Michael Cella

STAND UP COMEDIAN | WRITER

Another draft dud?

*This article was published in the 6/28/18 edition of Sacramento News & Review*

The Kings came into May’s draft lottery with the 6th-best odds at a top-3 pick in this year’s draft. Fortune favored Sacramento for the second year straight year, and they jumped all the way up to the number two spot . Only this year, the pick was theirs to keep - and with it, a chance at the franchise-altering superstar they so desperately need.

The overwhelming favorite among fans and draft experts alike was Luka Doncic. A 19-year-old star from Slovenia, Doncic became the youngest ever Euroleague MVP while leading Real Madrid to the EuroBasket title just two days before the draft.

The Phoenix Suns, holding the first overall pick, chose Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, leaving the door wide open for Sacramento to nab Doncic. But for the most part, the intrigue was already over, as reports had surfaced hours before the draft that the Kings would take Duke big man Marvin Bagley III.

The Dallas Mavericks, at whose expense the Kings had moved up in the lottery, wasted no time trading for the 3rd pick (via Atlanta) to take Doncic. Many pundits pronounced they’d gotten the draft’s best player.

The Kings disagreed. “Marvin for us is better fit, better player, and great talent,” Kings’ GM Vlade Divac said when asked about passing on Doncic. “So, it was an easy choice for us.”

Doncic and Bagley may be forever linked in fans’ minds, but it will be years before either player - and the team’s decision - can be fairly evaluated. What is open for criticism, though, is the Kings’ all-too-familiar bungling of draft strategy and team building.

First: Marvin Bagley is an excellent prospect. An off-the-charts athlete, tenacious rebounder, and efficient low-post scorer, he put together a terrific freshman year at Duke. His defense is a work in progress, and his size precludes him from being an immediate rim protector, but at only 19, Bagley has time to grow mentally and physically into his 6’11”, 235-lb frame. It may have also helped Divac’ decision that Bagley was one of only two prospects to hold a workout with the Kings, while most others refused in hopes of avoiding Sacramento.

But Divac’ claim that Bagley is “a better fit” is debatable. Bagley joins a crowded Kings’ frontcourt alongside recent draftees Skal Labisserie, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Harry Giles, plus veterans  Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos. Some of those players will surely be moved, but Doncic would have filled a position of greater immediate need on the Kings roster. Moreover, Doncic’ skilled shooting, passing, and pick-and-roll play would have provided scarce breathing room for the Kings’ 30th-ranked offense. Though Bagley shot well from 3 in limited attempts at Duke, Doncic’ position and skill-set is particularly suited for an increasingly wing-dominated, pick-and-roll-heavy league.

Despite all that - when you are a franchise without a superstar picking so high in the draft, you don’t draft for fit. If the Kings saw Bagley as the best player available, they were right to take him. But it appears they were once again behind the 8-ball from a strategy standpoint by letting their intention to take Bagley leak. With suitors eager to trade up for Doncic, and many projecting Bagley would be available a few spots later, the chance to trade down, pick up future draft assets, and still get Bagley would have been the best outcome. While it’s impossible to know if that opportunity was ever a reality, Atlanta (this year) and Boston (last year) have shown that creative front offices can make it happen.

For now, the Kings bring in another solid building block in Bagley. They also picked up two future second-round picks in exchange for their own, and signed undrafted rookies Cameron Reynolds and Marcus Foster. They will theoretically be players in free agency, if there are any superstars more willing to join them than the draft prospects who dodged them. So after yet another lottery pick in Sacramento, consider the can officially kicked down the road.

 

 





 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER • LOCAL MAKER TRENT DEAN LOOKS TO BLUR THE LINES BETWEEN ART AND FURNITURE

**This article first appeared on pages 14 – 15 of Submerge Magazine (June 4 – 18, 2018)**

Trent Dean admits that he “floated around” his entire life.

“Didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a direction,” he explains. “I hated the holidays when people would ask, ‘What are you doing with your life?’”

One constant in Dean’s life, though, was making things—whether helping his parents build a deck while growing up in Lodi, or just putting Legos together.

“Legos were the jam,” Dean says. “Every Christmas, every birthday: Legos.”

Now in his ninth year in Sacramento, Dean studied environmental studies briefly at Chico State before dropping out. Five years ago, he realized he needed something different. Specifically, he needed a coat rack. He’d moved back in with his dad, and the place was short on storage space. So he looked up a pattern online, bought some steel pipe and wood and started a DIY project. When it was finished, he thought, “I made something. It’s functional.” People who saw it liked it, and began asking him to make them their own coat racks.

“I thought, this is kinda cool,” he says.

Dean began trying to create more unique coat racks without using the internet as his guide. He soon realized just using wood and steel pipes was too limiting. He needed to learn skills like woodworking and metalworking.

“That’s how I found Hacker Lab,” he explains.

He began taking classes at the 17th and I coworking/making space.

“I gotta be a part of this place,” Dean told himself. “It’s got everything I need. It’s got all the people who know all the things I need to know.”

Not long after joining Hacker Lab, Dean moved in to the Warehouse Artist Lofts, a mixed-income artist community in the R Street District.

“It was my first time living in any kind of community,” Dean says.

Empowered by the neighborhood spirit and connections at WAL and Hacker Lab, he was able to gain the confidence, drive and support he needed to become a designer and start his own company.

Dean began to take on projects, doing work for local bars, hotels and restaurants like Cannon in East Sacramento, where he worked with Clay Nutting, Emily Wilder and Alex McDonald to create the restaurant’s interior. He built them two 10-foot tables as well as several booths and stools.

“That’s the direction I wanna go in,” Dean says. “‘Hey, we’re opening a restaurant and we need chairs, can you make 20 of them?’ That’s what I want my business to be.”

It’s not easy work. Splinters happen at least twice a day, like bee stings to the beekeeper. Meanwhile, Dean’s signature item has migrated from coat racks to stools.

“They’re the only thing I can fit in my apartment,” Dean jokes. “There’s something cool about the versatility of a stool. Could be a plant stand, a table, an ottoman. To me, they’re the most versatile piece of furniture out there, and that’s why I make them.”

Dean may not have finished his environmental studies degree, but he continues to use his educational background in his current line of work. He sources his lumber from local lumber mills, and works with the Sacramento Tree Foundation and their new Urban Wood Rescue program, a grant-funded endeavor that takes urban trees that had to be cut down due to “disease, safety and pests” and “saves these trees from becoming trash by milling the wood into usable lumber,” according to the Sacramento Tree Foundation’s official website (Sactree.com).

A few years into this work, Dean soon found his career beginning to merge with the art world. He’d gotten involved with Portal, his first public art project. That effort, along with making a home at WAL (in close proximity to 1810 Gallery and M5 Arts), had plugged him into a community of artists. He created a piece for Art Hotel and another for ArtStreet.

“Those projects were like summer camp for artists,” says Dean. “You’re there for a month building it all out. You’re hanging out and seeing everyone every day, and then everyone goes their separate ways. And then a year later you see everyone again and go, ‘Hey, we’re all friends again!’”

One of those friends, Dan Tran, had a great idea. Tran also worked at Hacker Lab, where Dean had started teaching welding classes and wood and metal shops. The pair found out about Sacramento’s Creative Economy grant program, and went in together to turn Dan’s concept into a project they’re calling Kaleidoscope, a natural butterfly habitat. The project’s first step is to plant vines, which will then grow using various sculptures that Tran and Dean have made as a trellis. Over the course of the next few years, the vines will grow large enough to support a California pipevine swallowtail butterfly colony. They’ll also install nectar plants and wildflowers and are working with the Sacramento Tree Foundation to plant native trees in order to provide extra shade for the vines. With the grant approved and plans in place, Tran and Dean now only await checks from the city, and will install the habitat at Southside Park by the end of the summer.

“I’m really excited,” says Dean. “It’s my first permanent piece of public art in the city.”

Building mode and art mode can be difficult to maintain at the same time, Dean allows. He’s spent the past 18 months working with West Elm Furniture through their LOCAL program, which supports artisans neighboring their stores.

“It’s one situation where being in Sacramento really helped me,” he points out.

No one else in Sacramento had applied, according to Dean, which likely got him a closer look. After getting accepted, Dean created one small piece, which ended up selling 75 units all across California.

“When I first started, I just thought it would be in Roseville,” Dean concedes.

It’s important to Dean not to put all his eggs in the Sacramento basket, and this is a bridge toward breaking out of the local market.

“There’s a number of reasons why Sacramento is awesome,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the city that purchases all my work, it can just be the city where I get to create all my work. I want to live here and work here, but also sell outside of here.”

To that end, Dean recently embarked on a cross-country trip to take in New York Design Week. There, he was able to explore new ideas and get a sense of what he needed to bring to the table—besides just a table. But the trip also served to inform the next step in his career: the transition from maker to designer.

“I’m interested in blurring the lines between art and furniture,” says Dean. “To create work that’s so unique that people stop asking me ‘Can you make this table?’ And start saying, ‘We want you to design our stuff because we like your style.’ To achieve that, I need to have an image that is unique and recognizable. Create the brand.”

Dean’s goal for next year is to take his new collection to a show outside of Sacramento. It can be difficult to break in to larger markets, especially as an outsider.

“A lot of people I meet that got their start here, when they go to bigger cities, they always say, ‘Oh, I’m from San Francisco,’” he says. “That’s not what I’m interested in saying. I’m trying to rep Sacramento and show that this is a great place to live and work.”

To make that next leap, all Dean needs is a seat at the table. Fortunately, he can always make one himself.

You can check out some of Trent Dean’s wares at the upcoming R Street Get Down on June 16 at the 1400 block of R Street in Sacramento. For more info, go to Rstreetcorridor.com. On June 23, you can also see Dean’s work at the Our Street Night Market, taking place on R Street in between 11th and 12th Streets. For more on that event, go to Facebook.com/ourstreetnightmarket.

HEART AND SOUL • PANGAEA’S ROB ARCHIE TEAMS UP WITH VETERAN BREWER PETER HOEY TO CREATE URBAN ROOTS

**This piece first appeared in Submerge Magazine on pages 16 – 17 of issue #265 (May 7 – 21, 2018)**

The airy, high-ceilinged building is not yet open for business, but it’s already bustling. As I walked inside Urban Roots, hip-hop blared from speakers, folks milled about random tasks, trees were being planted, visitors came and went. The atmosphere reminded me of the lead-up to a big summer party, those few favorite family members and close friends arriving early to help set things up.

Co-host of the party Rob Archie, who also owns Sacramento favorite Pangaea Bier Cafe, found me wandering and led me on a tour of the grounds, which sprawl some 15,000 square feet. Out on the 2,400 square-foot patio, a biergarten was taking shape, complete with German chestnut trees, an homage to its Deutsch influence.

“Basically, this project was a promise that we both made to each other that one day, we want to do a brewery together,” Archie explained, referring to his partner, Peter Hoey. “Me at Pangaea traveling and curating beers from all over the world and bringing them back to Sacramento, and Peter being a brewer—my favorite brewer.”

Once inside, you can’t miss the massive, jet-black smoker, which fortunately provides plenty of heat, because it blots out the sun.

“That thing does 1,800 pounds at a time,” Archie boasted like a proud father. “It’s like a ferris wheel of meat. I love Texas-style smokehouse, and this is the heart and soul of the place.”

Archie discovered his inspiration for the beer business in the midst of a season playing professional basketball in Italy.

“I fell in love with beer,” Archie told me. “I started drinking craft beer in college, like Karl Strauss. Then I started going back and forth to Europe. Belgium, Denmark.”

Archie took that knowledge and experience with him into his first business venture.

“Opening Pangaea in 2008, I learned to pay attention to simple quality,” he said. “When the economy collapsed it was like, ‘Dude, fuck this five-bedroom house, extravagant vacation, crazy car … I want a great glass of wine. A good meal, good conversation.’ At the time, beer wasn’t what it is now. A lot of people weren’t introduced to, like, Belgian quads.”

Archie took me past the main bar area: eight wines on tap, as well as mirrored beer taps, a dozen each on either side of the bar, so staff won’t have to cross over. Beyond that: booths, standing tables, a beer gallery, and at the back of the room, an open space for a communal table.

“These projects are all about paying homage to the culture of beer,” Archie went on. “Appreciate the game that was given to you. Put your style on it, but also pay respect.”

We ventured to the bowels of the building, where stacked barrels and beer machines reached up to the arcing ceilings. It was here that Hoey finally emerged from his natural habitat—a large metal vat of some kind.

“What this place has always been is Rob and I getting to take our favorite parts of other breweries we visited, other countries we’ve visited, and bring back all the best things that we found and put them all into one spot,” said Hoey. “We wanted the feel and comfort of a British pub in the restaurant, the feel of a German biergarten on the patio. And beers from Belgium, because that’s what we like to drink.”

Hoey is a respected veteran of the beer industry. He’s been a brewer for decades, notably at Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Brewing Company. He’s also spent a sizable chunk of his beer career with BSG CraftBrewing, which supplies breweries with ingredients.

“Peter’s love and my love both are saisons,” Archie added. “Traditional saison and mixed fermentation, which is why the wine barrels are here.”

Hoey has become known throughout the region as the king of the saison, a farmhouse-style ale that is complex, fruity and spicy. But the experimentation won’t stop there.

“If you’ve been cooking a long time, you know how much salt is too much salt to add to the dish you’re cooking,” Hoey explained. “It’s really similar with brewing. I know which hops taste like what, how much is too much, how much is not enough. It’s something you develop after doing it for a long time. I can write a recipe and know what it’s gonna taste like. That’s why I love talking to our chef, because we speak the same language of flavor.”

I’m no chef, but in talking to Hoey and Archie, you get the sense that the beer and food at Urban Roots are very much intended to complement, give context to, and inspire each other.

“It’s all about inspiration,” Hoey said. “With beer styles and flavors it can be as simple as trying a beer and saying, ‘I’d like to make one like that.’ It can be going to a meal and having a crazy dessert and saying, ‘I want to make a beer that tastes like that.’ It can come from anywhere, and that’s the fun part. The general public is so open to new flavors and, in fact, demanding new flavors.”

It’s that exact mentality of the general public that has Archie so fired up. “I feel like Sacramento has the best fans in the world. Not only in sports, but they’re very supportive. And it’s up to us to bring them some dope shit. Our challenge as a small business is to bring unique experiences. What we want this place to be is a place that welcomes travelers, and inspires travelers.”

As a city surrounded by so much farmland, Sacramento is an ideal location for breweries, which served to influence the Urban Roots name.

“We’re making farmhouse beers in an urban environment,” Hoey said. “I worked in selling ingredients for so long, I really got to know farmers and ranchers and people growing the ingredients we use. Brewing itself has always been a marriage of agriculture and industry. If you go to a winery, you’re going to wine country, surrounded by vineyards. It’s clearly an agricultural pursuit. Breweries have always been in the middle of cities in industrial areas. People forget that it’s an agricultural product. We need barley, and wheat, and spelt, and grains, and hops, spices, fruit.”

Once everything is under one roof—ingredients gathered, beer brewed, meat smoked—it’s time for the party to start. And the pair are thrilled to throw it precisely at their 1322 V St. location, according to Archie.

“With this project, this is Sacramento,” he said. “It’s under the trees. It’s on the grid. And the building has character.”

Much work remains, but Archie and Hoey’s goal is to open by the end of Beer Week. They’ll continue to sweat and strategize, but by then they hope the fun of sharing their toil with the people of the city will keep them going.

“That’s why I love Sacramento, because I feel like our audience, our guests, they want us to win. Just like with the arena for the Kings. But it’s up to us to win,” Archie said. “We gotta bring that product.”

Urban Roots is now open in downtown Sacramento at 1322 V St. To learn more, go to Urbanrootsbrewing.com or follow them on various social networking platforms @UrbanRootsBeer.

CRUISE CONTROL • COMEDIAN NICK SWARDSON BRINGS HIS LATEST TOUR TO SACRAMENTO

**This interview first appeared in Submerge Magazine on pages 18 – 19 of issue #262 (March 26 – April 9, 2018)**

Nick Swardson has spent more than half of his life in Hollywood. He began his comedy career at 18 and was discovered shortly thereafter, thrusting him headlong into a world of scriptwriting, film and TV appearances, and national tours. Watch any of his work, and it’s readily apparent—he’s been that 18-year-old kid from Minnesota the whole time.

When Grandma’s Boy (which Swardson co-wrote and starred in) hit theaters in 2006, I was 18, and the competitive outlets du jour included Halo and Texas Hold’em. Inevitably, whoever won anything in my comedy-loving yet highly derivative group of friends would launch into Swardson’s faux-innocent taunt: “What does high score mean? New high score—is that bad? What does that mean? Did I break it?”

I’d bow low enough to nostalgia to call Grandma’s Boy a cult classic. So when I Googled it for a little catch-up, I was surprised to find that Rotten Tomatoes, which didn’t even exist in 2006, had retroactively rated it a paltry 16 percent. I’m not sure how Grandma’s Boy’s approval rating is less than half that of our current president’s, but I’d guess it has something to do with the fact that no movie critic has ever been a teenager.

While critics bemoaned fart jokes, Swardson countered by naming one of his stand-up specials Seriously, Who Farted?—half-asking and half-saying, “Yeah, it was me.” Swardson brought that same boyish mix of exuberance and mischievousness to all his roles, whether as a fixture in Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison film family, or as Terry, the roller-skating gigolo in Reno 911.

Just past the north side of 40, Swardson finds himself still a fan of his hometown Minnesota sports teams, still starstruck by other celebrities and still ready for the road, though maybe a little more comfortably this time.

We recently interrupted each other’s March Madness enjoyment to catch up on his career.

How’s it going?
It’s good man! College basketball’s on, so I’m happy. It’s my favorite time of year.

Me too! I just had to mute Kansas and Clemson when you called.
Yeah, I’m a psychotic sports fan, and my Vikings this year just completely blew my head off.

Oh, well, you might not want to finish this interview, I’m an Eagles fan [the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings in this year’s NFC Championship game].
Oh my God … Well, a lot of my good friends are from Philly so it’s OK.

The Eagles and Vikings both have a pretty tortured history.
Yeah, I mean, I was happy for you guys. You fought through the shit.

I know. And had the Vikings won, we would have 100 percent been rooting for them in the Super Bowl.
That Saints game was insane. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I was at my hotel while I was doing shows in Colorado, and that play happened at the end of the game, and I fell to my knees at the hotel bar and started sobbing. Everyone was staring at me, and I was literally just sobbing. They were like “Oh my God, are you OK?” I’m like, “I’m a Vikings fan!” They’re like, “Oh OK, we thought you were having a fucking heart attack.”

So, you’re about to start your “Too Many Smells” tour … 
Yeah, and I’ll be doing the Crest Theatre, which I love. I did it on my last tour and had a blast.

Such a great building. When did you first play Sacramento?
The Crest is great, I love Sac. I used to do Punch Line back in the day when I was starting out. I drove from Minnesota when I was 19 and doing stand-up across the country, and I drove straight to the Sacramento Punch Line. I was MCing and they didn’t have money to put me up, so I had to sleep in my car. So I just slept in my car every fucking night.

You could have slept in the mattress store next door.
Yeah, right? I was opening for Kevin James. And it’s weird, it’s kind of come full circle. Now, Kevin’s a close friend and I’ve done a ton of movies with him. Recently I asked him, do you remember when I slept in my car?

That’s become the norm now. Clubs don’t really put up features and MCs at all anymore.
No, not at all. I mean, I bring my whole show, so I bring my opening acts, so, you know, I pay for everything. And I make sure they sleep in their car.

Did you meet Adam Sandler through Kevin James?
No, Sandler saw my special [on Comedy Central Presents] and he wrote my name down and was like, “I like this guy.” And he had this movie Grandma’s Boy, and he brought me in to meet with him and was like, “Will you rewrite this movie? You can write yourself a part. It’s kind of PG right now and we want it to be a hard R.” And I was a writer, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” So I rewrote it, and now it’s Grandma’s Boy.

That movie hit me at the perfect time in my life.
I love that movie.

What movies are you working on now?
I just finished The Buddy Games with Josh Duhamel, Dax Shepard and Olivia Munn that’s awaiting a release date. I’m developing another movie with the director of Grandma’s Boy. And a new TV show. But right now I just gotta get through this fucking tour.

When was the last time you were actively doing stand-up?
I did a gnarly tour three years ago for my last special that was called Taste It, it’s on Comedy Central. And I did 55 cities on a bus. And I remember I was super excited because I’d never done a tour bus. So I called my agent and told him, “Keep adding cities. Let’s do this!” And I got on the tour bus with my buddy who was opening for me, and we got a week into the tour. And I was like, “This was a horrible idea.” And we were a week into a three-month tour. I didn’t realize on a tour bus you can’t really sleep because it’s really loud, especially in the back where my bed was. So I’m completely sleep deprived, and I remember I was just terrified that the driver was going to fall asleep and kill everyone. It was just a complete anxiety attack. Me and my buddies got bottles of wine and would just chug wine until we passed out. So I’m not doing a tour bus this time.

Do you feel like you’ll always continue to do stand-up?
I’ll try. I’ve been in Hollywood for 20 years and developed a million TV shows, a million movies, and you always have executives and people telling you what to do, telling you what’s funny. Trying to control the project, giving you notes, making you rewrite stuff. And stand-up’s the only thing that you control. I control that, I control what I say, I control what I do. Nobody can tell me what to do when I go on stage. Nobody can go, “Don’t do that.” I’ll be like, “Fuck you, I can do whatever the fuck I want.” That control factor is just priceless.

You got into stand-up at 18. How soon after that did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I knew right away. The first time I did an open mic I got off stage and was like, “Holy shit.” It’s such a rush. It takes a toll on you, because it’s such a weird thing. It’s not natural for your body to do that. Even at this time, I’ve done it 21 years now, and it’s exhausting. It really takes a lot out of you. All the travel, trying to eat healthy, have energy for the show, dealing with tickets, everyone’s asking you for tickets, dealing with lists, the tour manager. Oh my God.

The physical toll of comedy is something that’s not often talked about. 
It’s all eating healthy and getting sleep. People think [because of my character] that I just go out and rage. You have to dial it down when you turn 40.

I saw you tell a drinking story on This Is Not Happening.
I was also shitfaced when I was telling the story.

Do you usually drink before you perform?
Not really, maybe a couple at the most. You have to be a professional. I do remember one time, I was at the Hollywood Improv, and I was just drinking at the bar. I didn’t have a set that night, but I used to drink there all the time. And whoever was running the show came over to me and goes, “Hey, the headliner just canceled. Will you go on?” And I was like, “No, I’m shitfaced.” And they were like, “Well, we really need you to go on.” And I’m like “No, I’m in a blackout.” And he says, “You’d really be doing us a favor.” And I’m like, “Alright, fine.” So I got a napkin, I wrote my jokes down. I go up on stage. The second I got on stage, I realized, I should NOT be on stage. I was REALLY drunk. So I tell the first joke, totally butchered it. Try to tell it again. Butcher it again. And then I just go, “I’m too fucking drunk.” And I dropped the mic and walked off and I got a standing ovation.

Do you have a favorite Sacramento story?
This is one of my favorite moments. We’re on a press tour for the movie Just Go With It. Me, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. We’re in Dallas. Sandler plays a lot of basketball. So [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban goes, “Hey do you wanna play in our practice facility?” Sandler says yeah. So we show up, and Peja Stojakovic, who used to be on the Kings, is one of my favorite players. I loved that Kings team. I loved J-Will [Jason Williams], all those guys. So we’re standing there and Peja is doing shooting practice. So Mark Cuban’s like, “Hey, just wait a minute, Peja’s almost done.” So we’re waiting and then Peja sees us and walks over, and he goes, “Hey, Sandler, I’m a huge fan, pleasure to meet you.” And he turns to me, and he goes “Hey, what’s going on?” And I literally went into a weird brain fart because I was so excited because I fucking love that guy. Sandler goes, “This is my friend.” And I go, “My name’s Peja.” And he goes, “Your name’s Peja too?” And I go, “No. What? No. Sorry. My name’s Nick.”

He was probably so excited to finally meet another Peja.
And I was just starstruck.

Nick Swardson’s stand-up tour, Too Many Smells, will be at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St.) on April 29. You can buy tickets at Crestsacramento.com.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH • VETERAN ARTIST MICHAEL STEVENS FINDS ADVENTURE IN EACH NEW PIECE HE CREATES

 

**This piece first appeared in Submerge Magazine on page 24 – 25 of issue #263 (April 9 – 23, 2018)**

Michael Stevens had not yet arrived at JayJay Gallery when I walked in. This gave me a few minutes to take in one of his pieces, which took up the wall to the right of the entry. A wooden marionette with a puppet’s painted head stood on a wooden pedestal, a disembodied hand protruding from the platform palms-out as if giving the “stop” command, behind the puppet a wooden chopping block with a knife stuck in it. On the wall behind, a background of seven dwarf-faced likenesses arranged clockwise served as oil canvases for various scenes. They represented the seven deadly sins, Stevens would later explain, and the piece was meant to symbolize the act of confession.

Stevens counts his lapsed Catholicism among his many influences, which also include, but are not limited to, Alfred Hitchcock, 1950s television programming, and toys. His diverse inspirations mirror his manner of speaking; Stevens bounced from thought to thought as we talked, finding something interesting in every direction.

Stevens considers himself a storyteller, each piece its own short story. After more than six decades in Sacramento, Stevens had yet to run out of stories to tell as we walked through the gallery.

 

Incident at Beaver Falls | 2008 | 18 in. x 35 in. x 8.5 in.

Ready to talk?
I talk a lot. I teach at Sac City.

How long have you considered yourself an artist?
My first show was in San Francisco in ‘77. Then in ‘78 I did a show in New York, and one of our friends had gone to New York already and met Andy Warhol. So Suzanne and I actually had lunch with him [Andy Warhol] on our first trip New York.

Suzanne is your wife?
Yes. We had been doing art since I got my master’s degree in ‘69, and graduated with an art degree in ‘67. We were doing these large shows in a candy store up in Folsom. Adeliza McHugh ran the candy store. The first 10 years she was showing local work from the Sacramento State professors like Jack Ogden and Irving Marcus. After that she kind of picked up on the Davis stuff when she got Bob Arneson and Roy De Forest. Then after that, the Chicago Hairy Who people moved to town in ‘68, and she started showing Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson. So she kept on pushing. When Jim and Gladys and Suzanne and I became really good friends, he [Jim Nutt] bought work out of my graduate show. And he’s a very famous artist, probably the most famous Chicago artist right now. Jim’s pushing 80 and his work goes for $100,000 a pop. We started doing shows at the candy store. My career then really started when Rena Bransten from the Bransten Gallery in San Francisco came up to one of the openings and said, “You need to be in San Francisco. I want you to bring in work.” I ignored her. I got a phone call a month later saying, “Where in the hell are you?” So I packed up some work and showed her the work and did a show with her, and sold a lot of work. People from Chicago came—Betsy Rosenfield, Allan Frumkin—and I started showing in Chicago. From Chicago I went to L.A. Then to Denver. So I’ve traveled around for a long time.

Where did you get your art degree?
Sac State.

So you were born in Sacramento?
No, I was born in Gilroy. Raised in Hayward. Had no choice in it. Then we moved here in ‘55.

We just finished a show in Chico, the new Northern California Museum, which has been open about eight months. I did 14 pieces for that. And I’m working on public art, too. I’m doing a big bronze in September for Sutter Park.

You’ve been in Sacramento more than 60 years. How have you seen the art community change in that time?
Now Irving Marcus is finally getting his just desserts by having a show at the Shrem Museum. And Irv is in his late 80s. The Sacramento crews that I’ve seen come in here, some are marketers. Some new younger artists who live down at the WAL seem to … How should I put it? A lot of hype? The skills are lacking in a lot of the young people that I see.

Quincy Jones said the same type of thing in an interview recently, about younger musicians no longer having the same skills and fundamentals. Do you think it’s a generational thing?
It’s like the [younger] generation invented sex. I don’t see the passion, I see the hype. Some of these guys are marketers. They dress up real nice with suits and ties and nice clothes. I can’t mention their names, I don’t want to be sued. But I’m aware of them, I’ve seen them, I know who they are.

You mentioned your friend Jim selling pieces for $100,000 each. How do you value your own work?
You work in a vacuum, and I find the vacuum a very comfortable place. Pricing of artwork is really strange. I’ll take work into San Francisco and they raise the prices $2,000. I’ll take work into Los Angeles and they lower it $2,000. It all depends on the market. My concern is, am I duplicating myself as an artist?

Why puppets?
I grew up in the 1950s watching television. So puppets and ventriloquial figures were part of the things that talked at you. People think I find these heads [already painted] so I brought a head to show you. They come like this [unpainted]. And I carve most of my heads. I’ll cut the neck off, take the mouths out, finish the whole thing. And I paint with Rustoleum. Which nobody does, I don’t think. And it can paint on anything—glass, metal, ceramic, wood.

It does look like you have fun making these.
I do, and it irritates my wife.

But I get political, too. In my work I have the good and the bad. I was a Catholic. I’m really partial to the Northern Renaissance, the old paintings where they used halos and stuff. And I had to have nuns for teachers back in the days when they were really strict and whipped you. I got whipped for painting the side of the church.

What have some of your students gone on to do?
Well, I had Craig Chaquico from Jefferson Starship in my filmmaking class.

Are you hands-on or hands-off as a teacher?
I’m more of a hands-on guy. I actually demonstrate and show expectations. At City College I teach assemblage, and we did an assemblage show. I would take two classes and send them out to junk stores just to buy stuff. Take a whole week buying junk. And they had better come in with buckets of junk. Once they did, they would then get to swap the materials and make pieces. Then I could give them assignments. Say the assignment was to deconstruct a chair. You take the chair apart, but you have to use each and every part of that chair to construct, say, a figure. Some of the best assignments are just coming up with a good idea and putting everybody on the same page. Then they’re all working together on one thing, they’re learning from each other and getting to see what they’re working with. It’s not one guy over here working with clay and one guy working with paint. They’re all headed in the same direction.

I think the classroom is a theater where you develop a family. I tell them, “When you guys miss a class you’re cheating yourselves. You’ve got this two-hour period of time that is put away for you to create something where there’s never been something there before. And if you cut a class, you’ve blown those two hours. They’re gone, and you can’t make them up.”

What do you feel you have left to accomplish?
There’s an endless search. I can tell you right now, when I die, I will not have had enough time to do everything I wanted to do. If it’s tomorrow, if it’s 20 years from now. I could go on for a thousand years.

Too many ideas?
It just flies into my head, mostly in the shower. The scariest thing is to finish a piece and have that excitement and joy and feeling of accomplishment. Then what next? You gotta start from scratch every time. That’s the scary part. You wonder if you’ll ever get another idea again. And the harder you think about it in that moment, the further away you are from accomplishing anything. So, I just wait.

And take showers.
[Laughing] Yes. And then sometimes you’ve got nothing to start with so you find one thing. You just find one thing. And that one thing can give you the impetus to finish the story, and put it all together. Sometimes I know what the piece is going to look like and other times, like this piece I’m working on right now, I just started, because I couldn’t wait for an idea to happen. But it happened. It just came together. I think what happens when an artist becomes really secure with himself is you use yourself as your own reference source. I’ll go back and look at stuff, how did I solve that? I think you’re in a pretty good place when that happens.

You’ve proven yourself to yourself.
Yes. And it’s not about showing in a gallery, it’s not about selling the work, it’s not even about fame, you just can’t stop doing it. You have no choice in the matter.

Check out Michael Stevens’ work at JayJay Gallery (5524 B Elvas Ave., Sacramento) as part of their group exhibit, Monumental, which also includes the art of Roger Berry, Anne Gregory, Koo Kyung Sook and many more. Monumental runs now through April 28, 2018. For more info, go to Jayjayart.com.

Pain, Weed, and the NBA

*This article was published in the Sacramento News & Review on 10-12-17*

Forward Zach Randolph, who signed with the Kings in July for his 17th NBA season, was arrested in August and charged with felony marijuana possession. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor and Randolph was sentenced to community service. "I'm not speaking a lot about it, but I felt that I was wrongfully arrested,” Randolph told the media. On whether he expects a fine or suspension from the NBA, Randolph said "No. I didn't do anything wrong."

 

One month later, it appears the NBA may agree, as it has yet to mete out any punishment for Randolph. That silence speaks volumes toward a dramatic shift in its attitude toward marijuana over the past year.

 

On ESPN’s NBA Countdown this past December, Chauncey Billups said “I honestly played with players, I’m not gonna name names, but I wanted them to actually smoke. They played better like that.” The panel discussion came on the heels of a public admission from Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. "I guess maybe I could even get in some trouble for this, but I've actually tried [marijuana] twice during the last year and a half when I've been going through this chronic pain that I've been dealing with," Kerr told CSN. Kerr had recently undergone two back surgeries and a painful spinal fluid leak. "I think the league should look into medicinal marijuana for pain relief ... that's what should be in the CBA," Kerr said. “It's only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception."

 

Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, who conceded he smoked marijuana after his own back surgery, agreed. “We have tried to stop [marijuana use] in the NBA,” Jackson told CBS. ”I don’t think we have been able to stop it. I think it still goes on and is still a part of the culture in the NBA. It is something that we either have to accommodate or figure out another way to deal with it.”

 

The man tasked with figuring it out is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Right now, NBA players are currently subjected to four random drug tests throughout the season. “It’s our strong preference that our players do not consume marijuana. We believe it will affect their performance on the court.” Silver told GQ magazine in 2014. ”That said, marijuana testing is something that’s collectively bargained with the players’ association, and we adjust to the times.”

 

Those times may be nigh. In August, Silver retreated a bit from his earlier stance. “I would say it’s something we will look at. I’m very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana,” Silver told a reporter. “My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it. Hopefully there’s not as much pain involved in our sport as some others, so there’s not as much need for it.”

 

Try telling Vince Carter, who signed with the Kings this offseason at age 40, how much pain there is. For Carter, though, any change would come too late to affect his day-to-day routine for pain management. “If it’s not [legal], guys have to figure out how to subside the pain without using it,” Carter told me in the locker room following Monday’s preseason opener against the Spurs. “At this point I’ve been playing for...“ he laughed and stopped short of saying the number. Carter is entering his 20th NBA season. “I’ve been playing for all these years and it wasn’t there. So now you get to the end of your career, and I just know one way. It’s gonna be tough. They have a decision to make.”

 

Kings guard Garrett Temple may have a voice in that decision. This summer, Temple was elected to a three-year term as a Vice President with the NBA Players Association. After  the Spurs game Monday, Temple told me, “Honestly, I think it’s gonna be legal very soon. The NBA being one of the most progressive leagues in the country I’m not surprised we’d be the first to actually legalize it.” (The NHL and MLB do not test for marijuana.) “Some people it does help with different ailments. It’s up to Adam, if he decides to do that or not.”

 

Players like Larry Sanders, whose promising career was cut short in part due to failing four drug tests in five years, have been ostracized for their marijuana use despite an outspoken belief in its medical benefits. “I will deal with the consequences from it. It’s a banned substance in my league,” Sanders told NBA.com.” But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it.”

 

Now only a few years removed from Sanders’ exodus, Randolph and other NBA players stand to benefit from the league’s increased progressiveness.