A vital and integral part of the Los Angeles art scene for some 40 years, native Angeleno Mike Mollett – poet, sculptor, performance artist and erstwhile gardener and teacher who was a founding member of the peripatetic groups, The Lost Tribe and The Carma Bums, as well as the leader of the compellingly enigmatic L.A. Mudpeople – plumbs his own psychological depths only to discover what makes him love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? Nobody has said the guy whose namesake this questionnaire is – Leonardo Da Vinci. I had no idea about all the stuff he did [including] his intersection of theater and performance art. I think he was rather a colorful dresser. He did stuff – a lot of these things we don’t think about [like] the screw. He wasn’t really trying to fly, but did drawings about birds. He looked at the minutaie of things and did stuff for theater and a lot of these drawings were to move people on the stage to make it look like they were flying or floating. He didn’t finish a lot of work and he didn’t do many paintings. If I were having lunch with him I’d bring my own wine or alcohol because it wasn’t very good in those days and I’d ask him to show me what he was working on.
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your first sale? Being my age it’s CRS – I can’t remember shit, so I have no idea. My first piece was stolen – is that the equivalent of a sale? So I probably would have paid part of my rent or all of my rent.
What words or phrases do you overuse? It’s George Carlin-ville here – those seven dirty words. ‘Fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn’and probably ‘uh.’
How do you know when a work is finished? That’s the artist’s dilemma, if you don’t just know you can go on forever. That’s what Leonardo did. But that’s why deadlines are so important. You gotta do it. You gotta finish it. You have to take it to the gallerist, send it to the publisher. I think often I know, because I’ll move on to something else. Usually I’m not working on large pieces and I would fiddle and fiddle and work on it until – sometimes you’ve just had enough. Right.
When and where were you happiest? Right now, taking this questionnaire. Probably going to be one of the other questions. Often it’s when I’m alone, it used to be when I was in the garden – now it’s really looking out the window and being in the state of now. Sometimes it’s being a Mudperson.
What is your most treasured possession? Probably since I have so many in bottles and shelves and this and that. It’s probably my kitties and not letting them out so the coyotes don’t get them.
Where is your ideal escape destination? It would probably be going back to the big island of Hawaii, which has its risks due to the volcanoes, which blew my mind constantly. [Whether you’re] looking up, looking down, in the water – or out – the sky, the air, the changes in environment, the riskiness of living out there with the volcano fuming and spewing. It’s amazing. It’s probably not Tahiti where Gauguin lived and painted. I don’t think that would do it.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? I’ve had plenty of survival jobs. I worked in a paint factory and the fumes were pretty nasty. There was one guy who stood over the degreaser – he probably started dingy and he continued being dingy. That was probably not quite the worst, but it was the most dangerous because of the fumes. That was the nastiest in an environmental sense – the commercial paint shop. They wanted me to be a foreman because I got along with the workers, but since then it was being in the art moving business. I was moving $100K sculptures to Ace Gallery and they were tipping over. That was kind of freaky; that was high anxiety.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? None. I did not watch TV as a youth. As a kid I did. I watched cartoons and test patterns.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Probably my anxieties, my not being in the here and now. I’m not a one-thing kind of guy. Here’s another one of those questions – the multiple choice, oh, jeez. I wish I was a little more goal-oriented then I would be a more successful guy. As an artist I would have given myself more direction and more motivation. That would have helped me more than anything, but that’s not me. I’m not trainable.
What is your most treasured memory? This could be very long, but I’ll abbreviate it. When I was 23 years old, I turned in my senior project – a behavioral study of woodrats that I caught in the local cactus in Pomona. Then I took off for Europe in the middle of winter, not knowing where I was going, not knowing what I was going to find. All of the hostels were closed. I had to break into places and sleep anywhere. Over 10 months I was traveling, I didn’t know I was an artist. I was writing poetry. I remember where I dropped off, Gargantua and Pantigruel by Rabelais– it was too heavy and I was stuck as a hitchhiker on the road in the lower Alps and I left it at marker 127 kilometers. It was the greatest adventure of my life. I was meeting creative people from all over the fucking planet. And I realized, “Shit, I’m an artist.This is my calling. This is my people.”
I could almost be in tears thinking about it – I was that naïve. I did my first art object when I was staying at a kibbutz in Israel. I wasn’t Jewish but was interested in the communal system and wanting to get rid of my backpack for a while. And I wanted to be near the beach – near Caesarea. It was a marble beach from the crumpled temples and structures from centuries before. And I ended up in the artist’s house that was set off by itself. I wasn’t in the tourist block of the two-level apartments for the Jewish tourists that blow in in the summer; I got there before. I ended up staying in a single-room cottage where I made my first sculpture that was stolen. Maybe it was around then I realized that I’m an artist. I didn’t know what it was going to be – what kind of an artist. [When asked] what do you do? Oh, you paint. When I came home I immediately bought paints and bought canvas. I found a horse’s stable as a studio and I started painting biological chromatic paintings. What I got my degree in – it’s as if you’re looking at cells – looking through a magnifying glass or a microscope. I was starting to show I was an artist. That was my Odyssey. The stable was near Mt. San Antonio College. It was wheat fields around me and a storm drain behind me and a huge water tower. It cost me $200. a month. It was great.
What makes you smile? Most anything can make me smile. I’m actually at heart a very simple guy. That’s part of my problem, in a sense. I love and can be motivated and inspired or find wonder in most anything and most anything can make me smile. The sun coming thru the leaves dappling the ground. Wind blowing thru the world and making a strange sound. Depending where you are, that’s powerful – catching yourself in movement across the floor. I’m alive.
What makes you cry? Thinking about being alive on this ridiculous planet we’re in with the devastation of the environment, with our insensitivity to our fellow man and especially to animals. I’m a member of PETA and I don’t like to see that stuff. I’m getting teary-eyed right now. Our government is jumping into that destruction and I hope we don’t get into another war in the next two years.
What is your go-to drink when you toast to a sale? Yeah. It would be a real nice Scotch. I’m not a mixed drink guy. It could also be a nice chewy local IPA– India pale ale. It’s what the Britishwould make to send to India. They had to put a bunch of hops into it so it wouldn’t go bad.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? These days I’m sort of a cereal guy and that would be one champion breakfast. And I’m an egg guy the next. Eggs, veggies, some whole wheat toast and a dense bitter coffee with milk – a strong coffee. There we go! It could even be a veggie or chicken sausage.
Who inspires you? That’s interesting because I have never had a guru. I’m not a follower. I’ve been dragged into groups, but I’m not really a group guy, even though I perform with groups – the Carma Bums, the Mudpeople. But my inspiration is in the world, it’s not necessarily a person but what’s out there – what is. I’m amazed at what people can do with a brush or in performance. I wouldn’t say anybody has really inspired me. Yeah, Leonardo and I guess John Cage. Arthur Rimbaud. The French Symbolists. I look at writers, artists – Paul Klee. I did like the Colorists, but I wouldn’t say that’s my influence now. As I wake up in the morning I get a new inspiration – there we go – there’s another one. Put that in there.
What’s your best quality? It’s probably my childlike nature. Some would say that’s my worst quality. There’s the rub. That’s it. In a way it’s my simplicity of viewing life which is almost stupid in this world. My best quality is probably in a way believing that I’m really not of this planet and that’s also the flip side of itself. My laugh and my smile. I think I wrote a poem, “I Could Live On My Smile,” if only. I actually sort of believe that. There’s the big joke, I actually believe that in a philosophical, innocent way.
What is your current state of mind? With this show winding down, but I still have a couple things that are happening in the space with the show and being in my world, semi-successful, I’m still feeling pretty good. There is the afterglow and a PMS kind of thing – you’re just all geared up. I’m not too anxious in my life – actually I’m feeling all right. Is all right a state of mind? But now what? I’ve got to motivate myself to continue making art after a real flurry and intensity. Maybe I’ll really start writing and go into myself and do some looking at, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I going?’ Oh, no, not that.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? DADAFEST LA in 1980. I’m not a father, so that was a multi-venue [festival]. It was from Venice Beach to downtown LA. It was a series of performances, art shows, found object shows, music. We [had] a lot of edgy kind of art bands, performance artists. I didn’t know the art world and it was certainly underground and this pushed me into the art scene. I’m always the iconoclast, always the underground, unfortunately. I did this with Neal Taylor and Patty Sue Jones. I was in the International Mail Art world and Dada was something; I was LA Dada, I was the Westside Agent and Neal was LA Dada, and he was the Hollywood Rep.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be? It used to be I would come back as a frog and I’ve swum with frogs, I’ve caught frogs. Now you can’t find them. I would not want to come back as a frog because I’d be a vanishing species. I would be many vanishing species. I would come back as a sensitive, sentient mountain starting with a lush bottom and going up to the snow peaks. There we go. Whoopee – jump on that horse and fly.