Skot Armstrong

A long and harrowing account of how and where the artist grew up

Following my work on the census, I was hired by the Small Business Administration (SBA). I worked in the file room, where I got a real education in how businesses work. Then I was transferred to the front desk to face the bitter and disappointed people who were getting their first taste of the Reagan Years. At night, I performed, made mail art, held salons and parties, and painted outsider art.

By 1982, my artwork had become well-known around the SBA, and several people brought me a job posting for an illustrator for an IRS Training Center. (I later got the job title changed to "staff artist.") I had a 17th-floor corner office on Wilshire Boulevard that overlooked the Hollywood sign. The downside of this job was that I was using open containers of magic marker ink in an unventilated room. Eventually, I imploded (in November 1987) from the cumulative effects and landed in a mental hospital. While I was in there, most of my archives went to auction in an abandoned storage space.

Since 1988, I have mostly lived in Orange County. I moved back to Hollywood for a while in 1990 but found that the quality of life in the city had changed. I have lived with my better half in Buena Park since 1994. I love the quality of life here.

Wide roads!

Parking!

Room to live.

6. My mother wrote and recorded for Industrial Records a song called "I Could Never Be Andy Warhol's Mother." The British bootleg of it is a pricey collector's item.

After getting out of the mental hospital in 1988, I was invited back to live with my parents in Huntington Beach. The culture shock of moving back to Orange County was almost as abrupt as my visits to West Virginia. Although I had led forays of LA punks to pillage the OC thrift stores, I hadn't actually engaged with the culture that had developed in Orange County since the early '70s. And those changes were abrupt. The open land that I had associated with my youth was being developed at such a pace that my parents had lost their ocean breeze. Everything that represented anything charming was being bulldozed and rebuilt into a bland Stepford sameness.

I noticed at this time that The Gong Show had come back on TV, and I recruited a group of rather extreme performance artists from Hollywood to join me in a troupe that appeared on a regular basis as a losing act. An important factor was that we could never appear to be the same people, so I immediately latched onto an excuse to rebuild my arsenal of props and costumes. One of my acts in particular was cited by the original producer of the show as the act that he had hoped to see when he first suggested the show.

The Act

The act was called Hypno and Pavlova—me and a girl who looked like Glenda Jackson. She sat in a chair, appearing to be hypnotized while I waved a series of wands in front of her face with different colored balls on the ends of them. If the ball was red, she screamed; blue, she made orgasmic sounds; green, she laughed uncontrollably. She was an excellent actress and could combine moods. So when I held up two or three balls at once, she was really scary—especially since she could do all this and still look hypnotized. The panel had been advised to gong us but was so dumbfounded that they forgot; if we won the show, we couldn't get our American Federation of Television and Radio Artists paychecks. They brought in a last-minute emergency act, and we lost. Thankfully.

In 1989, I moved into the house of a friend's mother, whom I had known since 1967. By a weird coincidence, two of my best friends from the gifted program had also landed back at their parents' houses in Huntington Beach. I began to regularly make art again and was included in a few performance-art events in Hollywood. In a benefit for free-speech causes, I appeared as Nick Charles (The Thin Man) with a delightfully wacky woman as Nora. People told me that ours was the only performance in the whole series that wasn't shrill or hamfisted.

In early 1990, I moved back to Hollywood. A new dynamic for me was that I had always had a lot of luck finding affordable housing that didn't require a roommate. (In 1985, I had lived in Tom Selleck's pre-fame house in Beverly Glen on an IRS salary.) This was no longer the case in the Hollywood of the 1990s. Rather than commit to a single living situation, I bounced around as a paying roommate, occasionally landing a deluxe house-sitting gig.

In 1991, I performed as a part of the 75th anniversary of Dada show at Al's Bar.

That same year, I received a call from a friend who had just inherited a bizarre property/situation in Ojai, California. It seems that a Finnish woman and her son had lived on a huge section of Ojai real estate since the 1920s. She was a Theosophist who brought Finnish health regimes to the U.S., and he was a trained architect and sea captain. As houses near them became vacant, they would tear them down and proceed on a project that might compare to the Watts Towers or Bottle Village. Because many of their sculptures involved living plants (cactus, mostly), a lot of their work was in ruins, as the plants had begun to reclaim the ground the sculptures were on. The mother had been a dedicated packrat since the '20s, often arriving at yard sales at the end of the day and paying a dollar for everything that was left. Which was duly carted back to the lot in a wheelbarrow. The friend, who had a keen appreciation of my take on modern archeology, asked me to come live in one of the extreme houses that had resulted and to help with decisions on the restoration of the site.

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