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Joe Funk was an artist, master printer and a part of the Venice, California art scene in the 1960's and 1970's. Joe wasn't sanitized nor was he ready for prime time; his fondness for alcohol cut short his eclectic and productive life. There were a lot of artists working in the Venice area during the 60's and '70's - Larry Bell, Ed Moses, Vija Celmins, Michael Brewster, James Turrell to mention just a few. Today Venice is becoming trendy and the artists that are left keep a low profile. (AW)
Keith Kirts is an artist and writer. He studied art at Ohio State University and Columbus College of Art and Design and received a CETA grant for painting in the mid 1970's. He has also been a co-owner of a metaphysical bookstore, a union propmaker for Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox and a military policeman in Saigon during the Vietnam War. His paintings have been exhibited in major museums, galleries and private collections in New York and California. About his writing, The Bookpeople Catalog describes Keith as "a Guido Sarducci for the 90's" and Terrence McKenna describes him as "brilliant, funny, sexy and surreal. " He may be accused of being sometimes outrageous but Keith Kirts will never be accused of writing 'page-turners'.
"I thought for awhile that I was God, but I guess not." Joe Funk 1979
Joe Funk was a dragon master. Quite possibly the only one I've known in the art world - and self taught. How did he come to be a dragon master? I simply don't know. It is almost unimaginable that a mechanic like him could have made it. But it seems that he did.
I bounced into his Venice, California printing studio one crisp day in November in the late 1960s, after I'd been in LA about a month, and asked him if he would teach me to print.
Joe owned an old style stone lithograph workshop. Stone lithography was enjoying a resurgence among the artists on the West Coast, thanks to Tamarind Lithography workshop, where Joe Funk had been the first master printer. Now he had his own shop in Venice and taught part-time at both of the fine art schools in LA. My friend, Larry Dildine, from art school days in Ohio before Viet Nam, who was the main reason I'd landed in Venice, praised Joe Funk to the skies and insisted that I had to meet him.
In light of everything that has happened since, I'll admit the possibility that Dildine might have been merely the pitch man for my fate. Something, wanted me to witness the dawning of the Aquarian Age from the far West Coast. Venice is as far west as you can get - in every way. Joe Funk gave me a very good reason, so I stayed.
I asked Joe if he would teach me to print, within the first minute of meeting him. A typical, ballsy, young creep artist gesture. Grab the world with both hands when it shows its face. Before it gets away.
The overhead door had been open, so I waltzed into Joe's big ratty, corrugated steel shed, three blocks from the blue Pacific. He was sitting in a disattached Volkswagen bucket seat on the concrete studio floor near the crank-type litho press, carving Chinese letters into a block of fine grained hardwood. Wearing a brown leather flight jacket lined with sheep fleece, and a worn black beret and combat boots and a thick black mustache with a few gray curlicues in it. Sitting there like a stocky ex-Army Buddha.
"Hi," I said, introducing myself. "I heard you're a very good printer. I was wondering if you'd be interested in teaching me to print?"
"Sure," he said, in a clipped Brooklyn accent, without looking up. His whole attention was riveted on the little wood block on his knee and the razor sharp cutting tool. "Come around anytime. I can teach you. But not half-assed! If you want to learn, you have to learn all of it. I only know one way to print and I teach that way. The right way."
"Great!" I chirped. "Exactly what I want."
What fantastically good luck! He was going to teach me how to print. Just like that! The only problem being that the guy was not Joe Funk. I had assumed he was Joe, but I had been mistaken. He was Doc Groupp.
Doc isn't Joe Funk. No doubt about it. I know that, now. I mean, what would you think? Here's this guy, about the right age, sitting beside the press in the studio, nobody else around, and acts like he's a great printer. It's Joe Funk.
Nope, it's Doc. By an odd quirk of positioning, Doc just happened to be one of the only guys in LA that knew all about the traditional way to print etchings. He was fabulous at it. Etchings, not lithos. Lithographs were what Joe Funk printed. Doc learned etching in New York at the Art Students League on a World War II GI Bill. Joe Funk got his masters degree from USC with his GI Bill.
Incidentally, the GI Bill after W.W.II really helped the art scene in the United States. More than most people know. The GI Bills after Korea and Viet Nam were cheap and didn't have the same beneficent influence, at all. They made a lot of fizz, that's all.
Anyway, sometime during the next few years of hippie days in Los Angeles, Doc Groupp taught me to print etchings. He was looking for somebody to pass the trade on to. That's the way master craftsmen are. Nobody else was interested, so he taught me.
So did Joe Funk. I went back to the studio the next day, hoping to start training, and Joe wasn't there. There was another old guy horsing around at the press. Wearing filthy baggy black pants and worn down jungle boots and a ratty Army fatigue jacket with sergeant stripes removed from the sleeves. And a black boat captain's cap and a full grizzled beard. And a red beak of a wino's nose and wrinkled, sun blasted skin and quinine blue eyes sparkling behind gold rimmed glasses. Guileless and life-lined.
He was alternately sponging off a litho stone and rolling it up with black ink. Dipping a green composition sponge in a basin of water, wringing it out one handed and wiping it across the six inch thick slab of perfectly smooth, yellow limestone. Which held a black line drawing of looked like a Cuevas picture. Then he rolled a big spongy leather rolling pin across a plate glass ink slab until it was coated with black printer's ink. He wiped the sponge across the stone again, leaving a thin skim of water, and rolled the ink charged roller over the drawing. Fresh ink stuck to the drawing and didn't stick where there weren't any lines. Magic. I watched until he was done rolling, then introduced myself, having nothing better to do.
"Joe Funk," he said back. He said it like he meant it. He knew who he was, and that's who he was. Joe Funk. Down to earth and no question about it. Joe Funk.
I made a rapid reassessment of my position, feeling flames of chagrin licking my neck. "Dildine told me about you," I said.
"Oh, yeah, Larry. He's a real character, isn't he?" "I went to art school with him. He was pretty wild then. He seems a lot quieter now."
"You think so?" he said, wiping his hands. He didn't believe me.
"That looks like a Cuevas drawing," I said.
"I really like his work. Does he come around here? I guess he must, if he made that."
"This is the last stone of a suite we did at the other shop. I'm just running a few overprints to finish it off."
Which was pretty impressive. Cuevas was an internationally known artist. This guy, Joe Funk, must be in the big time.
"Look around," Joe said, expansively.
I glanced around. The back part of the studio was a maze. Worse than that. It was a junk heap, but all the junk was sculpture, piled up on benches and tables. Covered with dust. An unwieldy mountain of sculptures made out of everything conceivable. Bronzes and wood carvings of satyrs. Welded rusty bicycle seat monsters. Ceramic heads stuck into wine bottles. Weird little gnome figures carved out of gnarled driftwood. I wandered around looking. Too much stuff. It all looked like junk. That's the nutty thing about art in an art studio. It is difficult to find the art, surrounded by tin cans and junk that is not art, and junk that is might not be art yet. It took me at least a year to realize that this junk heap held some of the best sculpture since Brancusi.
Slow realization has happened to me a lot with artists I know. Sam Francis, for instance. I knew Sam for a long time before I was convinced that his art was good. One day I was sitting in his studio, waiting to go someplace with him, and I was looking at his big splashed up paintings. There wasn't anyplace else to look at. And they overtook me. I saw what he was trying to get, and he was getting at it real good. Fabulously. When you know an artist and his work on a day by day basis, maybe it is harder to let it take you than when you come upon it in a gallery. That's what happened to me with the sculpture that Joe Funk made, too. Certain pieces snuck up on me and made me love them, as my fondness grew for Joe. When you get convinced like that, after seeing hundreds of pieces over years, you get convinced deeply and for good.
On the other hand, if you get whammed in a museum, that is pretty convincing, too. I was in the Museum of Modern Art one time, just drifting around through the galleries, and rounding a corner I got stopped cold by a big Kandinsky. Blasted. Wham. The sucker sang to me. Red, green, blue, yellow, pink.
"Look around," Joe said.
I looked around, then came back to watch him rolling up the stone. "Think you could teach me to print," I asked, trying to get the phrasing right. For some reason, presently unremembered, I must have been very keen on learning to print lithos. I do not know why. I guess my life led me unrelentingly to it.
So I became his apprentice which allowed me to hang around for a number of years, witnessing Joe Funk becoming a dragon master. He wasn't a master of dragons on that first day that I met him. He was just Joe Funk with a twinkle of fun in his blue eyes, and a way of describing himself that I never forgot. "Remember," he informed me, "Old printers never die - they just smell that way."
Sometimes the clouds fly over the Pacific beaches in the shape of a great dragon. A great, huge dragon hovering over the ocean. Flying the sky. Coming from someplace, going someplace. Chaos on both sides. Nebulous, changing dragon clouds. Mouths yawning open to eat up the world. These dragons are masterless. Joe Funk was their master.
Joe Funk draws a dragon in blue cobalt glaze on an urn that one of the potters next door has thrown for him to decorate. Why a dragon?
He drifts from his tin shed through the back walkway over to the neighboring Pot Shop on a cold February evening to stand in front of a firing pottery kiln. To warm himself. A cup of cheap muscatel hooked over a long gnarled finger. A ruined corncob pipe clinched in his new dentures, almost hidden by the untended, five pointed dragon master's beard. Patched army jacket over stained baggy white hospital pants. He stands in front of the roaring kiln warming his bones. He spies a mound of slippery, wet grey clay trimmings that somebody has left sloshed beside a wheel. Joe smiles to himself. He has seen something living in the wet and icky glop. Moving the clay to an eye level sculpture stand, he pokes at it with the wrong end of a paint brush. Twirls around in the slosh for twenty minutes or so. Jabs at it, slashes it, and makes a writhing dragon with an open mouth ready to devour the world. Why a dragon?
Because on the way to becoming a dragon master, he needed some dragons around to practice on.
So Joe taught me to print lithos. And Doc Groupp taught me to print etchings. What I learned is that all art printers are very proud of being able to do this arcane dance of printing an image from a plate or stone onto a piece of fine French rag paper. They're proud of being able to do it perfectly, because it is inhumanly difficult to print them perfectly. And almost nobody knows what a perfect print looks like anyway. On the whole globe, maybe a hundred other printers of their level can appreciate the effort and the quality. And a handful of artists who have printed enough to understand, and a few print curators stuck in dusty museums around the world. And a smattering of collectors. So really, the printer is playing to a very small audience. He tries to print perfectly mainly for himself, and to please the artist he's working for - who is always dissatisfied until he gets used to the reversed image.
So most of the really good printers in the world, who are attempting to print perfectly, come to the point where they still like the money, but there must be an easier way to make a living. Printing is just too miserably difficult. All those maddening variables -- the temperature, the air pressure, the kind of paper and its dampness, the color of ink. Nobody is ever happy with you, especially the artist or his gallery. Always and inevitably the delivery date comes up before the job is done. Who needs it?
That's why Joe Funk taught me. So he wouldn't have to do it anymore. To break your cahones on a project that isn't even your own art, proves tiresome as the years roll by. Even for the money. If you're working for an artist whose work you admire, and he happens to whip out a decent piece for you to print, that makes some sense. Otherwise, forget it.
The natural outcome of this situation is that printers get surly, and start turning down jobs by people who don't appreciate them. They say things like, "I don't think your project can be done, sir. Why don't you make a simple line drawing." Or they try to make an annoying artist nervous, so he won't come back. After all, as Joe was so fond of saying with a big grin, "Artists are a dime a dozen, but a good printer is hard to find." Truthfully, the less ego an artist had, the happier he was around Joe Funk. Do you know a lot of egoless artists?
The best of the gags that Joe would pull on hapless artists in order to test their ego state was to assure them that everything was fine. "Don't worry about a thing," he would say with utmost sincerity. Those five little words were guaranteed to send a shiver of fear up the back of even the strongest artist. They'd been slaving over the stone with grease pencils for days, making their wonderful drawing. It was delicate. Joe had impressed that fact on them. Any little slip would ruin it. "Don't worry about a thing," he would mutter, giving the side of the stone a slap. Visions of irreparable damage leapt to mind. What if one of the shop cats decided to take a nap on their stone? Or anything terrible. Before anyone could prevent it, the damage to the drawing would be done. Yep, Joe Funk was a master at making artists tremble. He was amazing at it. Beautiful at it.
To start with, the shop was filthy and all junked up with sculptures. Big ones, little ones, standing on every available inch of table and shelf space. It was impossible to believe that a pristine edition of prints could come out of that cocoon. The place had definitely not been swept for the year previous to my arrival. Although, there was a push broom. Only Joe's reputation for excellence could have fooled artists into bringing their checkbooks.
Slow dancing like a Baccian satyr, Joe would weave around the press, holding his pipe in one hand and the inevitable cup of wine in the other. Weaving to the inaudible music of dragon's wings or maybe the whisper of the universe. Staring into near space, and bringing any artist tearfully to his knees. The ones who didn't like to cry, didn't come back.
"Oh, this is nice," he would exclaim, bending over a freshly drawn stone. "This part is very choice." He pointed to one corner that the guy had drawn to Funky's liking -- then he'd blow innocently through his pipe to clear it, spraying cold ashes all over the drawing.
"Oh, cripes," he muttered. "This darned pipe." And he grabbed the nearest grime covered rag and started brushing the ashes off. Smearing them, if possible.
"Sorry about that," he crooned, utterly apologetic. "Don't worry about a thing, they'll come off in the etch. No problem. I'll take care of it." Which was true. Only stuff with grease in it leaves a mark on a litho stone. Ashes, being greaseless, come right off in the etch.
Meanwhile, the artist was quivering his brains out. Ha, ha. Joe Funk was beautiful. He could bumble those ashes onto a plate and make it look like an accident every time. "Oh, shoot, I'm sorry."
So what? So nothing. Joe and I printed a lot of lithographs for a lot of different artists and the wages are spent. Joe is in dragon master heaven, and I'm still here. Our names appear in a few art books under a reproduction of a few pieces we printed. Printed by Joe Funk.
Life is a funny trip, ain't it, Joe? You never managed to turn your brain to clabber milk with muscatel like you wanted to. You did work hard at it. Half a gallon every day. That's a lot of cheap wine to force down. But it never clabbered your brain. It clabbered your liver instead. That's what the Veterans Administration doctors said anyway.
And you worked all those years and made some unbearably fine sculpture and never got a penny's worth of reward for it. But that's America, baby. They won't go through the junk pile to find the diamond, and you never felt like packaging it any better. You weren't willing to play the game.
Of course, you were willing to play the game, but nobody ever came around from a fancy New York gallery and exclaimed in ecstasy, "Good heavens, Joe Funk! This is wonderful sculpture..!! Let's play the game..!"
That's because you weren't in New York. You were down in old Venice, CA. Riding your bike on the beach, listening to the dragons wings, building a driftwood fire every night out behind your studio, having a blast. Holding up a ten block area of the Venice slums with your vibes, until the real estate developers could find a use for the area. Until they could entice the carriage trade into the slums, and raise your rent so high that you had to move when you were old and sick. You never looked sick, and to tell you the truth, you never looked old. Maybe they were fooling you at the VA. Maybe they weren't. Maybe it was for the best, to move up north with Stulpe, so some of your stuff would be safe. Maybe you shouldn't have dropped your pipe ashes on all those drawings, just because you thought it was fun.
So what is a dragon master?
Into each life a few dragons must fly. This is a documented fact. Most people don't handle their visits too well, at all. Scaly dragons with long, sharp teeth and fiery breath.
A dragon's job is to eat people -- and horses and cows -- and to generally make you miserable. They love their work and do it very well. A philosophical stance of masterhood is worth practically nothing in an actual dragon attack. The dragon laughs or cries, depending on his predilection, and eats heartily. And melts your gold.
What is needed in the critical moment of a dragon visit, apparently, is a gentle warrior's stance with one foot hovering over the abyss of the grave, and the other firmly planted on dry land. Expecting to be dragon food, expecting to be master. When a dragon sees this posture, curiosity overcomes his hunger and he occasionally allows himself to be coddled or ridden.
How anybody can learn this position without studying at the feet of an older dragon master is beyond me. But Joe Funk learned it by himself, as far as I know. I never saw any masters sneaking around the shop, giving him lessons. Joe did drop a few hits of purple acid in the late Sixties, and smoked some weed with the Light Show boys. It evidently burned away the haze for him. He was never a sloppy alcoholic after that, although he continued to down his half gallon of muscatel per day.
Perhaps what happened is that Joe survived the first dragon attack by luck - maybe it was a baby dragon - and that gave him a handle of the situation. Maybe that was it. However it happened, Joe Funk came to a calm spot in his last ten years. And he took care of a lot of dragons.
Joe Funk. There's no reason to end this on a maudlin note. Thinking about Joe makes me a little sad now that he's moved up skyward. There's no good reason for it, but Los Angeles is emptier without him. He hated to be mistaken for a nice guy. Heaven forbid. Hell, no. And I guess he fooled the people he wanted to. Not many blue-haired ladies came around in their diamonds and mink. Not too many executives dropped over in their leisure suits. Not many Ivy Leaguers. I guess Joe appeared pretty ferocious to that segment of the population. Presumably, a dragon master can be a formidable person. You're damned right he can. Damned right.
In the 943rd file cylinder on the 3rd level of the Akashic Record, you will find the certificate, if you look, that Joe Funk became a Dragon Master in about 1975. Or possibly a bit earlier.
© 1996 Keith Kirts
Keith can be reached by email at Armchair World at email@example.com or at his own email address.
Rol Murrow produced a UCLA student film in 1967 called "The Tin Shack." The film documented an eclectic visit to the studio and environs of Max Neufeldt and his collaborators including Joe Funk and Keith Kirts in Venice. Rol Murrow was the filmaker with Doc Groupp narrating. The film runs 11 minutes and is in black and white 16mm sound with an original blues music score. 'The Tin shack" was accepted as one of the UCLA Student Film Program titles for that year and was exhibited throughout the United States.
Rol will consider doing a video transfer if there is enough demand. To comment on this article or to contact Rol, please fill out our feedback form and reference the article in the subject field. We'll pass all requests along to Rol.
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