By Laura Shepard Townsend
Let’s face it, Venice seems to have more than its share of artist/activists. And we are darn fortunate – Venice’s lure for such individuals not only infuses the community with a multiformity of artworks, but also endows the city with a hell of a lot of heart as people endeavor to maintain the wonder Abbot Kinney, its founder, instilled within his beloved city.
Laura Silagi and Dennis Hathaway are two of our community’s remarkable artista/activists, married, who continue to nurture their art, their causes (on all of our behalf) and one another. They have lived among us for decades and have fought many battles while producing a heck of a lot of good art along the way.
They arrived separately in the early 1970s, their pairing seemingly impossible, given their origins from antithetical worlds. Silagi was raised by social activists in the urbanity of New York City; Hathaway came from a small farm in Iowa, raised by religious fundamentalists.
THEIR MEETING and COURTSHIP
They met in 1978 at the Chelsea Gallery on W. Washington. The Gallery was a social nexus where people gathered to share their art with one another. Afterwards, people would congregate in Hathaway’s nearby apartment to discuss the exhibits. The community-oriented group situations brought Silagi and Hathaway together and after eight months, they moved into a house on Electric between Palms and Millwood.
In those days, one did not venture further south on Electric than California Avenue, since Oakwood was rampant with shootings. Their front yard view was vacant lots inhabited by a shifting bonfire community of rowdy hardcore drinkers and the homeless. The night Silagi and Hathaway signed the lease for their house, their dog bit their new landlord, and then as he was leaving, for good measure, he was robbed. This was all part of Venetian life. If you lived here, crime was something that was accepted. Things disappeared, that’s all. Silagi thought it normal, since in NY, you always had to watch your back. You didn’t necessarily want to be a victim, but you didn’t worry about it either.
COMBINED ART and CAUSES
Mainly Silagi and Hathaway work on their issues as well as their art separately. However, there were a few notable exceptions. When first met, they did a performance piece at a poet’s private home titled, “The Lover in Search of her Love Object or a Victim of Romanticism”. They sang love songs to one another with slides of their story; Silagi in a long pink satin gown – Hathaway was naked except for a cowboy hat and boots.
Another was a political installation in one of the jail cells of SPARC, re: the war in El Salvador/US intervention. It was based on The Apocryphal Story, a short story by Hathaway. Big cartoon cut-outs, at a cocktail party, conversed in overhead balloons. Simultaneously, El Salvador’s story was enacted with miniature elements on the floor.
Years later, at the LA River, they positioned three small viewing boxes so a person could only see pieces of L.A. river ecology. Silagi recalled the delight of seeing a bird enter the frame with the pristine LA River as background.
They agreed they enjoyed working on these projects together, but that each had their own artistic as well as activist foci and has pursued it.
Because Silagi’s father was a liberal labor lawyer, when encountering life’s problems or issues, her tendency was to seek solutions through group action. If there was not one in place, she created one. Case in point: after having a child while her then husband was attending medical school at UCSD, she started the first co-op for child care, and helped lobby for child care from the university, to which they finally agreed in 1970.
As far as Silagi’s art, it has generally taken the form of a personal narrative, since she believes this to be the most effective way to communicate. This applies to herself, as well – when her marriage broke up, she documented it in hand-tinted B&W photos for an exhibit at the Chelsea Gallery.
She joined Mother Art in 1973, a collective of women artists dedicated to creating social-political art, relating the stories of women marginalized from society. Mother Art addressed homelessness, abortion and immigration in performances, photography and installations, and created a series of performances in Laundromats. Because Mother Art received a whopping $700 grant from the California Arts Council, irate politicians insisted that government funds were being wasted. To learn more about Mother Art’s history, be on the look-out for their currently touring video documentary called Mother Art Tells Her Story, at film festivals as well as universities. You can also check out Motherart.org online.
But as if this is not enough, Silagi has had a few more bones to pick with the world in her endeavor to make it better. She helped defeat Lincoln Center, a massive eight story building, proposed to take the place of the Ralph’s, and is still involved in the beautification of Lincoln Blvd.
Of course she was there to fight the destruction of Lincoln Place, helping to document the heartbreak of evictions, still viewable on You Tube. At the behest of Councilperson Rosendahl, the video was shown at City Hall; it appeared at the UN Conference on Housing in Washington and on German TV.
The noise of the planes flying over her house induced her to ‘man’ the fight against SMO, the Santa Monica Airport, as co-chair for the VNC Airport Committee. An excellent Symposium in April 2013 brought federal as well as local politicians to Venice, who made a number of promises to the community. Recently, she wrote two comprehensive articles about SMO for The Free Venice Beachhead in January and April 2014.
Silagi is newly involved with WhoseWater.org, and there may be more issues, just check back with her in a month.
Hathaway keeps his art and activism more separate than Silagi. He began as a poorly paid newspaper reporter out of college, before moving to Venice in the 1970s.
Here, he wrote short stories and was doled his share of rejection slips, but received favorable literary reviews when Bachi published some of his short stories. His prowess led to his winning the coveted Flannery O’Connor award in 1992, beating out 300 competitors. The short story collection The Consequences of Desire was published as a result of this award. Of course, the book is dedicated to Silagi.
Hathaway had always wanted to write novels, and to date, has completed six. To combat the haunting solitariness of a writer, in the mid 90s he created an online magazine, Crania, which he published for three years.
To pay the bills, Hathaway became a contractor. In the 1990s, a brutal gang war between the V13 and Crypts erupted with shootings every night in Oakwood. After 13 fatal shootings, a gang truce was finally called. At Steve Clare’s invitation, Hathaway volunteered for Youth Build, a program for at-risk youth to work on housing and learn building skills while completing school to get a GED. The task to teach basic construction skills to fifteen kids was daunting since even though 17 to 23 years old, they had no basic arithmetic skills to even read a tape measure.
In 1996, he gave up his lucrative career as a contractor because he “got tired of helping wealthy people build their bathrooms,” and became construction manager for Youth Build for three years, working directly with the youth. He resigned after one of his favorites was shot and one OD-ed on heroin. He segued to become the construction manager at VCHC, rehabbing rundown apartment buildings for the poor.
Hathaway’s latest campaign is signage and now heads Ban Billboard Blight, a watchdog group. He educated himself by talking to lobbyists, politicians and lawyers at meetings. He is passionate about combating the commercialization of public space by corporations. More than visual blight, billboards bombard people with inescapable messages which have a “corrosive effect on the collective psyche.” With Hathaway’s help, on KCET, Karen Foshay blew the lid off LA’s covert plan to convert OFW into a sea of ads. Fortunately, the VNC unanimously opposed the covert plan, but Hathaway warns we are not completely out of the woods yet.
VENICE and LEGACIES
Both agree that part of living in Venice gives one an excellent opportunity to get involved in the community and with the community, because Venice and its citizenry gets involved, especially when it concerns development. Silagi feels that if one lives in a community, then one has the right to say something about it. And Should! Also, she feels local is best, that if the issue is too big, then one can too easily become alienated.
In terms of legacy, Hathaway has instructed to have everything he has ever written burned, and computers smashed. At this, Silagi laughs and says, “of course no one’s going to listen to him once he’s dead.” He feels that while art is a piece of cultural change, activism has a permanent effect, not just a passing effect.
As for Silagi, she says she does not particularly care if she has a legacy, unless, of course, if someone wanted to name Lincoln Blvd after her…….well, she might consider it.
By Laura Shepard Townsend