The Vectors of Providence
How often it is that small gestures bear the seeds of great trends in our lives. A seemingly casual decision can spin out events in a vast web of coincidence that catches us up, connects us with others, and changes our lives in ways we never dreamed possible.
The first strand in this particular web was laid in the summer of 1970. Pete’s cars were always on the verge of breaking down, so he asked me if I would give him a ride to Laguna Canyon to meet with someone named Dion Wright. Dion was curator of the legendary Mystic Arts World Galley on Pacific Coast Highway. He was also one of the founders of the Laguna Beach Sawdust Festival. Dion wanted to look at Pete’s work, possibly to put some of it on display. I remember finding our way to the small house in the canyon, seeing Dion’s whimsical metal sculptures, and his newly finished painting, Taxonomic Mandala.
I was living in my first apartment. It was a tiny one bedroom, the front unit of a little triplex on Francis Street in old La Habra. My closest friends, Bob Diaz, and Jeff Goslowsky were frequent visitors. None of us was 21 yet, and Pete was our go-to guy for beer. There was an older woman, and her granddaughter in the two bedroom unit at the back. A couple years later they moved out, and not long after, Pete showed up with his father to paint the place. It turned out that Pete’s dad was my new landlord. The next thing I knew, Pete’s brother Richard was living in the back.
The street sign at the corner of Francis and Cypress was missing the reflective coating on the “F”, and we sometimes called ourselves The Rancis Street Gang. We drank a lot of booze and smoked a lot of dope.
We partied heavy, argued loud, and then apologized the next day, and partied some more. They were some crazy good times.
But life’s currents pull us where they will. Jobs and girlfriends become wives and careers. We all of us moved, drifted apart, and went on with our lives. One by one I had lost contact with Bob, Pete, Richard, and Jeff, even though for a while they lived close by.
Eventually we just lost track of one another. The last I had seen Pete was sometime in the late 1990’s.
My wife Mary asked me If I wanted to go to the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach. I said, No. I like art and craft just fine, and the Sawdust Festival is the best of the best when it comes to that sort of thing. But I hate to drive. Laguna Beach is a long ways from here, and besides, parking for the event is awful. But Mary’s friends were driving, so I reluctantly agreed to go.
The Sawdust Festival is held in a shady grove just inland from town. As it turned out, the parking gods were with us, and we found a space easily.
We passed through the gate into the festival, and just about the first thing I noticed was a booth for metal sculptor, Dion Wright. Later in the day I recognized Dion there, talking with a woman who had been admiring his artwork. I stood to the side and waited for the gal to walk on.
I introduced myself, and said, “I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but years ago I visited your home in the Canyon with an artist friend of mine, Pete Hampton.” Dion lit up. It was clear within two sentences that he had a vivid memory of Pete.
Dion Wright recalls:
He was a goofy-looking teen-ager, as far as I could tell, with hooded eyes and long straight hair, a sly smile, and that remarkable depth. I wondered if he were crazy or not, but since all artists are off-the-charts in some or several ways, I just chewed the fat with him, and let him reveal himself and what he was up to. As it happened, he was up to very much what I was up to, so there was a simpático from the get-go. I scheduled him for three weeks on the walls plus a couple of his other-worldly lecture-demonstrations. The first one was modestly attended, but the second, through word-of-mouth, rocked the rafters. His sound-effects were unique, and I can still hear him being a tree frog.
I never knew him after that, but he had made a strong impression on me, which I'm happy to get to follow-up on now, even though I missed seeing him again in life, and even though he apparently was beset by dark forces... not an atypical screenplay among artists.
I will note here, that it was quite common for people to underestimate Pete's age by many years.
Dion asked if I had knowledge of Pete, and his whereabouts. I had to confess that I had not seen Pete in over fifteen years. Dion fixed me with a look that just froze time. Suddenly the whole world contracted into a sphere that held only the two of us standing there. I had this weird sensation that I was on trial, that something very big was about to happen.
“Could you find out?” he asked.
I promised Dion Wright that I would. Somehow that casual decision held the gravity of a vow. I got Dion’s card, and email, and bought his book. But when I left the booth the strange spell broke, and I didn’t think much about it for the rest of the day.
I had promised to try to find Pete. But where to begin? I didn’t know where to find Jeff, or Bob, or Pete’s brother, or any of my friends from back in the day.
And out of nowhere, a couple days later, I clicked on Facebook, and saw an old acquaintance, Mike Fairless, in the “people you may know” thing.
I sent Mike a friend request. He accepted it, and I asked if he knew where Jeff was. Mike put me in touch with Jeff. Jeff put me in touch with Pete’s brother Richard, who had moved to South Carolina. Richard told me that Pete was living in a subsidized housing unit in Brea, just five miles east of my house.
I drove out to the apartment complex in Brea. It's a secured facility, so I had to speak with the unit manager. She would neither confirm, nor deny whether Pete lived there, but she took my phone number. She called a couple of days later. Pete was indeed there. He remembered me and was looking forward to seeing me.
The next day I made the short drive out to Brea. The manager let me in and directed me to Pete's apartment on the third floor. I wrote Dion Wright:
Pete is 77 years old, I think. He's bent over nearly double, He's pale, has a scruffy, white beard, and his hair hangs down to the middle of his back. I brought my camera, but once I was there it didn't seem appropriate to be snapping pics. He had no problem remembering who I was. He's mostly coherent, but he mumbles on in an odd sort of spiraling stream of consciousness where he'll drift from old stories, ranting about assorted random stuff, passing back to his dreams, apocalyptic nature prophecies, predictions he made that have come true, and stuff about living to two hundred because he saw it in National Geographic, and back to the hills, weather, recording thunder... In another age and time he might have been a Jeremiah, or held as some sort of sage. Your phrase "Divinely mad" fits. I asked him a couple of times if he remembered going to Laguna, and meeting you, but he couldn't recall it. The memory may arise later. We'll see. The guy has no one other than the caregivers. His brother and sister in law are the only relatives, and they're somewhere back east. I don't know what has happened with either his show, or his artwork, but mention of both things surfaced in his ramblings. I will be making regular visits out there. I'm at that stage in the game where where I want to hang on to as many threads as I can. I've known Pete since 1963. I have always- from the time I first met him- believed that he is some kind of a genius- Sort of a later day Van Gogh. His work, his shows have always, to my eye, had that "something". But not everyone sees it, and I wonder if the work speaks to me only because I knew the artist. Hard to tell. "
"I got the OK from the apartment manager, and yesterday I paid a visit to Pete Hampton. I hadn't seen him in well over a decade. But I knew it was Pete when I knocked at the door, and after several minutes I could hear him shouting something about "Burning in Hell! Burning in Hell..."
Over the course of the next year I visited with Pete about once a week. I got in touch with his case manager from County Senior Services, and his Home Health Assistant. I would learn later that Loni, his case manager, often expended extraordinary efforts on Pete’s behalf. She and Geri, Pete’s sister-in-law did all they could to keep his finances in line, and see that he got the medical care that he frequently needed. I stayed in touch with his brother Richard, and Jeff Goslowsky as well.
Pete’s third-floor apartment was tiny, but it had a balcony and a nice view of the hills in Brea. The dining area and bathroom were lined with half gallon Canadian Club bottles filled with water, “just-in-case…”
The visits weren’t easy. I would call in advance, but Pete never picked up the phone. I’d leave a message, and just drive over there. Sometimes times I’d knock, but he’d be in bed, or just wouldn’t answer. Other times, Pete would tape a “come in” note to the door. It was painful and difficult for him to move. Both legs were bandaged from ankle to knee, the result of a MRSA infection.
Even with the walker he hobbled around the place bent over nearly double.
I would usually find Pete sitting in the little kitchen, hunched over in a desk chair in front of the open refrigerator. He would ramble on, and often rage about things past, present, and future with no transition between topics. Keeping up a conversation was like hopping on and off a merry-go-round. The visit would usually conclude with my making a trip to the grocery store for a handle of Canadian, and some of the few items he kept in his spare pantry.
Thanksgiving of 2017 rolled around. Jeff Goslowsky, whom I had not seen in many years, joined us for Thanksgiving dinner. We couldn't manage to get Pete to join us, so Jeff and I took dinner over to Pete. Pete came alive when Jeff walked through the door. For a while Pete was animated, talking about old times, and friends, but he faded quickly.
I visited a couple or three times more before a bad case of influenza that December laid me low for over a month.
After the flu passed, I couldn’t get in touch with Pete. His case worker told me he had been hospitalized. Rick told me that he was at a convalescent facility down in Orange County.
The visits in the convalescent hospital were the best times that I spent with Pete that year. Pete was lucid, and cheerful. He introduced me to one of the attractive young nurses at the hospital. He could still turn on his impish sort of charm.
Pete had her enchanted with his stories about his shows, and the hills, and especially the power line insulators. Pete had hundreds of them. He told her all about how beautiful cool they were. She told me about how she had looked them up on eBay, and ended up starting her own collection.
Pete was released from the hospital, and that Spring we had some very good talks. We even discussed the possibility of trying to get some of his work put on display.
But Pete couldn’t manage his meds, especially the painkillers and the benzodiazepines. He faded back into semi-coherence soon after.
That Summer, I hosted all of the old Rancis Street Gang (Except for Richard) for a reunion party over the Fourth of July weekend. This strand in the web reconnected me with all my old friends. We still stay in touch.
But I hadn’t seen Pete in a few weeks. There was no answer at the door, no call from his home assistant. July 26, I got a call from Richard’s wife Geri, followed by an email from Jeff. Pete was at St. Jude’s, and not doing well. Something told me not to wait. I dropped what I was doing and drove over there.
The visit was as horrible as it was brief. I had to don gown, gloves, and mask to go in. I can’t forget the masked nurse’s stare. She was almost in tears. Pete was screaming out of his mind. He was lucid enough to know I was there, and he begged me for help. I never saw anyone so sick.
He died that night.
Richard and his wife Geri came out in August, and Jeff and Bob drove up from Hemet to help clear out Pete’s apartment, and storage space. We had all of us been part of a circle of friends that had long ago dissolved in time and distance. Now, after decades, we were called to work together to complete this last sad task for Pete.
We gambled on the Preserve being empty, which wasn’t a good bet on a Sunday afternoon in late August. But then again, all of us had been pulled into this web of encounters that was characterized by wildly unlikely coincidences.
I was in the truck with my wife Mary. Bob and Jeff went with Richard and Geri in the rental car. We turned off Whittier boulevard, rolled up the sweeping four lane that climbs over the Puente Hills, and made the quick, sharp left just past where the houses end.
There was one car in the tiny lot, and the owners were just getting in to drive away. Our luck held out. We had the world to ourselves.
Appropriate to the task at hand, there were six of us. We walked slowly up the steep dirt pathway into the hills. We’re all in decent shape, but none of us is young anymore. I carried the back pack.
The trail was formerly an access road for the oil wells, but the pumps and drills have been gone for decades. It climbs out of the parking lot, and turns on a little plateau before sliding down the wall of a deep south-facing canyon.
It’s always dry in the Southern California summer. The hills are yellow, spattered with dark green sumac bushes, pale gray sage, and the dull green of the prickly pear. The view takes in everything from Downtown Los Angeles, to the Port of Long Beach, and all the cities on the coastal plain.
The sky was late season pale, hazy, and streaked with wispy clouds. Catalina island was barely visible, floating like a ghost in the ocean. Even in the heat of the day there was wind enough to keep us cool, and make our task difficult.
Nobody said much except to take note of the absolute perfection of the moment.
We had solitude above the noise and traffic of the city. The yellow hills, the turquoise sky sprayed with wispy clouds, the gold light in the late summer afternoon.
This was the place and the beauty that Pete had captured so often and so well. For those minutes we stood in one of his paintings. This was exactly how he would have wanted it.
Richard, Jeff, and Bob gathered around. I opened the back pack, took out my pocket knife, and we all took a hand in the scatter. It’s a hard, messy business. We gave our prayers, and returned to the cars with dust on our hands, and the bitter taste of death on our lips. Our timing had been perfect. Just as we reached the parking lot, three cars had pulled in, and people were getting set to go hiking down the trail.
Life rebounds in us, and hunger always follows a funeral.
Richard and Geri took us to dinner at El Cholo, La Habra’s finest. We came back to my house, that Sunday, after the scattering. All of Pete Hampton’s work: everything from his early childhood drawings to his last mad ravings was piled up in the living room, and in the den. All that I was initially expected to do was to carry the huge collection of Pete’s remaining work, and his few possessions to a storage unit, and leave it there.
We were looking through a large stack of Pete’s paintings in one of boxes, and piles that I would later call the Archives. This would be the moment when I got what I call “The Voice”, a sudden, unexplainable knowing, and asked that everyone please, please take care to not disturb the order in which the paintings were stacked. I never had an idea or made a decision. That sudden unexplainable knowing, spoke again, and I heard myself volunteering to record and catalog this huge collection of paintings
We were all of us tired, drained from the weekend of hard work, and the gravity of saying our last farewell to Pete. No one stayed long. Rick and Geri had an early flight home to South Carolina. Jeff and Bob had a long drive ahead. We said our goodbyes, they drove off, and I set about finding space for box after box of paintings, drawings, writings, tapes, slides.
I had volunteered to catalog this immense pile of work. I did not for a moment consider that I didn’t have a decent camera, and only some small experience with photography. Nor did I consider that my computer was nearly ten years old, and I had no idea how to go about doing such a thing, or that I had just signed on for a project that would probably take years to complete.
But somehow I knew beyond all shadow that it was my responsibility to do it. Sometimes you just know. This was a mission that needed to be accomplished, and my place to accomplish it, a task that needed to be done, and I was the only one who could do it. Presumptuous? Maybe. Hard to tell. Now it was my job to sort it all out.
I bought a Canon EOS, and a new computer. In another of many odd coincidences I moved my old secretary desk in the den from under the window to in front of the bookcase. Pete’s old easel slid into the gap with less than an inch to spare on either side. I bought a piece of black velvet to cover the easel, and started in photographing the first random pile of paintings. Shortly thereafter I started a blog on Blogspot. com and The Lost Canyon Project was begun. Fifty nine blog posts are the chronicle of that effort.
Photographing the paintings was harder than I thought it would be. Every photo had to be cropped and corrected in Photoshop. Each picture required a serial number, and location code for the various boxes and bags, the “archives” they were stored in. I also recorded all the notes, and inscriptions that Pete often left on the backs of the paintings. Somehow I knew they would be valuable, but I didn’t know why or how. There were eight hundred and twenty eight paintings to photograph, and record. It took just under a year to do it. Creating the 486 page Word document that would become the catalog was the next phase. It was a lot of work, but I learned how to create a book.
I wouldn’t find out until later that it was all training and practice for the task that later would seize me in a ferocious, and obsessive burn to work that would leave me spent, drained, and exhausted mentally, and spiritually.
The first inkling of what was to come occurred in December of 2018 when I skimmed through Pete’s notebook, “Script to The Lost Canyon and Lost Era 1961- ‘63”. I ran across some of the notes to The Deep Dark Hole, and found the corresponding paintings in the second archive of pictures. I remembered this stuff from when I was a kid. Pete used to terrify us with his dramatic nightmare story, flashing the gruesome pictures in our faces just as he got to the scary parts. I matched up some of the paintings with the text in an early blog post, but there were still hundreds of paintings to catalog, and months of work still ahead.
The catalog was complete in September of 2019, a little over a year after beginning the task. All of Pete’s artwork was photographed, numbered, boxed, and stored neatly in the storage locker.
But I still had the folio containing Pete’s writings, and notebooks sitting in the den, and I still had the feeling that there was work yet to be done. I started looking through the notebook, “Script to The Lost Canyon and Lost Era 1961-63”. There I found more fragments of Lost Era narrative scattered across many pages of notes, all in long hand, and all in pencil. The Lost Era material was mixed in with notes for The Lost Canyon Trip, and a lot of just random stuff about weather, astronomy, and natural history. I went from the notebook to the picture files on the computer, and back to the notebook. At 116 paintings the eleventh archive, “Paintings to The Lost Era”, was the largest single group of work. But I began to realize that many more of the Lost Era paintings were scattered throughout rest of the collections. I had thirteen more archives to search through. At that point the Lost Era pictures began to stand out from the rest. It was like finding pieces of a Jigsaw puzzle mixed in with the squares from a Scrabble set.
I returned to the scraps and fragments of narrative, and somehow I began to see just how it all fit together. One after the other the paintings magnetically snapped together with the text and with each other. I could see the slide-show in my mind’s eye, and hear Pete narrating the writings, and folding them into the sequence of paintings. The skeleton of Story Five began to take shape. But I had to re-do everything I had done for the blog post months earlier. The Deep Dark Hole pictures and text I had matched together back in December were almost all wrong.
And that strange obsessive burn lit up in me. I was guided, or maybe compelled by this inner voice that kept moving me forward, giving me insights and clues to the narrative, and pointing out often tiny details that kept linking text and picture together. I was calling up memories from visits with Pete that took place over half a century ago.
I started spending some long hours at the computer. I would soon be spending longer, and longer hours as I began to watch The Lost Era take shape on my desktop. The project was taking on an addictive quality.
The catalog pictures needed to be cropped, squared, and color corrected in order to serve as illustrations for the Lost Era stories. It was a lot of work, but it was relatively easy. But I realized too, that all of the hundreds of .jpg files would have to be re-named so they could be easily located in the archives, and would also appear in the correct sequence in the picture file. One more time consuming step.
Editing the text was a different matter entirely, and proved to be much more difficult than I imagined. Pete’s prose could be compelling and melodramatic, but it was more frequently awkward, and sometimes quite opaque. Quite a few of the passages in Pete’s text would be nearly incomprehensible to someone who did not know Pete. To me, it may have been awkwardly written, but it all made perfect sense.
Nonetheless, it was surprisingly hard to take those convoluted sentences, break them down, and reassemble them for clarity. Adding to the difficulty, I knew I had to retain Pete’s ‘voice’ in the reconfigured text. Too, this added a layer of great responsibility to the project. I had to re-craft most of the sentences, and not alter the meaning or the tone of what Pete wrote. The style in the narrative had to be consistent from the opening sentence to the conclusion. It wouldn’t do at all to have my own ‘voice’ intrude on Pete’s narration. Time and time again I would find myself going over some short passage, asking myself, “What is it that you need to say here? How do you say it?” and answering, “No. Try again.” until I was frustrated enough to have to just get up from the keyboard and walk away. But the re-write always just seemed to come to me. Again, it was like finding that one piece in the jigsaw puzzle that has eluded you for hours, and then shows up right under your finger.
But continuing the jigsaw analogy, it was quite clear that many pieces of the puzzle were missing. Along with the hundreds of paintings that Pete left there were hundreds of boxes of slides that he had taken of paintings for the never completed Lost Era show. I looked through several boxes of Lost Era slides, and found images of some incredibly beautiful pieces. As I wrote in the introduction to The Lost Era Transcripts, these paintings were long ago sold off in shopping mall art shows. But I had over eight hundred paintings from which to find substitutions. Some of those came from Pete’s collection of horror stories. I used paintings from “You Made Marks In My Driveway”, and “The Midnight Terror” in Story Four: Night. Of course I also borrowed paintings that were done for The Lost Canyon Trip.
By the end of December of 2019 I thought I had the project pretty much completed. We held a good sized gathering at our home for New Year’s Eve, and I had eight or nine people crowded into my den so I could show them the results of the work on my computer. Everyone was impressed.
Even so, I still had that voice in my head telling me to go through Pete’s notebooks again. Doing so took a lot of patience. The notes for The Lost Era were mixed in with notes for The Lost Canyon trip, and they were spread across many pages in the notebook. Other notes were written on scraps of paper in other folders, or scribbled on the backs of paintings, or mixed in with all kinds of random stuff.
But that voice was telling me something. The project had taken on the force of a mission in me. I was haunted with the notion that I had been chosen to do this, that there was a spirit guiding me through the effort. It occurred to me many times that I was the only one who could accomplish this.
There was something I still needed even though I hadn’t yet seen it. The Deep Dark Hole was dramatic and frightening, but it had to be followed with… something. The story couldn’t end with the nightmare.
And then, there it was, hidden in plain sight amongst the pages of notes, and scraps of paper: I found the few short paragraphs that comprised the text for Story Six: The Anise Fields. Notes on the back of those paintings confirmed it. Now I knew why there were so many different paintings of the same two dragonflies in flight. I had a wonderful chapter to add to the work as a whole. But it meant starting much of the project over again almost from scratch.
Other paintings that I had used in other places in the story suddenly found a new home, and needed to be moved, and/or replaced. The final discovery was the few sentences that would serve for the concluding story, “Was it a Dream?” The archives were full of sunset paintings to choose from for the final chapter.
The body of the story was as complete as it could be. All that remained was editing, polishing, trimming loose ends, and a taking care of a hundred other small details to bring the work to its conclusion. No surprise here, it took a few more months to bring it all together into the form you see here on the blog.
Finally, I created a Word document, and printed several copies of The Lost Era Transcripts story for the Hampton family, and some few of Pete’s friends.
It is only now, with a couple of months behind me since completing the Lost Era Transcripts, that I am beginning to realize the strangeness of this whole project, and most particularly the weirdness of this last phase of it. It’s a lot like waking in the middle of a lucid dream, only to find that you’re still sleeping and dreaming, and need to come awake all over again before you’re truly out of the dream.
Many years ago I recall standing in Pete’s front yard, looking at his ramshackle old Chevy wagon. An odd thought entered into my head, and stuck there.
“Someday, Pete Hampton will be recognized as one of America’s great artists. I am going to have a role in making that happen”.
“Someday, Pete Hampton will be recognized as one of America’s great artists. I am going to have a role in making that happen”.
For a while there was a prospect of seeing The Lost Era published, but the deal fell through. We shall see what eventually happens with the book.
So here we are. Pete’s mission in life was to see the hills preserved, to record the beauty of a time that would be forgotten, and a place that would eventually be lost. My mission was to bring Pete’s work to the world.
To that end, at least for now, we have this blog right here before you. As I said, we shall see what the future holds. I’ve given it my best.
Hope you’ve enjoyed.
John W MacLean