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I was there to find Roy Anthony Shabla, and he certainly made it easy. With bleached hair, a broad smile, and a gold jacket that looked like it was woven from the same material as the space blankets in earthquake emergency kits, Shabla was everything I’d hoped he’d be.
I was there for Art on the Vine, a monthly exhibit held at Mari’s Wine Bar and put on by the Downey Arts Coalition. Don Lamkin, a local firefighter and head of the Art on the Vine team, had the idea to hold shows at Mari’s Wine Bar when he saw how much wall space the bar had. The owners, Mari Del Real and Anthony Flores, readily agreed.
Shabla’s was the third show to be held at the bar in the past three months, and I was responsible for covering the event for the Downey Beat, a friend of a friend’s website. This was my first ever journalistic attempt, so my editor’s instruction to find the most interesting thing and write about it put Shabla on my radar. He was very certainly the most interesting thing in the room.
Everybody else seemed to think so, too, because he spent all evening rubbing elbows with fellow, less shiny artists, many of whom seemed to have been invited by Shabla himself. He embodied the Arts Coalition’s goal to “build community and collaboration among local artists and advocates,” but it made it difficult to find an opening to talk to him.
Instead I wandered about looking at each of his eighteen abstract paintings. It became a bit of a game trying to find the title tags for each piece as they had been printed in size-seven font and Scotch-taped three feet above the floor or directly above a wine rack. I had to contort myself many times to find out that the majority of pieces were titled “Untitled.”
At one point I found myself talking to two short, elderly women, one with a brilliant scowl and the other with a sweet, closed-mouth grin. Dorothy Shabla, the scowler, was the proud mother of the evening’s exhibiting artist. Being nervous, and having been instructed to write down the names and ages of everyone I spoke to, I stupidly flew in the face of good sense and common courtesy by asking her how old she was. The look she gave me made it clear that she could drop-kick me if she had it in her mind to do so. I blabbered a nervous apology and tried to redirect the conversation, asking if her son made a living off of his art, and she let loose a loud guffaw that may have startled a few people, me included.
Shabla’s connections had even supplied the music for the evening. He’d invited his personal assistant’s band to perform. The assistant, a twenty-two year old named Gabriel Armenta, and his bandmate, twenty-four year old Josue Quiquivix, spent the evening at the front of the bar tweaking amps, setting beats on keyboards, and strumming their guitars in haunting electronic rhythms that were reminiscent of the cries of humpback whales. These baby-faced twenty year olds are members of a band named VVHITFVZZ (pronounced “White Fuzz”), and I had to have Armenta spell it out several times to convince myself I wasn’t having a stroke.
After a while of learning all about Shabla from everybody except Shabla, I finally screwed up the courage to make my way toward him and stand awkwardly nearby until there was a small conversational pause. I all but leapt forward, shaking his hand and introducing myself as a writer from the Downey Beat. Did he have a minute? Could I talk to him?
I could see right away why people liked him. His smile was large, his demeanor relaxed, and he talked about all the warm, fuzzy, intangible things that make us feel good about ourselves, like peace and poetry and spiritual health. His T-shirt was an outline of the American flag with an equal sign where the stars should have been, and he told me it stood for equal rights in America. He designed it himself, along with a myriad of other T-shirt logos with a liberal employment of the peace symbol. He was every bit an eccentric. A hippie, my father would say.
Shabla is excited by the Downey Art’s Coalition’s efforts. “Now with the big arts movement that’s happening in Downey, it’s much more attractive to be here.”
He told me he identifies the strongest with whatever medium he is working in at the time. Tonight, he said, he was a painter. Tomorrow, when he’d work on his book of poetry, he’d probably be a poet.
So what does he do for a living? Spiritual healing, meditation training, and Fung Shui consulting. He has his doctorate in Natural Healing, and I smiled at the thought that my father would have to call him Dr. Shabla.
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