The first things I noticed when I walked into Don’s studio were the spheres. They are impossible to miss. The both of them stand waist-high. They are made-up entirely of small, metal objects. Needless to say, these things are impressive, almost scary. I was wary of shaking one, afraid that it would start rolling and I would be caught in an Indiana Jones situation, booby-trapped by art! But one of the first things that struck me about Don Gialanella was the delicacy, the gentleness with which he handles his own work. He would run his hands over the spheres so lightly, as if to reassure them that the lady with the camera was not there to hurt them. When he picked up a small Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants figurine, the type of thing kids get in Happy Meals, it was with a kind of high regard, as if he were holding a small treasure.
Don was gracious enough to meet with us at his studio in Los Angeles, and show us some of his work. He is currently working on a piece for the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital. When you take into account his natural reverence for the small and humble, it’s no surprise that his design was the one chosen from 900 others. But, actually, it’s a cow. Don described it to me as a “life-size cow, populated by toys..People recognize toys, especially kids.” Truth be told, it’s hard to miss all the miniature action figures that litter his work-table. When he began to describe this huge cow made up of little Dora-the-Explorers and Sponge-Bobs and My-Little-Ponies it made me kind of nostalgic for my mom’s 1992 Toyota Camry. The inside was constantly being emptied of and then refilled with those little plastic dolls. I can see this realistic animal, made of the least realistic forms on earth; The slope of its neck, the curve of its shoulder. I don’t know why, but I immediately loved the idea of it. It was the same feeling I had about the artist himself. When he is quiet you get the sense that he is watching and listening, not simply waiting for you to finish.
Originally from New York, I think there’s something very “east coast” about Don. Born in New Jersey, he spent many years in New York City, before moving to Taos, New Mexico, and then five years ago to Los Angeles.”New York is kind of a tough place, where you have to prove yourself all the time,” he told me. “And in LA anybody can just get up and say ‘I’m a brain surgeon’… it’s a weird place of tacit acceptance. LA is kind of a crazy world where anything goes, and I like that.”
But in a city like Los Angeles, famous in the rest of America for excess and materialism, didn’t he feel kind of stifled? I’ve been struggling with this myself, I think of myself as an artist, but I don’t really create, and when I do, I just feel like a big, fat phony. So, obviously, I did the most selfish thing I could do and asked for advice. “If you’re creating with a market in mind, you know, you’re putting limitations on yourself and your expression. But, if you’re letting it all hang out and letting the juices flow, so to speak, without concern… I think that’s what people really respond to.” He said it so eloquently, but all I heard was ‘You do you, boo’.
Finally, when I asked him why he chose to come to Los Angeles in the first place he told me, “I met a woman. Isn’t it always a woman?” And for a man like Don it will always be a woman, or people, or work, or whatever he wants it to be, he’s just too damn like-able.
A BIG THANK YOU to Don Gialanella for letting me photograph his amazing work and taking the time out to answer all my pretty silly questions.
If you have any toys your kids have stock-piled that you would like to donate for the Children’s Hospital project, please contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org.