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Skeith de Wine and the Uncertain Future of the Leonardo Da Vinci Institute

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Mural of research on aerospace technology, ca. 2008, Mixed media on paper, 76 x 252 inches. Research documents from the California Leonardo da Vinci Institute of Discovery. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Skeith de Wine, the artist formerly known as Sean Keith, has lived in Santa Ana for 21 years. Before that, he went to the Rhode Island School of Design, and before that, he matriculated at Harvard University, where he studied the Italian renaissance.

He was living in Costa Mesa when he moved to Santa Ana in 1992, at the bequest of the Santa Ana City Council. Before Downtown Santa Ana was the gentrified hipster hot spot it is now, it was just a place that needed invigorating through artists; de Wine was wooed by cheap rent and visions of an artistic utopia. He then opened up The Smallest Art Gallery in California underneath the stairs of the Santora building (yes, it's still in business), and showcased a diverse, multicultural group of artists; La Cucaracha cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz has shown his work there, as has sculptor Seth Kaufman.

But it's been a while since De Wine has focused his attention solely on TSAGC. As his day job, he's working as a long-term, substitute teacher in East L.A., South Central, and juvenile detention camps. "In the past couple of years I've opened up my eyes to society. [I've been] looking at the world, figuring out cultural barriers and how to start breaking them down."

Coded languages -- such as tagging -- was of particular interest to De Wine, and it was this interest that brought him back to Leonardo Da Vinci. "[With tagging] there's always a background dialogue that most people don't pick up on, and when you study the Renaissance there's an enormous amount of background dialogue."

Skeith de Wine's art studio | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Skeith de Wine's art studio | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Da Vinci's work, in particular, was so multifaceted that de Wine has spent the past 15 years of his life studying it. This obsession him to create the California Leonardo da Vinci Institute of Discovery. Its purpose "is to dream, conceptualize and build the world of tomorrow with art and scientific exploration today." In other words, de Wine looks at the contemporary world and asks, "What would Da Vinci do?"

De Wine's downtown Santa Ana studio, located in an old warehouse, is a space devoted to everything the Renaissance man did. The space contains recreations of Da Vinci's experiments; the walls are taped up with notes, drawings and studies of Da Vinci's paintings; the cabinets, drawers -- and every surface of the room, it seems -- are overpowered by books on Da Vinci, rolled up documents related to Da Vinci, and plans to execute art based on Da Vinci's lost and unknown experimentation -- with time travel, with botany, with philosophy.

Recreating Da Vinci's work through research, after all, is the closest De Wine can get to the maestro. De Wine hasn't traveled to Italy; instead, he checks out books from the library, looks at the place Da Vinci lived on Google Earth. "As [my research on Da Vinci grew], my whole perception of what art is, and what an artist is, changed drastically. An artist isn't about turning out pretty paintings, or turning out products. An artist is an inventor and a chemist, a botanist, trying to build early computers and make the technological leap."

Primarily trained in the visual arts, de Wine let painting take a back seat. In its place was a new calling: trying to figure out how to use art -- via Da Vinci's methods -- to make a difference in today's world. "I had to become Da Vinci in terms of, what would he think about during the day? Where was he? What was he looking at? What clues do I have to go by in his drawings and paintings? To get to know him better I almost had to do method acting," he said.

The goal, De Wine says, is to leave a legacy. "By taking the few tools I have with art, I can make a difference with humanity," he says. "I'm especially concerned about the environment and what we'll leave behind [for future generations]."

This marriage of art and science has resulted in some fascinating, think-out-of-the-box projects.

Such as the Institute's concept for economical missions to Mars. Part of the exhibit "Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration" (most recently shown at UC Riverside's Culver Center and Lancaster's Museum of Art and History), De Wine presented a design of a rocket ship, constructed out of ice, that will travel like an ice comet to its destination. Upon arrival, the ice components of the ship are separated and melted down for oxygen and water to increase the crew's exploration time on the planet.

A more recent project De Wine is working on is a plan to use a the design of a hornet's nest to build towers to generate water in drought-plagued areas such as Africa. "This design was inspired by the way Da Vinci was building wonderful technology to understand nature better," he said. In another project, he's looking into how to decontaminate the bodies of bees from pesticides. "I've been looking at static electricity and carbon nanofibers...what happens when bees can't pass on color in nature? What is that going to do to you? That will be the majority of what I work on this year."

And even as De Wine looks to 600 years in the past for inspiration, his day-to-day life as an artist is fraught by modern problems. "I'm looking for a new studio to move the Da Vinci Institute. I'm losing my space due to gentrification in Santa Ana," he said. The Smallest Art Gallery in California's future is also in jeopardy, because the building it is housed in was bought by a new developer.

Skeith de Wine's art studio | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Skeith de Wine's art studio | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

It has brought his work in the Institute to a kind of stasis: "And we've barely scratched the surface of the man," De Wine says. "I've been studying him for 15 years and there's so much to learn from him still!"

"I started creating for Da Vinci to make a difference in people's lives, and that was the gift he gave to me," De Wine said. "You look at the world and it's in great peril around you, and you realize you're not only an artist but you have to be a bit of a soldier to help carry and protect things."

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