Photo: Todd Hido
I lived in Philadelphia, PA for about six years (1987 - 1993) before moving to Oakland, CA, where I lived for about thirteen (1993 - 2006). My move to the West Coast was precipitated by graduate school, but after finishing my studies I stayed in Oakland, having been seduced by the myth of California's laid-back lifestyle; I no longer believe in that myth, but that's a whole other story.
While living in Philadelphia, I spent countless hours wandering the halls and galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In many ways the structure of that museum's collection became a template for the way in which I learned to understand not just art, but material culture as a whole. If you're unfamiliar with the institution, it's nothing short of astounding: much of Marcel Duchamp's work is there, stunning collections of Federal, Shaker, and Pennsylvania German furniture, an enormous Medieval armor collection, major works of art from virtually any period imaginable, and sprinkled in amongst all of that are completely fascinating Period rooms, seemingly from every century. My brief description doesn't do the place justice, so at the very least please visit the museum's website, if not the museum itself.
After leaving Philly for Oakland in '93, I found myself feeling raw and rudderless. “The Long Summer”, as I came to call California’s climate, taunted my emotional state, its sunshine brilliantly illuminated every dichotomy I held in my person. One of my graduate school professors, Ron Nagle, regularly questioned my preconceived notions about art, including what were "appropriate" places or sources to look for inspiration. I took his provocations in stride and in time I learned from him to look for inspiration outside of what was comfortable, an uneasy task even today. It wasn't until around 1998 that I started to feel grounded in the Golden State, eventually learning something from its eccentric teachings, slowly getting the guts to offer it something in return.
I had to make a few changes in my lifestyle before truly feeling grounded; most importantly, I quit drinking. Sobering up left me with time, energy, and the ability to think somewhat clearly again, and this clarity created new possibilities for my art. At some point, while dusting off my neglected studio-life, I was struck with an idea for a sculpture. It was one of the very few "Eureka" moments in my life. The idea was so grand I couldn't even imagine it finished; if I wanted to see it in full I would actually have to make it. Creating this sculpture became an obsession, keeping me happily occupied for about two years. Maybe that's the greatest success of that work, that for those couple of years I was honestly happy.
Not spending my cash on beer or scotch also afforded me the opportunity to live alone, so I rented a studio apartment. Moving in was a breeze as I had virtually nothing to move, an espresso machine and a bed are all that I can remember. I set the place up as a proper art studio, maybe with a table or two and a hand-me-down sewing machine, and a small woodshop in the garage. My friends always commented on my lack of furniture (I was making furniture professionally at the time), let alone any other conventional domestic object.
One day, while outfitting my kitchen on a tight budget, I broke down and went into Long's 24 Hour Drugstore in the Rockridge Shopping Center for the first time. After picking out some cheap cooking utensils, I found myself wandering the store's aisles, each one seemed to propel me to the next. I was in a complete stupor; I could not believe the epic randomness of it all. Right there, all under the same roof, thousands upon thousands of seemingly unrelated products, all at my disposal. That sounds the same as any of the other box-stores that litter North America, but this one was different: it somehow had the feel of a five-and-dime store gone mad. Included within its walls were tediously well-stocked sections devoted to groceries, household supplies, clothing, shoes, hardware, fabric, fishing tackle, camping supplies, art supplies... surely I'm missing several others. As if all that wasn't enough, it also housed one of the best gardening centers in the East Bay.
Over time, I came to see Long's as a sort of distorted negative of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Where the PMA presented curated material culture from our past as inspiration, Long's offered a non-hierarchical buffet of material culture from our present. Every object in that store felt like it held a potential answer to a question I had yet to ask or problem I had yet to solve. In the store, I found myself actually working on my sculptures, not just shopping for their supplies. Key attributes of several works were decided there on the spot, the most important being the miniature sled that determined the narrative of my "Eureka moment" sculpture. By the end of my tenure in Oakland, every single aisle of Long's had offered up something for my creative life, either as inspiration or resolution. I know I should be embarrassed to confess this but I'm not, and I wasn't alone. The store had a cult following of creative types from all walks of life, from art students to architects to rock stars.
My friend Todd took the photo of the vacant box-store interior at the beginning of this post. It's a recent image of the shell that was once Long's 24 Hour Drugstore. Before it was Long's it was a Payless; after it became a Walgreens, but in my mind it will always be Long's. As much as I detest all the big-box stores that are homogenizing our material culture with reckless abandon, I will always pine for Long’s and it’s 24 hour solutions to my artistic problems.