Lisa Lebow – Life as Conceptual Art (May 1, 2002)

Lisa Lebow died of cancer before dawn Friday morning, one day shy of her 50th birthday and the day after Stuart Tregoning’s 60th. At her insistence, he didn’t call off their Saturday birthday party, and a hundred or so people came to their ranch on Highway One, across from the town of Caspar. Some guests knew she wouldn’t be there, some didn’t. There was barbecue, a big assortment of potluck dishes and live music. It was sunny and cool.

Lisa was an artist. She blew glass and drew and painted and created installations — artwork you can walk into. “She referred to herself as the most banned artist on the coast,” Stuart says. They installed an Indian wickiup at the Daly’s Center for the Arts when the downstairs was still a department store. You had to walk through it to get to the rest of the exhibit. The clerks complained about the smell of the fresh alder saplings they bent and wove together to make the little shelter. Stuart says they made a big deal of coughing and sneezing when Lisa and Stuart were busy and had their backs turned but shut up immediately when they went to the balustrade and looked down. The art-center board supported the installation, but Stuart and Lisa took it down anyway.

Then there was a show of Lisa’s paintings at a café in Mendocino. “They were big, scary heads,” Stuart says. “I told her restaurant customers aren’t going to want to look at those, but nobody said a word, not a single soul. Then I put some little drawings of hers over a door in the dining room, and some man complained about one of them. He said he didn’t want his wife and children exposed to nudity. There was a tiny figure of a nude man in one of the drawings, smaller than a postage stamp. We had to take down the show because of that.”

They were back from a trip to Tucson where she’d seen both Native American art and Roman Catholic art. With these fresh in her mind, she made some pictures that reflected the two influences. “The women who ran the art center just hated it,” Stuart recalls. “They said it looked satanic.”

There was a sculpture that fired water-filled glass balls — unintentionally: “I made a wire cage for the spheres Lisa made, but I didn’t count on them being so heavy they’d stretch the cage open. One of them shot twenty-five feet across the room” — and one that leaked sand and water on a museum floor, but Lisa’s spirit animated all her work, and the demand for it easily outstripped the prissiness that tried to contain it.

Lisa was born to Marcia and Ralph Lebow in 1952 in Cleveland. Ralph and Marcia were from Boston, in Ohio only temporarily for Ralph’s engineering job. Lisa was one year old when they moved to southern California, where Marcia still lives in the home they bought back then, overlooking the ocean at Pacific Palisades. Marcia remembers Lisa drawing intently at age three and a half, a habit that persisted throughout her life.

Lisa’s early experience with public school was hard. She was partly deaf. Without anyone knowing her hearing was bad, she’d learned to compensate by reading lips, so it took a while for the grownups to figure out why her responses sometimes seemed peculiar. She and Stuart attended many public meetings where she was privy, by lip-reading, to conversations between officials and business owners who were trying to cut a deal during breaks in the proceedings.

She studied art for three years at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, then went to the Rhode Island School of Design and the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Her mother tells how she became infatuated with glass-blowing at age 15, when she went to a factory in southern California and watched a “gorgeous young Swedish hunk, wearing practically nothing but a leather apron and playing with fire.” Later, when she was an art student, Lisa was one of a handful of foreigners invited for a two-year training program at the renowned glass factory in Orrefors, Sweden. She became fluent in Swedish for this. 

But it was an event five years after her teenage trip to the southern California factory that would deprive the Swedish glass-blowing fraternity of its chance to claim Lisa. A UC Berkeley professor brought a group of young artists to the north coast so they could see a place that was a bustling art colony, close to big-city trade but in an inspiring natural setting that was still affordable. Their guide at the ecological staircase in Caspar was Stuart Tregoning. It was, he recalls, August 11, 1972. 

They were both leery of commitment. Stuart says, “It was love at first sight, but we took a long time to get together.” After several years of sporadic courtship, Stuart visited her where she rented a room in an unpainted Victorian in Berkeley. “There were circus people living there, too, clowns and jugglers — they were all members of a hippie circus. The place was a huge mess.” Stuart spread his sleeping bag in the middle of this, refused a place by Lisa in her bed with her characteristic bluntness: “Nope.” When she was gone to classes the next morning, Stuart tackled the heaps of untended dishes, cleaned the kitchen and made a great pot of spaghetti. “I was a big hero,” he recalls, “but Lisa didn’t come back.” He bedded down on the floor again. “I was sound asleep, and I woke up with this person bending over me. It was Lisa, and she just said, ‘Come on back.’ When she took her clothes off, I was awed. She was beautiful. Her bed was full of corn flakes and popcorn. It didn’t matter then, but forever after that I made our bed.”

He recalls a senior project she was working on in Berkeley: “The students were all supposed to bring their work to the professor’s house for a critique. She was late. It was ten o’clock at night when she got there, and the lights were off. Her Volkswagen bug was stuffed with glass and fabric and all kinds of stuff, so I said ‘better late than never,’ and she assembled the piece under a tree and left it there. We went back the next morning, and there were cops all over the place. Her professor was there, and he said, ‘That was an interesting project, Lisa, but you put it under my neighbor’s tree. She looked out her window and thought it was a dead body’.” 

Five years after they met on the north coast, they were spending most of their time together, Stuart driving back and forth from Caspar to wherever she was. “When she was in L.A., I’d pick up hitchhikers and ask them if they wanted to drive. They usually did, so I’d crawl in the back and go to sleep and wake up in L.A.” She moved to the Tregoning Ranch in 1980. She had an artist’s temperament and a tendency to march out the door, leaving Stuart flat several times in the next twenty-two years, but mostly they had a highly successful partnership and love affair, working together on her art and his building projects at the ranch and in downtown Fort Bragg. “The remodeling job for the Headlands Coffee House was totally her idea.” The café has since become one of the town’s most popular meeting places.

“She was the first local artist to do collaborative projects,” he says. Sometimes he was the collaborator and often she worked with other artists, making things that were biting, funny, startling — or all three at once. 

The Stuart-and-Lisa birthday party has been a perennial affair, the ranch in full spring flowering mode, the guests, food and music reminiscent of the coast’s hippy days.

Lisa was diagnosed with melanoma, one of cancer’s most rapid and deadly forms, in September 1999. “They removed five lymph nodes,” Stuart says, “but they missed one. The cancer spread to her liver.” She used conventional and “New-Age” medicine, determined to survive, “but she was a terrible patient,” he added. Her lifelong intolerance for finicky details and irritating obligations ran smack into a crisis that required close attention to precisely these kinds of things. Her impaired hearing, which she rarely acknowledged, made her vulnerable to miscommunication with medical personnel at a time when perfect understanding was crucial. She was enrolled, after great effort, in a cutting-edge program in San Francisco that used a culture made from her own infected tissue to create a vaccine that attacked the disease. “She missed her first appointment,” Stuart remembers sadly, a costly delay. 

But she was still fiercely determined to survive. She astounded hospital staff by insisting on taking strolls through the hospitals, clumsily connected to medical apparatus, while undergoing chemotherapy that knocks most people flat. “She was famous,” Stuart says about the reaction of doctors, nurses and technicians who watched in amazement as she chatted on the phone and interacted with hospital staff and visitors, apparently unfazed by what are usually virtually paralyzing treatments. She fought her illness, Stuart says, as though her spirit and will alone would prevail.

The cancer progressed, aggravated by painful blood clots in her leg. In her last days, she refused medication that dulled her senses and remained alert until the moment she died. She was cremated the morning of her birthday party. Stuart will announce the date of a memorial for Lisa soon.

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