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Further Dispatches from The Discovery (sic) of California by Peter Carr (1925-1981)

by Andrew Tonkovich





I promised myself and Citric Acid readers that I’d write more about the personified inspiration for this unlikely literary arts journal, a reason to start a new platform for writing, culture, and politics in Orange County beyond only the pandemic and ongoing political crises, not to mention the recent corporate murderization of the region’s singular alternative weekly. I’m following up on that 

promise. Just try to stop me!


To review: Forty years ago your editor stumbled into the classroom of a celebrated, even notorious

professor, mentor, activist, artist, writer, and all-around charismatic and brilliant genius weirdo, and

found in him --- or created --- a role model. I was lucky to take all of exactly two classes with Harry

“Peter” Carr, heard him speak at a conference, went to a poetry reading and art show, tagged along to a few No Nukes demonstrations at San Onofre before he died of a heart attack, younger than I am now.


I plead guilty to over-esteeming or idealizing the man, but his influence on me, real, constructed,

imagined, or sloppily reassembled out of his orphaned artwork and books and notebooks and

unpublished writing endures. My family and I have lived with the work for decades. If you saw the

terrific piece on the launch of Citric Acid featured in the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Timesyou will have divined that the big painting behind me and managing editor Jaime Campbell is, of course, by Peter.


It’s the largest of a triptych (acrylic on canvas) capturing scenes from, I surmise, the downtown Long Beach bus station as experienced sometime in the late seventies. It’s a stark, vivid social commentary on loneliness and alienation by way of the legal public narcotic of pay television sets, where you’d put in a quarter to watch perhaps an hour or half hour of stupid programs while waiting for the Greyhound. That large painting is representative of one particular and identifiable style of a handful embraced by Peter. Individually and together, and often in dialog with each other, his written and painted work communicates an ethos, expressed in oversized or miniature, loudly and colorfully, or sometimes in gentle and black and white, in prose and poetry, which is always vivid. Each is an articulation of Peter’s worldview, his impressions and ambitions and polemic, his interpretation (sorry, too passive a label) of people and landscapes and civic engagement as assembled, drawn, painted, and written, most of it in and about Laguna Beach, a lot of in Orange County but all of it in California.  Here’s another colorful crowd scene, perhaps capturing those bus riders walking on their way to the station.  


The purposely solipsistic and intentionally revisionist title of his (in)complete body of work, his oeuvre was, indeed, “The Discovery of California,” and as near as I can tell it was also the working title of an apparently never-complete(d), continually revised and nearly endlessly expanding project, a magnum opus. I have found multiple renderings of what appears to be a title page or cover illustration, as if he were assembling a catalog or another collection of writing to be called The Discovery of California. Or maybe these were meant to be posters for an art exhibition or gallery show, handbills or flyers. At any rate, the title, of his life’s work, collected writings and art clearly, unshly, suggests at least one influence, Walt Whitman, whose multiple and ongoing rewritten and revised iterations of Leaves of Grass were an original all-American DIY autobiographical literary and performance art combo, an esteeming of not just the artist but his or her audience, and mutability of, well, everything.  

Peter’s title was meant as a provocation, a both ironic anti-colonial, anti-genocide, anti-war, pro-environmental polemic and, yes, a genuine and sincere expression of his passionate proselytizing for engagement with the natural world, the history and culture of indigenous First Nations folks, the vigorous appreciation of beaches, deserts, forests, mountains of California. This was a dialectic, of course, an invitation, a recruitment poster as was most of his art and writing. Contradiction, containing multitudes, loss and beauty, despair and action, “discovery” of an available revisionist history which of course attacked the whole discovery myth.  


I am making most of this up. Nobody that I know of has written about Carr’s poetry and art and politics except Yours Truly, but I have indeed spent quite a lot of time in the self-storage unit where are stacked and filed thousands of pieces, and I have admired the work which hangs on the walls of our home, and studied the line drawing and illustrations of the self-published chapbooks he produced, mostly in the very busy and productive decade before his death. And I have read the journals and all of the (self) published collections.  

I call this illustration “Mariposa Grove.”  Mariposa Grove is, of course, the near-mythic and singular ecological micro-territory hosting some of the largest and likely oldest surviving sequoias in the world, located in the ecosystem of what is now called the Yosemite Valley. Just now the ancient trees are threatened, we are told, by the Washburn Fire, wrapped in foil to protect them. The Grove was a “holy place” which Peter and his common law wife, lover, fellow peace radical and Laguna Beach activist Jeanie Bernstein liked to visit.


A pen and ink drawing, produced on a humble, slightly faded page of artist’s sketch book paper (14 x 19”), renders Peter’s take on human engagement with a locale he lauded as sacred, along with Aliso Creek and the High Sierra, Joshua Tree, and Anza Borrego. (See the chapbooks Aliso Creek and In the Summer Went to the Mountains). Peter was keen on hallowing all sorts of places and experiences, a la Whitman, Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and, importantly, Gary Snyder, whose Turtle Island he taught. He visited and studied in India, on a fellowship. He taught Comparative Literature and charmed, impressed, frustrated students and friends with his gestures toward spirituality and universal Jungian archetypes, elegantly combined with a fierce Marxist critique of the U.S. war machine and corporate capitalism, especially rapacious “development” and nuclear power and pollution, which he documented in work which, over and over again, speaks for humans and insects and fish and the elements. He was, finally, an animist. And also a materialist.

This piece is one of my favorites, exemplary of the occasionally captioned or narrated landscapes he produced, one of the most easily categorizable types of his work, with some of the easiest elements to see and critique. Self-taught for sure, this illustration exemplifies what I call the composite doodle method, a sort of spiral crosshatching which gets more and more sophisticated as you appreciate it in its totality and apprehend both how effectively and efficiently it served Peter. It was more fully, or only differently realized in other forms:  watercolors, conte crayon, acrylics, including huge wall-sized canvas renderings with many of the same features, creatures, themes and, yes, voices. 


This India ink on paper drawing is typical, if also singularly representative in its expression of a much-visited theme --- alienation and the promise of reconciliation --- also found in smaller drawings and much, much larger ones. I can only guess why this scene in the famous grove is in pen and ink and not a big wall-sized painting instead. I think I’d probably guess right: He drew it on site, maybe the day of a visit, on a summer camping trip. He rushed, and completed, and moved on. Jeanie told me that he painted nearly every day, and carried a drawing pad with him, often rushing into their home after a day teaching to paint.  


If I had the time myself, I’ll bet I could find a scene like this one buried or stacked in the archives, as it’s my sense that he just kept at it, turning the page of the sketchbook, with this one either complete, or only the sketch, who knows, for a painting, perhaps a big one, on canvas or cardboard or a section of wide newspaper roll.  Which is to say that this tableau meets all meanings of that word. Vivid description, striking scene, with narration by an unidentified observer, an all-seeing entity, the artist, and author and ironic if hopeful rediscoverer.  


There is a lot going on. Transformation, symbiosis, figures within other figures, layering of what I call a topographical sketching, a filling-in which builds to shapes and images and, always, the insistence on connectedness, a geological-biological imperative. Animals and trees and rocks and people, here fish and bird with face and head of a human, deeper inside the eye of a larger creature, but who encompasses a female figure, who is herself inside the trunk of a tree.  I haven’t yet found the inevitable bear or raven, totemic creatures often featured in Peter’s nature scenes. Of course, there’s the sky and earth blending, the foregrounding of at least one character --- often a man who seems to be Peter but here I think a young woman with eyeglasses, and somebody with arms outstretched in either warning or obeisance. It could be a “religious” gesture. Peter dabbled in world spiritual traditions and was of course a PhD in Comparative Literature. He attended pow-wows, sat with gurus, attended drum circles, and knew the language of many traditions. Like that.  

What to call the interconnected lines which fill this scene, except arterial?  This perhaps undervalues the gesture of both taking apart and connecting the scene and story. In the center, the embryonic or core or nucleic figure, in her cave or the hollow of the tree. It might have been drawn first or drawn around. I often wonder where he started.  


But, to my point, and the thesis of this lecture. The words! You could take the caption, or narrative or interpretation as cynical, a complaint about the tram operators, doing their work, out in the parking lot down the trail. Or conclude that the operator is himself or herself a human connection, a mythic guide somehow to finding one’s deity in the natural world, struggling against rapacious development. Are the deities listening, or the visitors? Shouldn’t it be “from” and not “in” the grove? It’s all good, as the kids say, and as often suggested in Peter’s work. Everything-all-at-once is the aesthetic here, a busy and ambitious capturing of these questions, ideas, struggles and arguments. And of course built on the assumption of individual or shared deities which are as available as the tram ride. Peter insists on it. Animism, eco-spirituality, an environmental activist celebrating, reconciling, capturing both the limits and possibilities of a visit to an iconic, holy, overcrowded national park on a summer day. 


Some of Peter’s political posters, drawings and chapbooks are in the UC Irvine Library holdings.


Jean Bernstein’s (1923-2011) papers, too, including her correspondence and documents relating to life-long community work, political struggles and her co-founding of the famous and long-running weekly Laguna Beach anti-war vigils.  


And the excellent Center for the Study of Political Graphics has a few of Peter’s posters.


Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid. His essay on Michelle Latiolais’ She appears in a new critical collection titled The Many Voices of the Los Angeles Novel (Cambridge Scholars) along with laudatory essays on the work of Joan Didion, Wanda Coleman, and Carolyn See.

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