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Profiles

Keeper Of His Own Animal Kingdom

John Hiltunen, who has diabetes and dyslexia, never made art at all until he was 54. Now his weird and wild collages are the toast of the art world.

Wearing starred-and-striped suspenders over a white t-shirt, artist John Hiltunen points to a small chest of drawers next to his workspace, housed in a cavernous former auto-repair shop in downtown Oakland, California: “Bodies go in this drawer; heads go in this one,” he says. Piled on his desk are glossy magazines—Vogue, GQ, Glamour, National Geographic—plus animal-themed wall calendars and patterned wallpapers.

Working out of Creative Growth Art Center—a nonprofit that serves more than 160 artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities—John spends hours decapitating images of fashion models with scissors, then affixing their bodies to cut-outs of animal heads. Placed against scenic backdrops, these stylish chimeras fuse self-serious, airbrushed fashion photography with animal kingdom oddities: A guinea pig struts in a sequined tunic; a snowy owl carries a leather handbag through the woods; a ginger cat models a silk ball gown; a Yorkshire terrier strikes a pose in a frilly white pantsuit.

John Hiltunen. Photo: Hannah Hughes

Since joining Creative Growth in 2003, John has become an unlikely art world darling. His animal-human mashups are routinely featured in contemporary art fairs like NADA Miami, the Independent, and Frieze New York. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and artist Cindy Sherman are among the high-profile collectors of his work. In 2012, John’s work was the focus of a major group exhibition at Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco. In New York, he’s exhibited at White Columns Gallery and Rachel Uffner Gallery.

He got a late start: Until age 54, “I had no idea that I could do art,” John says.

Until age 54, “I had no idea that I could do art,” John says.

Born in Sturgis, Kentucky in 1949 and raised in Omaha, Nebraska by his cement contractor father and homemaker mother, John has struggled with severe learning disabilities since childhood. “My mom supported me a lot, but I never had any education,” he says. “I had problems with my eyes and with dyslexia. A bad case of that. Every time I tried to learn to read, I got a bad headache.”

When John was ten, his father died. After that, “everybody was telling my mom to send me away,” he says. “Back then, they thought it was a good idea to send disabled people away.” Eventually, his mother sent him to an institution in Brownsville, Texas. “They started giving me a lot of pills, drugging me a lot,” he says. “I really didn’t care for it. I remember being all druggy. I got to a point where I just didn’t take the pills. I’d hide them in my mouth and spit them out. They didn’t know that. They weren’t treating people right. So I finally called my mom and told her about it and she got me out of there.”

John moved to the Sara Center, a residential center for people with disabilities in Fremont, California, and stopped taking medications, except to manage his diabetes. Compared to the hellish institution in Brownsville, Sara Center was idyllic. There, he met his wife, Carol. “Basically, it was love at first sight,” he says. “We were married up on a hill.” At Sara Center, the couple lived independently, “getting along real well.”

But for decades, “I didn’t have any hobbies,” John says. “[I was doing] nothin’ much, just sitting in the house, watching TV, getting bored. I never really looked at art.”

That changed in 2003, when a friend referred John and Carol to Creative Growth. There, John discovered woodworking, rug-making, and ceramics. He and Carol also found a solid group of friends, who call him “Grandpa.”

“John’s kind of the patriarch in the community,” Creative Growth studio manager Matt Dostal says. “He brings in elaborate lunches for everybody in his friend group—a big cooler full of huge amounts of fried chicken and potato salad and diet Cokes.”

At the Creative Growth Art Center, Hiltunen is something of a community patriarch. Photo: Hannah Hughes

At first, John was critical of his visual art, and didn’t feel like he had a natural knack for it. But in 2007, visiting artist Paul Butler brought his traveling “Collage Party” to Creative Growth, inviting the artists to participate in a day-long cutting-and-pasting frenzy. “Collage can be really accessible for people who have a hard time drawing or painting,” Dostal says. “It’s a good gateway practice.”

At Paul Butler’s Collage Party, John made his first animal-human mashup. It was an instant hit. Fusing fashion and animal photography became his go-to practice. Though most of his works are variations on this same theme, they’re never formulaic; each collage introduces an exotic new hybrid species. His creatures often look somehow more natural than the chiseled, Photoshopped bodies that fill the pages of glossy magazines; it’s as if John is on a mission to tear off fashion models’ suffocating human masks and free the wild animals hiding beneath.

John is on a mission to tear off fashion models’ suffocating human masks and free the wild animals hiding beneath.

“His collages are in some ways incredibly simple, but there’s a really elegant subtlety, thoughtfulness and humor to the way he cuts out the images,” Dostal says. “They look so happenstance and poetic.”

“I just like switchin’ things around,” John says when asked why he gravitates toward collage. In recent years, John has expanded his practice to include 3-D art books and animated video pieces, such as “A Call to Kill,” in which an Australian Silky Terrier driving a sports car thwarts a villain’s plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. Most recently, John had a solo show at Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, where four pieces sold within the first two hours of the opening.

Photo: Hannah Hughes

The success hasn’t gone to his head. “He doesn’t care what people think,” Dostal says. “He just wants to create his art.”

On June 14th, John and Carol celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary. “I’ve had a good life,” John says. He recalls how, in 2013, after being nominated by esteemed British curator Matthew Higgs, he won the Tiffany Grant—a biennial award given to American contemporary artists who demonstrate unique “talent and individual artistic strength” but haven’t yet received widespread recognition. Selected by a jury composed of artists, critics, and museum professionals, awardees receive an unrestricted check for $20,000.

John spent his prize money on a three-day trip to Disneyland with his wife and all their friends.

This is part two of four of Folks’ series of profiles of some of the amazing artists at Oakland’s Creative Growth Arts Center, which serves artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities.

Profiles

The Art Of The Fold

Dyslexic in an era of rote memorization, origami master Bernie Peyton found the answers and peace he needed in a square of paper

Walking through Bernie Peyton’s beautiful home and backyard studio in Berkeley, California, is like going on an origami safari. In the entryway, sockeye salmon seem to swim up a pebbled paper stream. A relaxed brown bear lounges in a corner. On the nearby wall, another bear looks out over the top of a mottled blue waterfall.

In rumpled khakis and tropical print shirt, the reed thin Peyton guides me through the folded fauna. His eyes twinkle impishly as he shows me a mama elephant with her baby tucked protectively between her front legs, all made out of a single piece of paper. “I had two corners that I could have just shoved underneath the belly, or made longer tusks with them. Could have been four tusks. Could have put a baguette in her mouth. … But instead, I decided to make a baby.”

Bernie Peyton wearing a self-folded bear hat.

Drawing on his decades as a wildlife biologist, Peyton often likes to capture his creatures in action. Lizards carry leaves down stems; hawks swoop after running rabbits. He imbues his paper beasts with so much momentum that you half expect to see them make their next move.  

Considered a master of the art form, his whimsical scenes have been shipped to exhibits around the world and can sell for thousands of dollars. He has also curated shows, including one of the largest origami exhibits ever organized, Origami Universe, in Tainan, Taiwan. Held in fall 2016, the show featured nearly 400 works from 63 artists, scientists, engineers, and designers from 21 countries.

Now in his mid-sixties, Peyton was nine years old when origami changed his life. Dyslexic in an era of memorization, Peyton says, “school was really, really tough.” He consistently failed his spelling tests, teachers told him he wasn’t trying hard enough, and his learning disability made him a target for bullies.

Then his stepfather handed him Isao Honda’s book, How to Make Origami. “He said, ‘Here, this might interest you,’” Peyton recalls. As casual as this delivery may have sounded, Peyton believes his stepdad knew he was handing him a lifesaver.

Honda’s book opened up a whole new folded world. One of the first Japanese origami books to reach the U.S. after World War II, it included actual paper models pasted onto the pages next to clear instructions on how to create the classic crane, owls, kangaroos, and other animals.

“Dyslexics lack the ability to see the forest through the trees; they get lost in the trees,” says Peyton. “I just loved the idea that you could break a complex problem up into small discrete steps and make something fantastic.”

“Dyslexics lack the ability to see the forest through the trees; they get lost in the trees.”

In addition to dyslexia, Peyton has faced his fair share of hurdles. He’s a cystic fibrosis carrier and has emphysema because of it. At 12, he ran into a glass door, slicing his femoral artery down the side. He received around 400 stitches and survived “by dumb luck.” Doctors told him he’d never walk again, but he was back on his feet in two years.

“There are lots of things that could have prevented me from doing all kinds of things I wanted to do,” says Peyton. “I decided I was not going to take no for an answer.”

Peyton thinks “dyslexics have a tendency to do the best they can under the circumstances and find some creative way to deal with things.” Origami helped reinforce his belief in working within the situation you’ve been dealt. “Everything has to come from the square,” he says. “You don’t add anything to it, and you don’t take anything away. It forces you to think in ways that are incredibly creative. You can get anywhere with it.”

A Kiwi, one of Peyton’s most recent designs.

Despite his aggressively can-do attitude, Peyton still struggled in school, even as he made his way through a Ph.D. in zoology from UC Berkeley. He describes his courses in genetics as a “dyslexic nightmare.” “There’s translocations and all those other kinds of switcheroos in genetic code — loops that peel off and turn around and reattach … It was horrendously hard.”

During one difficult exam, he watched the pink line in his blue book disappear into the gutter–the crack where the staples are–as his tears washed the ink away. “That was life,” he says. “I just muscled through it.”

Around the same time, he also started to realize that there were strengths hidden in his dyslexia. “One of the strengths was that everything was hard, so what’s hard?” says Peyton. He began to gravitate toward things others thought were too difficult, which opened up new windows of opportunity for the young biologist.

In 1977, Peyton flew to study spectacled bears in Peru, where, he says, “nobody had done anything at all since the species was discovered.” At first, he hired local guides to take him into the field looking for the shaggy bears. Eventually, his dyslexic’s resistance to the word “hard” combined with origami-thinking pushed him to turn the question around, and he decided to look where no one expected the bears to be.

“Dammit. I found great bear areas that way,” he says. “I found them in the driest deserts in the world. Who would have thunk it? That this giant animal would live in a place that doesn’t get a millimeter of rain or two a year?” Peyton discovered that the bears come out of the cloud forest to forage for seasonally available fruits in areas where it’s too dry to farm, which, in turn, helps protect the threatened species from further human encroachment.

Peyton says that unlike more linear thinkers, many dyslexics “triangulate through life,” forging creative solutions. “When we eventually settle on something, we’ll really understand it in a holistic way because we’re persistent,” he says. Thanks to origami, he also understands that sometimes features “come from parts of the paper that you least expect them to.”

Peyton shows off his yellow-fin tuna.

In 1995, after decades of cutting trail and humping a backpack through the Andes, his rotator cuffs quit on him. “I think I coughed or sneezed or something and tore the rest of it,” he says. No longer able wield a machete and track bears through the forest, he had to find something else to do.

Peyton decided to return to the fold, so to speak, to use origami as way to raise awareness about wildlife conservation. The paper sculptures again provided an apt visual metaphor for Peyton’s concerns — this time reflecting our planet’s fragility through the medium’s ephemeral appearance.

Since around 2006, Peyton has been invited to speak at international origami conferences every year. And in 2012, after three years of designing and drawing each model, Peyton’s own book, Eco Origami, was published. Like his home, the book includes a zoo of folded animals, including walruses, polar bears, puffins, foxes, owlets, red-eyed frogs, and eyelash pit vipers.

He also regularly teaches origami to patients at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland to honor the memory of his sister, Pamela, who was born with cystic fibrosis. As a kid, Peyton would create a paper menagerie of fish and birds at her bedside to distract her from her illness, giving him an early glimpse of origami’s therapeutic potential.

“Every day on this earth was a gift for her,” Peyton tell me, his eyes welling with tears. “There isn’t a day I go outside and see the blue sky that I don’t say, ‘Pam, you would’ve loved this day.’ Then I tell myself, ‘Go do something with it.’”

A bear, one of Peyton’s favorite folding subjects.

While Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and other drug-resistant staff infections have compromised other forms of art therapy, origami remains easy to work with. “You can’t take art supplies, like paints or musical instruments, from one room to the next without rubbing them down with alcohol,” explains Peyton. “Paper — you just throw it out. Recycle it. It is so damned easy. Materials are cheap. They’re bright. They’re colorful. It just puts smiles on people’s faces. They forget about their pain. Sometimes they forget about throwing up.”

These little pieces of colored paper can lead to profound transformations in some patients. Back in 2013, Peyton walked into the room of a 19-year-old who had been shot twice in the head. He couldn’t get out of bed or go to the bathroom alone. Understandably furious and depressed, the teen wasn’t talking to anyone–not his roommate, doctors, psychiatrist, physical therapists, or religious counselor.

“I came up to him and said, ‘I’m not here to feel sorry for you, but I am gonna show you what you can still do,’” says Peyton. He handed the teen a square of paper and watched him fold it. He went slowly, but in the end he folded it perfectly. Peyton knew then that he could challenge him with a difficult model. Fifty minutes later, the young man had folded a flapping bird model–one of the most difficult pieces Peyton teaches–and was proudly showing it to his roommate and nurse. “Now the world wasn’t so damned grim,” says Peyton. When he showed up at the hospital the following week, staff told him that the formerly speechless patient was talking to everybody.

There are tremendous numbers of people who are hurting in this world that can get a moment of appreciation and peace with just a piece of paper.

All in all, Peyton feels like he’s lived a lucky life, and he makes a point to tell me that he considers his dyslexia a gift and not an impediment. “Sure, there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not frustrated by some little thing,” he says. “But after you’ve lived your life for as long as I have, those things just roll off you. It’s not a big deal.”

For the rest of his time on earth, he wants to stay focused on what he can do for others. He’s folded with people of all ages and backgrounds, from kids battling cancer to elderly survivors of a tsunami in Japan. “There are tremendous numbers of people who are hurting in this world that can get a moment of appreciation and peace with just a piece of paper,” he says. “I meet people that have all kinds of disabilities. But when they’re learning origami, it doesn’t matter who they are, what race, what gender, whatever it is that they have in their life, they’re sharing, and that’s what it’s all about.”

 

Profiles

Deep Focus

Known for his massive, photorealistic portraits, American artist Chuck Close says he owes all of his artistic success to his limitations.

Known for his massive, photorealistic portraits, American artist Chuck Close says he owes all of his artistic success to his limitations.

If Chuck Close had his way, we’d all walk around with name tags and short bios pinned to our chests. While riding on the subway, he once failed to recognize an ex-lover whom he had lived with for a year only two years prior. The 75-year-old artist has overheard people he’s known for ages call him an asshole and a stuck-up snob after he’s passed them by yet again.

Close doesn’t mean to be a jerk. Despite being one of the most widely recognized portrait artists, he simply can’t remember faces. All the parts—nose, mouth, eyes—don’t add up to a memorable whole in his mind. The National Medal of Arts winner has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a condition that likely affects around two percent of the population. “You move your head a half an inch, to me, it’s a whole new face I’ve never seen before,” he told RadioLab host Robert Krulwich.

Growing up in Monroe, Washington, Close realized that he couldn’t recall faces when, at the end of kindergarten, he still couldn’t identify his classmates. Faces weren’t the only things he had trouble remembering. Severely dyslexic, he also wrestled with deciphering words, and he never managed to memorize the multiplication tables. To say teachers weren’t as aware of learning disabilities in the ’40s and ’50s as they are now is something of an understatement. “They just assumed that you were dumb or lazy,” Close said in a Brooklyn Rail interview. (Close never even heard the word dyslexia until the 1970s when he had children of his own.)

Photo by Joe Wolf.

Photo by Joe Wolf.

But from a young age, Close had art. When he was five years old, he asked for an easel for Christmas. And so his father, a sheet metal worker and tinkerer (he invented the reflective paint used on airstrips), built him one. Next he asked his parents for a Genuine Weber’s Oil Color Set that he discovered in a Sears’ catalog. “I can still, to this day, smell the cheap linseed oil in the tubes of paint,” Close recalls in Martin Friedman’s book, Close Reading. “They were fat tubes, not little skinny ones. I knew, even then, that the little skinny tubes were for dilettantes.”

By the time he was eight, the precociously determined artist was painting still lifes, landscapes, and best of all for young Chuck, nude models in a private art class. The experience made him the envy of the neighborhood, and solidified his destiny. As he said to Tilda Swinton in BlackBook, “I was drawing nude models at age eight, so I thought, ‘Why would I want to be anything else?’”

At school, his art skills worked as a social and academic lubricant, helping to smooth over the fact that he couldn’t keep up with the three Rs in the classroom or the other kids on the playground. In addition to his academic struggles, lifelong neuromuscular problems kept him from running or playing catch. To impress his classmates, he’d draw pictures of World War II airplanes and caricatures of their teachers. To show his teachers that he cared, he’d create elaborate art projects, like a twenty-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark Trail that he made for a history class.

Everything in my work is determined by my learning disabilities.

Despite his obvious focus and talent, Close’s eighth grade counselor told him to not even think about college and to set his sights on trade school or body and fender work instead. Close ignored that bunk advice and enrolled at the local junior college. He signed up for courses that allowed him to write papers rather than takes tests, hired a typist, and dictated his essays based on his memory of the class lectures. From there, he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and a master of fine arts from Yale University. Reflecting back on his counselor’s terrible direction, Close offered his own wisdom on “CBS This Morning”: “Never let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you.”

Chuck Close's self-portrait. Photo by John Weiss

Chuck Close’s self-portrait. Photo by John Weiss

A few years after graduating from Yale, Close, a former de Kooning devotee, bucked the current Abstract Expressionist trend and began painting his now iconic portraits, or “heads,” as he calls them. Flatten a face out, like in a photograph or painting, and Close can recall it with nearly photographic precision. Close believes that this talent, along with his face blindness, drove him to paint portraits as a way to commit the faces of people he cared about to memory.

“Everything in my work is determined by my learning disabilities,” Close told Krulwich. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that having face blindness, I paint people’s faces,” Close told another interviewer. “It’s my way of getting closer to people. When I paint someone, it’s always a person’s face I want to remember.”

Close has worked in a range of media outside of oil paint, including jacquard tapestry, daguerreotypes, and more recently an inkjet printer. Over the years, he’s created painstakingly detailed likenesses of many famous faces, among them President Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the composer Philip Glass, Brad Pitt (who thinks he might also be face blind), and fellow artists Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.

Confronting a Chuck Close portrait up close is an experience akin to face blindness. The artwork is so massive, often 9 feet high, that it’s impossible to take it all in at once. Your eyes are forced to move across each feature — from a colossal eye staring back at you, to its lashes, to the crow’s feet below. These large-scale portraits would be hard for anyone to tackle, let alone someone who has difficulty seeing the big picture. To work around this problem, Close breaks each image down into smaller, workable components. First, he photographs his subjects. Then he creates a grid on the photograph and a proportional grid on the much larger canvas, dividing them both into thousands of corresponding pieces. From there, he often spends three to four months (sometimes up to a year) building the portrait square by square. Close has described the process as similar to Lilliputians traveling across a giant’s face: They don’t know that they’re on a giant, but they can see every detail of the landscape as they travel.

Since his Brobdingnagian, hyper-realistic breakthrough piece, Big Self-Portrait (1967–68), Close’s work has evolved to more mosaic-like paintings, where each square is a more defined unit. His palette has also gotten much brighter, in part because of a catastrophic event that occurred 28 years ago.

Photo by Torbak Hopper

Photo by Torbak Hopper

At the age of 48, Close’s spinal artery collapsed, leaving him partially paralyzed from the chest down. He was determined to paint again, even if it meant spitting paint at the canvas. “Physicality is so important to me in my work. Pushing paint around, that’s what I do,” Close told the Guardian. “But whatever it takes to get there, I’ll do it. That’s always been my way of thinking.” When he was back in front of the canvas, Close said he felt like the happiest person on the planet and he’s been celebrating the joy of painting extra hard ever since.

Even after 70 some years of pushing paint around, his recent work is just as, if not more, vibrant than ever. Today, he zooms around his studio in a motorized wheelchair and moves his large canvases into position with a motorized easel. Intensive therapy eventually helped him regain partial use of his limbs, and he paints with a brush strapped into a customized brace on one arm, like Renoir. After a lifetime of dealing with rocks in his shoes, Close describes these now decades-old adaptations as “just some other rocks being inserted in my shoes.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Close wasn’t always conscious of the motivation behind his relentless drive to paint faces. It was only after painting portraits for two decades that he began to wonder why the subject still had such urgency for him and he started to connect it to his disabilities. “What kind of personal urgency do you have any more than dealing with your deficits?” Close said in a studio interview with White Cube. “That’s who am. I am that person with these major deficits. I spent years trying to hide it. But that’s who I am.”