Jewish Journal

Loco for Local Art

Peter Tokofsky makes Jewish culture part of new direction for the Craft & Folk Art Museum.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Apr. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

Peter Tokofsky at the Craft and Folk Art Museum's gift shop.

Peter Tokofsky at the Craft and Folk Art Museum's gift shop.

In January, the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) ended its international search for an executive director and picked an Angeleno: UCLA professor Peter Tokofsky.

What sold CAFAM on Tokofsky was his suggestion that the museum buck the tradition of looking outward to international cultures for exhibit material, and focus on indigenous trends instead.

"It's all right here," Tokofsky said. "This museum is going to be increasingly about L.A."

Tokofsky promises that future exhibits at the Miracle Mile museum will revel in local culture -- ethnic and popular -- and Los Angeles' populace, including the Jewish community. As an appetizer, entertainer Len Levitt will stage a Passover-themed puppet show, part of CAFAM's "Puppets" exhibition, on April 13, and Hebrew University professor Shalom Sabar will lecture on the lore and lure of Hebrew amulets on April 19.

One of Tokofsky's priorities will be to examine the development of the Fairfax District. He wants part of the project -- a Little Ethiopia exhibit -- up by fall. Tokofsky will also showcase Mexican sign painters -- "the kind of art you find on the walls, businesses and vehicles in East L.A."

Foreshadowing the Fairfax exhibit this month: Sabar's Jewish-themed presentation on the shifting functions of amulets in Jewish society, which have changed with the 12th-century advent of kabbalah. The lecture will include the hamsa.

"The hamsa is today more popular than it was in the past," said Sabar, an amulet collector. "The rabbis in Islamic lands 'Judaized' this basically Islamic icon."

Selected from 85 applicants, Tokofsky is a natural choice as CAFAM's curator and ambassador. Since 1992, Tokofsky has been a professor of folklore, German, and world arts and cultures at UCLA.

"I've been interested in reaching beyond academia," said the intellectually restless 40-year-old. A Santa Monica resident, Tokofsky will take two quarters off from teaching to focus on CAFAM, which marks its 30th anniversary this year.

CAFAM was founded in 1973 by Frank and Edith Wyle, actor Noah Wyle's grandparents. You can't miss the idiosyncratic CAFAM, located within a quaint three-story "house" built in 1922 that looks charmingly anachronistic among neighboring modern buildings. Senior citizens still stumble in looking for The Egg and the Eye, a popular 1960s omelet parlor that once occupied the building. The restaurant's gallery space now houses CAFAM's gift shop.

"Every time you come in, you'll see something different," said store clerk Lisa Strouss, surrounded by oversized figures, Festival of Masks artifacts and Frida Kahlo merchandise. "Everything's one of a kind."

Ahead this year -- two exhibits scheduled before Tokofsky arrived: retrospectives of late artist William Spratling, known for his Taxco silver work, and furniture-maker Sam Maloof.

By 2004, CAFAM will reflect more of Tokofsky's vision, which will come with its share of twists. The sign-painting exhibit, for example, will be divided between authentic practitioners and William Christenberry, a contemporary artist who employs sign art techniques.

Contemporary folk art, after all, includes many movements developed in our midst: low-rider bicycles, graffiti, surf and skateboard designs and rock poster art.

"One of my missions is to break down those distinctions," Tokofsky said. "I want people to stop and realize that art is all around us, to recognize that the surfer down the street may be a great artists, because a lot of its pretensions really has to do with economic insterest."

Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum will present Len Levitt's Passover puppet show on April 13, and a puppet-making workshop on April 19, as part of its "Puppets" exhibition (April 5 -- May 25); professor Shalom Sabar will lecture on "Jewish Magic and Childbirth" on April 19. For information, call (323) 937-4230.  

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