Visual Arts

Sandow Birk: To Hell and Back

Sandow Birk, 44, is an avid surfer with a laid-back California attitude. But he's far from a slacker. Birk is in the studio six days a week creating fanciful drawings and paintings that translate his experiences living in low-income areas of Los Angeles, Mexico, and South America into socio-cultural commentaries. He spent more than four years reading versions of Dante's Inferno, including one in Portuguese, and consulting with Dante experts Brother Michael Meister and Peter Hawkins of Boston University.

A revealing career path:
I remember being a teenager and getting a [college] tour. We went into the art classroom and they were drawing naked ladies. I said, "Oh, man, this is the school I want to go to." I can go to architecture school and take math for six years, or I can come here and draw naked ladies.

Neighborhood watching:
When I came to L.A., because I didn't have any money, I was living in bad neighborhoods. I would paint things from my daily life: the guys selling drugs on the street corner or having a barbecue in the driveway.

An epic of biblical proportions:
The whole Divine Comedy is probably one of the most important works in the western world. It's right up there with the Bible and The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Pulling strings:
I got together with my friends and said, "Let's make a Dante movie." We tried to use the cheapness of it as its charm. We set out at the very beginning to make this movie with zero computer effects, so if we couldn't do it with paper and string and glue, then it's not in the movie.

The Big Apple in the sky:
When I did Inferno, it was scheduled to be shown in Los Angeles, and so much of the images are about freeways and parking lots. Paradise was shown in New York, and so it's subways and Times Square. People [complain] that Los Angeles is Hell and New York is Paradise. But that isn't the point. Maybe there is no Heaven, no Hell. There's just the world we live in.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden