In an area known for its impressive stable of renowned artists, Laddie John Dill has been one of Venice’s standouts for nearly 40 years. A painter and sculptor whose exhibits have been shown in New York, Seoul, Paris and Helsinki, Dill remains attached to his roots as a Venice artist because of the community’s eclectic and continued bohemian feel.
The painter/sculptor has been involved with the Venice Art Walk since its inception and has been outspoken about the importance of Venice remaining a beacon for new artists to practice their craft the way it was during the 1960s and 70s.
A graduate of the renowned Chouinard Art Institute (which later become the California Institute of the Arts), Dill landed a showing of his work at the famed Sonnabend Gallery in New York, after which he moved to Venice and joined an artists’ haven that was thriving.
His latest exhibit, Contained Radiance L.A., an installation of light and sand, is on display at the Nye+ Brown Gallery in Los Angeles until June 16.
The Argonaut recently interviewed Dill in his Sunset Avenue studio to get his thoughts on contemporary art, the gentrification of Venice, how the community has evolved since he arrived in the mid-1970s and how recent real estate trends have driven many artists away from the beachside community.
Q: How has sculpting evolved since you began your career in the 1970s?
A: Sculpting has changed as much as painting and other forms of art. Artists now have many more technological advantages than artists of the past.
But as in all disciplines of art, the main heart of it is still the same, and that’s drawing.
Before you do anything, whether it’s building a bridge, a building or a piece of sculpture or painting, you make a drawing. That was the case during the Renaissance Period and it’s still one of the basic elements of art making.
Q: How much has this new element been factored into your contemporary work?
A: What I try to do here is to use a lot of those basic elements as well as incorporate those technological tools and vocabulary of the 20th and 21st century. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that my stepfather was an inventor. Things around the house were always being tinkered with, opened up and put back to together, so I think that carries over into my adult life.
Q: Venice was quite a different place when you arrived 40 years ago.
I remember my first day in Venice…. I had an upstairs studio and that morning I looked out of my front window and there was a dead body lying there.
There were hookers on the street, open drug deals, kind of a lawless place that seemed like the police had written it off.
But it was also a wonderful place to be because it was near the ocean and all of the artists that I met had great work ethics.
After I went to New York and came back, I kind of fell in love with Venice again because there was a community of artists like Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Kenny Price and his wife, Happy, and Penny Little who made it a great place to work because they were very generous and took me in and accepted me as an artist.
Q: What is it about Venice that makes it an artist haven?
Besides being a community it has a sense of place. Places like Venice, West Hollywood, Silver Lake and parts of downtown Los Angeles have areas that have that sense of place. And in the 1970s, there were a lot of light industrial areas that were great spaces that were affordable and it was by the beach.
You had to put up with a lot of stuff like gang wars, but it was worth it. And like it was then, there is a kind of openness about Venice.
Q: You’ve seen the evolution of Venice as well over the last few decades, including gentrification of certain areas of the community.
A: There a lot of artists who are part of the community and aware of a certain vibe that Venice gives out and they want to keep it that way.
Because of the gentrification of Venice and Santa Monica as well as the rise in property values and development, a lot of young artists, who are the real soul of the Venice area, were and still are unable to afford anything near the Westside. And I consider that to be a big loss to both Santa Monica and Venice.
Q: Because of your passion about this loss, you became involved with the 18th Street Arts Center (a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization that has created housing and studios for artists), where you are a board member.
A: They’re in the middle of a fundraising campaign to build more spaces for artists.
In the early 1970s, Soho was zoned that you could not rent a place there unless you could prove that you were an artist, which I thought was an excellent law. I would like to see a place like that back on the Westside, but that is only going to happen with cooperation from the landlords.
(Venice Arts is located in an area that was recently zoned specifically for light manufacturing and the arts).
There are some landlords, like Roger Webster of Perloff & Webster who have always been very good about renting to artists.
But there are some really greedy landlords here as well, and that’s really killing the environment here. In my last studio, where I worked for 28 years, they quadrupled the rent on us two and a half years ago and I had to move out.
But all the elements of Venice still exist; they’ve just sort of gone underground a little bit.
Q: You also have a long-standing connection to the Venice Art Walk.
A: I’ve been involved with them for 35 years. And what’s great about them is that you have a number of volunteer doctors that help out at (the Venice Family Clinic.)
Q: What are your thoughts on the Venice Art Crawl and the concept of having pop-up galleries that showcase new artists along the boardwalk?
A: I love that idea. That’s what kept (New York’s) Lower East Side going.
I don’t know much about the Art Crawl, but I think (the pop-up galleries concept) is a great idea.
Q: As an artist, what are you inspired by and what influences your work?
A: I get inspired by both nature and technology. What I’m trying to do with my work is have this symbiotic relationship between natural materials like crushed volcanic ash, sulfur, blue cobalt oxide and the latest technology.
And Venice, like it always has been, is a great place for inspiration.