Greg Escalante Memorial Service
Southern California Remembers a Prince
If crowd size at a memorial service is any measure of lifetime impact and influence, then be assured: Greg Escalante (1955–2017) had an outsized impact on the art, culture, and spiritual life of Southern California. More than six hundred surfers, painters, teachers, street artists and every combination thereof turned out to give testimony and pay homage at a moving, multi-faceted tribute staged October 14 on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.
During his life, Escalante was seminal in the movement that came to be known as Lowbrow art, a California hybrid that found a global audience. At his two Los Angeles galleries and through inspirational encouragement he opened career doors to a generation of artists who labored in critical obscurity until Escalante came along. As recounted at the memorial, he paved the way by inspiring the seminal 1993 Kustom Kulture show at the Laguna Art Museum, the first exhibition to present works by hot-rod artists like Robert Williams and Von Dutch in a museum setting; and then with the launch a year later of the Lowbrow Bible, Juxtapoz magazine.
Bolton Colburn, former head of the Laguna museum and, briefly, the Surfing Heritage Foundation, served as emcee of the event Saturday, narrating a long roster of film and personal tributes to Escalante. Artists Williams, Sandow Birk, Shepard Fairey and Mark Ryden joined friends and family members to recall Escalante’s optimistic voice of encouragement, but more than that, his generous nature, his zest for life, and his knack at forging connections and sparking collaborations.
The memories weren’t all happy. Escalante’s brother Joe shared a sobering, touching, filmed reminiscence of Gregorio’s early bout with mental illness, a painful family memory that rendered his later success something of “a miracle.” That miracle apparently termed out this past September, when his depression returned in overwhelming fashion. Escalante took his own life the night of Thursday, September 7.
Personal statements by young people—Escalante’s daughter Isabella, and his nephew Greg Nasser—added both joy and pathos to the proceedings.
A small group of friends and family hosted a generous reception afterward, serving up wine and Mexican fare to the hundreds who journeyed from all over the region to attend. Celebrants included longtime such Escalante collaborators as artists Anthony Ausgang, Olivia DiBernadinis, David DiMichele, Jorge B. Gutierrez, Doug Harvey, Dan Quintana, Jim Shaw, Jon Swihart and Marnie Weber; gallery operators Robert Berman, Paige Wery and Zero One founder John Polkna and attorney Marcus Bastida.
The reception was peppered with lapel pins made by Gary Musgrave; each was blazoned with Escalante’s likeness and the mantra he seemed always to have ready to greet any new idea or adventure: “Yes, my friend!” Despite the somber nature of the gathering, it was Escalante’s buoyant optimism that set the tone. “Yes, my friend!”