After COVID, Central Library exhibit reminds us what community is


“Something in Common” is a new exhibit about social clubs and unique groups that connect Southern Californians. Video courtesy of YouTube.

Exhibits at museums and galleries are usually pretty easy to get a handle on, theme-wise. It’s an artist or an era or a bunch of dinosaurs. But the show at the Central Library is harder to wrap your head around.

It’s about all kinds of things: cookbooks, clouds, baseball, scuba diving, weeds. It’s a show about all the reasons people get together in Southern California, about social groups and clubs, which are parts of Los Angeles and its environs that give us a glimpse into the whole.

On one wall there’s a bunch of microscopes, and on another there’s a bird mascot for a baseball team in a glass case. It’s next to shelves of feminist art and literature and projections of clouds onto a large section of wall. It’s a gallery of interests and obsessions, which are themselves the obsession of Todd Lerew, the director of special projects for the library foundation of Los Angeles and curator of “Something in Common.”

“Before the pandemic, I spent at least a year traveling all over the city, visiting and joining dozens and dozens, maybe 100, different clubs,” he says. “And it was interesting, on the one hand, doing all this research and reading about how so many clubs are failing and struggling to survive. But on the other hand, almost anything you can think of, you can look it up, and there's a community of people who are dedicated to that.”

Let’s walk through some of it. Believe me, we won’t get to it all – the show is more than the sum of its parts. 

Microscopic music

Visitors can see all kinds of microscopes in “Something in Common.” Photo by Ian Byers Gamber.

Walk through the exhibit and you’ll hear some haunting music, which turns out to accompany a slideshow of colorful images: molecules with a soundtrack. 

“Anything from really common chemicals, like caffeine, or aspirin, or urea, to things like dichlorobenzene, which I'm not even sure what that is, because I'm not a science person,” says Erin Schneider. 

Schneider is a musician, and with her father John, they created the eerie, transfixing music for the slideshow, which Erin’s grandfather, an amateur chemist named Robert Forrester, created for the Microscopical Society of Southern California. In his garage, Forrester took psychedelic pictures of different chemicals, under a microscope, and created wild slideshows. In the library exhibition, the slideshow is projected alongside a shelf containing many species of microscopes, a tribute to the group’s love of tiny things, and the things that look at tiny things.

It’s a way of experiencing an unseen world. The Schneiders’ music offers one more way to perceive the elemental.

Tastes change

“They’re also instruction manuals, where you can conjure that moment back through taste in a way that's really hard to do through other elements,” artist Suzanne Joskow says of cookbooks from LA’s history. Photo by Ian Byers Gamber.

On a wall near the entrance are 99 cookbooks from community groups across LA’s geography and history. These are samples from the Community Cookbook Archive, a project by artist Suzanne Joskow that started when she bought cookbooks at garage sales, which became a way of mapping the city through time and taste.

“To me, these are precious documents of, in some circumstances, things that have disappeared — versions of Los Angeles that no longer exist,” she says. “But actually, they’re also instruction manuals, where you can conjure that moment back through taste in a way that's really hard to do through other elements.”

Every type of organization seemed to have a cookbook at one time, from Los Angeles Zoo docents, rock collectors, and radiologists to “the Sony Pictures Family” and the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime. 

“Sometimes the community groups are quite charming,” Joskow says. “A lot of them are women's groups and women's auxiliaries, which is really interesting in its own right.”

Flipping through them, you get a real sense of place and time, and what people liked to eat when. Recipes change, technologies change (here comes the microwave), community groups come and go, and gelatin-based dishes come and go.

“I have some cookbooks from the same organization, but 50, 60 years apart in time,” she says, “and so you get to track what has happened over time, both in that community group and just in that community as at large.” 

Found at sea

The Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorers was founded in 1992. Photo by Ian Byers Gamber.

If the cookbooks represent people making stuff, on the other side of the exhibit is a huge portrait representing people doing stuff. It’s a portrait of the Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorers (LABUE), which is a scuba club founded in 1992 to bring together divers who wanted to do stuff with other divers like them.

“​​I thought I was the only Black diver in Southern California, because I never would see them,” says Richard Rice, the current president of the scuba club, who says the group was a way to counteract solitude. “And there was no internet back then. So there was no way of getting a hold of other Black divers.”

Black divers also had to contend with the subtle or overt racism of other divers. 

“In many cases, we would be on a dive boat by ourselves. Other divers were reluctant to buddy up with us, or they would question whether or not we were qualified to dive, or competent,” Rice says. “And you would probably get the same story from Black skiers, Black surfers, and so on. We all have the same experience as far as not being accepted again at that time.”

Now, LABUE (pronounced “la buoy”) has dives off the coasts of Southern California and all over the world. Rice says he spends a lot of time trying to recruit new members. Older members are aging out, and younger members have more choices. Rice says it’s because of the internet’s buffet of experiences, and, too, a greater acceptance of all kinds of people in all kinds of clubs.

“And that's especially true of younger divers – they're used to diving with people of all races,” he says. “They're not challenged, like we were back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.”

Weeds of all kinds

29 Palms Historical Society’s Annual Weed Show is now led by Larry Bowden. Photo by Ian Byers Gamber.

At times, “Something in Common” feels like walking through a petting zoo of endangered species. In the internet age, the meaning of community has changed.

Speaking of changing meanings, there’s a glass case near the entrance. What at first glance looks like a bunch of dead weeds in rusty coffee cans — turns out on closer inspection to be a bunch of dead weeds in rusty coffee cans. These are honorees from the 29 Palms Historical Society’s Annual Weed Show, which is a flower show — for weeds. 

Larry Bowden is the president now.

“About 30 years ago when my wife brought home a blue ribbon that she had won by putting a trumpet plant in the cup between a couple of rocks … [it] just cracked me up,” he says. “I said, ‘I can do that.’”

Bowden was invited to be the first guy on the Weed Show committee, sitting at the right hand of the show’s matriarch, Ada Hatch. Among other duties, he got to experience a quintessential California ritual: being visited by that infinitely curious legend, Huell Howser, in 1997.

Eventually, Bowden was called upon for another duty: taking over the Weed show from Hatch.

“As it came towards the end of her life, she made me promise — verbally made me promise, I had to say it — that I'd keep the Weed Show going after she was gone,” he says, “and I have managed to do that, but I've had a lot of help.”

Now the show is what Bowden calls “rusted, busted and dusted.” He explains, “[That’s] because people started taking old cans, old bottles, using old pieces of wood, things that were found in the desert. So now in our thing, it's assemblages that were created with weeds and items found in the desert.”

Here are recent winners from 29 Palms Historical Society’s Annual Weed Show. Photo by Ian Byers Gamber.

Weeds – the life that springs up wherever it can, unruly, fitting into all sorts of crevices. Is that an appropriate metaphor for community life in LA? 

For curator Todd Lerew, what ties this show together is finding a solution to the irony of being alone in one of the biggest cities in the world.

“I think, in a lot of ways, Los Angeles can be a lonely place. And the experience of it can be isolating, like all big cities,” he says. “So just to encourage people to reach out and come to our libraries, find other ways to connect, join a club, there's so many different ways that you can improve your life by connecting with others.”

Collect samples, gather them together, look at them for a while, and find your people … for as long as it lasts. Then, do it all over again.

“Something in Common” runs through Nov. 6 at the Central Library. On Sunday, Oct. 30, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy and author Robert Putnam discuss human connection at the Mark Taper Auditorium.

And if you want to catch the 29 Palms Historical Society’s Annual Weed Show, that’s Nov. 5-6.