Billy Kheel is an artist with a deep interest in the rapid changes taking place across Echo Park and Silver Lake. He’s also into felt. Now, Kheel has combined his passion for neighborhoods and fabric into an art installation featuring the commercial signs of Echo Park and Silver Lake in the form of stuffed, felt characters.
Seven characters now hang from a wall at Trencher restaurant in Echo Park, where customers eat their sandwiches under puffy images of the Silver Lake’s Happy Foot/Sad Foot and the donkey-like creature from the Echo Park Burrito King at Sunset and Alvarado. Some of the signs and their respective businesses – such as Pioneer Chicken and Phoenix Bakery in Echo Park – are only memories now.
“This project is a love letter to the quickly disappearing neighborhood I love so much,” said Kheel, 40, who lives in Silver Lake and has a studio in El Sereno. “My idea was to bring these sign characters to life, along with sign characters from the recent past that have already gone out of business, and have them marching together one last time.”
Kheel provided more details about his project in a Q&A:
How did you become interested in felt and stuffed characters?
I am trained as a painter but was looking for a way to connect my medium more directly with my personal history and interests. I am a sports fan and played football and lacrosse through high school and college (Go Wes!). I started working with felt applique and embroidery as a medium that connects to my experience with athletics through the materials used in sports memorabilia. Once I started using felt as a primary medium I became very interested in the processes involved in fabric arts and started to use more and more of them in my artwork.
What prompted this project?
I have been working on a series of stuffed felt applique pieces based on strip mall signs around Los Angeles and one of my favorite signs is the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign on Sunset Blvd right on the Silverlake/Echo Park border. Once I noticed these wild, somewhat random foot characters and learned of their history, I started to look more closely at the characters in the other signs around the neighborhood. I realized that they represented a neighborhood character that is quickly disappearing. .
How did you come to select these signs?
Selecting the signs was the fun part of the project. Some of the signs are still up in the neighborhood and have their own fan bases and history – such as the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign or the Temple Giraffe – but others are less well known or have been gone for a few years already. Hussein Katz, one of the owners of Trencher, was a great resource as someone that grew up in the area and takes great pride in the history, even if its the history of odd small business signs.
How long did they take to make?
Each sign takes a day or two to make. The characters are between two and four feet tall stuffed felt applique. They are all made and sewed here in Los Angeles.
Which one was the most difficult to make?
I think the most difficult one to make was the Pioneer Market covered wagon. The design is pretty complicated and detailed and was a little harder to translate into applique. But it turned out to be one of my favorites – who doesn’t love a chef holding a hot chicken driving a covered wagon? I want to get in that wagon!
Kheels’ work will be on exhibit at Trencher until the end of the week.