Dominique Moody: The Urban Nomad | KCET
Dominique Moody: The Urban Nomad
For many, the phrase "No place like home" is a deeply suffused sentiment, a celebration of tangible sense of place. But to artist Dominique Moody's ear, the saying is far more complex, housing many chambers of meaning.
For Moody, the aphorism is not a sentiment but an acknowledgment. Those four simple words, set side-by-side, which construct something instantly recognizable for others, have conveyed, for most of her life, not a place on the map but blank space: territory that is as abstract as it is elusive.
At 57, Moody has lived and worked in more than 40 locations: far-flung destinations that zigzag the country, cross oceans. Some addresses she's touched-down on for only a few weeks, others, for blocks of unbroken months that eventually tallied into years. In that time, she's collected addresses like charms on a bracelet -- unusual, unlikely, untrammeled territories. The pattern began early -- first, in-tow along with her large family; later, solo, when she herself took to her own life road -- after college traveling from project to project. Each jaunt, each open-ended journey, became part of her life-collage. Home for her was a hypothetical concept, not something that could be mapped on her heart.
Within the last few years, the artist found herself suspended, working in a protracted pause. Already she'd been lingering in Los Angeles longer than most of her happened-upon locales -- building assemblage pieces, mentoring students, showing work in galleries and museum shows. In 2012, she'd settled in to work at Location 44 -- a sunshine-yellow row house on 107th Street in Watts, situated along a slip of road populated by single-family residences all within the shadows of zig-zag embroidery of the historic Watts Towers. During the stay, part of an artist- in-residence program, she had made this work/studio space -- the R. Cloud House -- her own: Her garden was full of native flora, succulents, a simple rock garden; a chair, chaise-lounge and table and some well-worn gardening tools -- some gifts, other discards she'd found while taking long walks through the neighborhood and carried back to her work-bench to handily repurpose and gave them new life. The house''s interior -- with its eggshell walls and beige carpeting -- is spare but neatly appointed with just a few of her own collage and assemblage pieces. There too, sunk within the work itself, you'll find evidence of scavenging -- old printer's trays, keys, maps -- all repurposed. Taken as a whole, they are notes, the beginnings of autobiographical jottings -- but annotations in three-dimension.
At first glance, it looked like any other house on the block, that is except for the large circa-1950 Ford F-5 pickup truck (a clever spoil of online scavenging), crouched just to the side of the driveway and next to it what appears to be a replica of small wooden row house -- (approximately 11 1/2 feet wide, 11 1/2 feet high and 8 1/2 feet deep) with a periwinkle-blue French window and a seductive front porch--hitched to it on a trailer. A mobile home, to be sure, but not like any you'd see at some suburban RV show. The row house, within Moody's imagination, is key -- as it conveys the through-line of the African diaspora -- connecting sub-saharan Africa to structures which later popped up in Haiti and to the urban U.S -- New Orleans, Texas, Los Angeles.
Tourists who wandered into the neighborhood to take in Simon Rodia's intricate Watts Towers -- mosaics found themselves, pulled down the block to take a peek at the little row house sharing space with the larger one. Some might turn to the tall, elegant woman with chiseled cheekbones and sloping straw sunhat shielding her eyes, working diligently in the yard and ask questions; others just stand back quietly, taking it in.
The little house -- one of Moody's larger assemblage pieces called "The Urban NOMAD" --- had been on display locally, just a few years back, at the California African American Museum. It serves, Moody explains, as a scale model of a far larger, still loose-dimensioned dream. To fabricate a full-size, livable mobile house within which she will be able to travel the country in and most likely -- she hopes -- beyond. "'ll be a mobile artist with residence."
One doesn't settle on a grand plan to set out to build a tiny, mobile house overnight. The germ of it, Moody explains, didn't come in an ah ha revelatory flash. The notion itself built itself slowly from the bottom up -- bits and pieces via the by-product of choices and life's circumstances. The seeds for her larger vision, The NOMAD Project -- an acronym for Narrative, Odyssey, Manifesting Artistic Dreams -- is Moody's hope to concretize a long-held desire -- an artist's studio turned inside out. The idea is to create a living work of art -- where the journey and the process are as valued as essential as "product." More than 25 years in the making, the NOMAD project grows out of a life-long sense of rootlessness. It is the next leg of road in a long-life of purposeful wandering -- gathering the elements needed along the way. Not just the physical bits and pieces, but the craft, knowledge and the mindset. "Really, it is my life portrait."
Standing in the garage, before a neatly organized work-table, Moody's elegant sketches on long sheets of bone-white paper lay out the plans for the actual NOMAD -- the shell will be built on an 8'X20" flat-bed trailer with a 12-foot high clearance. Her plan, if you can formalize it in such a way, is open-ended. It's a journey that is as much outward as it is inward. "This is not transience, or homelessness. This is being pulled."
What Moody is setting out to do has left some slack jawed -- either in wonderment or bewilderment or fear: "How can you just leave? Leave everything? All of your work? How can you travel like this? A woman? Alone?"
What doesn't come up -- and Moody believes that it might just be that the curious are also attempting a sense of tactfulness -- is the question of her eyesight. She was 28 when diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, an inherited, rare form of macular degeneration that appears in youth and transforms one's vision incrementally over time. Over the last few decades, she's slowly been losing her eyesight and now, with limited vision that allows her to see only the outer-edges of what's before her, she is considered to be legally blind. That hasn't slowed her work -- she saws and hammers, adjusts minute miscalculations, recalibrates specifications on the spot -- it just means she works differently. Nor has the diagnosis circumscribed her dreams; in many ways it has enhanced it. She's built in solutions to open questions as they come -- like hiring a driver.
To compensate, over the years, the work itself grew larger in proportion "Because I needed to see it." What she began to realize was: "I need to 'show' what I see inside. What I had inside is internal memory -- tactile, sensory. Sight is not vision," she explains. As her ability to see slipped away, she realized that her sense of purpose and possibilities sharpened: "My vision got much stronger."
Leading into the project's construction phase, she's raised $10,000 to start the build on the NOMAD -- piecing together grants -- from the Getty and the Frances E. Williams Trust/ Foundation (the recipient of the Paul Robeson Award) -- patron support, online funding via US Artists Online Project Fundraiser (now HatchFund) and a generous materials gift from Anawalt Lumber. In the last few months of her residency in Watts, while in close consult with L.A. based artists Charles Dickson and John Outterbridge -- who served as both sounding boards and spirit guides, she had as well been been involved in the task of liquidating her accumulated assets, shedding the physical bits and pieces that made up her life until now -- everything -- tools, clothes, books -- even her inventory of work itself. It's a crucial shift in the way Moody will be thinking about what makes art: "I will be travelling in a piece of art and in a way my life becomes that piece art itself."
Born in Germany, the daughter of an U.S. Army officer, Theodore R. Moody and a grounded and resourceful mother Barbara Ruth. Moody is one of nine children. At a very early age she deeply understood the concept of rootlessness -- not just the word, but the sensation of presentent movement, floating, the ease with which someone could be fully lifted out of a place.
In the early 50s, before she was born, the Moodys traveled the U.S. south in the early 50s, to avoid the reach of Jim Crow laws -- and their often violent consequences -- the family made their home in a 40-foot long New Moon trailer. It was a fascinating way of circumventing social problems of the era," she explains, "while having the freedom of being on wheels."
Germany was wildly divergent chapter: "I was the first born there so it shaped me differently. Here we were black kids in Lederhosen and Heidi dresses." The Moody children spent a great deal of time attempting to understand and define themselves not just for others but for themselves. Once it was time to return stateside, relocating created its own sense of cultural disruption. The family tossed a coin and they ended up in Pennsylvania -- first in Amish Country. "Negro kids weren't supposed to have [European] accents. We [my siblings] became our own peers." At first it seemed that there was no easy place to be. "Nature became an important way to explore -- we were free spirits, sense of freedom in this nomadic realm." With her head in books, she found herself attracted to other cultures who were "in motion" -- who didn't quite fit within the norms or confines of a specific place and consequently lived along the edges. The Roma people and their wagons and the degree to which they were discriminated against, derogatorily labeled "gypsies." Says Moody: "When you're displaced," she learned quite early, "You have to find other ways to be part of the world."
Constructing a sense of belonging was not easy: "We got stuck in between." Neighborhood kids would ask: "What are you doing moving all the time?" Times were lean for the family and their precarious economics distanced them further. To bolster their sense of selves, their father coached them to think of themselves as "rich in experience"
"I knew the word 'nomad' knew that it was connected to Africa," says Moody. "We would call ourselves 'nomads' -- it just seemed to fit." Further complicating things was her proud father's struggle to house his large family. "My father's GI-bill wasn't happening," consequently the family found themselves engaged in a series of building projects in and around Philadelphia in which they would move into dilapidated houses and breathe life back into them. "I would scavenge the streets looking for discards, thing we could use. Old windows, wood, tossed-aside radiators." She was intrigued by the world of discards -- a whole subterranean world of hunter and gatherers. The black men hauling cans who drove around in the big Mack trucks adorned them. Baby dolls, musical instruments, antlers were often festooned on the grills. "I was fascinated by these men who picked through things that people threw away -- but found value in them by repurposing them."
The houses that the Moodys settled into would be rehabilitated, and if their upgrades met the bank's standards, they would be able to move in and finally make something concrete their own. That handshake had a name -- "Sweat Equity," she explains. But each time the family swarmed -- each child enlisted with tasks and chores -- refinishing hard-wood floor, glazing windows -- the finished house would slip out of their hands, given to someone else who was deemed more eligible -- financially viable. "The third time my father emerged from it cracked something inside him. He was broken," she remembers. "When I was 11, he left us all. That became my coming of age. It was pivotal for me. That society had failed him. Us. Me. " It would be the last time Moody saw her father -- who remained estranged -- alive. (He passed away in April 2013 and had been, coincidentally, living in a motorhome in an R.V. park in Mesa, Arizona).
Her mother created a sense of structure -- a gathering space, a softness. In other words, she explains, "home was wherever she was." But all the while Moody was still trying to find her space. Through various encounters with happenstance, an art class here, a museum trip there, -- and the introduction to the work of self-taught African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner -- something shot through her. Moody began to feel at home in the expanse of her creativity -- her inner vision, her sense of working with her hands. The painting of Tanner's that struck her -- "The Banjo Lesson" -- was a revelation: "When I asked who Tanner was and he was described as a "Negro Artist' -- at that point I decided: That's what I want to be: A Negro Artist."
Being able to name it concretely -- artist -- was a start. Then there were other descriptives and meanings she pieced together, set down into a place in her imagination -- Vernacular art. Folk art. Quilts. Mosaics. Assemblage -- the vast ways in which populations outside of the mainstream expressed what was essential, their personal stories. The active role of serendipity -- picking up what is discarded and refashioning it into something viable was a her salvation. As well, it was the story of her life.
"Being near the Watts Towers," she reflects, "makes me think that if I could have been one of the kids who watched Rodia build these towers, I would have come by with broken plates and tiles to help him. I would have been wearing him out asking questions -- not the 'whys" -- I understood that. But the 'hows."
By the 80s, she had lived in several more cities -- East Coast and West -- and had now landed in San Francisco with her sister Cheryl. They began a home fix-it business ,which they advertised via doorstep flyers across the city. They seemed to be on track to something, their calendar full of work. But it was at that point that Moody began to note a difference. Small but significant things. "I began to experience not being able to hit the nail," she recalls. Or while home relaxing with a book, "I'd realized that I couldn't track a single line." Finally a trip to the doctor brought the news -- Stargardt's. Without health care, it was at first impossible to get the full round of tests she needed "The first thing they wanted me to do was go on disability," she says, the frustration still fresh in her voice, "It forces you to become indigent in order to get help," she explains, "I wasn't going to be a discard too. Not when she had two good hands, a clear head, "I wasn't going to be labeled. There are many things I can do."
Under the wind-scrubbed sky of the Altadena foothills at Zorthian Ranch -- a 27-acre artist compound once sired-over by the Armenian artist Jirayr Zorthian -- Moody has found a new work-perch -- Location 45.
In her months here as an artist-in-residence with a day studio on the grounds, Moody has learned, as fate would have it, that much like Rodia, Zorthian began to focus his creative efforts on constructing curious, dynamic pieces of architecture from other's discards -- local builders, residents, who left odds and ends on or near the stretch of property: A fact which, Moody stores away as a confirmation -- a serendipitous affirmation.
As she did in Watts, Moody has transformed this work space: A garden has been planted, a small seating area outdoors arranged to entertain guests, just steps away from the work area, the NOMAD, which is no longer a series of detailed pencil sketches on a large stretch of of white paper, but is now a tiny 120-square foot dwelling -- a miniature row house with a roof, a porch, porthole-windows . Moody has been lifting, cutting, sawing, hammering -- re-doing aspects until they are just so": "It's back-breaking work. "But those old skills don't disappear."
Over the last few months she has also invited in collaborators to assist her with particular aspects of the NOMAD's evolution. The build began early 2013 at the Anawalt Lumber space in Montrose where Moody worked on the raw construction-phase -- focusing on the NOMAD's foundation and the main structural components (Anawalt donated both the space and donated building materials), and a few months later, the mobile house made the long early-morning, head-turning trek through sleepy Pasadena, and up into the hills of Altadena "It took me three months to build the foundation. To get it right." Her hope is to be able to be on the road by sometime in June and make the first road-test stop -- a symbolic christening of sorts, passing through artist Noah Purifoy's compound in the desert. "I want to honor him. Another artist who created an environment of his own."
There's lots to do before then -- and the pressure is on. She might have to come up with workarounds -- plans and support for some aspects as she approaches her deadline -- most crucially getting the 60-year-old Ford truck up to speed, fine-tuning her water system and sorting out her driver situation.
Yet in still, Moody proudly points out the the fine details -- as anyone would in a new, hand-built home. There are, of course, bits and pieces of found elements -- a felled metal light-post found on the freeway by artist Brian Carlson (one of the long-term NOMAD collaborators) that she sees as a metaphor: "To light the way." As well, other rescued pieces like laundromat washing machine doors are being readied and fashioned into "windows: to fit inside those porthole spaces.
All that early training has been put to use -- the sweat equity, the house-repair business; all of it ultimately both an assemblage of duties and of many selves. All of the detours and side-roads, Moody sees now, have all brought her to this place: a new beginning of her own crafting. This shift in personal perspective has prompted her to think about work -- not just the medium but the value of it -- in a far different way. Since she will no longer have a "studio" perse -- "Everything around the NOMAD becomes an extension of it. Moody explains. And thus her life itself becomes a collaboration with the world: "It's going to be in the public sphere. I'll be able to to go to places where other artists don't or can't go."
Most importantly, Moody knows, this approach will shift expectations and assumptions about what art is and who makes it and how we as viewers/participants assign it value. At each stop along the way she plans to create a document from what she's gathered in each location: "Not a commodity but a memento of my time there -- leaving it for someone to stumble upon."
It might have started with the notion of building a "home," building something concrete and secure she could call her own, but for Moody, this stage in the evolution of her work -- of her life -- is also about crafting something larger: It's redefining not simply art but the weight and value of life. It's the back-breaking work of scraping away and drilling down to its essence: "I want to point out the ways in which people don't recognize that hard work is valuable. Often it's the work that really needs to be done, but the people who do it are so often marginalized," she reflects. And the lesson for her and any any others along a fresh stretch of a new and untrammeled life road is as simple as it is powerful: "Going forward, I have to be secure in myself to do that. To see its value. My product -- what I start out with -- is waste. But it's waste that we don't value until it is transformed."
Related: Watch our mini doc on the preservation of the Watts Towers: