Keepin’ Chico weird
Celebrating all the unique awesomeness that makes life here fun
In case you have the wrong idea, let’s set the record straight: Weird is good. When we say, “Keep Chico weird,” it’s another way of saying, “Keep Chico fun and interesting. Keep Chico from being ordinary and boring.” While it’s true that we are well known for our big park and our big school, to really taste the flavor of Chico, you have to include all the unique businesses, active and adventurous arts-makers, specialized groups, roadside oddities, and most of all, the quirky and sometimes flamboyant characters—all the funky artists, twirling hippies, street people, theater geeks, politicians, crusty punks, community rabble-rousers, and hipsters. For anyone whose Chico life is played out in the sphere of downtown, just hearing names of personalities like Sisko, DNA, Marge or Flo brings to mind vivid characters who are each a small part of the Chico picture.
Absent the weirdness, Chico would just be another rural Northern California city. Can you imagine what Chico would be like without a place like The Pageant Theatre breaking up the big-screen monotony with its funky art-house films? If the recent successful community-funding campaign to keep the iconic Bookstore open proves anything, it’s that Chico wants and needs its funky, homegrown respites from corporate blandness. (And, actually, The Pageant is in need. See Arts DEVO, page 33, for more info.)
All mini-malls and party bars makes Chico a dull city. We need weirdness of all stripes, and in this first-ever Keep Chico Weird issue we celebrate them all—the bright and colorful people, places and groups that make Chico …“Chico.”
Art creature on the loose
When searching for a town’s creative types, a good first step would be to find those people who’ve taken artistic license with their own names. If you meet a “Dragonboy,” for example, you are almost certainly on the right track. In fact, in Chico, there’s probably no local character whom you would meet who could introduce you to more of the wonderful weirdness on offer than David “Dragonboy” Sutherland.
Just to look at the colorful, heavily tattooed artist who heads up the community-minded Manas Artspace is to witness a walking, breathing, living piece of art. His hair, skin and clothing are a canvas for an ever-changing series of artworks in a mishmash of style experiments.
“For me, it’s a form of expression. It basically pays homage to the endless ways one can express the prolific beauty in nature,” Sutherland explained. “Why wouldn’t we be completely colorful? Or completely drab? Why wouldn’t our outer life represent our inner life? There’s no end to it. It’s boundless. Creativity is part of my life.”
And since Dragonboy’s arrival in 1995 to study graphic design at Chico State, his has been a very creative Chico life. In addition to his prolific output of wild and eclectic quasi-tribal/street-art/Burning Man-ish/recycled collages of multiple media, Sutherland is a performance artist, a poet, a popular model for the Chikoko fashion collective, and a musician—both electronic and a percussionist in the samba-drumline Wolf Thump. And, of course, he’s been an energetic promoter of art as a member of the now-defunct Crux Artist Collective and as the current director of Manas.
While Crux was the often-exciting product of the symbiotic relationship between the various open-minded art freaks of that collective, Manas was created by Sutherland to feed his need for making a space for the community in general to take part, mostly via themed open-entry shows. Since its inception, it’s been home to an impressive run of popular, noncurated group exhibits—everything from The Bag O’ Junk Show to the upcoming Impermanence: Big Plans for Little Frankie exhibit (opening Nov. 15; artwork accepted Nov. 6-9), in which participants will create or be inspired by miniature hundred-dollar bills and old architectural plans.
“There are not a lot of words [that can describe it],” Sutherland said regarding the excitement he sees in the people—especially those who don’t normally show art—who have taken part in the group exhibits. And he feels the excitement, too, witnessing that creative birth and moving closer to the ideal of, as he put it, “each individual in this society being recognized for having their creative part in the picture.”
And, with Manas operating as his art workspace and yoga studio, as well as a wide-open community performance and visual-art venue, it would seem that Sutherland has fairly successfully realized his goal of merging his life and art paths.
“I feel like I’m participating in creating what Chico is becoming,” he said. “I like that job. It’s an awesome job.”
Downtown’s real hub of fantasy and fun
If you are looking for GIANTmicrobes, a bust of Wolverine, a Johnny the Homicidal Maniac T-shirt or a pair of Monty Python killer-bunny slippers, the place in Chico where you can find all of these unique novelty and fantasy specialty items is BaT Comics & Games (127 Main Street). Ditto if you are in need of a Hello Kitty purse, a My Little Pony figurine or a pack of Munchkin Tricky Treats cards.
The jam-packed shop (floor-to-ceiling, including various cases, racks, shelves, and the walls themselves) seems to stock practically every compelling oddity (and not so odd, like poker chips and used DVDs), some that the average Chicoan might think they’d need to go online or head to the Bay Area to find.
And, as the store’s name implies, it stocks comic books (thousands of them, from those featuring Marvel superheroes to The Family Circus) and games.
“We have a wide variety of stuff,” said 43-year-old Trent Walsh, who has owned and run the shop 20 years as of this past May. “Our big product lines are comics, all different types of games, and the Japanese imports,” such as the Totoro product line, based on the cute, rotund main character in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film My Neighbor Totoro, as well as a variety of manga books.
BaT Comics & Games does not carry electronic games, though, focusing instead on board and card games.
In fact, Walsh has noticed an uptick in customers looking for board games, such as the increasingly popular The Settlers of Catan; they are motivated, he noted, by a desire to increase their social interactions.
“I get people in that want to play a board game, because they have friends over who all they want to do is watch TV or play video games, and with almost all board games, you have to interact with other people to play the game,” he said.
Catan, which involves settlement-, city- and road-building on a mythical uncharted island called Catan, is “a fairly easy game,” Walsh said. “You can learn how to play in 10 minutes.” Besides the sociability of the game, and the fact that it involves “no direct conflict,” another plus is that it “has a lot of variables, so every game is unique,” unlike, say, Monopoly, he noted.
“The board changes every time [you play], and playing with different people equals playing a different game. You can play it 100 times and literally have a different game each time.
“Trading is an important aspect of the game,” he added, “so you can’t annoy someone so much that they won’t want to trade with you—where they want to say, ‘I’m gonna screw you just to screw you.’”
Go to www.batcomicsandgames.com to keep up on BaT Comics & Games’ product offerings and special events, such as periodic board-game nights at the rear of the store.
Feather River Grove
The druids among us
At face value, one probably wouldn’t guess that Sue Handley, Craig Wilcox and Stella Caughell were anything more than an average group of friends or workmates sharing their lunch hour together as they sat around a table at a north Chico Mexican restaurant on a recent Thursday afternoon.
But the trio share a bond deeper than that formed around the water cooler. They are members and officers of Feather River Grove, a local druid circle and legally recognized, nonprofit Neopagan church. Since 2007, the group has held public rituals on eight high holy days celebrated annually by initiates of many earth-based, non-Judeo-Christian religions at Bidwell Park’s Campfire Council Ring. They also meet regularly for private rituals, study groups, and monthly pagan-centric meetups at Cozy Diner.
Feather River Grove is part of a larger, international organization dedicated to Neopagan Druidry called Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship. Wilcox, the group’s president and senior druid, said the local group has seven dues-paying members, as well as a few dozen “friends of the circle” who are less committed, but often show up for public rituals and other events.
The local group, though ostensibly dedicated to Druidry, is open to Neopagans who follow other paths and pantheons as well. While Wilcox’s favored deity is Lugh the Long-handed, revered by the original Celtic Druids of the British Isles, Caughell—the group’s secretary—favors Norse gods worshipped by the ancient Vikings. Handley is devoted to Iemanjá, a goddess of African origin particularly revered in Brazil and by practitioners of voodoo.
The group is currently preparing for one of its two biggest holidays of the year, Samhain, which they will celebrate on Nov. 3. The other biggest celebration is the springtime rite of Beltane. Caughell, who will lead the upcoming ritual, explained Samhain honors death, the last harvest of the year, the coming of winter, and the ancestors of those who participate. “Looking at it in a cross-cultural context, it’s similar to Día de [los] Muertos as they celebrate it in Mexico,” she said.
Feather River Grove is also part of the Chico Area Interfaith Council; Wilcox is that group’s webmaster, and the CAIC’s president, Lutheran minister Jim Henson, even came to their last meetup.
“Overall, we haven’t had any real problems or faced opposition from Christians or any other organized religious groups,” Wilcox said. “Chico has been very accepting, and people who observe our public rituals have been mostly respectful.”
Mostly. The members did have one story about a group of teenage boys who happened upon a recent ritual and began heckling. When a group member tried to explain to the boys that they were observing their religion, the boys requested they prove their Druidry by shapeshifting or throwing fireballs, and continued to pester them until the police were called to intervene.
“We tried to explain this is our religious belief, not World of Warcraft,” Wilcox said.
“I think we should have just hit ’em with a fireball,” Handley joked.
Walkin’ on the wild side
Tedra (prounced Tee-dra) Thomsen is one of those highly visible members of the community who helps define this town via its individualism and eccentricities. A 6-foot-4-inch-tall transgender person, she (Thomsen identifies as a woman) can be seen sitting in front of the Naked Lounge Tea & Coffeehouse on an early sunny morning, or walking Main Street in stiletto high-heels and a tight short skirt later in the day.
With a physical presence that includes an athletic, muscular body and self-described “strong German jaw,” the 45-year-old Thomsen is hard not to notice.
Thomsen, who had a 12-year relationship with a woman, including four years of marriage, said she’s had the mental sense of the female gender as long as she can remember. She grew up in the San Diego area, and at the time, such feelings were not up for discussion. In fact, Thomsen says her parents are still trying to come to terms with her gender status even though she’s been open about it for the past 20 years.
“I was definitely very much in the closet for a long time,” she said. “In the pre-Internet days there was no information out there. You had to go to a library. All the information I could find was very technical and medical.”
And the books that the librarians told her were on the shelves were often missing, she said.
“The theory was that people were so embarrassed when they realized the person behind the checkout counter was going to know about them that they would steal the book.”
Many locals know Thomsen from her days managing the Cold Stone Creamery at Second and Broadway streets in downtown Chico.
“I haven’t worked there in seven years,” she said. “I was just the manager, and people still ask me, ‘Do you still own Cold Stone?’ That’s kind of cool.”
In 2007, Thomsen made news by attempting to play on a coed softball team with the Chico Area Recreational District. The rules say each team is allowed a certain number of female and male players. Thomsen wanted to play as a woman, but was denied because of her physical gender. Local media, including this paper, criticized her effort.
Thomsen can handle criticism at this point in her life. She used to go back and forth in her choice of dress, but now wears only women’s clothing, and either people are more comfortable with that consistency or, she suggests, society is maturing.
“I get less and less public criticism, and if I do, it seems to be from the 17- to 23-year-old male category, for the most part,” she said. “But overall, I hear less bad things. I don’t hear ‘Fuckin’ faggot!’ anymore, and I used to hear that a lot.”
Thomsen said there are other times that she gets feedback from strangers that lifts her spirits.
“I have people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’ve seen you around for years—you really inspire me.’ And I feel like I’m appreciated for doing what I’m doing: being myself. And these people say they feel better about themselves doing whatever it is they are doing. To feel inspirational to people almost makes up for all of the bad times.”
The Maltese Bar & Tap Room
Off the main drag
The flier for the costumed karaoke show on Halloween night at The Maltese Bar & Tap Room invites Chicoans to “get weird,” which is probably redundant, not just because of the nature of the holiday, but because there’s a good chance that most any evening at the neighborhood bar in south Chico will include locals doing just that.
The Maltese’s Fall Drag Review last Friday (Oct. 18) offered a prime example of the colorful characters and activities one can take in there. Though the show itself was certainly out there (one queen took the stage and identified him/herself as “Gloria Hull”), the most surreal scenes were the product of the queens—some of them well over 6 feet tall after slipping into stiletto heels and donning wigs—hanging out at the bar prior to the show, chatting it up with the clientele over drinks.
Even on nights that don’t include events like one of the bar’s regular nights of live music or unique fun—drag shows, drunken spelling bees, trivia nights, Jell-O wrestling matches—or one-off affairs like the recent Walking Dead viewing/drinking party, The Maltese maintains a character that is refreshingly outside the norm of downtown’s college-oriented bar scene. During a recent phone interview, owner Angela Lombardi (who described herself as “a homosexual East-Coaster into the alternative scene”) said that her bar attracts “a crazy mishmash of bikers, artists and whoever. A lot of people come to The Maltese and say, ‘It’s so weird that so many different sub-sectors [of the community] can hang out together.’”
When Lombardi bought the bar from a group of firefighters about 3 1/2 years ago, she envisioned exactly that—a bar that, by keeping its doors open to anyone and everyone, would provide a space for the full spectrum of Chico personalities to interact.
“It shows that Chico does have so much to offer,” she said. “I think it’s important to have a place where anyone can come and feel welcome.” Well, almost anyone. Regarding who is welcome or not, Lombardi explained: “We’re not a gay bar; we’re not a straight bar. Our only rule is, ‘Don’t be a douche.’”
As for the sorts of events her bar hosts, Lombardi said she’s open to trying any off-the-wall suggestion at least once, and is prone to acting on whims. For instance, on a recent morning during which she was “lying in bed with a hangover,” Lombardi was struck with an idea.
“I was like, ‘Man, we should have a dress-your-dog-up-in-a-costume kind of thing at The Maltese,’ because I’m random and I like to see animals dressed in costumes.”
While it remains to be seen if the costumed-pet party concept will come to fruition, Chicoans can expect more wild fun in the immediate future. Beginning Nov. 2, The Maltese will host burlesque shows on the first Saturday of each month (starting at 9 p.m.), featuring an in-house troupe called The Malteazers.