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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

The artistic genius of Gene Sculatti

Gene Sculatti

Gene Sculatti's appearance at "Unheard LA"

Among the most insightful music journalists, Gene Sculatti has long had a different outlet of expression.

In fact, the author of books including The Catalog of Cool and San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip and a former Billboard editor and contributor to numerous other publications including Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Times has been working on what is informally known as "The Scultatti Scrolls"—a collection of immense hand-drawn “cityscapes,” one stretching out to 192-feet long and 16-inches wide— since he was a nine-year-old fourth grader in St. Helena, a small hamlet in the heart of Northern California’s Napa Valley.

“Richly rendered, minutely detailed, with a city planner’s eye for the balance of public and private space, [Sculatti’s] work spilled over the edges of the sheet toward horizons as yet uncharted,” observed Sculatti’s late fellow journalist/author Davin Seay in an essay documenting what he likened to the large-scale work of Ralph Fasanella, the self-taught leftist-oriented Depression-era painter.

Seay further categorized Sculatti’s scrolls—sprawling pen, colored pencil and watercolor renderings of “fictional” but reality-based California cities--as Naïve, or Vernacular Art, “nurtured in obscurity” in the tradition of artists like Grandma Moses and Howard Finster. Fans of such art will now be treated to a rare presentation of Sculatti’s work on Saturday (Sept. 7), when the artist participates in the September edition of Unheard LA, the Southern California storytelling series aired on member-supported Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) station KPCC, at Scripps Colleges’ Garrison Theater in Claremont.

Now 72, Sculatti came to his scrolls via a a mid-1950s public relations effort by the Standard Oil Company, which sponsored a half-hour period for California grade schoolers during which they could do anything—even nap--accompanied by light classical music. Fourth grader Sculatti (in 1956) used the time to sketch an imaginary city in pencil and crayon on an 8 x 10 sheet of drawing paper.

“The work had a striking stylistic flair: a harmonious pastel palate, precocious use of perspective and an innate grasp of architectural aspect,” wrote Seay. “Yet, there was something about the kinetic energy of a city space that captured Sculatti’s youthful imagination.”

The 10-year-old entered another small drawing-- entitled City Traffic and featuring a bus, cars, pedestrians and telephone wires--in a children’s art contest sponsored by The San Francisco Chronicle, and earned the first prize award of two dollars.

Sculatti had been born in San Francisco, and re-imagined his birthplace on a two-foot length of paper. He then taped together several sheets of his father’s discarded surveying charts (his father planned line routes for Pacific Telephone) in forming a continuous scroll, drawing it while lying on his stomach and listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio.

His first completed scroll was 17-inches wide and 17-feet long and named Glenet after an idealized California suburb of freeways, shopping centers, new housing developments, car lots and industrial parks—very much reflecting the California of that era.

The 38-foot Peggoty, Sculatti’s second scroll, was completed in 1958 and “elaborated his celebration of California’s ascendancy,” said Seay, “the incarnation of a place where the extraordinary energies of American exceptionalism had been focused to flourish in a zone-free zeitgeist.”

The artist was now on a roll: Peggoty and its 17-foot follow-up Slobetinth “were compendiums of cultural reference, astonishing in their range and variety. Street names, billboards and all manner of advertising and incidental detail referenced verbal and visual cues drawn from the environment exploding all around him.”

Gene Sculatti

The artist at work on "Majestic East"

By the time Sculatti completed his 192-foot Naniton (1960-62), he was incorporating influences from television dramas like Dragnet, comic books and Sunday newspaper cartoons, Mad Magazine, department store shopping bags, and street corner and beach scenes derived from rock ‘n’ roll muses like Dion & the Belmonts and the Beach Boys.

He soon added road maps gleaned from gas stations, and travel brochures from increasingly developed SoCal locales. He eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where he successfully pursued journalism while continuing his artistry.

“They’re all about the same thing: cities just sprawling out,” says Sculatti of his scrolls, which take anywhere from a few months to as many as eight years to create. His current one, Majestic East #1, is still a work in progress after starting it in 2014. But it is also the continuation of a Majestic series that began in 2006 with Majestic Blvd. (“named for a continuous through-street”), and continued in 2011 with Majestic West (“which seamlessly continues that street from the left side of the original Majestic”).

Majestic East #1, then, is a continuation from the right end of the original Majestic,” says Sculatti. “The fantasy is that, if I ever had a show or an exhibition in a museum, the various sections could run in one loop around an entire room.”

The fantasy, according to Seay, would provide “a unique record of an historical era.”

Gene Sculatti

A scene from "Majestic Blvd."

Sculatti’s scrolls, Seay added, “comprise an authentic archaeological record of a vanished time: gas station chains, discount centers, fast food franchises; their logos and mottos and mansard roofs long since forgotten, the detritus of a brave new world buried in its own abundance.”

“But what Sculatti really captures along his prodigious lengths of streets and cities and infinite urban interstices reaches beyond the reality of that once-triumphal march into the future,” Seay concluded.

“Instead it depicts the ideal of that future. His naïve eye never penetrated the dark side of the California Dream even then taking shape--the worst consequences of the ravenous sprawl across misappropriated land. Why should it? It was difficult if not quite impossible, in that era of raucous music, rocket-shaped cars and a young president urging us to the stars, to imagine the full effect of unchecked growth and irresponsible development. Instead, Sculatti fashioned a vast image of what that utopian dream could have been and what it had once promised to become.”



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