But an exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles is a reminder that art is also about dedication. For decades, one L.A. artist has been quietly making fantastical pieces out of bits of debris. As long as he can remember, Timothy Washington has been making art.
“I remember clearly that we used to walk for blocks and blocks in the gutter next to the curb looking for pieces that we could take back home and put into our art,” Washington said.
Now 67 years old, he is doing much the same thing — combing yard sales, thrift stores and the streets of L.A. for bits of wood, cracked coffee mugs and old toys. He takes these objects and fuses them into wild sculptures that look like retro-futuristic sci-fi robots. One piece with timers resembles a spiny tree. A four-legged bird-creature is studded with playing cards. Many of his pieces also incorporate bells.
“Every item retains its own form of identity, but working together forms a whole,” Washington said. “Now, this should be applied to humanity.”
In the world of L.A. art, Washington is a bit of an outlier: deeply spiritual in an industry that tends to be secular; a fan of storytelling at a time when the art world is hot on abstraction. He is often linked to a wider movement of African-American artists working in assemblage, but steers clear of art world wheeling and dealing.
“He has a really strong set of values and a real strong sense of independence. And for him, that’s really who he is and it’s something he really stands by,” said Suzanne Isken, director at the Craft and Folk Art Museum.
Washington was born and raised in L.A. For much of his adult life, he worked as a set painter for the studios — on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Golden Girls and even The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He says the experience conditioned him to handle his materials quickly and skillfully.
“If you were in the paint room mixing color more than 15 minutes, you were in deep trouble. So it taught you right away what colors were the warms and cools and how to achieve, how to get the colors that you desire,” Washington said.
In 1969, Washington graduated with a fine arts degree from the Chouinard Art Institute. And just two years later, the L.A. County Museum of Art included him in a seminal show called “Three Graphic Artists.”
“In the contemporary period, in the post-War period, it’s the first show of African-American artists,” said Kellie Jones, an independent curator who has organized exhibitions on African-American art in L.A. and New York. “It is major, because you have Charles White, a huge name in terms of African-American artists. You have David Hammons who becomes this huge name. And you have Timothy Washington.”
In 1972, he creates one of his best known pieces in this vein: “1A,” a self-portrait that shows the young Washington raising a middle finger at his draft card, which is glued to the piece. It was his statement against the Vietnam War.
“1A” is now on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, along with more than three dozen other pieces that reflect Washington’s increasingly complex combinations of materials.
The show, called “Love Thy Neighbor,” is his first solo exhibit at a museum. It’s on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum through April 27.