Billy Kheel Creates an Adorable, Trashy LA River

One man's trash is another man's treasure in a new exhibit on the LA River.

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The Los Angeles River, with its concrete innards and freeway backdrop, has long been the set of iconic films and fodder for creative inspiration. And in case you haven’t noticed, the 51 mile-long river is having a moment. A $1 billion revitalization effort is in the works to transform the gritty waterway back into something more closely resembling and behaving like the real river that it is. Just two weeks ago, the river re-opened for recreation this summer.

While the movement to transform the river and its surrounding communities has strong support, there is also a fondness for its unique unnaturalness that has resulted from being transformed into a concrete flood channel in the 1930s. Local artist Billy Kheel has honored the LA River’s weirdness in a new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Store that will run until June 19th. Entitled LA River: Fiber of the City, he hand-crafted a series of felt plush objects to highlight some of the strange and scary finds one might discover in the river’s depths.

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With the help of Friends of the Los Angeles River’s many cleanups, trash that was actually found in the river inspired some of his creations. Beer cans, a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bag and a mangled “burner” phone sit alongside a three-eyed fish covered in graffiti emblazoned with a Dodger’s logo (which wasn’t actually found in the river). His most unusual pieces that were based on river finds were a bloody Santaria Sword and a baby bottle, Kheel said.

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Billy Kheel

In a way, his exhibit serves as a visual time capsule of one of the idiosyncrasies of our water system. The river is “like a water freeway, because of the gravity and the slope of the river and the force of the water,” said poet and longtime advocate of the LA River Lewis Macadams in an interview with Vice. “It picks up any kind of trash, like cigarette butts—even copper from brake pads—stuff that you don’t even see.” When that trash is “transformed into a felt, soft object, it really becomes an interesting thing to think about in details that you wouldn’t notice,” said Kheel. 

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But the artist, who is a graduate of Wesleyan University, also wanted to commemorate some of the things that one might have found in the river in years past. He made a wine bottle and pocket watch to reference the time when the areas surrounding the river were vineyards in the 19th century. “To me it’s [the river] a portal to all of these different histories,” he said. “Also interesting to me was Hollywood, so I put an LAPD badge in there. It could have been dropped when they were filming.” He also put skeletons of trout and a chinook salmon in his exhibition to reference a time when those fish lived there.

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Dan Marino Mahi Mahi, from a previous exhibition.

As a native of Parkland, Florida, Kheel took some inspiration for this project from his home state’s legendary swamps. “Maybe we don’t have alligators out here,” he said, but “the sort of unexpected nature of things you can find in a canal or a river I think goes back to a childhood in Florida.”

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The project, with its unabashed celebration of craft, also reflects a departure from traditional gender roles that Kheel embraces. Masculinity he said, “just doesn’t seem as as monolithic as it once was. You can be a huge football fan and a hunter, but also be a crafter. Or you could be a big fan of your daughter’s ballet, but you’re also a huge baseball fan. And I think that’s great. To me that’s always been a real source of inspiration.”

For more on the Los Angeles River, make sure you head to a panel discussion about bringing agriculture to the Los Angeles River hosted by Barbara Bogaev with panelists “guerrilla gardener” Ron Finley, Leigh Christy of Perkins+Will and Jennifer Samson of the LA River Corporation.

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All images courtesy of Billy Kheel.