On the afternoon of October 25, 2003, a hunter in the Cleveland National Park became disoriented. He lit a small fire to signal for help. By the time that they announced the fire had been contained a week and a half later, almost 300,000 acres had burned, nearly 3000 buildings had been destroyed and fifteen people had lost their lives. It was the largest fire in California history.
In 1970, John Fitzsimmons and Kat Flyn drifted to San Diego from New York City. It was not part of any real plan, but John got a job as a teacher and Kat started the first vintage clothing store in that city. The store was successful and John soon joined the business. Some of the customers wanted to rent the vintage clothing rather than buy it. The next thing you know, a small costume spin-off business was born, ultimately swallowing up the original business. It was quite successful and thirty years later, they began planning their retirement. They built their dream home just outside of San Diego, surrounded by towering pines, near the national forest, in the town of Cuyamaca.
As part of their business, Kat had designed some of the costumes and John had photographed some of the models. It was artistic to a degree, but both dreamed of seriously pursuing art. Kat, who was and is a talented assemblage artist, had taken boxes and boxes of materials from the business, storing them in the basement of their home. A lifetime of artist supplies was assembled and ready to go. Then, on October 27th and 28th, the fire reached Cuyamaca and all 120 homes in that community were incinerated.
Remarkably, both John and Kat not only physically survived the fire; emotionally, as well, they rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix. John photographed the aftermath of the fire. He took the photographs to a local gallery and had his first solo show. It was a new beginning.
With no trees and no real prospect for trees, they decided not to rebuild in Cuyamaca. Almost arbitrarily, they moved up to San Francisco. They loved it right away. Artistically, they moved to the SOMA Artist Studios, where they still maintain a studio, and they began making art. Kat produces wonderful assemblages. She also collaborates with John on his photography, making the trademark frames that work so well with his photographs of urban decay.
I have always been particularly drawn to that body of John’s work. Last year, in the “Guerrilla Show” at Arc Gallery, I was ready to buy “Green Trailer, Salton Sea” when someone snatched it off the wall just in front of me. I went to Open Studios in October hoping to find a similar work. Then I noticed a photograph of three abandoned homes in Atascadero. I had to have it. The work, shown here in the banner for this story, was called “Ok to Burn”. At that time, I did not know anything about their personal story. It was only when I began writing this profile that the significance of the work become apparent.
John’s photography divides into two broad categories of work: urban decay and fantasy. The fantasy work has a staged element to it. It is a touchstone back to the costume design business. John cites contemporary influences such as Maggie Taylor and Jerry Uelsmann. Overtly manipulated, the photographs are visual collages of imagery that explore themes of sex, bigotry, drugs, global warming.
The other works, which explore themes of urban decay, will be prominently on display next week in the Arc Gallery exhibition “FourSquared”, where John will be one of the sixteen featured artists. These works have a political edge. They revisit American glory, now left behind and rotting away. Cars are abandoned and rusting. Drive-in movie theaters are overgrown. Houses are ok to burn. Even the landscape itself is allowed to deteriorate from willful neglect in a series of works photographed in the Salton Sea. The images are powerful, yet somewhat ambiguous; nostalgic, yet somehow bittersweet. They evoke memories of the longing in Charles Foster Kane’s plantive last word: “Rosebud”.
You can see John Fitzsimmon’s work in the upcoming Arc Gallery exhibition: “FourSquared”, opening on Saturday, August 27th and continuing through September 28th. He will be participating in San Francisco Fall Open Studios, the weekend of October 14th. You can also contact John directly for a studio visit by appointment.