by Andrew Tonkovich
I’m the self-appointed 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of decaying artwork, including a few still-brilliant canvases, intricate miniatures, hand-illustrated broadsides, an unpublished (typed) book or two or three, posters, journals, sketches, all produced by someone dear and, yes, still near to me, nearer than ever.
I’d lived for decades now with a representative sampling of these tattered pen and ink drawings, oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, and writings, perhaps a couple dozen hung in every room of my family home. 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. Harry “Peter” Carr, once and always of Laguna Beach, California. He was years ago my Comp Lit professor, a larger-than-life fellow of small stature if also 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 Just as well because he died, suddenly, in 1981 at age 56, no plan for any of it, not the life’s work, unpublished memoirs, scribbled notes, audio tapes, anticipated triumphant gallery show or incredible output. Thirty years later all of it came to me.
Here’s a glimpse of that life’s work, stacked and shelved and entirely unarranged, in a storage unit in Mission Viejo, a few miles 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 the 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 (and looking) a lot like Peter himself.
In the 1970’s he co-founded the grassroots anti-nuke outfit Orange County Alliance for Survival, wore a seashell necklace and brimmed felt hat. He led students on revisionist history tours of Disneyland, critiquing the place with a Jungian grimace at its perversion of fairy tales, an unshy Marxist political reading, an ecological anti-corporate attack. He was a character in his own traveling show. He drove the country on his semester academic sabbatical from Cal State Long Beach, recording oral histories of American peace activists like himself, living out of his pickup truck, creatures drawn all over it.
Peter Carr died younger than the age his most devoted student is now. He was a fast-moving work in progress, now mostly forgotten, no heirs. His widow, heartbroken at his sudden death, left all of his work in the garage, behind the washing machine, to the silverfish, dust bunnies and mold. She is gone too now. I’m in charge. Your docent and curator and booster of a visionary dead mentor is on a mission.
Welcome, then, to the Peter Carr Reliquary & Storage of Self Museum, a ten-by-ten-foot gallery (rent $150/month) in a dreary concrete complex at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains overlooking valley, sea, chaparral, the monstrous toll road, and a nightmare new housing development where threatened species are lately even further threatened. Next door, the famous worship center of the fake prosperity gospel.
But, wait, all of that tableau is also inside the storage space, 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. The sun shines. The people gather on the sand. It’s an unlikely if perfect, hopeful ecotone of refuge, between pavement and scrub, death and life, disappearance, and immortality. For now. For all.
I like a challenge. 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. I’ll use this modest platform in coming issue of Citric Acid to proselytize, to persuade, to share. Friends, this body of work needs, deserves a home other than a self-storage space, a permanent residence in a public or private collection, library or institution, where everybody who wants to, perhaps needs to, can see it. Meanwhile, I am working to organize a gallery show of Peter’s work, with readings and a lecture by --- who else? --- me, the default singular and highly motivated expert on this particular and singular subject, and yes, please, I sincerely invite collaborators. Peace.
A version of this unlikely essay appeared in October, 2015 at “On Location,” the blog of Ecotone magazine and Lookout Books.
Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, Zyzzyva, Faultline, Juked, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He wrote for both OC Weekly and the Orange County Register. With Lisa Alvarez, he co-edited the landmark Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, and is the author of two fiction collections, The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations.