a born laborer,” Rutberg says. His union salary allowed him to paint unfettered, without regard to the New York galleries, the latest fads or even the appetites of collectors. “I wanted to live in peace and I painted what I believed in,” Burkhardt said in a 1980s interview. He died in 1994.
The trade today is not the one Burkhardt practiced 50 years ago. Back then, painters worked on scenes shoulder to shoulder, section by section, and the union operated like a guild, with apprentices learning the craft from journeymen. But as brushes were replaced by computer programs and freelancers got the lion’s share of the work, the guild structure was left for waste. Today, backdrops are made of computer-generated transparencies taped together to form what amounts to an oversized projector slide, or are spat out by inkjet printers on large cloth panels that are meticulously stitched together.
“The computer doesn’t give the magic or the beauty of scenes painted by hand. Computer artists don’t go out into nature and key into the light, their work doesn’t have atmosphere,” says Bridget Duffy, a scenic artist with 30 years’ experience. She echoes the complaint of many of her generation, who are increasingly relegated to whipping up surfaces--wood, metal, marble, brick--like short-order cooks. Or as they describe themselves these days: “paint wizards,” “liquid magicians,” “speed painters” or “hired brushes.”
Over time, fewer and fewer fine artists have joined the ranks of scenic artists. There are still those who, in their off hours, produce silk-screens for hotels or decorate hospital lobbies with murals. “But serious artists working in Hollywood, like Fatah,” Linden guesses, “I would put the number at 1%.”
Fatah is standing in his studio with a brush in one hand and a Styrofoam plate that serves as his palette in the other. He is a sturdily built 5 feet, 8 inches, with a face that is rugged but hardly worn. His hair is wild, gray and thinning, and his eyes are gray too. “They were brown,” he says, “but as I get older I’m turning more and more into a wolf.” A mole marks the center of his forehead precisely where a pious Hindu might paint the third eye, and a deep dimple pocks his chin. Known as “the Kurd” to friends, he is intense and opinionated, quick to offer a remedy for everything from a cold (eat an onion whole and take a hot bath) to our predicament in Iraq (an essay in itself). He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, and after two marriages now lives alone. (I got to know Fatah 15 years ago when we were neighbors in Beverly Hills.)
Art, the crux of his private life, has crowded out nearly everything else. Both bedrooms (and his garage) bulge with paintings, and he sleeps in a breakfast nook. The living room, where the natural light is brightest, is his studio. Paintings and found objects hang from the walls, the largest of which is barely large enough to contain a paint-splattered easel. Since he began working for the studios, his landscapes have become deeply troubled, if not verging on some psychotic collapse. Skies trail off into blackness, square bolts hold up horizons, a rooster crows in the first light of a halogen lamp. Images float just beneath the surface washes--the detritus of past drafts. A piano with two legs clutching the edge of a cliff or the innocent eyes of a deer piercing a scrim of mist barely hint at some heroic survival. The paintings are at once powerful, quixotic and, like Fatah, hostile to any sense of closure.
During the six years he’s worked on “Passions,” he has tuned into the show only a few times. The characters’ emotional noisiness and purple spirituality leave him dumbfounded, and he marvels at how every afternoon millions of viewers stop to follow the ups and downs of the Cranes, the Fitzgeralds, the Bennetts and the Russells more closely than they do their own families’ travails. With a chuckle, he wonders who conjured Tabitha, the heinous witch, or her eerie sidekick, a living doll named Timmy, or Precious, an orangutan who plays a geriatric nurse.
That first year in Hollywood, he came home nearly every day exhausted and depressed. “They squeeze you like a lemon,” he says. “I would put everything I had into everything I did. But for all they noticed, I might as well have been coloring Easter eggs.” And the waste on the studio lots was mind-boggling. “You can build an entire city from what they throw away. Sheets of plywood and two-by-fours, flooring, carpets, gallon after gallon of paint. They use something one time and that’s it--like toilet paper.” He recycled brushes and salvaged wood from the trash bins to make canvas stretchers.
A colleague still remembers the day Fatah stunned his fellow workers with his skill. A team of journeymen was painting religious murals, old and partially deteriorated, on the interior of a small chapel. At some point, there was a war of words among the art director, the lead artist and a journeyman painting one section, and the journeyman took off. Fatah was an apprentice, but he’d been waiting for a chance to show what he could do. The lead artist looked around, conspicuously passing over him like a teacher does a school kid who keeps flinging up his hand. Finally he relented, and told Fatah to repaint that section of the wall. In no time, he executed the work with precision. The journeymen all stood back, amazed that this newcomer’s skill was equal to or greater than their own. “But not a word of praise came from the lead man or the art director,” the colleague says. “Tahir was not an ass-kisser, and they sensed it. It’s like they weren’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d done the job well.”
Only a few cared to know that Fatah was born and raised in the heat and dust of a stony Kurdish village in northern Iraq, and that no art director or lead man was about to shake his self-faith. “I came from biblical times,” he says. “No electricity, no running water. Our house was made of mud and straw, and we all slept in one room, that’s it. On a quilt, together, like mice.”
Fatah was the first of 13 children, and much was expected of him, indeed everything, but from the earliest age he was drawn to the vagarious world of art. Light that shot through the cracks of decrepit stables, expanses of tall grass that shimmered in the wind, the burning ridges of hills at sunset shaped his inner world more than the Koran ever could. His parents tried to discourage him from painting--make him religious, find him a bride--but he had no interest in giving himself over to anything else, so when he was 17 they shipped him off to the Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad. Abdul Karim Qassim had just nationalized the industries, and Baghdad bustled with cosmopolitan energy. Fatah remembers “coffee shops and newspapers and everybody trading in ideas and cheating around.”
It lasted only a few years. The Baathists rose to power and liquidated the nationalists and their movement. Before long, they came after the Kurds. The Socialists and Communists were next. “Every night we could hear students getting dragged away. Everybody was a target. It was impossible to study.” Fatah wanted out. For three years, he applied for an American visa and was turned back by the Baathists. In the meantime, he taught art to school kids in a remote village. Eventually he got his exit ticket. In 1964, with 100 words in his English vocabulary and $400 in his pocket, he left for America.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago was one of best places in the country to study painting. Fatah was admitted on a full scholarship. “Everybody was out protesting or getting high or having sex on the grass,” he recalls. “A whole week would go by, and I was the only one in the studio. When the Americans stumbled in, they’d take a swipe at the canvas with a knife or dip their bottoms in paint and drag them on sheets of paper. I remember one guy smeared some projector light on a wall and called it ‘Sistine Chapel.’ I knew nothing about this kind of thing. I was still painting goats.”
His art and the fate of his people--whom Saddam Hussein continued to repress or murder--were never far from one another, and landscapes, like the ones he gamboled through as a child, became the focus of his paintings. After 12 years in Chicago, the cold weather finally got to him, so he moved to California, first to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles. After success showing in the first two cities, he found no such luck here, so he freelanced as a carpenter and continued to sell his work to a small but devoted group of collectors. Today, Fatah can’t help but feel that the art world has become as gimmicky as the world of soaps. “It is like this plastic cheese,” he says. “You squeeze them both out of a tube. Here on a cracker, over there on a canvas.”
Fatah has always sheltered himself from the flocking patterns of artists. As Minimalism, Conceptualism and untold other isms sailed overhead, he continued to wrestle with the physical world in his art, as though objects were repositories of memory that he had vowed long ago to protect. He no longer bemoans a job profoundly at odds with what matters most to him, but instead is thankful for the livelihood it has given him and for the unlikely lessons he’s learned along the way.
What he has picked up at the studios--a facility for applying paint quickly with rollers and fat brushes and spray guns and trowels--has opened up his style at home. It also has given him a new respect for surfaces, if not superficiality itself. He sees complexity in the gang tagging and retagging of city walls where before he just saw chaos. Exterior walls of warehouses or homes left to fade and slip and crumble once struck him the same way. Then he snapped Polaroids and brought them home to study. The infernos that sheared hundreds of buildings during the 1992 riots suddenly exposed layers of architectural history--facades hiding behind facades.
Like a furniture maker who had worked only with hardwood slowly opening to the wonders of plywood, Fatah has begun to sense that layer after layer of surfaces can be used to construct another kind of depth. He paints with the same commitment and concerns he always had, but he now lets the drafts remain behind, like shavings of simultaneous worlds. As the surfaces deepen, some images float to the top and others submerge until they disappear. More and more, his landscapes have begun to look like richly textured walls. Fatah has found a way to produce depth out of shallowness, and in the process help save objects from Mickey Mouse to the big-bellied oud from oblivion.