It’s past 9 p.m., and Kim Fisher’s neck is killing her.
For the last hour, the artist has been standing on a stepladder near a bar counter, craning her face to the black ceiling where she is drawing her mother in hot rollers. Her back is arched at an awkward angle, and her drawing arm is crooked like a slender giraffe neck above her body. She’s not alone. More than a dozen artists look equally uncomfortable perched on ladders and stools across the room, chalk in hand, sketching stories about their moms.
“I spent endless hours watching my mom go through the ritual of putting hot rollers in her hair,” said Fisher, who was featured in the Hammer Museum’s 2014 “Made in L.A.” biennial. “It made such a lasting impression on me.”
A circus of established and up-and-coming artists from L.A., New York and abroad has descended on the soon-to-open Mama Shelter hotel in Hollywood, where owner Benjamin Trigano has asked them to treat his ceiling like a pop-culture Sistine Chapel. The artists, including young abstract painter Alex Becerra (praised last year in a Times gallery review), Greek-born provocateur Despina Stokou, Vienna-based painter Alex Ruthner (who had a sellout exhibition at a London gallery last summer) and surrealist video artist and painter Pearl Hsiung (part of the Hammer’s 2012 biennial), have been congregating in groups of 20 or 30 for the last month to eat pizza, drink beer and contribute a piece of family history to the growing artistic statement.
Photographers Alex Prager (featured in a 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition) and Matthew Brandt (part of the Getty Museum’s current show “Light, Paper, Process”) are creating imagery for the hotel’s elevators; French fashion photographer and video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Los Angeles artist Andrew Bush are shooting material for the bar; Matthew Brannon has designed the neon sign that will perch atop the six-story hotel’s roof at the corner of Selma and Wilcox avenues.
Trigano, also owner and curator of M+B Gallery in West Hollywood and grandson of Club Med developer Gilbert Trigano, is heading up the U.S. expansion of his family’s French boutique hotel chain. And though he didn’t necessarily set out to do it, art is becoming the hotel’s signature motif. He began by telling curators and artist friends to spread the word, and he offered a free dinner for two and a night’s stay at the hotel for any artist who showed up. The barter proved attractive; taking money out of the equation made the scene seem fun, participants said. Word quickly spread. When the hotel opens in early June, more than 100 artists will have left their marks on the ceiling.
“Now I have people calling me, which is funny,” Trigano said during a recent tour of the hotel. “Honestly, it’s just as organic as can be. Maybe one day we’ll run out of space and it will become something else.”
Trigano, who opened his gallery seven years ago, is known for throwing lavish parties for his artists at his Hancock Park home, where almost every wall is covered in paintings, drawings and photographs. His predilection for scene-building has extended to Mama Shelter, where he commissioned the hotel’s designer, Thierry Gaugain, to create a special ladder so guests can view the ceiling. (Each of the hotel’s 70 rooms will be outfitted with, along with the usual Bible, an iMac, a copy of Keith Richards’ biography and various L.A.-centric screenplays like “The Big Lebowski.”)
After the hotel opens, the ceiling project will continue. Trigano would like to add musicians and writers to the art melting pot, which includes recipes for Mom’s chili (“beef or turkey will do with one onion”), a picture of a woman on a trapeze with a baby dangling from an umbilical cord, and interesting Mom-uttered phrases such as “One time my mom told me, ‘Be a mango, not a coconut.’”
Plans to catalog the outpouring of stories and emotions are vague. Trigano would say only that he and his assistant were trying to get pictures of each contribution and were working on a way to make that information available to guests.
When artists arrive, they simply sign their name on a sheet of note paper, pick up chalk and get to work. Pizza comes in cardboard boxes, and drinks, including Trader Joe’s Vodka of the Gods in a plastic bottle, are served in red party cups. The mood is festive, and most of the artists seem to know one another.
“I think there’s a huge boom in L.A. right now, with a lot of artists moving here,” said Simmy Swinder, a curator who runs an art space in Los Angeles called Four Six One Nine. She helped Trigano recruit people for the ceiling project. “There’s a real sense of community between people who arrived here independently and aren’t near their own families. That was the idea behind the ceiling.”
Getting so many artists together like this is rare, Vanessa Prager said while sketching a little boy and his mother.
“There are so many cool artists in L.A. right now, and it feels good to gather to do something weird.”
Taken together, the work is a hodgepodge of color and designs done with varying attention to detail.
John Houck has drawn a picture of a shoe being tied by two pairs of hands (“It’s loosely based on the Nicholson Baker novel ‘The Mezzanine,’ which says that tying your shoe is the first machine you’re confronted with as a child,” he said). Lisa Solberg has dashed off an explosion of fireworks (“My mom loves fireworks. We call her ‘the professional celebrator’”). Jesse Stecklow has carefully created a black-and-white pig (“It’s not a reference to my mom being a pig; my grandfather had a funky collection of pigs that my mom sort of inherited”). Michael Kennedy Costa re-created a portrait of Virginia Woolf (“My mom is a professor and she teaches Woolf, so I grew up with this image in the house, plus she sort of looks like a mom”).
Steve Hansen, the founder of China Art Objects gallery in L.A., also added a piece: a small picture of a cat with his mother’s name and a long list of her cats’ names.
“My mom had a bunch of cats and she’s dead and all these cats are dead,” he said. “It’s sad. All of these are sad. Moms are happy and sad.”
Hansen said he helped to spread the word about the Mama Shelter ceiling because the free-for-all nature appealed to him.
“You don’t have to sign it, and it doesn’t have to be anything like the art you actually do,” he said.
With so many people on the project, Trigano will be paying it forward for some time, which means that although the hotel wasn’t created for artists, it will be full of them.
“Hey, I owe them,” Trigano said, smiling.