Mar Vista’s Night Owl Players fuse music, poetry and painting for multisensory art experiences

By Christina Campodonico

The Night Owl Players riff on each other for creative experiences that cross genres and disciplines (Photos by Shilah Montiel)

Two poets, two musicians and a couple of painters walk into a bar…

That isn’t quite the origin story of the Night Owl Players — a rotating band of Mar Vista artists who sing, write, paint and play together — but these days they do connect with audiences in a restaurant/bar.

Each Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m. they bring live music, painting and poetry to Atmosphere Mar Vista, turning the back corner of the eatery’s semi-covered patio into a living room or “sala” for art, as co-founder Mitchelito Orquiola, prefers to call it.

Christopher Watson is crooning bluesy original songs and covers into the microphone as he strums his baby blue guitar. Poet Erika Lane Enggren (aka the Word Mechanic) is typing to the beat on
a 1960s Royal. Orquiola and Nikki Portman, barefoot, slide around each other adding bold black and purple strokes to a portrait of the late Aretha Franklin that they began earlier that night. The image will complement poet Denise “Nisi” Mckenzie’s ode to the Queen of Soul between sets. And vocalist-guitarist Juliana “Jubilee” Riccardi will cap things off with a gritty and raging rendition of “Chain of Fools” at the end of the evening.

There is a couch up front for anyone adventurous enough to spectate up close, communal tables where patrons can take in dinner and a show, and something certainly special about being able to appreciate the gifts of a tight knit group
of local artists jamming in a cozy hang.

“It almost feels like we’re performing in our living room,” says Orquiola, “because there’s so many folks that’ll come up and say, ‘Hello’ and whatnot to us while we’re working.”

While this is technically work for the Night Owls (the group has also gigged at The Mar Vista, Grand View Market and Vintage on Venice, and currently has a residency at Venice’s Fabric Studios), this multi-genre jam session is also a way for the group’s artists to connect with each other, stretch their artistic muscles and deliver a unique art experience to viewers.

“We’re letting you in on what we’re doing,” says Orquiola. “We may be getting paid for this event and the whole bit, but at the end of the night… we’re giving you a piece of art.”

The visual artist and unofficial art mayor of Mar Vista originally began the Night Owl Players so he could have live music and painting at the opening of one of his art shows, but the group has evolved over the last three years to include various artists involved with Mar Vista’s creative scene — from Orquiola’s one-time painting partner Chalavie in a proto-version of the group to Mar Vista musician and original member Runson Willis III, who recently left the Night Owls to focus on solo work. At one point, the group even included a tap dancer.

The current iteration involves newcomers Watson, Riccardi and Mckenzie; painter Jen LaVita; Night Owl originals Orquiola and Enggren; painter Violet Onderwater (who flies in from Northern California occasionally); and Portman, who began as the group’s photographer/videographer, then joined as a painter.

Enggren (who Orquiola describes as the “heart” and irreplaceable “dark horse” of the group) came on board almost organically after Orquiola learned she wrote poetry and had a typewriter. He invited her to various Mar Vista art events he was organizing, then a spark of magic happened one Mar Vista Art Walk night, when Orquiola, Willis, Enggren and the tap dancer found themselves in close proximity.

“[We] were all set up next to each other, and I kind of didn’t want to interrupt the music, because my typewriter is so loud, so I was just going on beat. That’s how the performance aspect of that started,” she says.

Not only does Enggren keep the beat for the group, she also composes poetry live on her typewriter — a feat that’s kind of mindboggling when you think about it.

“I always tell people it feels like two parts of my brain, like one of them feels vertical, where I’m coming up with what I want to say in the poem. … The horizontal part of my brain is trying to hear the music and go on the beat,” she says.

Out come poems not only typed up on the spot, but imbued with pearls of wisdom that she gives away throughout the evening. Anyone can pick one up from the vintage box that doubles as her typewriter’s carrying case. A “Take One” sign invites you to read lines like, “Everything will be okay the second you are okay with everything,” or “Be grateful for the heartache. You may never learn what you are capable of without it.”

On Night Owl nights, a kind of alchemy happens between words, song and paint that is multisensory, symbiotic and, yes, perhaps even magical.

“This is a different way of telling a story,” says Orquiola, likening the experience to riding a train. “Our musicians are basically our locomotive. Erika, with her poetry, Nisi with her poetry, it’s our tracks. The live painters, like myself, we’re your view.”

“It’s very conducive to be able to run in one heartbeat,” he adds, putting his hand over his heart, “thinking and feeling and being connected in one way. … There is no ego, there can’t be. The overall goal is art first. Love first.”

Follow the Night Owls on Instagram @nightowlplayers or visit facebook.com/nightowlplayers for updates.

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