Thursday, April 24, 2008
Ed Leeper poured animal blood all over his Purple Heart – while wearing a dress. He counted a half-ton of granite, pebble by pebble, 89,339 total, while sitting on a silent Palo Colorado ridge. He solicited urine “contributions” from an array of local artists and pickled former U.S. senator Jesse Helms’ portrait in the resulting broth.
These are the singular acts that are his art. They reveal his anger and his peace, his profundity and his profanity. They are his paint-smudged finger in the eye of the establishment, his push for the purposes he believes in – which include a dedication to things “that don’t make sense.”
Before now, Leeper says, no one had pored over the four fat binders with “Other Works by Ed Leeper” written on the cover, while tailing Leeper, now 80 and a widower, from the Last Chance Mercantile exchange that he adores to his scenic Big Sur haunt he calls a “Military Police Sub-Station.” And before now, few people have asked the one-word question that the years invested in atypical artwork beg: Why?
Fewer still got a straight answer. “Why does anyone do anything?” Leeper asks.
The journey to uncover an answer sprawls across Monterey County: It moves from a homemade cemetery by Monterey State Beach to city council chambers, rides in the back of an old Toyota pickup to Greenfield, and brakes at the Bohemian paradise bristling with mannequin limbs where Leeper lives in New Monterey.
Along the journey, the answer to why proves elusive – but it is present the whole time, just like Leeper and his 1986 flatbed on the side of so many Monterey County roads.
Six million sit in a stack. The paper that constitutes the stack – an imposing tower built by patience and purpose – is gray and heavy. It sits in a room on the Military Sub-Station acre of Big Sur land Leeper and his late wife and co-conspirator, Elizabeth, named Hawk Shadow.
The stack began on June 18, 1987, when the retired Army personnel officer who hadn’t held a job in 15 years drew one small, straight line on one sheet of paper. The tiny mark represented one Jew murdered in Nazi Germany. Another small, straight line followed. And another.
After Leeper had carefully drawn around 1,400 marks on the 20-by-13-inch sheet, he set it aside, picked up another sheet, and made another mark with his black calligraphy pen. And another.
At the same time, he toiled away on another heavy project: Leeper scavenged and then lugged old chunks of cement and brick from his beloved beaches of Cannery Row over to his truck, hauled them 1,300 feet above sea level to Hawk Shadow, and dragged them onto a bluff overlooking the Pacific. He slowly fit the disparate rocks together in a beautifully cohesive hulk, cementing them in place. Ultimately the ambitious old-timer amassed an integrated structure 15 feet wide, 7 feet tall and 5 feet deep – 525 cubic feet of stone and concrete weighing roughly 40 tons – including a slender column of concrete scraps next to it. The big chunk, he says as he stands next to it, represents the Jews lost. The thin column, the Jews saved.
Leeper would retreat to the dining room table of his New Monterey home by night and lift his calligraphy pen. Over the coming months and years, one small black mark at a time, he would go through 251 of those pens.
In January and February of 1990, with both of these projects in progress, he visited the German murder camps in Poland – Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Chelmno and Treblinka – purposely arriving in the dead of winter to better grip the cold reality of Holocaust cruelty. He returned with stolen ashes from a field outside Chelmno where they dumped ashes from the camp’s crematorium, the powdered remains snugly tucked in a film canister. That human dust went into the heart of the Hawk Shadow stone-and-concrete memorial.
Meanwhile, the stack grew, mark by mark, murder by murder, sheet by sheet. It would reach nearly 5 feet in height.
At the dozens of college campuses across the state where Leeper later showed it, the work would in turn reach into the minds of thousands of students. He watched as his art recast a number perhaps most harrowing in its power to summarize infinite barbarism with one incomprehensible statistic as something young minds could begin to grasp. His motivation for the time he spent creating it would seem as clearly outlined as his cold concrete-and-stone monument to the massacred is against the warm Big Sur hillside.
But Leeper couldn’t describe what it meant. Longtime Leeper best friend Lloyd Jones, himself an artist and Leeper’s neighbor in Palo Colorado, watched.
“He couldn’t explain himself,” Jones says. “His ideas and implementation were more intuitive than cognitive – he didn’t think something through and have a reason for doing it. It seemed like, ‘I had a feeling that it was the right thing to do.’ ”
Even today Leeper struggles to explain why he spent so much time scratching out ink on paper. He mumbles that before the project he had visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with “all the names” (58,195 to be exact) and wondered what the names of the victims of the Holocaust would look like gathered in one place. He says he wanted to do something for his newborn grandchild, who is half Jewish. (Leeper isn’t Jewish.) Then, more than an hour later, unprompted, he returns to the question, as if unsatisfied with his earlier answers. “I did it because it’s the best way to show people what 6 million is,” he says. “I was taking something and turning it into something else.”
But even if Ed Leeper could explain this, his most profound and most transparent work, more articulately, he’d have a lot more trouble explaining other installments of his specific sort of conceptual/performance art craft. Like “Golf Ball Spillage,” when he dumped a basket of golf balls on the floors of five different venues in Monterey County, including the Pacific Grove Art Center and the Weekly. Or when he consummated “Art Circle,” an artwork for which he stood in a carefully arranged column of ostensibly important art books and flashed his buck-naked balls for the camera.
After Ed Leeper spent a good chunk of more than 2-1/2 years counting rocks with his now-dead dog and the Palo Colorado canyons as his only companions, at least one family member openly wondered if he had too much time on his hands. Onlookers have reacted to certain Leeper public art projects by yelling, “Art my ass!” Leeper, meanwhile, admits that “about half of my work is silly.”
It would be hard to argue otherwise.
As part of his “Pissing on Jesse Helms” – which Leeper notes included some water mixed in with the urine so the portrait of the famously anti-art North Carolina senator still was visible through the electric-yellow urine of 10 artists – he wrote the National Endowment for the Arts seeking a $175 grant to send the “work” to tour the Museum of Art in Raleigh, in Helms’ home state and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
When he invited members of the community to vote on which three six-letter words from a selection of 62 he culled from an Art in America article to paint on the back of his truck – “CREATE,” “BEYOND” and “ITSELF” ultimately won – some of his favorite votes for the top three words went like this:
FIRST CHOICE: This is
SECOND CHOICE: Not art
THIRD CHOICE: Wanker
FIRST CHOICE: Get a life – who cares what you call your truck!
SECOND CHOICE: Stop drinking now!!
THIRD CHOICE: Another supporter for pro-choice and happy to cancel your vote.
Far less publicly, Leeper wrote the California Department of Transportation in 2001 asking if he could close off Highway 1 between the Soledad Drive exit and the Munras exit at 3am on a Tuesday and read his resume over and over for 20 minutes while 18 people listened from chairs planted on both sides of the freeway. (He was denied; the reply letter cited “safety reasons.”)
Not long before, Leeper sat signing some 1,000 certificates at a Pacific Grove Art Center opening paying tribute to ubiquitous artist Thomas Kinkade: “In recognition of your service during the period of the Cold War (2 September 1945 – 26 December 1991) in promoting peace and stability for this Nation, the people of this Nation are forever grateful.”
But those who know Leeper and his work the most warn against writing it off as idle arts and crafts or works in insanity.
“Underneath what may appear as a goofball veneer,” Jones told the Weekly, “there lurks a savvy sophisticated observer.”
Former Monterey mayor Dan Albert, who has seen Leeper operate in a variety of settings ranging from the public comment period in City Council Chambers to sidewalk protests surrounded by scores of people, views Leeper as earnest as he is goofy in the head.
“I know he takes himself seriously,” Albert says, “though at times, I don’t know how much.”
“It’s hard to tell when he is serious or tongue-in-cheek,” Jones adds, “Most of the time Ed’s seriously tongue-in-cheek.”
The evidence is there in his art. His superficially satirical “Threat Level Normal” piece, where Leeper mounted that phrase on his truck in 2000 and positioned it at various turnouts around the county (ahead of the night-show parodies of the same ilk), carried visionary commentary – and was adopted by the Monterey College of Law as the theme and symbol of this year’s moot court.
Reading an entire Sunday New York Times, word for word, over 227-plus hours, seems more stunt than insight. But the Q&A that took place after Leeper read a repetitive section of the classifieds for 20 minutes to peels of laughter yielded a textured debate that delved into a lot more than fine print. Three-time candidate for Monterey City Council Barbara Bass Evans was there.
“People saw that we skim through life,” she says. “It took that many hours to read every single word in a paper that’s put out all the time? When we say we read something in the paper, how much did we really read? Are we really paying attention? The Times is so revered, [but] when you do read every single word, it’s mundane.”
Meanwhile, the method to his brand of madness – the how of his bootleg operations – has long been as meaningful as the why, and ahead of its time.
His devoutly inclusive instincts came before online forums invited everyone to share their particular take on everything from the Bush administration to bundt cake. With his art, Leeper constantly solicits votes and volunteers, honks and hoots, audiences to dump a basket of golf balls in front of and dozens of individuals to hold signs including “I’m Risen,” “I’m Not” and “I’m Dead” at Monterey’s Window on the Bay for the hundreds of unwitting participants passing by in traffic.
“You just participated in an artwork,” Leeper would tell people as they left one of his most recent installations – usually grinning, arms full of books – as he transformed his ever-present Toyota sidekick into a mobile hub of literature he called “Liquid Books.” Everywhere he went, everyone – from garbage men in Monterey to orchestra members in Carmel to kids running at his truck during an art-encouraging parade in Greenfield – leapt to the literature, sharing recommendations and lively conversation.
“People would pick out books,” Evans says, “It became a social phenomenon, really. People in our disconnected world would stand around the truck – strangers would get involved with each other.”
Even the outwardly unnecessary granite-pebble counting experiment found its own depth.
“To count rocks… on its surface is waste of time,” says Kira Carrillo Corser, longtime friend and community arts and education director of the Arts Council for Monterey County. “But think about how beautiful it is to sit there in Big Sur with the rocks. It forces you, there or not, to meditate and appreciate.”
At the same time, Leeper’s truck-trafficked guerrilla approach to art is more than a rebuke of the traditional gallery setting (Leeper and fellow quasi-renegade artists joke that they’ll be finished when they surface regularly in conventional galleries). It served as a foretaste of the self-publishing, Internet-driven phenomenon that came later, acting as a refreshingly eccentric Facebook page in a flatbed.
By circumventing the traditional gatekeepers of the art establishment, Leeper also loosens the manicured elite’s monopoly on art, bringing it back within reach of the greasy-fingernail grip of the sweaty bohemian masses in the street.
And when Leeper renews the truck’s artwork like a cannibal seeking new meat – or paints over a work like “Bound Marriage,” in which he wrote down every name from the full 1959 set of Encyclopedia Britannica on the wall of his Hawk Shadow studio with miniscule Leeper scrawl (some 14,794 names all told, taken from 23,118 pages) – he invokes the art-for-the-sake-of-art ethos of Burning Man, as he has since before the big wooden man first went up in flames at the center of the annual Nevada art-festival phenomenon.
The muscle-bound Marine Corps major is upset with the old former Army serviceman standing on the sidewalk. “What’s this all about?” he thunders at Ed Leeper.
This would be about the other not-so-silly half of Leeper’s art. Behind the uniformed Navy man and the heavily medaled vet, a sweeping grid of perfectly spaced white sticks poke from grass, like pins solemnly inserted into humanity’s earthen skin. They fan out a full thousand all told, each personally painted and cut by Leeper; in keeping with Leeper’s vision, Monterey artist-activist Arthur Simon researched each death, tracked down a photograph of each fallen American, and combined that information in a portrait on each post.
The effort required was extensive, the effect powerful. “The way he set it up so carefully, it was quite a work – he really made a statement,” recalls Albert.
Simultaneously, in October 2004, the domestic climate still was prevailingly pro-war. “It was a very brave statement, in retrospect,” says Evans, who was there to document the installation for a public-access television program. “Everybody opposed to war, in those days, was unpatriotic if they spoke up.”
That’s the way the Marine seemed to see things. After speaking with Leeper, he stalked off into the grid of remembrance.
The soldier wasn’t the first or the last to offer a less-than-enthusiastic opinion of Leeper’s art. In 2001, the collective mood in the county supervisors chambers puckered precipitously when Leeper cut loose with a series of racial epithets – “You niggers, kikes, wops, greasers, gooks!” – and repeated them 10 times. Leeper was acting in response to news that these same racial slurs were broadcast to inmates at the Monterey County Jail when sheriff’s deputies played a clip from the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (Leeper rephrased the scene slightly). He wanted to dramatize the events at the jail so supervisors, and the public, would feel the “intense emotion and awfulness of being on the receiving end of racism.”
Less intense acts – as when Leeper unveiled a mobile toilet festooned with artificial flowers in plungers to protest the Pacific Grove City Council’s struggles in dealing with severe sewer problems – received similarly stern stares. Fellow vets likely weren’t enthused when he assembled an elaborate set re-enacting a scene from Vietnam where a soldier accidentally killed a pregnant mother – which led to him pouring the cow blood over a mannequin soldier wearing his medals. (“I wore the dress because I wanted everything to look as absurd as possible – like war,” Leeper says, “the most ridiculous thing mankind does.”)
Even Leeper’s grandkids weren’t immune to the unease, crying after police pounced on Leeper and Gordon Smith when they laid down in front of tanks rolling down Alvarado Street as part of a July 4 parade. Seeing Grandad taken away in cuffs can do that.
But in each case, something changed. The Marine returned after finding the profiles of several fallen comrades on the grass. “Thank you,” he told Leeper. An investigation was launched, deputies were disciplined and members of the media were invited to tour the jail after Leeper’s incendiary outburst and civil rights groups led by the NAACP filed protests. P.G. leaders started pumping their however-paralyzed pistons to produce a savvier sewer system, though progress has been constipated. Tanks haven’t laid track on Alvarado since Smith and Leeper laid down for the second time in two years.
These changes make what Leeper says on the way to Hawk Shadow rather startling. John Legend’s song “Waitin’ on the World to Change,” comes on the radio as Leeper is asked whether his installations at Window on the Bay make any real difference, whether he is shouting into the void.
He looks out the window, his eyes tracing the 8am horizon of a platinum Pacific Ocean. “It won’t change anything,” he mutters.
Ed Leeper is itchy. He fiddles with the enchilada on the dish in front of him; he gets this anxiousness, he says, when he doesn’t have a major project on his plate.
“I don’t feel fulfilled at the moment I don’t have a work,” he says. “I have things to do but I’m just happier, mentally OK and all that, but I want to wake up in the morning and have a project going. That’s the case with all creative people. You want to have something going.”
Leeper has delineated this theme before. “It’s medicine,” he has said. “It helps me.”
Leeper collaborator and standout Sand City sculptor Stephanie Esta knows the feeling. “I don’t think he’s even really looking for meaning,” she says. “It’s that little churning in your body that you gotta create something – it’s there or it isn’t there. If it’s there it’s knockin’ at your door.”
But there’s more to the why. While Leeper may not need a specific meaning to be transmitted, he needs it to produce some kind of meaning.
As Leeper says: “I just want to make people think.”
In the thinking lies the change, and Leeper, a self-styled performance artist – which he defines as someone who “takes something and turns it into something else” – has been changed deeply by his work (and can be called “something else”).
“6,000,000” redefined him – he didn’t dare consider himself an artist before he completed it; only then, after his friends “insisted” he was an artist, did he embrace the first job he ever liked and start decorating his truck, pounding stakes into the grass, counting rocks day after meditative day. These subsequent projects, meanwhile, gradually had a similarly simple-but-profound effect.
“Before he was treated as a nut,” Evans says. “Now he’s revered – even seen as a wise elder.”
Not that Leeper would linger long with this sort of analysis. He’s too busy considering the next work he conceived post enchilada, something he’s calling “Pineapple Upside Down Cake.”
He brings it up regularly, excitedly, saying it is inspired by one of the things he looked forward to while stationed in Vietnam.
“He may not want to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or why he’s doing what he’s doing,” says Leeper confidant Jones, “but I think that he is following a rule of art. You don’t worry about what you’re doing. You leave it to someone else to figure out.”