At heart, Rod Lathim is a storyteller. He’s spent the past 30 years creating original theater works on stage and, more recently, on film. Now Lathim is turning his considerable talents to visual art from the performing arts, with his first show of assemblage work, “Reinventions,” on exhibit at Art Resources, 512 E. Haley St., through Oct. 24. Lathim recently talked with Leslie Dinaberg about his newest creative passion.
Leslie Dinaberg: These pieces are amazing, incorporating everything from antique cameras and almanac pages to vintage game pieces and fortune cookies. Did you have to learn the technical part about how to put things together?
Rod Lathim: Oh, yeah. A lot of it has come from building sets and theater, where you have to do a façade, and everything behind the façade doesn’t really matter as long as it makes the façade work. With assemblage, because of the depth of pieces, there is a lot of what I call stackers, or risers, or things to fill in gaps. ...
LD: Each piece tells a story.
RL: That’s the idea.
LD: You said you work in your garage. Do you work in order or chaos?
RL: More chaos than order, and it’s interesting to me because in every other aspect of my life I’m pretty organized. I don’t like to be unorganized. But when I do this stuff, I start grabbing things from wherever and I start building, and then I put things back and pick them up and everything gets jumbled. It’s definitely more chaotic than the other things I do. But I like the freedom of that.
... Part of my process has been learning how to not edit and not judge and just let things come. Because I write and I direct, I’m always critical about everything I do. I have found that the more critical I was in the process, the more stuck I would get ... (I’ve learned to) just let it be and if you want to change it you can change it, but don’t be doing spell check as you’re creating.
LD: Theater by its nature is impermanent; you do all this work and then it’s over. Do you think about this art being more permanent?
RL: Absolutely. When I worked on the Luke (Lathim served as board president, project manager and development director of The Marjorie Luke Theatre and the $4 million renovation of the historic theater on the campus of Santa Barbara Junior High, 721 E. Cota St.), it was the first time that I felt, after 20 some-odd years of doing theater, that I helped create something that lasted. To create that theater was so nice because all of the work that went into it stayed. You can walk into the theater and enjoy it over and over, and the visual art is the same way. That is a very nice element of the visual art.
LD: Is there any connection to the other creative things you do?
RL: Definitely, it’s connected. My artistic life really has been about storytelling. Whether it’s through theater or film or visual art or photography, it’s all about telling stories. So it’s just a different medium. There’s a lot of theater in these pieces. Some of the ones that are in boxes, oftentimes I think of them as scenic design or how I would lay a set out on stage, because a stage has depth and the boxes have depth. These oftentimes come out like little frozen scenes in time.
LD: Were you influenced by what was going on in your life while you were creating this art?
RL: Some of them, absolutely. The piece that’s called “It’s not hard to find” and it’s all type letters with “hope” in the middle of it and all of the other letters are twisted up and don’t say anything. That came together right after the Tea Fire. That was completely influenced by so many friends I had who lost everything, and they were really inspiring me by the way they were handling it.
... Even though when I look at this show I don’t think it looks edgy, but for me it’s the edgiest work I’ve ever done.
RL: A lot of the work I do in theater is hopeful, and it’s positive and tries to celebrate humanity and the positive things, and many of these do that, too. ... This is the first time through art that I have been able to dabble in things that are less than light and fluffy (Laughs). I mean Citizen McCaw (Lathim co-produced a documentary about the Santa Barbara News-Press) was certainly not light and fluffy, but my theater work in the early days was all pretty positive.
So, it’s fun for me to go there. It’s fun to say I don’t have to stay away from that. It’s just me now. I don’t have to please an audience. I don’t have to write a grant to keep the theater in business. If this is what I’m going to express, I’m going to do it, and as an individual artist we can do that.
LD: Perception of any art is very individual, but I think visual art is even more so. It’s almost a safer way to explore difficult topics.
RL: It completely lends itself to people creating their own interpretations and seeing their own stories, and I love that. ... I think good art, not all art, but for me art that makes you think and makes you ponder makes you question, that’s good art.
LD: Sometimes things we are really annoyed by or frustrated by lead to better conversations.
RL: I love it when art does that. For me, one of the best values of art is that it pushes buttons in us as human beings, and it makes us think or react or question but it does something to us. There’s nothing worse than looking at art that doesn’t do anything for you. You just look at it and go why? Why?
And again, this art is not going to speak to everybody. I know that so I’m the first one to expect to have people go, “Well, OK, Rod that’s your thing, but now I’m going to go look at paintings.” That’s OK because that is what’s great about art, you can go find what speaks to you and it’s nice again. As an individual artist, it’s just so much fun to have the opportunity to have the time to open up a piece of your brain and tap into it and let it run amok in the junk pile of your garage.
LD: How much of the fun is the hunting and gathering?
RL: It’s a blast. When you find something great it makes your day. You don’t necessarily have any idea how you’re going to use it, but you find something that’s so precious and then you covet it and you don’t want to just throw it into any old piece.
LD: Is that pretty regular thing?
RL: It’s as regular as I can make it ... I’ve done very little hunting recently because I’m working on multiple films right now. ... I just finished a screenplay with Pamala Oslie, I’m working on a film on Cesar Chavez Charter School. ... I also just finished a film on the Santa Barbara Dance Institute (both with Brent Sumner).
LD: You always have so many things going at once.
RL: Yeah, I’m juggling a lot of things at once. I like that. I like being busy.
LD: You founded Access Theatre (a theater company spotlighting artists with disabilities) as such a young guy. Were you right out of college?
RL: I came home from college to start it and I was 19, just about 20 ... I lasted 18 years and we closed in 1996, and since then it’s just been a life of freelancing. I really like that. ... Now I work with a lot of nonprofits but it’s different than being at the helm. Trying to be an artist and an administrator at the same time is daunting. I think I did a good job of that, but it was a lot of work and it’s hard to be fully creative and handle the burden of administration at the same time. They’re such polar opposites.
I don’t miss that. I loved the work we did with Access, I’m really proud of what we accomplished, and I’m really proud I jumped when I did because it’s allowed me to do so many things that I would have never done if I had just been running a company.
Vital Stats: Rod Lathim
Born: Dec. 28, 1957, in Santa Barbara
Family: Single. His father, Reg Lathim, and his sister, Kim Lippincott, and her husband, Bill, live in Santa Barbara with their children, Brandon, 15, and Mariah, 13
Civic Involvement: The Marjorie Luke Theatre. “I try to get involved and support however I can with lots of different organizations, more than I could list, but the Luke is my main one.”
Professional Accomplishments: Founder of Access Theatre; board president, project manager and development director, Marjorie Luke Theater; co-producer of Citizen McCaw; stage director, writer and a consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations; assemblage artist
Little-Known Fact: Lathim was the California State Youth chairman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association when he was in high school.