This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Andrew Tonkovich, whose story, “Falling,” appears in the Abnormal Issue and Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. More recently, his story, “Reelection Day,” appears in the Migration Issue.
I’m curator of a thousand pieces of decaying artwork, including a few still-brilliant canvases, intricate miniatures, hand-illustrated broadsides, an unpublished (typed) book or two, posters, journals, sketches, all produced by someone dear and, yes, still near, nearer than ever.
I’d lived decades with a representative sampling of these tattered pen-and-ink drawings, oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, and writings. Their titles: “The Discovery of California,” “You Don’t Have to Eat God,” and “In the Summer We Went to the Mountains.” All were made by the late Dr. Peter Carr of Laguna Beach, California. He was my Comp Lit professor, an activist, a larger-than-life fellow of small stature if terrific self-esteem who created in whatever medium he found handy. He scribbled, typed, drew, painted (even on cardboard and plywood), was perhaps a bit manic or only urgently, unceasingly productive. Just as well because he died, suddenly, in 1981 at age 56, no plan for any of it, not the life’s work, unpublished memoirs, anticipated triumphant gallery show, or incredible output. Thirty years later they came to me.
Here, the rest of it, in a storage unit a mile from my home, behind a roll-up corrugated door: flying-swimming humans and fishes, peace demonstrators, killer jets, Central American ghosts, talking bear, coyote, raven. Peter drew finely layered mountains, captured the transparent, glowing leaves of our Pacific kelp forest, organized the intricate botany of tide pools and assembled among these lonely, alienated humans he meant to save.
Think Kenneth Patchen meets German Expressionist George Grosz. Caricature meets narrative in visionary doomed landscape reverie. Intersecting colors with enthusiastic, funny speech bubble dialog from creature-persons. Or narration by an all-knowing off-stage guide sounding like Peter.
In the 70s he co-founded the anti-nuke outfit Orange County Alliance for Survival, wore a seashell necklace and felt hat. He led students on revisionist history tours of Disneyland, critiquing the place with a Jungian grimace at its perversion of fairy tales, a Marxist reading, an ecological anti-corporate attack. He was a work in progress, now mostly forgotten, no heirs. His widow, heartbroken, left it in the garage, behind the washing machine, to the silverfish and mold.
Welcome, then, to the Peter Carr Reliquary & Storage of Self Museum, a ten-by-ten-foot gallery in a dreary complex at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains overlooking valley, sea, chaparral, the monstrous toll road, and a nightmare housing development where threatened species are further threatened. Next door, the famous worship center of the prosperity gospel.
But, wait, all of that’s also inside, painted three decades ago. Imagine, the wild places, the corporate puppet-men and lying generals, trees, sun and, under it, a few good, angry humans protesting to save what’s left. And, look, there’s Peter himself (his favorite subject), alive, standing in front of the nearby nuclear power plant, recently shut down after years of protest. It’s an unlikely if perfect, hopeful ecotone of refuge, between pavement and scrub, death and life, disappearance and immortality. For now. I mean to revive my teacher and mentor, bring his work back out, into the vivid world he once apprehended, left too soon but never let go.
Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly Pacifica Radio books show Bibliocracy on KPFK in Southern California. With Lisa Alvarez, he is editing a forthcoming collection from Heyday titled The Barricades of Heaven: A Literary Field Guide to Orange County, California.