Between night time feedings tonight, I got to thinking about my first forays into art. Oh, how to describe Screamers to someone who has never seen it… I’ll try by starting from my introduction.
When I was 12 or 13 I started going to the mall as a social excursion. It was the beginning of any sort of independent narrative. I had never cut my hair before in any way other than my mother approved little girl trim. My older brother had started dating a girl who to my adolescent mind was the epitome of cool. She was 18, with long stylish hair, sexy clothes and a flirtatious attitude. What’s more, I never had any sisters and she was the first older girl who had ever taken the time to get to know me and to take me out in public. She must have been a mall regular, or maybe worked there at some point because she seemed to know all the young people. When we went to the mall, she’d stop at different stores to chat with attendants – all of whom were young and hip. It’s funny, I don’t remember buying anything at any of those stores. We just hung out.
One such place where we stopped was Screamers. It was run by a tall, handsome guy by the name of Leo. He had long hair, beautiful oak skin and tattoos. I had never seen someone with tattoos – far less the the more elegant tribal designs that he had. My memory is fuzzy on that point, but I remember that he was striking and memorable, though many years older than I.
Time and again we visited. She chatted and I walked around the kiosk, looking at the work in the display and the easels around the centre structure. You see, Screamers was an airbrushing studio. It was also a tattoo parlour but I don’t remember if it was or wasn’t at the time that I met it. Foremost to my eager eyes was the airbrushing. In retrospect what was most unique about this small San Fernando airbrushing studio, was that it was a showcase for Leo’s artwork. Airbrushing was truly his medium and he was so good at it, he had made a living selling t-shirts and posters, that were sometimes recreations of images, but often times unique pieces of his own that had come out of his dreamy imagination. When I look back, I know that that was the first time I had ever seen real art in action or an authentic artist in action.
It was this more than anything that kept me coming back to Screamers. I loved looking at the work happen, so every time I was in the mall, I’d be sure to stop by, say hello and gaze, wide eyed at the work. Sometimes someone was just cutting out a stencil (where i learned doing it on glass was better than cardboard) but sometimes Leo was painting and I could see how he built up a piece. Eventually we started talking more and more as I asked about the work. It was my first look at process and execution.
Leo was neither shy or modest in his choice of subject matter. Though in an extremely visible place, Leo was not detracted from painting nude ladies against dreamlike landscapes. Another first, he was utterly unapologetic about what he did. Perhaps it was his sly smile that let him get away with it.
He was the first person to actually help me with my artwork. At school, when my work had nudes in them, people shied away or made fun of me. My art teacher taught me but she wasn’t of my era. Leo helped me and talked to me about colour and composition in a more visceral way. I remember him telling me that I was afraid to use white in paintings but that I needed it for reflections and then he’d show me on one of his pieces how he used white. He was right too for some reason to that point I had only used yellow for light. He did amazing work with water and underwater scenes. I never really learned how to get there myself, but I remember images of things he’d done over the years.
One time he vastly improved a drawing I did for that same girl who had taken me to the mall (brother’s girlfriend who was now his ex, though current girlfriend of a different brother). He looked at it with me and asked if he could tweak a couple of things. My drawing was ink on sepia paper. It was a depiction of a crescent moon with a woman sleeping on the moon’s curvature. He added highlights of colour to her dress and to the moon and background. His additions didn’t overshadow my work, it simply enhanced the scene. At that point I had never painted. I did extremely detailed pen and ink drawings, but had never thought of adding colour. I think after that I tried out some coloured pencil with the pen and ink but it really wasn’t the same. I didn’t start painting until I was 16 or 17.
I hung out at Screamers throughout my teenage years, until I moved to Canada. The store had changed locations in the mall from being a kiosk to an actual store. It had also by this time gathered a following of teenage, misfit gawkers who invariably were rockers with no place else to congregate. Tattoos had become The thing and I equally loved seeing the prep work for the tattoos. By this time my best friend was also involved in the Screamers world and sometimes worked there – an additional reason to visit the shop.
I think Leo and I were also friends, though it’s hard to say in retrospect because we never talked about anything too personal. I was extremely comfortable around him, and though there was never any intent there, flirted shamelessly with him. He was and still is, I imagine, an extremely decent man who never took advantage of my naiveté. Instead he was always supportive and teasing. He was interested in my work and helped me in whatever way he could. When I went the way of gallery exhibits he was proud of me and still looked over my work when I brought it in.
We lost touch after I moved to Canada and the shop opened a second location in another mall and so Leo wasn’t in one place anymore. Gradually since I moved, I stopped visiting. I had heard over the years that he married someone from my high school graduating class and that they have a small brood of beautiful children. I haven’t seen him, maybe in a decade or more.
In the silent moments of this morning I remembered the girl on the crescent moon and the care Leo took of a young artist finding her way. I think about how unpretentious he was and how the big thing was the Work. His work was his livelihood and he was happy doing it. I have no idea about his life outside of the studio – but there I saw someone living fully. His work wasn’t in a gallery somewhere – but it remains some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve seen anywhere and it resides happily in my memory.
There are a lot more Screamers stories, but this is what came to me this morning as I waited for my daughter to fall back asleep. I wish I had said Thank you. Maybe I will one day.