Joan Weber

Joan Weber

Joan Weber is a little slice of LA history. Originally born in New York, her family up and moved to California by the time she was six years old. An artist since as long as she can remember, she grew up in a four-story villa in the hills of Los Feliz and trained her creative eye in her father’s print-making factory where she would dream up designs for her aunt, the infamous Elza of Hollywood, a glamorous textile designer that took tinsel town by storm in the 1940s and 50s.


Interview by Laura Todd

Those early days had a deep impact on Weber, now a mixed media artist creating richly layered paintings and collages that still lean heavily on the screen printing techniques she learned at her father’s feet. A former art professor at UCLA, she’s been living in her Silverlake cottage going on 20 years now. It’s a place as rich with personality and as saturated with sentimental meaning as one of her technicolour collages.

Just around the corner from Sunset Boulevard, the small cottage clings to the hillside, overlooking a lush cluster of palm trees and leafy plants. There are snapshots plastered on the timber-panelled walls of smiling children and grandchildren; small objects and knick-knacks collected from flea markets and second-hand stores; wooden furniture built by her father half a century ago, including a cleverly constructed cabinet with more than a whiff of art deco influence. In the morning, the buttery California sunshine filters in through the picture window in the back, creating a dream-like space for Joan to live and work.

You’ve been living in Los Angeles since you were six years old. What was it like when you first moved here?

It was like it is now, but without the people and without the cars. I had an idyllic childhood. We walked everywhere; we could take the streetcar down Hollywood Boulevard all the way to the beach. We lived in a four-story Mediterranean that’s now a boutique hotel right up against Griffith park. You can see our house in East of Eden! It's like $400 to stay in my bedroom now.

How did your family end up here?

My aunt was a textile designer who was really famous in the forties and fifties. She called herself ‘Elza of Hollywood’ and would create these goofy designs that were really kind of beautiful. She started in New York but eventually moved here and we all came with her. Everybody in my family worked for her. She was a millionaire at 19. My father was trained as a printer so she had him work for her printing the fabric. He had a silkscreen factory in East LA. So I grew up with all her printing stuff, which influenced my art a whole lot.

What was that environment like? It must have been quite formative for you as an artist, to be surrounded by all of these colours and prints growing up.

It certainly was, my father also printed camouflage during the war, before he started working with my aunt. So once he started the factory here in Los Angeles I was down there every weekend learning the techniques. It was a very cool place to go to because the tables were huge and he had all these employees. None of them spoke English, but since my father was Hungarian he spoke like nine different languages — with a Hungarian accent in each one! He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, talking to all his employees. And I just liked going there. 

I also designed fabrics for my aunt. She would call — and I was maybe 11 — and she would say: ‘make me a horse print!’ And I would go and draw a childlike little horse and she would turn it into one of her great fabrics. So, the printing made an impact on me. This last series, this one that's up on the wall, is very inspired by that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your practice? 

I’ve always gone between the non-figurative and the figurative. I start by collaging everything into my photo silkscreens and then working over it. My colour palette is instinctive. I've always been a great colourist. I hate to say that, but there it is. You're born with it. You either have it or you don’t. But I can't draw very well. And I stopped painting on canvas years ago because I really like all these weird photographic techniques. So I've always been really experimental with that kind of stuff. 

Your space feels very much at one with your personality. Where does that design sense come from?

My mother was a wonderful decorator. Our houses were just gorgeous. She always went thrift shopping — and when you went thrift shopping in the 40s and 50s it’s very different to what it’s like today. Even this table we’re sitting at is one of her finds. She would get this really cool stuff for no money. Even though my father made a lot of money, that wasn’t the point. The point was the collection — she had lots of collections. 

In addition to my aunt being an influence and my father being an influence, she was also an influence in that way. I've always used what I see around me. There are very fluid boundaries between my life and all the stuff I do. Which I sort of like, I like to be like that kind of person.