ELYSIAN VALLEY — You could call Michael Todd one of the unofficial founding fathers of the Frogtown art scene; Todd moved into his studio off Ripple Avenue near the Los Angeles River more than 30 years ago and has seen this working-class area morph from factories and warehouses into a burgeoning art community with studios, galleries and work spaces — albeit still tinged with the down-to-earth neighborhood grittiness.
This year for the first time, the 79-year-old Todd will participate with his fellow Elysian Valley artists in the annual Frogtown Art Walk on Saturday, September 13, opening his studio for art lovers to check out his ethereal, Zen-like metal sculptures, his circle-motif creations and spray paintings that invoke both internal and external cosmos.
Todd’s influential sculptural work has been part of international exhibitions and art galleries nationwide. A native of Omaha, Todd grew up in Chicago and earned a BFA from Notre Dame and a master’s degree from UCLA in 1961 in printmaking. After a stay in New York, Todd moved to San Diego to teach; he credits the shipbuilding industry there in the 1970s with supplying him with materials to continue his exploration of sculptural objects in time and space.
He and his family (daughter Mia Doi Todd is a L.A.-based singer/songwriter and artist as well) were in San Diego for eight year before making the move to Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s.
What made you choose Frogtown?
I bought a two-story brick building in Culver City with an adjoining lot, and we were going to move in there, but it was destroyed by Standard Oil when they hit a high-test gasoline line in the middle of Venice Boulevard. It was a big famous explosion that pretty much destroyed the block. We moved in with my wife’s mother in Crenshaw and I kept scouring the newspapers and I see this ad for a 1920s Schindler mini-estate [in Silver Lake]. So I got that, fixed it up, but I didn’t have a studio. I was driving by Fletcher and Ripple one day and there on a telephone pole with a piece of paper tacked on it was “This Building for Sale.” It was an old flooring manufacturing facility. The building was an empty space with holes in the wall because the fork lifts went too far into the wall. I bought it because the space is heaven. It was all from that piece of paper on a telephone pole.
What did the area look like when you first came and how has it changed?
Those first years, I lost a lot of metal; [thieves] would cut my fence to get inside. One day, they left the gate open, came in and hauled off 10 pieces of sculpture. I spent a couple of days driving to scrap yards in L.A. to see if I could any of them. I never did. Occasionally a stolen car would be set ablaze right outside. It’s been a somewhat tempestuous area to live in but really not all that bad. My daughter lived upstairs for a while. Today, the crime seems to have subsided.
What about the art community?
There was no one here at that time except Frank Romero. And then suddenly, about ten years ago, a former student of mine from UC San Diego came up and he was renting the music studio down here. He was making a living as a real estate developer and he got a backer to buy this big building, and they developed about 13 or 14 studios and so artists starting filtering in there.
I’m delighted to see [new artists move in] here. For a long time I felt isolated, but I’m a private person and I didn’t mind it so much. But my son-in-law, Jesse Peterson (who’s my property/studio manager and advisor), is very open and friendly, and he’s been taking me on tours of the neighborhood, the artists who have moved in, and I’ve really enjoyed it. Jesse is the one that got me involved in the Art Walk.
What impresses you about artists today?
We are going through strange times. I’ve been fortunate to have galleries all over the states sell my work, but so many have closed down. I don’t even have a gallery in Los Angeles anymore. Now, there is a kind of an “Art Star” thing going on; these are people who have connected with the upper echelon of the art world. Like Rock Stars of the Art World – those who have struck in rich with what they are doing. For me, good art is very rare and it’s not necessarily what’s selling.
How does current culture effect the nature of your projects and how you work?
I’m ambiguous about all that big money – I think it’s a little insane. I think it’s a bit of a bubble. For me, I just like to do my work. I go where my brain takes me. Certain metaphysical themes, some spiritual themes come out – but I don’t like to pretend I’m a saint. I like to play. For me art is high form of play.
My son-in-law Jesse has found that my work has musical implications and has gotten percussionists in here to play my sculpture. Then I started designing some pieces just to be played. So hopefully, we will have someone playing them during the Art Walk.
Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock.