Orly Olivier’s Pandora’s Box

SkirBlog_Petit Takett recipe box

Photo by Orly Olivier.

Years after her father’s passing, Orly Olivier, the artist behind Petit Takett, opened a small wooden box. This neat little box contained handwritten notes with small drawings by her father Sylvain Olivier, who had scribbled down some of his favorite recipes in a mix of English, French, and Arabic. Unlike published recipes, which carefully list all the ingredients and instructions for a dish’s preparation, these notes were cryptic, with only enough information to remind Sylvain of his favorite dishes. Finding these recipes brought back memories to Orly Olivier of large Shabbat dinners with her Sephardic father, Ashkenazi mother, and sister in Los Angeles. It reminded her of intricate smells, flavors, and colors, and joyful feelings of sharing delicious food and good company.

Olivier needed to open this box, not only for memory’s sake but also for the sake of her artistic practice: it was the spark that launched her project Petit Takett (“little Takett,” named in honor of her grandmother’s restaurant, Takett’s, in Tunisia).

The artist explains, Continue reading

Floored at the Skirball: The Severan Synagogue Mosaic Replica



As her Communications and Marketing internship comes to a close, Jenna Lomeli reflects on a defining moment during her time at the Skirball.

I don’t recall exactly what I was expecting when I went on a staff tour of the Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America exhibition earlier this summer. I’m sure I went into it hoping to learn some things about Jewish history (and given my rather sparse knowledge about the subject, there was a lot to learn). I may have even expected to connect with the latter sixteenth of the 4,000 years that the Skirball’s core exhibition covers. I definitely did not foresee being emotionally invested in a replica of an approximately 1,600-year-old mosaic on the floor of the Severan Synagogue in Hamat Tiberias, Israel. But then, who does?

The door leading to the mosaic replica at the Skirball looks like the sort of door visitors aren’t supposed to go through. I didn’t realize it led to another section of the exhibition until Museum Director Dr. Robert Kirschner opened it and led our tour group outside. After exiting the gallery, I found myself looking at a very large tile mosaic set into the ground, with mock ruins above it. A handful of times in my life I have had the happy experience of seeing a painting or sculpture and being completely swept up by it. This was not one of those times. My initial reaction was about as blasé as anyone would expect, considering I was looking at the floor. But then Dr. Kirschner, who has been with the Skirball Cultural Center since its beginning and who led the development of Visions and Values, began to explain the mosaic and its greater significance to the exhibition. Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah Recipes from Petit Takett Creator Orly Olivier

Rosh Hashanah at my relatives’ house in Israel, 2005

Rosh Hashanah at my relatives’ house in Israel, 2005

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Orly Olivier of Petit Takett: Love, Legacy, and Recipes from the Maghreb  muses upon the holiday she learned to love in Israel.

Growing up at home with my parents in Los Angeles, the High Holidays meant going to synagogue in the evening, and again the next morning, followed by a big dinner. I mostly remember the services never quite grabbing my attention the way the Tic Tacs and gum my mother provided to keep me quiet did. But I do remember those services being very important to her. It wasn’t until, at the age of sixteen, I moved to Israel that I began to fully understand the High Holidays and what kind of wonderful experience they could be.

I gained an understanding of Jewish culture by living in the land upon which it was created. My experience wasn’t particularly religious; I attended services once during the three years I lived there. But I discovered a profound personal connection to the rich traditions of the Jewish people that changed me forever.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are my favorite examples of this connection. During Rosh Hashanah, Israel’s cities are decorated with signs and banners wishing people a “sweet and happy New Year!” Decorative photos and pictures of apples, honey, and pomegranates are everywhere. People send cards and gifts, and it’s actually a much bigger deal than Hanukkah. Dinners are bountiful, with fruits and flowers everywhere. It’s a truly joyous occasion.

I have three Israeli aunties, each of whom has had three or more children. Those children now have children of their own, which means the High Holiday family dinners are often twenty or more at the table! The cooking is divided amongst my aunties, and each year they take turns hosting from house to house. The men also have their roles as sous chefs, dishwashers, and expert grocery shoppers. There’s a lot of coordination involved, Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Sep/Oct 2015

We must be certain that, as the rights of the individual are the most sacred elements of our society, we will not allow passion, vengeance, or hatred to cloud the principles of universal justice and mercy. 

These words were written in 1944 by the renowned photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams in Born Free and Equal, his volume of photographs of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans in Manzanar, California. This lamentable episode, for which the United States Congress officially apologized in 1988, has much to teach us about the essential value of civil rights, then and now.

On October 8, the Skirball opens an exhibition of Adams’s striking images, which call us to recommit ourselves to this nation’s highest democratic ideals.

Uri Herscher_SkirBlog_Ansel_Adams5_crop

Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting Ansel Adams (captured in the photo above). Jack Skirball, namesake of the Skirball Cultural Center, had introduced us. I found Ansel to be a thoughtful and humble person. Accustomed to capturing mountains and rivers with his lens, he said that portraying the human condition at Manzanar was a challenge for him, Continue reading

Looking Back at D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968)

The Skirball’s Friday Night Rock Docs series continues this summer with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) on July 31 and Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982) on August 21. In order to get ready for these screenings of landmark rock docs, I decided to delve a little into the history of the genre—with particular focus on D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968), which kicked off the Skirball series on Friday, June 19.

A barrage of liquid light show images choreographed to the shrill screams and pulsating rhythms of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two” opens Monterey Pop. In this somewhat disorienting opening sequence, Pennebaker immediately sets the documentary—depicting events at the Monterey Pop Festival, which occurred Friday, June 16–Sunday, June 18, 1967—apart from its generic predecessors. This film is not just about the counterculture; Pennebaker employs a style that represents the counterculture’s subversive values both visually and aurally.

Watch Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, perform “Combination of the Two” live at the Monterey Pop Festival. A recording of the song plays over the opening credit sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop.

Prior to the release of Monterey Pop and his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was perhaps best known for his affiliation with the Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and David and Albert Maysles. Together, these filmmakers furthered a documentary style known as Direct Cinema, largely the product of the new lightweight camera and sound equipment developed in the 1950s. Unlike many conventional documentarians before them, champions of this new style did not use staged reenactments, voiceover narration, or extensive onscreen text to explain their subjects. Instead, they strove for objectivity and immediacy in their films, capturing events as they happened and allowing people to tell their own stories.

In many ways, Monterey Pop assumes the stylistic goals of Direct Cinema. Continue reading

What’s Your Story: Fifth Graders Share Their Family Histories

When you enter this classroom you are:
unique, explorers, authors, musicians, readers, successful, inventors, respected.

These words welcome visitors to teacher Debbie Elkayam’s fifth grade classroom at Haskell Elementary School, an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley. And they are a perfect representation of the teacher and her students.

Several years ago, I met Ms. Elkayam during her class field trip to the Skirball for the extremely popular Grade 5 School Tour of Americans and Their Family Stories. I was one of the educators leading the interactive tour in which students explore the commonalities and differences among immigrant stories from around the world. At one point in the tour, Ms. Elkayam mentioned that she uses this tour—along with the Skirball’s teacher guide and creative activities she designed herself—to make the topic of immigration and heritage more personal for her students. Curious about how she did so, my next question was: When can I visit your classroom?

Soon, I was happily on my way to Haskell Elementary for the first of two planned visits. On my first trip in February, I learned how Ms. Elkayam prepares students for the program at the Skirball by connecting the theme of immigration to their lives.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom. Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom.
Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

Looking around the classroom, I saw projects displaying illustrated family stories, art making, and explorations of the diverse heritage of her students. Clearly, the Americans and Their Family Stories tour worked extremely well within Ms. Elkayam’s curriculum. Continue reading

What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971. Photo by John Olson. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading