Herb Alpert (center) and Lani Hall (left) with 2013 winners of the Alpert Awards.
"When I was 8 years old, I went into a music appreciation classroom and picked up a trumpet. I never put it down... and my life was never the same." Herb Alpert told me this on Friday at the offices of his foundation, where they had just joined with CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) to give six 'Alpert Awards' to exceptional mid-career artists. It was the 19th year that they had been giving out these awards, but what makes them so extraordinary is that they are for $75,000. each, which is obviously a bonanza for the recipients. Herb explained to me that these awards recognize past performance and future promise for artists working in Dance, Film/Video, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts. The president of the Herb Alpert Foundation, Rona Sebastian, told me they had given out grants for cultural and educational purposes of over $100 million in the past twenty years! Herb, the legendary musician (A&M's Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull) with his wife Lani Hall gave out the first of these Alpert awards in 1995, when NEA cut back on individual artist's grants. He said the winners "take aesthetic, intellectual and political risk, and challenge worn-out conventions. They are not afraid of the unknown." Just like Herb. He pulled a yellow sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to me; it contained quotes from the various winners that day:
Luucien Gastaing-Taylor, who won Film/Video: "If I could say in words what I thought the work was, I wouldn't bother making it." Julia Rhoades, winner of Dance: "Audiences intuitively perceive the diffference between authentic presence and rehearsed reaction."
Alex Mincek, Music winner: "My music is about generating unpredictability and surprise." Sharon Hayes, the winner of Visual Arts: "I make work to put something out into the world that someone can use." And Pavol Liska, co-winner with Kelly Copper for the Theatre award: "If you are too rational and too practical, and too caught up in the ordinary world, you'll never see the surprise of what we are after."
Lani and Herb at the awards ceremony on Friday.
Irene Borger, the woman who directs the Alpert Awards all year long, describe how the 2013 artists were chosen: "We have three-person panels of people who are experts in their field, and they examine all the work of the nominees and select the winner." She told me of the many Alpert winners who have gone on to extraordinary careers after winning: "There is Zhou Long, 2011 Pulitzer winner in Music, Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer winner for Drama 2002, four MacArthur Fellows and 22 Guggenheim Fellows." She explained that each winner is obligated to attend session at CalArts and contribute to the arts school. The school's president, Steven Lavine, told me that many of them end up teaching at the school. "Our students benefit when these exemplary artists come to campus for the residence which is a component of the awards." Herb joined us and said, "CalArts is a really creative place where people push the edge and come up with things that are different from what we've seen and heard in the past. It's exciting to think how winners of these awards will push CalArts students even further." At that moment Herb's wife, the astonishing singer Lani Hall, joined our group, and I complimented her on also being a multi-talented artist, having written a brilliant, and haunting book, EMOTIONAL MEMOIRS, about growing up in Chicago in the Sixties. (Order a copy on Amazon, for it is a wonderful read.)
Herb's Totems at 26th Street and Olympic Blvd in Santa Monica.
"Beautify the streets. Beautify the city. And in so doing you beautify your heart." Herb Alpert has a mantra... and he lives by it. As was illustrated to me this week as I drove west on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica and there, in the center divider at 26th street, were three huge, beautiful, magical TOTEM POLES. No, they were not left-over from the Indian tribes which once inhabited this stretch... though in their majesty and message, you might imagine that they were tokens of that native heritage. They are the products of the fertile imagination of a graying, grizzled, fabulous genius (and I don't use that word lightly) who has created music which dazzled the entire world... still doing so... and now creating artworks which are equally dazzling to the world-at-large. I was on my way to the Robert Berman Gallery in the Bergamot Station Arts Center where, until June 8th, Herb is exhibiting his paintings and sculptures. Herb has spent half of his life as a respected abstract expressionist painter and sculptor, whose work has been exhibited all over the world... from New York to Berlin, and now again in LA. He told me he has been painting since 1969, and has experimented with a number of different styles and materials. Perhaps none is more unusual than his current medium of choice: organic coffee! Yes, you heard me correctly... he is painting with coffee. And the results are fascinating. I am also fascinated with his towering Black Totems series, with their freedom of form and massive size... the ones I saw on 26th street are 18 feet high. He told me that these totems were inspired by the indigenous Indian sculptural forms he saw in the Pacific Northwest. What begin as hand-sized forms are then scaled up and cast in bronze coated with a soft black patina. "It's jazz in physical form," he laughingly told me. "When I paint or sculpt," he said, "I don't have anything in mind. I don't have a goal in mind other than form. I'm looking for that form that touches me and when I find it, I stop." As I said, Herb Alpert is the consummate musician, artist and philanthropist. How unique!
A coffee painting by Herb at the Berman gallery.
Another of Herb's totems at the gallery.
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