Artist Gary Sweeney Bids Adieu to His Childhood Home by Turning It into a Work of Art

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It’s unlikely that any house we occupy as adults will ever be as special to us as our childhood home. This is certainly the case for Gary Sweeney. The 63-year-old artist is dreading the end of the month when the Manhattan Beach house he grew up in will be torn down to make way for a new, two-residency building—although he won’t actually be there to witness the carnage. “I cry at card tricks,” says Sweeney. “I’m not going to watch my family home be demolished. Just the idea of it is going to be bad enough.”

But Sweeney has thrown a farewell party like no other. To honor his former home, and the 70 years of memories it provided his family, Sweeney has plastered the exterior with enlarged family photos, all of which were taken by his father, Mike. The elder Sweeney, who passed away 15 years ago, was a hyper-documentarian before it was fashionable. His son searched through hundreds of photos (not even counting the eight boxes of slides) to select 80 images for A Manhattan Beach Memoir: 1945-2015, which you can visit at 320 35th Street from now through February 29. (These days Sweeney lives in San Antonio, Texas, but he will be on the property every Wednesday to give guided tours from 4 – 7 PM.)

“This defines me in ways that none of my other pieces come close to,” says Sweeney, who is known for his humorous text-based work and art installations, most notably Denver Airport’s America, Why I Love Her, an ode to family vacations and bizarre roadside attractions. For more than 30 years, Sweeney worked as a baggage handler for Continental Airlines, a job you might be surprised to learn that he absolutely loved because it allowed him the time and money to concentrate on his art. Last summer, he took up skateboarding again at the behest of his friend, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament. We called him to talk about his latest project, his stint as Hugh Hefner’s butler, and why California is not real life.

A before shot of 320 35th Street
A before shot of 320 35th Street

Photo by Gary Sweeney

Obviously, it must have been hard for you to sell the house. What prompted you to do it?

It’s an old house and my wife and I decided we weren’t going to be living in it. A property manager told us it needed a new roof and there might be termites. To be honest, we had been getting offers of an armored car full of money for about five years. And then in August my realtor called me and said an identical lot went for two armored cars full of money. And so that’s when we decided it was time to sell.

How much is an “armored car full of money” exactly?

2.6 million. When you see it you’ll collapse in laughter. The house is only worth $1,500. It’s the sand underneath that’s worth millions.

Manhattan Beach Memoir
Manhattan Beach Memoir

Photo by Gary Sweeney

So what led to this installation?

Well, I kind of panicked. This has been our house for 70 years. My father was a very serious amateur photographer, and he had boxes and boxes of photographs in pristine condition. It was our entire family history, from the time that [my sister and I] were brought home from the hospital, and I wanted to do something to pay tribute to it. My first idea was to cover the inside of the house. Then I thought it would look really cool on the outside, so I could share it with the public.

Did you have to get permission?

I’m one of those people who thinks it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask permission. I figured that my father was such a beloved member of the community that I could do this. He wasn’t one of the founding fathers but he might as well have been, because he was devoted to public service from 1945 until the day he died. I had it in the contract of sale that I would take occupancy of [the house] for two months and do this project.

A Sweeney family portrait
A Sweeney family portrait

Photo by Mike Sweeney

What’s the new owner going to do with it?

He’s going to tear down the house, probably as early as March, and build a big box with two residences, one in front and one in back.

What are your feelings about that? Will you be able to visit once it’s gone, or would that be too painful?

I will probably end up going back and seeing it because I’m still friends with the neighbors. It’s a fact of life of the beach and southern California, and it’s been a fact of life for a while. I’m just kind of resigned to it.

Are you having any second thoughts?

I think it’s time. My sister and I were spending a lot of time with my father in the last couple of years of his life and we talked about this. He wasn’t on his deathbed saying, Don’t sell the house. And I actually hung on to it for 15 years. [My wife and I] come back to Manhattan Beach a lot, but we don’t have children to pass it on to. I told my wife I had maybe 20 good years left and she said, no, you probably have 10. I said, okay, I’m going to cash out.

How long did it take to cover the house?

I would say a total of six days. I brought along a grad student from UTSA and he’s a very good artist and very exacting. His stuff is clean and concise, and I tend to be kind of sloppy.

Are you worried about weather from El Nino?

No. That’s the beauty of these things. They’re printed with an inkjet printer onto something like plywood, but with a very smooth sign-painter finish to it. There’s no paper involved. The photographs aren’t going to fade or peel. It’s a process that I’ve used before, and I was very confident it could withstand anything El Nino could throw at it.

And how did you decide which photos to use?

Boy, that was a lot of sitting down and looking at hundreds and hundreds of photos. It was very intuitive. I wanted a balance of all the family members and people that ever lived here. I found early ones and later ones. My mother had dementia and was in a hospital for four years and probably the last picture of her is up there. But you can see she was a very beautiful woman when she was younger. That’s the kind of meaning that went into it.

The house circa 1950
The house circa 1950

Photo by Mike Sweeney

It’s so easy for us to take and share lots of pictures nowadays. What do you think your father would have made of our relentless documentation?

I think he would have fit right in. He was doing it before it was popular. We would have company over and my father would bring the slide projector out and show vacation slides for hours and hours. I’m sure the people who were subject to them had feelings about that. But it was what people did for entertainment back then. That scene in Mad Men when Don Draper was introducing the Kodak carousel? That’s exactly how it was.

Does having all of these photos ease nostalgia or worsen it?

Photographs trigger nostalgia more than anything. This was no exception. It was just a tidal wave. And people are relating to it. I had a woman burst into tears who’d never been to our house. But it triggered something in her.

Let’s talk for a second about some of your other jobs. You were a butler for Hugh Hefner in the ’70s, yet the job you sound most enthusiastic about was airline baggage handler.

Whatever you think happened at Hugh Hefner’s house in the ’70s did happen. But my job at the airlines was so perfect. Working on my artwork and doing mindless physical labor—it was a perfect combination for me. I was dating a lot of flight attendants and I got to marry one. When I lived in Denver, we would fly to Portland [Oregon] for dinner! The flight privileges are spectacular.

I read that you recently started skateboarding again. How’s that going?

Fairly well. I’m at the point where I don’t want to try too many new tricks because falling when you have the bone density of a 63-year-old man is not nearly as much fun as it used to be. When I lay there on the ground, I wait for my soul to leave my body. But I’m progressing. I’m getting a lot of respect from the younger ones.

The artist as a baby
The artist as a baby

Photo by Mike Sweeney

Why did you leave California and would you ever come back?

I’ve asked myself that a lot. Trust me, I tell everyone that I’m from California. All those other places are a mailing address. It’s just changed so much. I don’t know, it’s a tough call, but as long as I can fly back whenever I want to and get my fill of the beach and Mexican food, there are so many more affordable paces to live. And the traffic is just beyond ridiculous. And I was a very lazy artist when I lived here. My work ethic depended on the surf. It’s not real life.

After the house is demolished, what’s next?

I have a bunch of plans but nothing monumental like this. This has taken all of my energy in the past six months. It is the definitive art piece for me. I’m trying to think of some part of the house, like a door, that I really need to take with me just in case I come up with an idea in the middle of the night and say, Oh my god, if only I had part of my house left. We have this incredible oven that everyone just rants and raves over. I’m trying to plan a burglary so it doesn’t happen to be there when the owner takes his house back.

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