Pedaling around tomorrow’s folklore with Craig Stecyk and Melanie Sue Berry
If you sit at an outdoor table at The Spitfire Grill and engage with the right amount of imagination and squinting, the beautifully restored DC-3 parked at the adjacent Museum of Flying can almost look like it’s ready to take off, just as thousands of such aircraft did from right here decades ago.
It makes for a wonderful Sunday morning setting for an easygoing pancakes-and-eggs breakfast with Melanie Sue Berry and her boyfriend, Craig Stecyk. Berry and Stecyk are multimedia artists who live just a quick bike ride away. But these environs around Santa Monica Airport provide more than just convenience and a good breakfast menu — they’re formative.
Berry’s mother came to California from Boston as an eight year old and ended up working as riveter when Santa Monica Airport was known as Clover Field and this area was riding the wake of a war-footing manufacturing boom. Berry’s first stepdad, (there were two) was an aviation mechanical engineer.
Similarly, Stecyk’s father, an Army photographer during The Great War, hipped his son early on to the fertile mix of returning vets with GI bills to burn and the fomenting relationship between the defense-bred innovations in industrial materials and garage-born advances in surf culture. Indeed, a line (not always straight) can be drawn between the designs and composites that go into today’s lighter, faster, stronger surfboards and the drones deployed in the war on terror, border surveillance and, increasingly, Hollywood blockbusters.
In an expansive mood, Stecyk might draw that line. Right now, though, he’s telling me about how Donald Douglas, Sr., started Douglas Aircraft in the back of a barbershop on Pico Boulevard in 1922. Proof of concept came a couple years later when the U.S. Army accomplished the first global circumnavigation by air in a custom Douglas World Cruiser.
Soon after, Douglas Aircraft operations expanded to Clover Field (named for Second Lt. “Greayer “Grubby” Clover, a legendary World War I aviator) and by the mid-1930s, the DC-3 had made air travel affordable. During the war years, Douglas Aircraft put more metal in the air than any other aircraft manufacturer and, in an effort to recruit workers such as Berry’s mom, created Rosie the Riveter.
Stecyk and Berry are true natives: those rare Westsiders for whom home is rich with history. This is reflected in their work —photography, films, street art, installation, sculpture and book publishing —which is heavily informed by and articulated around their environment.
As if to illustrate, Berry summons a recent short film on her phone that was made in large part by mounting cameras to one of Stecyk’s vintage beach cruisers while he motored about the neighborhood. All we see of the cyclist is feet on the pedals and shadows cast against fences, concrete infrastructure, buildings, brush, alleyways, railroad tracks and ephemera. The rider is a spectral presence propelling us through the psychological triggers of time and place on the rusting hulk of a bike that is the piece’s true protagonist.
Particularly poignant are the sequences filmed in the abandoned and overgrown Pacific Electric (Red Car) right of way at Exposition Boulevard near the intersection of Sepulveda and Pico boulevards. In its decades of disuse, the tracks became sort of accidental open space for intrepid folks like Stecyk — a use that has come to an end in service of the MTA Exposition Line as the once-mythological “subway to the sea” creeps closer to reality. As a representative piece of work, the film fits comfortably into the Stecyk oeuvre — allusive, enigmatic and a reminder of what we miss when we don’t take note.
Berry’s recent limited-edition book of photography, “Where the Clouds Fell from the Sky: Thirteen Fridays with Harry Gamboa, Jr.,” taps a similar vein. The project chronicles the Friday afternoons in 2013 that Berry spent walking around Los Angeles with the renowned Chicano artist, essayist and activist.
The photos were shot with Impossible Projects film — the nom de guerre for a company formed around a quixotic quest to keep the basic Polaroid processes as intact as possible. Berry was attracted to the film’s potential for rending happy anomalies while developing, which is somewhat analogous to the process of walking through Los Angeles with Gamboa, Jr.
“Things are colored by memory and what time you tell the story and who you are telling it to,” explains Berry. “Are you in a good mood or a bad mood? That changes how every story is told. It’s not stable.”
Nothing, it can seem, is stable in a city as regenerative as this one. Buildings, blocks, signposts can all change in a blink. So, the book seeks a timeless aesthetic while attempting to survey the arteries that do in fact connect us.
“We’re from different cultures and we’re from different generations, but we have all these crossovers together,” says Berry, explaining the book’s genesis.
Those crossovers include hardscrabble youths and, judging from the rough-hewn beauty of the photos, an appreciation for the endurance required to navigate the urban landscape with some dignity and grace.
Happily, we manage to page through the book without smudging it with maple syrup. This is as good a reason as any to repair to Berry and Stecyk’s nearby home for a view of the new, drought-resistant garden that recently earned her a nice little DWP rebate. There, peeking out from among the sand and succulents, is a weathered dollhouse-sized structure made from driftwood, cans and other detritus.
“There’s a juvenile sea lion skull sealed inside,” says Stecyk, explaining that he found the remnant while combing the beach for materials for the installation, which appeared in Laguna Art Museum’s 2010 show, “Art Shack.”
Around back is a vegetable garden from which Berry pulls various types of salad staples for sampling. Vintage bikes peak out from under a tarp. Hanging from a line is the heavy bag that the six-foot-two Berry uses to stay in shape when the surf isn’t cooperating.
She had early dreams of becoming a pro surfer, but by 18 Berry was “too busy into sex, drugs and rock and roll.” After a lost decade or two, she resurfaced clean and sober and started surfing again at 30. “I head to relearn all over again,” she says.
Berry fulfilled a lifelong ambition by entering her first pro contest at age 38. That’s about when she decided to get her college degree, having only made it through eighth grade at that point. In both cases, skeptics only added fuel to her fire.
“Don’t tell me I can’t do something,” she warns. “I’ll have the best laugh because it will be the last laugh.”
Berry went to Santa Monica College part-time for six years before transferring to UCLA, where she thought she’d pursue a law degree. Instead, she got sidetracked by art and ended up completing her master’s degree in fine arts at CalArts last year.
Stecyk and Berry form an interesting duo. Among the most important Angeleno artists of the postwar era, Stecyk is best known for his association with the Dogtown and Z-boys skate culture, something that started as a side-interest of his and grew into a phenomenon that sometimes overshadows the range and breadth of his practice. He can be cryptic and circumspect and would likely be as celebrated as, say, Ed Ruscha, if he weren’t so reticent. Berry on the other hand is open and forthcoming, striving in a low-key, refreshing way.
Nonetheless, they’re right at home navigating their bikes through the alleyways and thoroughfares of their neighborhood, stopping to take a picture when something like a pedestrian’s profile undulating across the basket-weave masonry at the aforementioned Exposition Line catches an eye.
“There used to be a de facto, neighborhood-built skate park right about there,” says Stecyk, dismounting for a closer inspection of the new MTA monolith. “Kids built it on the old railroad right-of-way and it was there for a number of years.”
Now, it’s been reclaimed by the subway to the sea, today’s symbol of progress and, knowing these two, tomorrow’s folklore.
A license plate assemblage in the couple’s drought-resistant backyard workshop