An epic tale of Cali Thornhill DeWitt

Cali Thornhill DeWitt is a great artist whose oeuvre has achieved both critical acclaim and international popularity.

Cali Thornhill DeWitt was born in 1973 Sidney, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island but his family moved to Los Angeles when Cali was just three years old. Today, Cali is a true L.A. legend. At the age of nineteen he toured with bands such as Hole, Ethyl Meatplow, L7. For a short period of time he was Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny. He appeared in drag on Nirvana’s ‘In Utero.’ He co-founded the label Teenage Teardrops and a clothing brand Society. Directed two music videos for the band Iceage and he is ‘the’ guy who designed Kanye West’s – The Life of Pablo, tour merch. Thus Cali is moving deftly between mediums, the motivation behind his work remains constant. Witty narrative mixed with satirical targets, catchy phrases, and the naked truth.


So, Cali, I’d like to start by speaking about your upbringing. What were you like as a kid, as a teen?

I think my early teen years were pretty specifically Southern California. I was into punk and hardcore and anything else I could find that was underground at the time. I went to shows at night whenever I could. Also living in the San Fernando Valley, we were close to the beach so I grew up surfing. When I was 16 an all ages place opened in LA called Jabberjaw. I was very attracted to that scene and those people, so I dropped out of high school to hang out there. Jabberjaw was a huge influence in my life and I met a lot of people there who would shape my future self a great deal. I was probably the youngest one hanging out there in the early years, 1989-91. Looking back, some of those people took really good care of me.

How did you end up being a roadie and going on tour with the band Hole at the age of nineteen? What were your day to day commitments?

Hole was a part of the Jabberjaw scene and we became friends. I liked being involved, and I got to be a roadie for Hole, Ethyl Meatplow, L7 a few times. It really just meant I was in the inner circle a little more, got into shows for free, carried heavy gear from the van to the stage, got free beer. Summer 1991 Hole was going to embark on their first full US tour, and I jumped at the chance. I was actually 18 and excited to see the country and meet the extended family in different cities. It was a crucial summer for me. I was so impressed with the lawlessness of NYC at the time that I moved there for a year soon after. I loved being on tour. I drove the van a lot, unloaded gear, sold merch…. Basic roadie tasks.

For some period of time you also worked as a nanny to Frances Bean Cobain, how was that like? Are you even a kid person?

That came to be simply as an extension of what had already been happening. We were all friends and I think it was best to have a friend in the house rather than a professional stranger. I am a kid person, and at the time I was 19-20, so basically a kid myself.

When and how did the art come about?

There was always some kind of art/creative impulse going on, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel very supported in that way, and was not totally comfortable sharing most of my ideas. I grew up in a household of art lovers and spent a lot of time as a kid at museums, bugging out on Kienholz sculptures. So it was always there in one way or another. I remember around spring 1992 I got a copy of Nan Goldin’s The Other Side, and I carried that book around in my backpack for two years. It knocked me out.

At what point did you start showing your work to other people?

Probably sometime in 2001, I started showing up in the occasional group show. I wasn’t that comfortable with showing yet. I was more involved in propping up other people, putting out records for other people, organizing small exhibitions, collaborating in various ways.

What would they say about your work? What was their initial reaction?

I had a pretty supportive circle by that time, just supportive in life. Some people liked it, some were indifferent. I don’t know, it felt kind of like I should make a choice to be more serious about what I decide to do, or to just stay on the outskirts.

Who was the first person whose opinion you respected, regarding your work?

The thing is, by 2005 or so I was only friends with people I respected. I had gotten rid of the bullshit. So the support of my friends was very important. The first time a stranger who I admired reacted to it was at a show I had at Muddguts in NY. Mark Flood bought a number of pieces, and I was really excited, honored, grateful. I’d been aware of and following his work since the early 90’s.

What kind of art were you interested in when you first started and what kind of art are you interested in now?

Well, the first real work I saw in person was the LACMA permanent collection. My dad took me there many times. I was also really into design, and our house was filled with jazz records (the Blue Note label, crucial) and books (Black Sparrow design, omg), so that was all very influential. I also got into punk and zines early on so that aesthetic was a total foundation. I can remember wanting to buy a Pettibon in the late 80’s, but $200.00 was an unobtainable amount for me. Some of my favorite artists right now are Mario Ayala, Brendan Fowler, Martin Kippenberger (still), Greer Lankton (still), Frances Stark, Jenny Holzer, Ron Athey (still), Torey Thornton, Odwalla 1221, etc.

Tell me more about your work process. How long do you work on a project? Is your process intuitive or carefully planned?

It all depends. Sometimes it’s a mental thing for months, sometimes I just dump out a tremendous amount in a matter of weeks. I like to have multiple projects going at all times, no beginning, no end.

Let’s talk more about your work as a video director. I am mostly interested in ‚Iceage – The Lord’s Favorite‘ video. How did the collaboration come about, the plot for the video, etc.? Tell me everything. I am a fan!

Video work can be fun. I don’t have any desire to be a video director, but it’s good to stretch out in different mediums, and if they are available I think it’s a good idea to try it. I have a partner I work in video with, Dan O’Sullivan. We actually did another Iceage video previous to The Lords Favorite, a live in NYC thing. I have always stayed involved and interested in music, especially regional independent scenes. Iceage came to my attention via Posh Isolation, a wonderful label from Copenhagen. When we made The Lords Favorite, we were already friends. My influence for that video the lighting in the movie American Gigolo. That’s all I planned ahead for, that’s how I like it, just take a single idea as the foundation and see what gets born out of it.

Someone once asked you about people you haven’t worked with, but you would love to, and among people you mentioned there was also Leigh Bowery. What would you do with him? Dress up in drag? Do performance art? Party?

Leigh Bowery is a hero. I would do whatever he wanted. I think spending the day getting dressed with Leigh would be a very rich moment.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on physical fitness and making mental space.

Cali, how many gold teeth do you have?

Four and a half

What is your greatest superstition?

I might be all out of superstitions. I still don’t put hats on the bed, but that’s a movie superstition (Drugstore Cowboy), so I don’t know why that one sticks.

Do you collect anything?

I’m a borderline hoarder. I collect too much. If you’re in my house most noticeable is records, books, art and clothes.

What was the best party you ever attended?

In 1993 I ended up at a very private Vogue party in NYC. Maybe there were 20 people there!? Lagerfeld, Gaultier, Robert DeNiro. I was the only guy on the dancefloor, and the only other people on it were Naomi Campbell, Nadja Auerman, Kate Moss. A few others, maybe Christy and Linda. I was eating these enormous strawberries, and I had on filthy jeans and a Boredoms tee I’d probably been wearing for two weeks. I don’t know if that’s the best party I ever attended, but it stands out as a favorite.

Do you ever worry about your appearance? Like worry about looking good, being in shape, healthy eating and all that?

I swim in the ocean and I mostly ride a bicycle. I feel like life is just beginning, so I don’t want to be slowed down. I eat everything in sight.

Do you believe in love?

Of course.

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist and V1 Gallery