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Welcome to the 27th installment of Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.
This week I interview Juan Devis, the chief creative officer at KCET, an on-air and online broadcasting station covering arts and culture in Southern and Central California. It’s been around for 54 years, accumulating a wealth of material and programming, including beloved shows like Lost LA (exploring archival materials in the city) and Artbound (examining the lives and work of artists in SoCal). Devis, the creator of Artbound, is also behind KCET’s most recent initiative, Southland Sessions, a series spotlighting the work that artists are doing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The series, which officially launched in July, offers “up-close, virtual ‘sessions’” every Wednesday in which viewers get “a front-row seat to the creative process.” Recent sessions have dived into the tradition of mariachi music in Los Angeles and how dancers are expressing themselves in this moment, from intimate recordings of dancers in their living rooms to a parking lot performance. This week’s episode (which you can preview below) will explore the city’s many musical scenes, and “how rhythms made from scavenged household items created during quarantine have kept communities.”
Devis has been working at media arts organizations in Los Angeles for over a decade, and has served as a member of the California Arts Council (from 2018 to 2020) and was a trustee of the California Historical Society (from 2018 to 2019). His film, TV, and interactive work has won many awards, including Emmys, Webbys, and National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Learn more in the interview below about Devis’s personal relationship to art and his journey in Los Angeles since arriving in 1993.
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Where were you born?
I was born in Ibague, Colombia. My father’s family had settled there at the edge of the Magdalena River after a long journey from Lebanon. My father married my mom, a child of three from a hard-working ranching family of El Valle. For me, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in Colombia was absurd, beautiful, tragic, and full. Colombia follows me wherever I go.
How long have you been living in Los Angeles?
I arrived to Los Angeles in 1993, a year after the LA uprising; soon after we were hit by an earthquake, the Malibu fires, the OJ Simpson trial, and Proposition 187. Los Angeles felt like home — shifting, changing, and searching for itself amidst the rubble, just like Noah Purifoy did back in 1965 with “66 signs of Neon.”
What’s your first memory of seeing art?
My father was an artist, a Colombian pop hyper-realist painter; he had a studio at home, so art was pretty much everywhere. Having him at home all day allowed me to ask him a lot of questions about what he was doing or studying. He taught me to have a critical eye early on in life and to recognize the relationship between form and content. There’s a series he did where he painstakingly replicated masters of Western art — Picasso, El Greco, Rubens — whitewashed them and inserted an anachronistic element or symbol over them. It was an act of decolonization.
Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?
I was not good at painting, so my dad gave me a camera when I was 10, a Pentax 1000, and I loved it. I carried it around everywhere and would leave no view, no art un-photographed. One day my father asked me if I wanted to leave anything to memory … since then I have become a better observer and an even better photographer.
What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?
The pandemic has erased my memory … but a week before the lockdown I was lucky to see the experimental Opera Sweet Land by the Industry — it was not an exhibition per se but the layered, multi-disciplinary elements of the piece extended well beyond its genre. It was a poignant and timely experience. The second act in particular was a grounding, aching, and beautiful earthly howl. We are now broadcasting the opera as part of KCET’s new arts series Southland Sessions, where, each week, we showcase work from artists and cultural institutions around the city.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I wish I could read more. I spend all my time watching and reviewing TV cuts.
Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?
It depends. I love seeing art with my family, especially my kids. They are curious and ask questions that give way to really nice conversations. But sometimes I have to go alone — to be able to spend the time and really experience what is happening in front of me.
What are you currently working on?
After the lockdown I realized the impact that this pandemic was going to have over the cultural sector as a whole and quickly mobilized to come up with a plan to use our broadcast, streaming, and production capabilities to provide a platform for artists and arts organizations across the region to present their work. I reached out to my colleague at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Danielle Brazell, to come up with a plan and, soon after, the County Arts Department and the National Endowment for the Arts joined our efforts. We launched Southland Sessions to reconnect artists with their audiences. They are, after all, our second responders. The new series airs Wednesdays at 8pm and celebrates the resiliency of the creative community featuring a diverse array of content ranging from local music and dance to poetry and visual arts. We also partnered with the LA Phil and Gustavo Dudamel to bring summer at the Hollywood Bowl to every single person in Los Angeles in a new series called “In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl” that follows at 9pm on Wednesdays.
What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?
One thing I am particularly proud of is that I have valued every step in my personal and professional journey, even if, at the time, it was not what I wanted or thought I needed. Back in the late ’90s I was teaching video production, photography, and creative writing to young men in prison. I had been chasing the Hollywood dream up to that point, and nothing seemed to satisfy me. I will always remember those young men. They taught me more about life, art, and purpose than any half-baked dream I had.
Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?
The people I love, the hope that I have, the beauty I see, the past that I lived …