It was one of those uniquely Pasadena landmarks when I was growing up. For most of my childhood, it simply read: “said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork.” Located on the side of an 1880s-era brick building on Fair Oaks known as the Hotel Carver, it was an odd bit of dada graffiti. Everyone in town knew about it, but no one seemed to know how it got there.
The sentence became a quotable line in my family, since we would pass it every day on the way to school. It was funny, but it seemed to have been missing something. Eventually, someone — I don’t remember who — told me that the full sentence had once read, “’My people are the people of the dessert,’” said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork.” Evidently, the 1987 Whittier earthquake had damaged the wall where the quote stood, cutting the sentence short and leaving the already enigmatic words even more mystifying.
Truncated or complete, there was something delightful about the painted letters. As a kid, I did not fully get the pun about dessert/desert, but I would giggle to myself about what the people of the dessert might look like. (Strange ice cream monsters came to mind.) It was ironic then, that the quote was finally painted over and covered by an ad for a Nestlé diet drink in 1995. People of the dessert indeed. Preservationists, who had come to view the quote as part of Pasadena’s heritage, mourned the loss.
But who painted the darn thing? This was the greatest mystery. Fifteen years on, I hit the internet to try to find out. The Wikipedia entry for “Old Town Pasadena,” as well as a 1978 article by L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith, mentioned a Paul Waszink in connection with the quote, and Smith hinted that Waszink had later moved from Pasadena to the Bay Area.
With these clues, I Googled Waszink’s name and found a “P.H. Waszink – Construction Consultant” in Mill Valley. I then searched Paul Waszink on Facebook, and finding that the same website for Waszink Construction listed on his page, I took a chance and wrote to him. Sure enough, Lawrence’s creator had been found. What follows is my interview with him.
Born in the Netherlands, Paul Waszink emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1955, eventually settling in Claremont. Waszink attended Chaffey College, Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, where he earned an M.A. in Sculpture and Perceptual Psychology. He lived in Pasadena and Sierra Madre from 1971 to 1975, a period he recalls fondly as “pre-Financial Hub, pre-Yuppification Retail Frenzy.”
As it turns out, the quote was no Banksy-style piece of guerilla art, but was part of the Inner City Mural Program, commissioned by the Cultural Arts Section of Los Angeles and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. An effort by the city to “stimulate greater community awareness of, and support for, the fine arts” and to “showcase the work of community artists,” the mural program took place between 1973 and 1974. Waszink was one of 20 artists selected to participate (others included Kent Twitchell, whose Freeway Lady mural overlooking the 101 gained much acclaim).
Waszink currently divides his time between Mill Valley and Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife, Libby Chaney, an artist.
To begin with, am I the first person who’s tracked you down to ask about this?
Sorry to say, you are not the first to “track me down” regarding the mural. The Pasadena Historical Society and Kevin Cloud Brechner (who occupied that 3rd floor room of the Hotel Carver for ten years after I left) got to me earlier.
How and when did the idea for the quote come about? Was it inspired by an actual piece of writing?
The idea of converting that sentence into a building mural occurred to me when I decided to enter the mural competition [in 1973]. The sentence had “arrived” a couple of years earlier, complete — as numerous word combinations did and still do. Examples of other word pieces commissioned and painted on buildings or walls:
Another layer of said/meant (painted at a slight slope on a private wall in Beverly Hills)
The whether broke.
… I could still make a cottage industry out of doing more such word pieces: for example, late last week a word combination struck me, and out of that for old times’ sake I could see making a sentence like:
“Ja, night fission…” said Werner von Braun, putting the glasses back on.
Have you always been pun-prone?
Pun-prone? A medical condition I have been saddled with all my life. So, yes, on occasion; also pun-standing, pun-walking and pun-hearing, pun-seeing. Punditry: never.
What was your association with the Hotel Carver?
I had my studio (central bay on the ground floor; no windows but sixteen feet of clear height!) and living space in the building between 1973 and 1975, at which point I moved north to San Francisco. I couldn’t see all the way across the park south of the Hotel Green due to the smog, and it demoralized me. Harold Tivey shared part of my studio space for a time, and James Turrell, among others, came by to see the work going on in there. I had a third-floor room on the inside face of the wall on which the mural was painted, at the back of the hotel, and commuted to my studio using the fire escape.
What were you doing for a living at the time?
I was earning a living in several ways: construction and design work, from 1964 on; teaching art; experimental playground equipment design and construction; writing, mainly through the Junior Arts Center in Barnsdall Park; and some commissioned work as an artist.
Did you get approval for the mural from the owner of the building?
Duane Waddell, the owner of the Hotel Carver property at that point and the operator of a terrific regional theater on the ground floor, was amenable to my proposal to place the permanent mural on the building of my choice: his. The split-second it took to look up at the high north wall of the Hotel Carver to read the mural when going southbound on Fair Oaks seemed like the split second during which the sentence had arrived, for me – with double-take – and this seemed like a good match.
What were initial reactions to the piece like?
I recall some bemused mystification; the ever-communicative and satisfying, “Huh?”; and some arguments about history: “Did he really say that?”
So there you have it. A mystery resolved. Lawrence and his fork are long gone, but they live on in collective Pasadena memory. Waszink’s mural still serves as a sort of Masonic handshake between longtime residents, though sometimes the words get confused. I mentioned the mural to a fellow native the other day, and he still remembered it from his childhood — “oh yeah, the one about D.H. Lawrence and the desert.” (I didn’t bother to correct him.)