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Billy Kheel: A Soft Touch on the L.A. River

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The Los Angeles River is hard, grimy, rugged, straight-jacketed with so much concrete that tames its wayward water flow. But inside the walls of Los Angeles County Store, it becomes a plush paradise thanks to felt artist Billy Kheel.

"I've been going to the river for 10 to 15 years now, since I've been in Los Angeles," says Kheel. "In the last five years, so many changes have come to the river. It's an interesting turning point in time where you can see the history of this concrete channel, but also its future as a managed wetland with gastropubs and apartment buildings. I thought it would be a great time to freeze the scene and investigate the river bottom."

Kheel has created a portal into river bottom by recasting the River's wildlife and detritus in felt, fabric paint and string within a fifteen-foot-by-forty-inch alcove inside the artisan-focused shop in Silver Lake. The installation is called "L.A. River: The Fiber of a City."

Kheel's work is unmissable inside the Silver Lake shop. Backed by a cheerful blue felt background, an inviting, cartoon-y dreamscape emerges where doughy kelp mingle with cushiony supermarket carts, fluffy polka-dotted carp and mustachioed black bullhead catfish jockey for space beside neon orange, green, and yellow Four Loko cans, a Santeria sword, and a Jons supermarket plastic bag.

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The installation is a kaleidoscope of objects, almost an unbelievable amalgamation, but the artist says it is grounded in reality. Kheel did his due diligence by reading Blake Gumprecht's "The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth" and also getting a rundown of all the offal Friends of the Los Angeles River and its volunteers have dragged out of the river during all its clean up events.

Not everything is quite literal, however, some of the pieces betray Kheel's sensibility. One unmistakable feature is the appearance of Blinky, the three-eyed mutant fish that developed because of the nuclear waste of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in the long-running cartoon series The Simpsons. The artist doesn't mean the river is toxic. Rather, it's "the idea that the show, The Simpsons, is something created in Burbank and Glendale, on the shores of the river. It ties into the Hollywood aspect of the river," says Kheel, who cites the waterway's many appearances in movies like "Terminator 2," "The Italian Job" and "Grease."

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Kheel says working with felt on an exhibition about the Los Angeles River is a natural fit. It is a perfect metaphor. "Felt has his natural property. When you rub it together it binds and makes a fabric. The Los Angeles River is also this natural thing that goes through L.A. and binds communities together. It is part of the fabric of the city."

Taken another way, the L.A. riverbottom also represents what this city leaves behind. "Fiber is also undigestible material," explains the artist, "That's sort of what's in the river, stuff the city's not digesting."

These throwaway objects that would normally elicit reactions of disgust instead take on a more appealing aspect. "The river is such a compelling thing, but often people don't want to go there, don't want to go into it," says Kheel, "By changing it into felt, I think it makes it more inviting." Someday, the artist says he wants to create a larger than life version that visitors can walk through, so people can appreciate the minute detail that goes into these objects.

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The installation evokes warring instincts in a viewer's mind: gritty clashes with mushy, resulting is a pleasant nostalgia, an emotional response of ownership with something that doesn't always present itself so beautifully. It is this surprising alchemy that draws viewers to Kheel's work.

"We were introduced to [Kheel's] work through this fantastic throw pillow he makes depicting a strip mall sign in Ktown -- the one at the corner of 3rd and New Hampshire with California Donuts," recalls Margaret Gallagher, event director for Los Angeles County Store. "We carry it in the store and it's very popular. People love seeing something so familiar and mundane rendered in such a special way -- carefully cut and sewn and rendered into a pillow. There's something funny and delightful about it."

It also gives people a chance to take home a quirky piece of the city with them. Kheel says his previous works have struck a chord in people who don't even live in Los Angeles. His plush strip mall signage have got people as far as the Bay Area talking. He often gets compliments on his stuffed Pioneer Chicken sign made popular by Warren Zevon's "Carmelita."

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Though Kheel's family has been in the garment industry for generations (the Kheel's family name is still on an old building in New York City's garment district), the artist only found his medium in the last five or so years. The artist first studied oil painting at Wesleyan University and found his way to Los Angeles through working on animation projects. "Once I got here, I was excited about the art scene, how open and democratic it is," says Kheel. A how to make plushies class at Blue Rooster art supplies first exposed him to the tactile qualities of felt.

From there, he ran with it, making appliqué around sports memorabilia such as pennants modeled after baseball and football cards. Then, he translated that into creating felt game fish such as marlins, mahi mahi, and dorado, each one impressively detailed and layered, betraying his own painterly background. "I was a painter before working with felt, so I used the medium like paint, layering it, coloring it together, and then sewing it down," says Kheel. But unlike paint, this type of art you can cuddle. "The other cool thing is that you can stuff it."

Though unusual, Kheel's medium is strangely compelling. "It's so tactile, you want to touch it." By working on the normally un-cute and turning them into huggable objects, Kheel turns the rules of the world we've created on its head. "I like those kinds of ideas, taking stuff you don't normally see in that [soft world]. Maybe it's a new way to look at things that you wouldn't normally be interested in."

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"L.A. River: The Fiber of a City" is on view at the Los Angeles County Store, 4333 West Sunset Blvd until June 20.


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All images courtesy of Billy Kheel.

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