Tom Coston: the Doo Dah Man (and So Much More)

Jun 12, 2012

Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

HP: You were heavily involved in the recent debut of LitFest Pasadena. How and why did you get involved? What was the goal of this event and do you think you and the other organizers achieved it? How do you see LitFest growing, expanding, and changing in the years ahead?

TC: I was first introduced to the idea of a literary festival by writer Jervey Tervalon. I thought it was a terrific idea, but we were engulfed in many other projects. Eight years later, it all came to pass as good ideas always do. I know there’s a number of well-known and emerging writers and literary enthusiasts in our community. I believed the event filled a niche and that it could really catch fire here—giving it our own unique sensibility as a community. All of the organizers were smart in adjusting their sights on a manageable, human scale first-year effort. Further, I think there’s a role for an organization that goes beyond presenting—and supports literacy in our schools and the literary arts, which is important to lifelong learning for all ages. What about a Center for the Literary Arts? What better place than in the highly creative community in which we live?

HP: You are president of Light Bringer Project. This nonprofit puts on the highly creative and fun Doo Dah Parade and the incredibly artistic Chalk Festival. These seem to be very different events. Are there similarities for you? Why did you choose to take on the planning and continuation of these events?

TC: While the Pasadena Chalk Festival and Doo Dah Parade are distinct from each other in terms of creative output and participation, they share many things in common. Most importantly is the act of bringing community together to celebrate creative expression in all of its forms. To us, both events fall within the realm of public art. While many people think of public art as a a sculptural piece or installation associated with architecture or place, we concentrate on the word “public”—an art experience that’s engaged in and participated in by those from all walks of life. So be it an outrageous, inventive group of paraders or a spectacular painting in chalk, it’s all about creativity, live experience, and being as inclusive as possible.

HP: Would you explain precisely what is Light Bringer Project? It began in 1990, created by a group of residents, is that correct? 

TC: Yes, we were incorporated as a nonprofit in 1990. Light Bringer Project has its roots in conducting oral histories of the arts in the Pasadena area. When interviewing artists, many of them established here for a long time, the focus was on the growth of the arts environment. We realized we were hearing the story of our community and how it has changed over the years. This was an inspiring process and helped to shape our understanding of where we fit in and how we could best supports arts and culture in this day and time. I am not a visual artist (I write), but have always been interested in the arts and creative disciplines, in general. I felt a need to do something and became excited about learning about my own community through this window.

HP: In 1997, the LBP website says it became involved in arts education. Could you tell us a bit about these programs? Did LBP create these programs or work in collaboration with other organizations? How do the ideas for these programs, such as Expressing Feelings Through Art, or L.A. Futures Academy, come about? How is it decided that these ideas are an effective way to help children and students? Do you feel they’ve been successful?

TC: Yes, 1997 was the year we began applying our energies to arts education. It was then we launched Cultural Passport in partnership with the public library system. The arts and literacy program won the Helen Putnam Award from the California League of Cities for excellence as a public-private partnership. This began a long, and I can say without embarrassment, successful track record serving diverse public school students. We have never taught art in the classroom—many other providers are great at this. We decided to create innovative models that partnered the arts with schools, businesses and the community.

For 7 years, the FACES Program, supported by Neutrogena Corporation, delivered a folk art curriculum to middle and high school students of the LAUSD; combining study of world cultures and arts practice, FACES culimanted in an educational tour provided by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In partnership with Mental Health America of Los Angeles, Light Bringer Project currently provides Expressing Feelings Through Art, a prevention program arts curriculum to senior high school students of Los Angeles County. Scholarships are awarded to outstanding student participants and their arts instructors at a culminating public exhibition.

Over the last two years, the organization has dedicated itself to Room 13, a new initiative that we believe extends from our mission and provides valuable arts and learning opportunities at three public school sites. Room 13 is an international network of 93 student-driven creative studios, begun in Coal, Scotland in 1994. The initiative imparts business management skills along with art making at schools throughout Europe, Nepal, India, South America, and Mexico. Light Bringer Project established the first American studio in South Los Angeles in 2008. Since that time, we have established three Room 13 creative studios, including John Muir High School in Pasadena and Eliot Middle School in Altadena.

L.A. Futures Academy offers curriculum and real-world experience to public high school students interested in pursuing creative disciplines. The program partners with major industry leaders like TBWA/Chiat/Day Global Advertising in support of school-to-career initiatives and prepares students for higher education. The Career Pathways Program provides a real-world application to college-bound, career-ready initiatives already in place in public schools. Addressing the needs of young people at a critical age, the L.A. Futures Academy is helping to cultivate tomorrow’s talent pool and providing the life skills, know-how, and mentorship necessary for young peopole to advance toward creative fields. We’re really excited to have partnered with Art Center College of Design’s advertising department with John Muir High school’s AEM Pathway (Arts, Entertainment, Media) in workshops that begin this spring.

Becoming involved in these uniqe arts and learning models has been an organic process and our programs are always shaped in collaboration with other partners. Good partnerships take time and dedication. We always determine the success of our projects by how engaged the students are, how it has affected their performance in school, and how the program may have positively shifted school culture. Our Room 13 creative studios are a perfect example of the latter. We speak to teachers, but, essentially, the students are the determinging factor as to how effective a program is. We always attempt to tune in to their thoughts, needs, and feedback along the way.

HP:What does a day in the shoes of Tom Coston look like? Is it running from meeting to meeting? Do you have hands-on interaction with the students LBP programs educate and support? Do you have any new program you’re working on, anything in its infancy?

TC: Wow! No two days are the same…that’s a great thing, but one really needs to manage time well. Lots of planning in the a.m., program delivery, working with LBP folks and meetings…we put an emphasis on the planning/strategy part, so brainstorming is an important part of our process. Event management is a whole other can of worms, and as we’re producers of two major ones, we’re always moving in different directions at the same time. So, what’s the day like? Spinning plates! Careful—don’t drop any!

Yes, I participate in the delivery of the L.A. Futures Academy sessions at our partner ad agencies. I love it, and love working with the students and watching them grow in the program. I like working with their teachers as well, and all of our creative partners. We all participate directly, in one way or another, with our arts education programs. We never want to be out of touch!

HP: We know you are currently a South Pasadena resident. Is this your native home? If not, where are you from and how long have you lived here?

TC: I am from San Francisco, though I was born in Los Angeles. I always think of S.F. as my hometown, but never get there enough. I miss North Beach and the Lower Haight! I’ve been a resident of South Pasadena for years and really like the small-town character there. Although, like in many small towns, people can be idiosyncratic, but that’s all part of its personality too!

HP: If you ever do manage to have time off, how do you like to spend you day in South Pas, Pasadena, or San Gabriel in general?

TC: I’m a food lover, so I have all kinds of favorite restaurants and watering holes. I also like different cuisines, so I’m pretty experimental when it comes to trying new places. But, overall, I’m a very healthy eater and prefer it that way.

I’m an art gallery, film, and music lover, and that usually gets me into downtown L.A. and the Hollywood area where there’s more eclectic offerings. I do think we’re lucky to have a Laemmle nearby! We need more galleries in the Pasadena area…I’ve always dreamed of a cluster of them down by Art Center/South Campus. Wouldn’t that be great?

Editor’s Note: The Pasadena Chalk Festival will be Saturday and Sunday, June 16 & 17, Paseo Colorado, 280 East Colorado Boulevard, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. For more info, visit



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