The obsessive collectors of Southern California

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David Boulé, California orange enthusiast. Photo by Gary Leonard

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Joris Debeij, left, and David Kipen, right, interview Joseph Hawkins (center), director of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. Photo by Nathan Masters.

Sometimes collecting becomes more than a hobby. A new series of short films called Monomania L.A. profiles people who’ve obsessively collected everything related to a single aspect of Los Angeles history, from the California orange to the Santa Monica beach.

Call them “monomaniacs.” People like David Boulé, who for some reason, buy one thing, and then another thing like it.

David Boulé, California orange enthusiast. Photo by Gary Leonard

“I have the collectors gene,” Boulé said. “When I had two I wanted several, and when I had several I wanted to look for them all, and that started a decades-long collection of postcards, which then led into a broader collection of things about the California citrus industry.”

Boulé’s obsession began at a paper ephemera show in San Diego. He bought a postcard featuring a Technicolor image of a citrus orchard set against snow-capped mountains. Thirty-five years later, Boulé has gathered what might be the largest single collection related to the production and promotion of California oranges.

“California, from the very beginning, has been a place that sometimes realistically and sometimes only metaphorically, has represented a place of potential, of prosperity, of healthful living, of a place where you could reinvent yourself,” Boulé said. “And for 80 to 100 years, the orange was a symbol of all of that.”

The thing about a monomaniac is that their focus is so intense, they come up with things that the amateur collector or the formally trained academic might not find.

Jim Kepner, collector of science fiction and gay activist materials. Photo courtesy of ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives
Jim Kepner, collector of science fiction and gay activist materials. Photo courtesy of ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives

“Since I’ve been working on this, I’ve almost become a collector of these monomaniac collectors themselves,” said David Kipen, the humanities advisor and interviewer for the Monomania L.A. project. “I mean, they’re such an interesting, diverse, slightly crackpot but really smart and historically indispensable bunch of people, for people like us who care about the city.”

The series also profiles Jim Kepner, who, in the 1950s, collected zines, artwork, and other stuff related to both science fiction and LGBTQ activism. Joseph Hawkins directs the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, which contains Kepner’s collection. Hawkins says the sci-fi and gay rights movements both imagined a future where social progress would overcome the traditional constraints of gender roles and sexual orientation.

“He thought about gay people marrying way back in the 1950s. He was always talking about that. I think that’s why, partly, his attraction to science fiction was so strong in him, because he could actually look back on his life and think about what possibilities could be,” Hawkins said.

Another video focuses on Carol Wells and her huge archive of human rights and protest posters. She says she began collecting posters as a solidarity activist, to organize against the U.S. wars in Central America.

“I didn’t see it as art. I didn’t want to hang it on my wall. I didn’t see it as primary historical documentation. It was a poster. And I literally had that attitude, that dismissive attitude of a poster, that once I realized how posters are, that I was resenting that attitude in other people,” Wells said.

Carol Wells, founder/executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Photo by Iris Schneider
Carol Wells, founder/executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Photo by Iris Schneider

She went on to found the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in 1988, which contains more than 85,000 posters, from the 19th century to the present.

The producer of Monomania L.A., Nathan Masters, says the fourth film in the series focuses on 90-year-old collector and author Ernest Marquez.

“His family’s been here in California since 1771, and in 1839 the Mexican government granted his great-grandfather Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. And over the last 50 years, he’s dedicated himself to researching his family history, but also collecting all these photos and documents related to the Rancho and the Santa Monica shoreline,” Masters said.

As for David Boulé, the citrus enthusiast, his collecting led to the publication earlier this year of his first book, “The Orange and the Dream of California.” So, is his collection complete?

Ed Marquez, collector of photos of the Santa Monica shoreline. Photo by Sharon Kilbride
Ed Marquez, collector of photos of the Santa Monica shoreline. Photo by Sharon Kilbride

“I have to admit, I have fallen back into my old habits occasionally,” Boulé said. “Just recently, I found and purchased a lapel pin and it says, ‘Go to beautiful Los Angeles to enjoy life.’ And hanging from this pin is a terrific hand-painted tin orange. So, I am still drawn to the subject matter.”

Humanities advisor David Kipen, a native Angeleno, says the Monomania L.A. project comes as both recent transplants and longtime residents are taking a fresh look at the city’s history.

“I get the idea all around town, people are sort of starting to notice LA as an object to be studies, to be interrogated, and a lot of us find it to be cherishable. It’s an inspiring phenomenon to have a ringside seat for,” Kipen said.

You can meet all four of the subjects of Monomania L.A. at the Los Angeles Archives Bazaar at the Doheny Memorial Library at USC tomorrow, and three of the mini-documentaries about them will premiere there. In fact, there’ll be a whole room at the bazaar dedicated to monomaniacs and their obscure collections. The documentary series, directed by Joris Debeij, will air on KCET public television by the end of the year. The series is presented by the USC Libraries and L.A. as Subject, and sponsored by Cal Humanities.