Camp David Gonzales in Malibu Canyon is located in a scenic setting, surrounded by rolling hills, tall trees and with the recent rains, vibrant greenery. But for years it housed a juvenile detention center, with grim, forbidding walls enclosing confinement buildings and a large outdoor yard. Riddled with recidivism, up to 70 percent of the population returned to crime after being released.
Two years ago, LA County handed control over to juvenile justice reformer Harry Grammer and his Culver City-based New Earth Organization, to convert the former prison into an innovative residential vocational training center for young people, who would otherwise be on track to adult incarceration.
When Harry met Gus Harper and later saw images on social media of a gigantic mural—23 feet tall by 100 feet long—he’d painted in Santa Barbara, Harry asked him to beautify the former prison’s wall—18 feet tall by 600 feet long—with a mural.
NEGATIVE TO POSITIVE
Gus is a Santa Monican with a studio at Santa Monica Airport, who sold his first painting as a senior at Santa Monica High School. For 19 years, he’s made his living through art. “Most kids start out as artists in their own way, it’s only when we stop expressing that creativity that we no longer are artists. I just never stopped.”
He began the Malibu mural in January and completed it two weeks ago—entirely freehand. “I had a house painter do a power wash on the walls to get all the dirt off,” Gus said, “and I told him I was going to paint a giant buffalo skull. He said, you can’t just freehand that, you need a template. And I said, ‘Oh yeah? Watch me,’ and I did it right in front of him. I started the mural by putting in three skulls and built the rest around that.”
Wait, skulls? Gus laughs, “I’m making a transformative piece of art, from the negative to a more positive, uplifting vibe. People associate skulls with death but I remember hiking as a kid with my family, and we found a totally intact deer skeleton, and we just thought it was beautiful and said, look how amazing God’s beauty is, all the way down to the intricate details inside.”
The mural presents a number of themes that Gus has developed over the years, most recently inspired by his travels to Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.
“I was in a place where things were going pretty well, I had a studio on Venice Blvd but I’d been there for eight years and I could see what the next eight years would be like so I decided to break out. You only grow when you leave your comfort zone.” Though he’d traveled throughout South America, Southeast Asia gave him a whole new way of seeing the world and sharing his art.
When he travels, he rolls his canvases into a container he constructed out of PVC pipes so he can work on the road. Seeing some graffiti in Nepal, he was struck by the idea of painting murals wherever he traveled. “It dawned on me that every time we go somewhere, we tend to take. It would be nice to give.”
On his next trip, to Sri Lanka, he began asking people if they’d like a mural on their wall and showing them samples of his paintings. “Once I started, a crowd would gather, I’d start meeting people, making new friends, being invited to dinner, going on excursions I never would have made, so it was like opening new worlds to me.”
Last year, Gus was in Tokyo for the opening of one of his shows, and three months later he came back for the closing. In between, he visited Malaysia, where district officials invited him to paint murals in their small village.
“I ended up having such a good time I stayed for a month. During that time, I didn’t spend a penny, they paid for everything, the paints, my hotel, every meal, I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water. Everyone was so welcoming. It was a small town, no westerners ever come there.” Now he’s been invited to another village two districts over to do the same there.
Gus’s paintings are large, filled with vibrant color and multiple layers, with spheres, blocks of color, skulls, faces, upside down bodies and lacy patterns. They’re abstract in some ways, accessible in others.
“In Nepal I learned about this idea called ‘Great Time,’ which is that time is an illusion and everything happens at once. I thought I’d try making a painting with a lifetime of memories condensed into one canvas, so I was looking at tons of these shapes and figures, some very abstract and blurry, some very vivid, because some people in your life are prominent, and others are like ships passing in the night.”
Realizing he liked the aesthetics of these shapes, he fused them into the Malibu mural as well as a series called “Sojourner Art.” In case you can’t get up to Camp David Gonzales, Sojourner Art 3 is on view now at Il Moro Restaurant in West LA for the next few months.
Take a look at these and more of Gus’s art here: www.gusharperart.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.