TOPANGA MESSENGER -- November 6, 2003

"James Mathers' Bohemian Rhapsody"

by Pablo Capra
Photos by Katie Dalsemer

Growing up in Topanga Canyon, artist James Mathers was baby-sat by young women he described as “fantastic hippie girls” who would hitch-hike with him down to the beach, and then go to the Rodeo Grounds “to hang out in hot tubs with surfers and actors.”

Thus, Mathers became a part of the Lower Topanga community.

At 17, Mathers moved to New York to embark on his “glorious and disastrous” painting career. In the ’80s, he showed paintings in the Lower East Side, then moved to Europe where his paintings were exhibited by galleries in Switzerland and Italy. He spent a year painting in Indonesia, and four years in Ireland. In Ireland, he ran an anarchist bookstore called Garden of Delight and started writing screenplays. He sold one called “Crushproof,” about a subculture of tough young kids who rode horses through the streets of Dublin.
But during his travels, he always kept a house, trailer or art studio in Lower Topanga—”the last bit of what Topanga felt like when I was growing up,” says Mathers.

According to Mathers, the bohemian lifestyle of Lower Topanga performs a “vital function” in our society.

“If the idlers, poets and headcases didn’t go down to the beach at night to give thanks to the ocean and the sky, who would?” he asks.

Mathers’ unconventional lifestyle is evident in his appearance. His baby-thin hair is never brushed, his face is unshaven, and he wears cheap suits and black combat boots, a vestige from his punk days.

He currently shares an Airstream trailer and an art studio in the Rodeo Grounds with his girlfriend, fellow artist Daisy Duck McCrackin.

An actress, painter and songwriter, McCrackin was named after a cartoon character by her guru Adi Da Samraj when she was born on a commune in Northern California.

Mathers and McCrackin are two of about 40 people who are trying to hold out in Lower Topanga and preserve what is left of their community. Their trailer is surrounded by three boarded up houses and a vacant lot where a fourth house was bulldozed in May.

Mathers says that living in a disappearing community makes him more aware of the temporality of life and gives him a feeling of urgency to document it. In a recent comic strip, he depicts his life in Lower Topanga through the magical rituals he performs in praise of arundo, his frustrations about the demise of his neighborhood, and his relationship with McCrackin.

“Yes, I do burn money and am in contact with the fairies,” says Mathers.

He says he feels connected to the arundo canebrakes in Lower Topanga.

“They are implacable, assertive and the State wants to have them removed.”

He has learned a valuable lesson from arundo, in life and art—”to just endure.”

He is glad that the state Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority’s project to use herbicides on the arundo in Lower Topanga was defeated.

“It’s remarkable that the people who are being kicked out of Lower Topanga are actually the ones who are preserving the land, and not State Parks!

“We’re serving our purpose down here.”

In 1999, Mathers wrote and directed a film, “King of L.A.,” about a poetic homeless man living in downtown L.A. This year, he wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “The Children’s Guide to Astral Projection,” which he is trying to get published. The book teaches children how to have out-of-body experiences and prepares them for encounters with other-dimensional creatures on the astral plane.

“It’s the book I would like to have had when I was a kid,” says Mathers.

Mathers will be emceeing a reading of “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon” on Sunday, November 9, at 4 p.m. at Beyond Baroque. Mathers illustrated the book, and he and McCrackin contributed poems to the collection of writings by residents of Lower Topanga.

FLAVORPILL LA -- November 4, 2003

"Performance Pick of the Week: The Lower Topanga Poets"

When: Sun 11.9 (4pm)
Where: Beyond Baroque (681 Venice Blvd., 310.822.3006)
Price: $7

This poetry reading and performance celebrates the quirky and creative character of Topanga Canyon with a multimedia mélange that's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Works by poets and musicians are displayed alongside various other mediums, most fabulously a performance painting by Norton Wisdom. His appearances are mesmerizing and unique: using his fingers and a squeegee, Wisdom paints on a huge plastic scrim onstage for all to see, creating a reciprocal trance with the musicians. It's messy and funny and kind of sexy, too. Miss at your own peril. (SND)

Note: A collection of Topanga-based artists, including many who perform tonight, collaborated on a book entitled Idlers of the Bamboo Grove.

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- October 23, 2003

"Idlers' Reading at Beyond Baroque, Nov. 9"

by Pablo Capra
Artwork by Norton Wisdom

Ten Lower Topangans will read from their book Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon at Beyond Baroque on Sunday, November 9, at 4 p.m.. Their poetry celebrates the idyllic bohemian lifestyle of their community and laments the prospect of being evicted from their homes by State Parks, who bought Lower Topanga in 2001.

The title of the book comes from a group formed by eighth century Chinese poet Li Po, called the "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove." Lower Topanga poets related to the name because of the bamboo arundo that characterize their neighborhood, and because arundo, a "non-native" plant, is also being uprooted by State Parks.

Their multi-media reading will include live music, a slide show by Topanga photographer David Blattel, and performance painting by former Lower Topanga resident Norton Wisdom.

It will also feature a new addition to the group, former Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band lyricist Herb Bermann, looking back one year after being relocated from his home in Lower Topanga.

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove is on sale in Topanga at Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery, Lobal Orning, and the Elder Tree. For other locations, see

Beyond Baroque is located at 681 Venice Blvd., between Lincoln Blvd. and Main St., in Venice. Admission is free for members, $5 for students/seniors, and $7 for the general public. For reservations or information call (310) 822-3006.


"Trumpeting Poetry at Howell-Green June 6"

by Pablo Capra
Photo courtesy of David Hayward

David Hayward, Lower Topanga resident, trumpeter and poet, will perform with his old friend and mentor John Harris at the Howell Green Fine Art & Framing Gallery on Friday, June 6, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Hayward has had an extraordinary career as a trumpet player touring with many well-known performers including Janis Joplin and Sonny Rollins. He also recently joined fellow Lower Topangans for a poetry reading and musical performance at Howell Green. He will read from a new set of poems titled “The Lowered Bucket,” play trumpet and provide background music for a poetry reading by John Harris.

Harris has had his poems published in numerous magazines and anthologies. He was one of the founders of the Venice Poetry Workshop in 1969. As proprietor through the ’70s and ’80s of the historic literary center and bookstore, Papa Bach Books, he fostered a generation of Los Angeles writers as a mentor and publisher.

The Lower Topanga poetry reading at the Howell Green Gallery earlier this year was a memorable experience for those who attended. The music performed with the poetry was an enhancing surprise to many.

Admission is free. For more information, call (310) 455-3991.

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- April 17, 2003

"Glum Stares Amid Bulldozers' Roar"

By Martha Groves
Photos by Anacleto Rapping

As houses are razed for expansion of Topanga State Park, longtime residents believe a way of life is also being demolished.

Like a ravenous T. rex, the backhoe tore again and again into the ramshackle house at the mouth of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, quickly reducing it to a pile of snapped lumber and twisted metal.

The early morning demolition buoyed state parks officials, who are nine months behind on their plan for putting in a parking lot, picnic tables and trailheads where the twisty boulevard meets Pacific Coast Highway.

Longtime residents, meanwhile, gaze glumly as bulldozers knock down neighbors' houses one by one. After all, they say, the metal jaws are crushing not just plywood homes but also a way of life.

"A little paradise is coming to an end for no good reason," growled Bernt Capra, a transplanted Austrian filmmaker who has rented a home in lower Topanga Canyon for 22 years -- a relatively short time by the community's standards.

Once home to dozens of writers, painters, actors, filmmakers, poets and retirees, the area was perhaps the last affordable seaside haven in Los Angeles. Here, an artist could rent a home and sun-splashed studio for a paltry $400 a month, or splurge on a $1,000 six-bedroom compound replete with fruit trees and hammocks.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation saw the area as a biological treasure that was being degraded by human habitation.

In August 2001, the department bought the 1,659 acres for $43 million from LAACO Ltd., which owns the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The department's goal was to extend the 11,000-acre Topanga State Park and hack out the first uninterrupted trail from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific.

The agency sent eviction notices last April to the more than 70 tenants in the area, hoping that residents would negotiate relocation packages and vacate by July 1, 2002. But the process quickly bogged down as tenants resisted leaving their counterculture commune.

Over the next several months, about 50 month-to-month renters, many of whom had lived in the area for decades, accepted cash payments and moved. The settlements have averaged $80,000 each, with the top payout so far $255,000 to a tenant who was able to document that he had made about $100,000 in improvements to his extensive compound. The money enabled many residents to buy or lease new quarters in Malibu, Pacific Palisades and other nearby communities.

But 20 tenants, including Capra, balked. They filed grievances against the parks department in an effort to gain more time or a more generous settlement. So far, $4.1 million in taxpayer-backed bond money has gone to lower Topanga tenants and business owners. An additional $2.6 million remains to cover the cost of relocating the die-hard tenants and some businesses. That process is expected to take several months.

The owner of the old Topanga Ranch Market on Pacific Coast Highway sold out months ago, and parks officials expect to raze it and turn the site into a parking lot for visitors.

The state also plans to begin negotiations soon with longtime businesses at Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. Officials say they would like Reel Inn Fresh Fish Restaurant to stay on as an amenity for park visitors. Not so for the quirky Malibu Feed Bin, which sells gifts and animal feed from a bright red barn, and Oasis, an outdoor furniture and pottery business.

"This is one of the top-grossing businesses in all of Malibu," Oasis owner David Haid said. "Between us and the Feed Bin, we give the state over half a million dollars in tax revenues every year. And now we have somebody sending me a letter to close down my business."

The uncertainty has put Marty Morehart, owner of the Feed Bin for 35 years, in a bind. "We don't know whether to buy or not to buy for the fall and winter seasons," he said. The almond firewood he stocks needs at least five months to dry; holiday trim-a-tree gifts need to be ordered now.

"We don't know what's going to happen," he added.

State parks officials fear that delays caused by reluctant tenants and business owners could jeopardize the project, given the state's financial distress. "We don't want to get behind and have our state parks money reallocated somewhere else," said Roy Stearns, a department deputy director. "We feel an obligation to stay on track to convert this into a park for the public."

Meanwhile, demolition contractors are attempting to work around lingering tenants, raising hackles in the process.

Chris Murray, an actor, said he had to whisk his wife and two small children away from their home one recent Sunday when men in hazardous materials uniforms showed up to remove old tile from the house next door, and dust began flying.

"They posted 'Danger: Asbestos' signs, but I had no idea they'd start work on a Sunday when we'd be home," he said.

One relocation official reported that he was threatened by a renter -- albeit with a garden hoe -- and tenants have complained that parks officials have harassed them. Officials counter that they have issued citations to some tenants who put furniture on their lawns or moved belongings into abandoned structures slated to be torn down.

In addition to knocking down structures, officials also intend soon to begin eradicating nonnative plants such as oleanders, nasturtiums, eucalyptus trees and morning glories. Suzanne Goode, a senior resource ecologist, plans in late summer to begin removing arundo, a towering, bamboo-like plant that she considers the worst offender.

The plant grows so thickly and propagates so easily, she said, that it has diverted the creek and crowded out trees that would serve as habitat for birds and other creatures.

The prospect of losing the arundo pains Pablo Capra, Bernt's 6-foot-7 writer-poet son, who considers the plant his natural habitat. He has lived most of his 23 years with his father in the secluded Rodeo Grounds section of lower Topanga and traipses daily through the ubiquitous stands of arundo to go surfing or to visit his neighbor, James Mathers, an artist who lives in an Airstream trailer.

The arundo even provided Capra the title for a book he compiled recently of poetry by the lower Topanga community: Idlers of the Bamboo Grove. Mathers, who one recent morning sported a pin-striped suit smeared with paint blotches, did the drawings and contributed a poem called "A Village on Cracking Stilts" that included the passage:

Like a beautiful woman dying of cancer
Our village counts the days,
Each a gift of infinite pleasure.

Is anything sweeter than another empty day?

"The lower Topanga community was a model for how people should live in harmony with nature," Capra said. "We're just trying to hold on as long as we can."

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- April 10, 2003

"Blattel Exhibit 'Lower Topanga: Before the Bulldozers' Opens at Howell-Green"

By Pablo Capra
Photo by Katie Dalsemer

“Lower Topanga: Before the Bulldozers,” is a very timely title for David Blattel’s photo exhibit at the Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery because State Parks began demolishing the first houses in Lower Topanga earlier this month.

Blattel, who has been shooting in Lower Topanga for the last year, vividly captures a way of life that is disappearing fast. In fact, the photo exhibit already evokes a profound sense of loss and nostalgia since several of the people in his photographs have been relocated and their houses are now boarded up.

“It’s really a shame that the Lower Topanga community is being destroyed; and not just because it’s tightknit, but because it’s also unique and can never be duplicated,” Blattel said.

The exhibit’s opening reception on March 29 was crowded with longtime Topanga residents and newcomers interested in finding out more about this unique community.

“We had a great turnout!” Blattel said, “I didn’t know what kind of a response to expect, but the people received it well.”

Longtime Topangan Marsha Maus said she thought the exhibit was “amazing, especially the pictures of the people because they’re so expressive!”

She called Blattel’s approach to the subject matter “not glamorous, but sensitive.”

Maus also enjoyed meeting residents of Lower Topanga.

“I was impressed by their fierce sense of community, the way they care for each other. It reminded me of the hippie heyday in Topanga, or of communities I’ve seen in Hawaii.”

Ami Kirby, another longtime Topangan, said she felt a sense of community among everyone at the gallery as they all shared in the “uniqueness and wonder” of Lower Topanga.

“I wasn’t aware of who was from upper Topanga and who was from Lower Topanga. There was a just a feeling of fellowship with the entire Canyon. A feeling of family,” she said.

A young woman at the opening said she had moved to Topanga less than a year ago and wanted to learn more about its history and culture.

Nine Lower Topanga poets were present at the opening to read from their book, “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon.”

The reading brought to life the images in Blattel’s photographs: a young poet writing in a greenhouse, an old writer getting out of bed, a jazz trumpeter playing at home, a guitar builder and his dog, an intimate portrait of a beautiful old lady.

Together, photographs and poetry attempted to transport the audience to Lower Topanga.

James Mathers, a lifelong Topanga resident, prefaced his poem with a humorous account of how Topanga had changed since his childhood.

“Sometimes in life it’s necessary be in a place where you can just lie in bed for a year and pluck your guitar to get over a depression or to go through a change. Topanga used to be one of those places, and I feel fortunate to live in the last piece of that. There are millions of people in this city who are very good at doing what they do, but there have to be at least a few people who know how to do nothing,” he said.

As part of a resistance effort to stay in Lower Topanga for as long as possible, Mathers said, “I wouldn’t trade my trailer in Lower Topanga for a house with a pool in Bel Air!”

Bond Johnson played a classical piece on piano called “Tender Sorrows,” by Rameau, to express his feelings. Dave Hayward, on trumpet, and Frank Lamonea, on guitar, performed Lamonea’s ominously titled song “Sunset,” just as the sun was setting behind the Topanga hills.

After the reading, gallery co-owner David Green praised the photographs and poetry for “taking our minds off of the war in Iraq for a short while, which everyone is distressed about on some level.”

Blattel’s photo exhibit has been extended and will now be on display until April 19, when Blattel will have a second reception at the gallery from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. He will talk about the photographs, his cameras and techniques as well as his experiences shooting in Lower Topanga.

The Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery is located on 120 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Pine Tree Circle. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call (310) 455-3991.

Photographer David Blattel, seated, with, from left, pianist Bond Johnson, Pablo Capra, Julie Howell, David Green and David Hayward at the Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery for the opening of his show “Lower Topanga: Before the Bulldozers.”

THE MALIBU TIMES -- April 3, 2003

Excerpt from "Theater for a Difference"

By Cathy Neiman

…Through their theater arts connections and at the productions at The Rose Alley Theatre, Willoughby and McMurray came in to contact with a vast variety of people who ended up becoming involved, especially from Malibu.

Even Malibu celebrities, like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, have been spotted in the audience at some of the productions. One Malibu resident, Brandon Wilson, an old friend of Willoughby, became the stage manager and public relations/advertising person for the theater. Topanga resident Catherine Hollis recently choreographed "The Cave Dwellers." Pablo Capra, another Topanga resident, helped put on the poetry reading "Lost Lives: The Poetry of Lower Topanga" that showed last December and was a sell-out….

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- March 13, 2003

"Idlers Poetry Reading and Photo Exhibit at Howell-Green Mar. 29"

by Pablo Capra
Photos by David Blattel
Artwork by James Mathers

Lower Topanga residents will be reading poetry from their book Idlers of the Bamboo Grove at the Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery in Pine Tree Circle on Saturday, March 29, at 4 p.m.. The book, edited by Pablo Capra, is a collection of poems expressing feelings of love and loss in Lower Topanga as the long-standing neighborhood is uprooted by State Parks to make way for a public park.

The reading will also mark the opening of an exhibit a the gallery of photographs of Lower Topanga by David Blattel. The opening and reading event is free, and there will be live music. The exhibit runs from March 25 through April 5.

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove is available for sale at Howell-Green and The Elder Tree in Pine Tree Circle.

Howell-Green is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.. For more information call (310) 455-3991.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- February 27, 2003

"The Lower Topanga Life"
Article and Photos by Cathy Neiman
This photo essay depicts the lifestyle of Lower Topangans. The homes range from upscale ranch style to trailers.
The California State Parks Department bought 1,659 acres of land in Lower Topanga more than a year ago and plans to turn the land into a State Park. Residents and business owners, who have occupied the area, some for more than 30 years, are being displaced. Some took relocation monies and either bought homes or found new homes to rent. However, a few are taking a last stand, having hired an attorney to prolong their stay, and others are still waiting for relocation funds.

PALISADIAN-POST -- January 30, 2003

"Topanga Poets' Visions of Art, Love, Abandonment"

By Libby Motika
Photos by Rich Schmitt

The poems in Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, edited by Pablo Capra and illustrated by James Mathers includes the work of nine Lower Topanga poets, some of whom describe life in the close-knit community, while others lament the loss of the last outpost of the Topanga bohemian hippie lifestyle.

The title of the book is taken from 8th century Chinese poet Li Po's "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove," which celebrated nature, wine, friendship, solitude, and the passage of time in Tang Dynasty times.

Idlers of the Bamboo Grove can be found at Village Books, Dutton's, Vidiots in Santa Monica, and Howell Green Fine Art Gallery in Topanga Canyon.

Topanga poets will read from the book at Village Books on Swarthmore next Thursday, February 6, at 7:30 p.m..

From the "Introduction" to Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, by Pablo Capra

Lower Topanga is home to a rural community of artists and surfers that begins at Topanga State Beach and includes the first mile of Topanga Canyon. It lies on the border of the city of Malibu. Approximately 120 residents rent low-cost houses near, or in, the flood plain of the Topanga Creek. They maintain these houses without assistance: sometimes digging them out of the mud after floods, or setting backfires to prevent a spreading wildfire from burning down their neighborhood. The roads are unpaved and must be repaired annually.

Fires, floods, and good times too have helped make the Lower Topanga community close-knit. Poets, painters, and filmmakers share and collaborate with each other. Neighbors are best friends.

The Chumash considered Lower Topanga a sacred, economic, and cultural meeting place for tribes all along the coast. One of the main areas, the "Rodeo Grounds," takes its name from an actual rodeo arena that existed there on a Mexican Ranch in the 1800s. In the early 1900s, Lower Topanga was a Japanese fishing village, and artifacts from that time can still be seen.

For the last 50 years Lower Topanga was owned by the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and has remained virtually unchanged because the flooding creek makes the land undevelopable. There are actually fewer houses in Lower Topanga today than there were 50 years ago. Most of the houses were built as weekend beach shacks. Famous actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Charlie Chaplin, Carole Lombard, and Ida Lupino spent time there.

Today Lower Topanga is unique as one of the last outposts of the classic Topanga Canyon bohemian hippie lifestyle where the village raises the child while promoting anti-materialist attitudes, freedom of expression, and living in harmony with nature. Also, the Lower Topanga 24-hour architectural style (built quickly because illegally) of creative add-ons to the beach shacks has high aesthetic value.

In 2001, Lower Topanga was sold to State Parks. Even though the Lower Topanga community occupies less than 2% of the total purchased land, State Parks has an aggressive policy to relocate everyone, and bulldoze all of the houses. Arundo, a type of bamboo that characterizes the Lower Topanga landscape, has become a totemic plant for the residents because it is first on a long list of "non-native" plants that State Parks has also condemned to be uprooted (and even poisoned!) in an attempt to restore the land to its "natural" state.

Many Upper Topanga residents (including the local Native American population) realize that the destruction of the Lower Topanga community will be a terrible cultural loss. Most Lower Topanga residents have lived there for over 20 years - some for 40 and 50 years! But the relocation process has already begun.

Lower Topanga residents are currently fighting forced relocation in court, but their community is vanishing quickly.

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