Marisela Norte is a poet and performance artist who sees the city of automobiles with the eye of someone who doesn’t drive or carpool. Which is to say, she sees it up close, like a lifelong pedestrian who traverses the sidewalks and stops at street corners to wait for the bus.
It was on a downtown street in front of the Bonaventure Hotel that Norte spotted the lady with the watermelon socks. They were girlish socks, with a pink frill at the top just above the ankle and a slice of watermelon embroidered on the side. Her feet were tucked into sequined slippers that conjured fairy tales of “Arabian Nights.”
“If someone would have done this combination in a fashion magazine, people would have said, ‘Wow, this is the next thing,’ ” said Norte, who finds inspiration and friendships on her daily bus ride between downtown and her home in East L.A. “But this is something that goes by completely invisible.”
Norte rushed across the street and asked the woman, a seamstress on her way home after work, if she could take a picture of her feet. Of course, the woman said, without even asking why.
Though she never got the woman’s name, Norte immortalized the image in a photograph she called “La Dama de la Sandia,” or the Lady of the Watermelon. It’s one of several photographs on display in an unusual exhibition that opened last Saturday at Tropico de Nopal, a small gallery just west of downtown.
The show is called “Marisela Norte: Sociedad Anónima.” It stands for Anonymous Society, an apt description of the marginalized world the artist captures while commuters whoosh by in their air-conditioned cars without a second glance.
Norte finds glamour in the gutters of Los Angeles and something to treasure in what others discard.
Aside from her own photographs, displayed on the walls and on a small TV monitor, the exhibition also includes snapshots the artist finds around town, sometimes dropped on the street or pressed neatly between the pages of a book bought at a yard sale. An admitted pack rat, Norte also exhibits stuff she picks up as she passes by -- calling cards for curanderos (folk healers), ticket stubs for a strip club, colorfully designed telephone cards spent and left for trash after their immigrant owners called home.
In Spanish, one health clinic flier announced “Special of the Month: Termination of Pregnancy $150.” Another advertised the services of “El Gran Chaman: Protector of people in love.” One torn, wrinkled page offered lessons in how to dance the waltz for a quinceañera, “y bodas también” (and weddings too).
These are common items that litter L.A. streets, a collection of urban flotsam the artist calls “Lost/Profound.” To her, they are “the first pages of a collection of short stories” yet to be written.
“It takes somebody like Marisela to pick it up and say, ‘No, this is not trash. This is part of an aesthetic we bypass daily,’ ” said Reyes Rodriguez, an artist who owns the small neighborhood gallery. “To me, it shows how keen her eye is.”
“Sociedad Anónima” is a modest show, spare in presentation but rich in detail, such as the artist’s compulsively neat and even handwriting on the pages of her journals stacked on a table for perusing.
Look closely at the lady with the watermelon socks and the unretouched picture shows the hair on her unshaven legs above her doll-like feet. A lump on one toe bulges though the sock and over the edge of her slipper, suggesting a painful bunion and a life of hard walking with the wrong shoes.
“I just want people to experience the everyday glimpses of life that I see, that to me are sometimes heartbreaking, but most of the time incredibly beautiful,” notes Norte in a written statement for the show, curated by friend and fellow artist Diane Gamboa.
The photographs are a new medium for Norte. They were all taken since January with a Nikon she purchased at Target as a gift for herself on her 51st birthday last December. (“I like to say I’m 50-wonderful.”) She felt compelled to take pictures as a way of documenting a world she feared was on the verge of disappearing as a result of downtown’s accelerating gentrification.
“The neighborhood is changing so rapidly,” she says. “J. Crew, I can smell it. I know it’s coming, and this will become a downtown like anywhere else. So it’s just obsessive for me now: ‘I need to take photos today. I need to document it before it’s gone.’ ”
Norte grew up in East L.A. and later joined Asco, L.A.'s pioneering Chicano arts collective, and went on to establish a career as a writer, poet and playwright. The artist’s day job for the last 14 years has been at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where she started as a ticket seller and now is membership coordinator.
At her office in a high-rise adjacent to the downtown museum on Thursday, her outfit was a 1940s throwback to the fashionable femme fatale of film noir: black trench coat, high heels and fishnet stockings. It seemed fancy, even for her white-collar office, much less for the gritty streets far below that serve as her workshop.
But Norte tries to live up to her mother’s old-fashioned admonition: “Dress like you’re going downtown.”
“It’s a little too sterile up here,” she said. “But when I leave these really pristine towers, and once I get down to Broadway, it’s like, ‘OK, this is the real thing.’ ”
“Marisela Norte: Sociedad Anónima” through Oct. 13 at Tropico de Nopal Gallery-Art Space, 1665 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (213) 481-8112. Conversation with artist and curator, 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Film screening and martini night, 8 p.m. Sept. 29.
Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail him at email@example.com with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.