Welcome to El Sereno– the easternmost district and oldest community in Los Angeles which dates back 10 years before the city was established. Its name translates to “tranquil or serene one” and though we find ourselves in a desolate area, the ambience is that of its namesake.
Photographer Kelsey Tucker and I emerge from the car and wander through a block of industrial workshops ranging from mechanics to bounce-house repair. We approach a space tucked away in the back of the complex. A man of stature greets us with a wide grin and a bouncy gait. Billy Kheel, felt artist extraordinaire, invites us inside his workshop.
A density of creation surrounds us: intricately cut felt shapes compose a colorful collection of both wearable and wall art. I excitedly explore his space, asking questions about his process when I’m not geeking out.
Kheel is fueled by the diversities and juxtapositions of a city life: his chosen environment. A constant quest to explore the ever-changing creative dynamics of Los Angeles leads him to new discoveries and applications for his unusually surreal and playful creations.
How did you make your way from Boston to Los Angeles?
I came here to work on animation projects, pitching around town and working with comedians and writers. I still occasionally do freelance animation, but grew excited by the art-maker-craft scene on the east side of Los Angeles. A lot of my friends were in Silver Lake. I didn’t know anything about it. When I came and saw everything I was very inspired.
When did you move to Silver Lake?
About 10 years ago.
So you’ve seen a lot of change in the area.
Yeah it’s great. I liked the neighborhood when I got there – at that time it was a little more rugged. I love it though, because now I have a house there and they’ve opened up great coffee places and oyster bars.
What sparked your interest in felt appliqué?
In school I was doing oil and acrylic painting. While meeting other artists and going to shows around town, I saw a lot of non-traditional materials being used. I also have an interest in athletics, so that was my initial jump in. I wanted to make giant surreal sports banners. It’s like a different way of painting.
Being in Los Angeles, I saw a world of different subcultures and groups working in fabric and sewing. For instance, through a friend who silk-screens I met these guys who chain stitch out of East LA. They’re called the “Chain Gang.” They did the stitching and lighting bolt on these sports cards. It’s a wild scene because it’s in a back alley in East LA and they’re working on stuff for car and bike clubs all over the world. They use these huge old-school pre-electric sewing machines with foot pedals, but they’ve hacked motors onto them. They’re really cool old gears that create this wavy effect. I find it cool and inspiring to explore crazy stuff like that and incorporate it into my work.
How did you develop from banners to pillows, cushions, and hats?
I like to experiment with felt appliqué, trying to push the medium to see what I can do with it. I started layering material to create dimensional effects.
The pillows were originally for an art show about LA Strip mall signs. They are so random and wild– you get the strangest mix of cultures in the same mall. I drove around Korea town photographing them. I sold some and still had the plans, so thought I might as well make more. It’s interesting how people react – some people tell me “I like Hawaiian food, I buy my food at a Spanish place, and I like massages! This is the pillow for me!” And I am thinking “Wow, I didn’t make it with that in mind.” I think it’d be cool to have blocks where you assemble your own, for instance “I like donuts, I like Hawaiian BBQ, and I like the weed store.”
With the hats- I feel it’s important to protect yourself from the sun. For me it all started when I didn’t have anything to wear to this Clipper game so I thought “Boom” I’ll put a Clipper hat together.
I had other ideas for designs– like skylines, something so banal and ugly about Los Angeles, and celebrating that. Half of these strip malls are already gone, so it’s a nostalgic thing.
I did the bear and it was the same– people would say “I’m a bear, that’s me!” So I messed around with more spirit animal ideas: a coyote, an owl, and a fox. I rolled up to Unique LA and thought I’m going to sell so many owls, but it wasn’t the case at all- it’s foxes now! All foxes all the time. Who’s in charge of this stuff?
What is your favorite part of the process?
There are three distinct parts that are equally inspiring. Coming up with what to make is exciting, then figuring out how to put it together is a rush of creative energy. During the act of cutting and sewing you’re really creating, just tearing stuff up and making something new. It’s a meditative process you can take home instead of watching Law and Order, or have bad movies on in the background and just work through that.
Interacting with the public and getting their feedback is something I always learn from. Saturday night of Unique LA I was home sewing fox hats. I sold out like crazy. It was a total surprise.
Describe your production process with multiples
For the hats I’ll do about 10 at a time in an assembly line. I lay down the colors, cut the pieces, pin them, then sew them down. With the pillows it’s a slightly different process. I get some help on those so it’s a matter of cutting each thing individually, laying them out, taking them to Monrovia for some sewing help, then cleaning them up to make it perfect.
It all comes down to the plans. It’s great to keep a record so I can try it again and make multiples. It’s fun to think a couple steps ahead. Then a pile of plans may get mixed up and something else comes out.
Where do you source your materials?
Mostly downtown: Michael Levine and the little shops around there. That’s another thing that intrigued me- I remember walking around downtown for the first time and was like “Wow– I'm tearing something open I didn’t know about," so much history and diversity.
My family was in the garment industry in New York. There’s still a building in Chelsea that was the Kheel Building. They had this innovative process where they put the collar on the first floor and the buttons on the second floor... by the time you get to the third floor you have a finished coat. I thought of that after I started working with textiles. I heard all these stories growing up, so maybe that’s where it got planted.
Describe your workshop environment.
I love this area [El Sereno]. I’ve been here about two years. I share the shop with Kiel Johnson. We met in an art show in Culver City a couple years ago and became friends. I always thought this was a very inspiring area, so when the space opened I took it over. I’ve lived in Silver Lake for a number of years, so seeing the mountain range come this way is really exciting. El Sereno feels like the tip of it, then it’ll move onto Boyle Heights. The interim period is exciting. Things are changing and bumping up against each other. I love all the food in Al Hambra and San Gabriel. There’s really good Vietnamese, Pho, and Chinese food comparable to what you’d find in Beijing. You have to explore it deeply to find it. It’s exciting- like being on the edge of an international city. It’s an established community and they’re really into their thing so it’s pure.
Is your city and environment a constant inspiration to you?
Definitely! I love bike riding around, doing Ciclavia and exploring LA to find inspiration in things people aren’t usually inspired by. I came up with the strip mall pillows under a really crappy bridge. It’s an interesting and unique form. Where else is that strip mall ever going to exist?
What are your plans and goals?
I would say on two paths: I enjoy the products and I want to grow that aspect. As an artist who doesn’t teach, it’s good to have steady income streams. I like the process and challenge of getting something off the ground and moving it forward. I’m going to continue with that and see what form it takes – maybe a residency at the Silver Lake craft market or selling wholesale to a distributor in the valley. I recently started leading felt appliqué workshops. I did one on spirit animal patches at the Craft and Folk Art Museum last month and next month I’m doing a workshop on making strip mall signs there (June 29th). Come on down, its outside and a lot of fun!
The artwork I’m most excited to focus on are the felt fish. I’m doing a project called Billy’s Felt Fish Shack at the York in Highland Park in June (opening June 12th). The idea comes from my childhood in South Florida and the fish and shrimp shacks that used to line the Florida coast. It’s going to be a lot of fun, during the opening and closing parties people can take a photo with a 10-ft felt fish strung up like they just caught it! Other surprises like ‘Catch Of The Day’ fish will be added throughout the month so the show will be constantly changing. Drawing inspiration from my life, the materials and process keeps me pushing ahead.
Environment is everything. From your immediate space to the city that surrounds us. Magic Powers invites you to look around– what may first seem monotonous may hold some hidden magic. What inspires you most about your city? Share in the comments below or write to firstname.lastname@example.org