How now, Horse Cow?

Sacramento’s edgy artist collective is out of a home and seeking a way forward, and the city’s subculture hangs in the balance

Photos by Anne Stokes and R.V. Scheide

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned fire to rivet the attention ofthe authorities.

On the morning of Monday, April 6, flames—sparked by a live extension cord upon which someone had placed a barrel—climbed some 25 feet into the air on the periphery of the Gallery Horse Cow art complex in West Sacramento, triggering an emergency response. The conflagration ignited some stacked cardboard and threatened a nearby electrical pole; it was extinguished quickly by Horse Cow founding member Allen Denault, who jumped up on a nearby table wielding a hose hooked up to an agricultural pump.

Nevertheless, the fire department showed up, with city code-enforcement functionaries following close behind. Up went the “unsafe to occupy” placards. Off went the electricity. Soon, word spread among Horse Cow’s many friends in the art and avant-garde communities around Sacramento and elsewhere: The urban artist community was being shut down by the Man, forced to vacate its third location in eight-and-a-half years of existence. The diaspora had begun, another forced move that would result in roughly half of the artists that called the place home moving somewhere else.

Entering the Horse Cow’s location on the Sacramento River for the first time, on a sliver of land off N. Harbor Boulevard just past the Interstate 80 bridge, you could imagine you’d stumbled onto the set of a Fellini movie, or perhaps a more friendly version of Mortville from John Waters’ 1977 film Desperate Living. Huge, cartoonish figures built by the late Sacramento outsider artist Duke Cahill out of metal barrels and fiberglass—a yellow cat with black whiskers, a black dog with pink polka-dot haunches, a prehistoric-looking bird head atop metal scaffolding—loom overhead. The absurd creations were rescued from Cahill’s 2.5-acre compound on Power Inn Road in south Sacramento, which rose like an amusement park on acid from the surrounding sprawl of trailer parks and encroaching apartment complexes until the late 1980s. They now watch sentinel-like over the gravel plaza, around which a warren of corrugated metal buildings line the plaza as it narrows to a point at the end.

Art is everywhere: Hand-painted signs; found objects, like an old metal frostie from a 1950s fast-food joint; random sculptures. Fine art collides with folk art; large, vibrant paintings by Horse Cow founding member Steve Vanoni hang side by side with rough-hewn creations from the Howard Finster school of American Gothic. Giant metal constructs, which include a fountain fashioned from three abandoned satellite dishes set atop metal Erector Set-like scaffolds, a geodesic dome frame that covers a garden area, some awninglike structures festooned with ’50s and ’60s car hoods with their sheet metal cut into elaborate lacelike psychedelic patterns, along with assorted bicycle skeletons and rims, occupy the open area.

Several art cars are parked about, left over from an “Art Car Bizarre” event at the first Horse Cow facility on Del Paso Boulevard—a couple of rolling silver UFOs built from aging Volkswagen bugs; and a remarkable copper-colored Citröen DS-21 whose sides are formed like a nicely rounded, naked woman, with her flowing locks covering the car’s sloping hood, like a figurehead from a sailing ship.

And, to add a touch of the surreal, chickens, ducks and one giant turkey—which ruffles its feathers and chases a black rooster around—prowl the yard, along with a pair of goats, one black and one white. Several cats lurk in the shadows, watching with predatory patience as the yardbirds strut.

It’s the coolest junkyard you’ve ever seen, packed with an embarrassment of outsider-art riches for those who don’t mind their eye candy cluttered and more than slightly askew, but for anyone obsessed with feng shui, or enamored with a clean Scandinavian or Japanese design aesthetic, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. The overall effect is a Northern California expression of the 20th-century Los Angeles folk artist Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, a gallery of surprises cloaked in the disappearing kitsch of roadside Americana.

Allen Denault gets the message from West Sacramento: Artists, you’re not welcome around here no more.

Photo By anne stokes

“It was paradise,” said Ken Seibert, the sculptor who created the lace-patterned car hoods. It was his quirky ideas about sustainable living—quirky in the eyes of some, anyway—that led to a yard squawking, gobbling and quacking with random free-range fowl.

“I’m going to miss the fresh eggs,” another former resident, local deejay and musician Larry Rodriguez, confessed while packing to move to new quarters in Oak Park.

Others weren’t so charitable. “Those eggs tasted good,” said glass-blowing artist Rene Steinke, who, with Denault and Vanoni, has become one of the principal movers in the effort to carry the Horse Cow vision forward. “That is, until we noticed the chickens eating Styrofoam and other junk in the yard.”

Early days at the Stucco Factory

Long before Horse Cow formed in Sacramento, the city was a hub of art activity that hummed and throbbed outside the boundaries of the more sedate gallery scene.

“One of the things that got me up here was that there was art,” said Gene Oldfield, a math professor at Sacramento State, who moved here in the 1960s after meeting some local artists during a stint in the National Guard. Oldfield said he performed as an “art functionary” in the early years, when venues such as Belmonte Gallery in Oak Park and the Candy Store Gallery in Folsom helped define the scene. More than a few Horse Cow denizens refer to Oldfield as the “mad scientist.” Before the code enforcers showed up, he lived in a converted school bus at the far end of the West Sacramento complex, among the robots and electric-powered, bicycle-based “inner city vehicles” he builds.

Other hubs of activity in the early years included the Acme Gallery on Del Paso Boulevard, along with a number of temporary venues that would be reborn in the mid-1990s as Second Shift, the late-night addendum to the more mainstream Second Saturday activities in Midtown.

Another early agent of change was artist D.R. Wagner, a one-man gentrification force, according to Oldfield. “His plan was this: ‘You got an empty building? I’ll come in and paint the walls white and clean up the floor and get it so I can run a gallery, and then when you rent it, I’ll move.’ And he moved his Open Ring Gallery four or five times, downtown.”

But the closest precursor to Horse Cow was the Stucco Factory, home to a collective of artists who converted an abandoned stucco-making complex at the northwest corner of 27th and R streets into a warren of studios and performance spaces. Oldfield took a studio there in 1978, next to one inhabited by the late artist and actor Victor Wong. Other artists active there included Gary Dinnen and Vanoni, and such bands as Tales of Terror, Cactus Liquors, Fang, Tattooed Love Dogs and Code of Honor, along with house avant-jazz ensemble Nebulous Stucco Thing, which practiced and performed there. Members of X and R.E.M. hung out at the Stucco Factory when passing through town.

Oldfield remembered meeting Vanoni for the first time and being invited to his space. “We sat down at the table,” he said, “and Steve pulled out painting after painting after painting, explaining each one. We were just astounded; he was just so gracious and well-read.”

Beam me up, Scotty: Two fountain sculptures fashioned from satellite dishes pull in alien signals from Proxima Centauri, while a Duke Cahill pterodactyl stands guard.

Photo By Anne Stokes

“Stucco fucking rocked,” Vanoni recalled. “No shower or hot water, no insulation, but space—all an artist could ask for.”

Oldfield liked what he’d stumbled into. “I always thought the art community was pretty loose, and you could get laid now and then,” he said. “The wine was good, and the art was interesting, and the artists were interesting to talk to.”

Strange days on Del Paso

In 2000, Allen Denault landed what would become the first Horse Cow location, in an old warehouse on Del Paso Boulevard at Edgewater Road. Vanoni—by now a visual artist, musician and raconteur in his own right—moved in a few months later and assumed the role as the gallery’s public face, a counterpoint to the more comfortable-behind-the-scenes Denault. The latest manifestation of Sacramento’s tradition of DIY outsider art and Dada culture began taking shape.

The name Horse Cow shouldn’t be a non sequitur to anyone who used to drive down I-80 through Vallejo, where a bar with the same name featured a submarine on its flat roof.

“I always enjoyed bringing different talent together,” Vanoni wrote recently from Toulouse, France, where he’d traveled from the Tallinn, Estonia, home base he established for a working tour of Europe starting last winter (he returned to Sacramento in mid-July). “Back in the ’80s I used to have a variety show, fashioned after the Italian Futurists known as the Screaming Pygmy Orchestra. Five minutes of everything and anything. The Italian Futurists were great performers, painters, poets and noise makers in the early 1900s, right in there with the Dadaists.”

Vanoni, who’s been staging memorable warehouse parties around town for years, created multimedia events that brought together young fashion artists from around Northern California: Amy Hemmens, Lindsay Rickman, Richard Hallmarq, Tyrus Wilson, Olivia Coelho and “many other great talented fashionistas,” as he put it. “We put on fashion shows, then we would have a theme-based costume and group art show, performance art, have a few deejays, some live music, different rooms, and we would dress the whole place up—art everywhere, lights.”

The Horse Cow soirees became popular in the Sacramento underground community, often drawing upward of 900 people. “These cultural events created culture, where otherwise there was a void,” Vanoni remarked. “They were and are magic. Yes, people call them parties—and that rubs me the wrong way, but, as the Estonians say, ‘What to do?’”

The first Horse Cow location was more than a party place; it also showcased Southern primitive art, other outsider and art brut forms, and served as the unofficial local headquarters for the Burning Man DIY aesthetic. Sketch comedy group I Can’t Believe It’s Not Comedy performed there, as did the Naked Preacher Lady and a number of avant-garde musicians, noise bands and performance artists. The storefront gallery on Del Paso gave upcoming local artists, especially ones a little too outré for the mainstream gallery scene, a place to show.

In 2005, the Del Paso property was sold to a new owner, who had other ideas for its use, so Horse Cow was forced to relocate. A larger place was found on North C Street, just east of N. 16th Street, and after the move, the new space was transformed into studios for 30 working artists, along with a performance space and gallery.

Nothing says roadside bohemian Disneyland like a black Duke Cahill dog with pink polka dots and a geodesic dome.

Photo By Anne Stokes

On North C Street, the Horse Cow accelerated its transformation into a particular model of an urban artist colony, the kind that offers hands-on experience creating art to the community via metalworking, glass blowing, ceramics and other media. Art classes offered included such fare as “How to Make an Art Car,” along with circuitry, cybernetics, robot repair, hillbilly music, the history of jazz, the art of turntable mixing, figure drawing, painting and dance. Other events included the Pink Fashion Shows and the SoToDo International Performance Art Congress (which was scheduled for a reprise at the West Sacramento Horse Cow in May, but was moved to California Stage at 25th and R streets after the fire).

Horse Cow made an offer to buy the property; its owner and the group couldn’t agree on a price. “He wanted an exorbitant amount of money,” Denault said. “The property was appraised at $700,000, and he wanted $2.5 million. He didn’t think we’d leave.”

Local architect and developer David Mogavero, who intervened on behalf of Horse Cow during the negotiations, made this observation about Denault: “It’s his creativity that gets him into trouble,” he said, adding that the North C situation required assistance from him as well as a couple of former mayors—Phil Isenberg and Burnett Miller, both big arts supporters—to help untangle the effects of Denault and company’s act-first-plan-later ethos.

The negotiations fell through, and in February 2007, the group left North C Street—after reading an ad on Craigslist touting a vacant group of buildings on a levee of the Sacramento River, just east of the California Highway Patrol Academy and south of a weir connecting the river with the Yolo Bypass.

All packed up, no place to go

On a Thursday morning in mid-May, Denault, Steinke and metal artist Stephan Powidzki sat outside the shed housing Denault’s metalworking and Steinke’s adjacent glass-blowing studios, contemplating the logistical magnitude of a move. On this particular day, the game plan was to negotiate to buy a permanent site they’d located in Hood, 14 miles south of downtown on the Sacramento River. The reality was sinking in that what lay ahead was a lot of packing, and another paradise lost.

“We put a lot of work into this place,” Denault mused, recalling the six-day-a-week regimen it took to transform the site into a parklike environment, with Sundays set aside for a group barbecue. “Officially, we had nobody living there, except for a night watchman. Unofficially, we had seven people living there. We had 15 artist studios.”

It was a peculiar idyll. On this morning, the sound of rapid-fire gun pops drifted over from the CHP Academy. Other days, it was screeching tires, like an unending chase scene from some ’70s cop drama. On at least one occasion, the pungent aroma of tear gas came wafting over the Horse Cow.

But inside Steinke’s studio, which he took over when Vanoni left for Europe, a clean space was filled with hardware for glassmaking, along with examples of Steinke’s glass-blowing prowess. A clear bicycle sculpture made entirely from glass tubing hung on one wall.

“We built all this by hand, all the equipment,” Denault said, waving at the kilns and tempering ovens required to heat and cool glass. “This is probably a $50,000 or $60,000 thing that we did for a couple thousand. We had a lot of generous people, giving us brick and coils, whatever.”

Hold the stuffing: This gobbler, who rode herd over several dozen yardbirds at Horse Cow, probably won’t make the transition.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Next door, Denault’s studio contained the genesis of large 5-by-5-by-5 forkliftable cubes he and others were fabricating for the move; it would take an estimated 800 of them, some 60 trips, to transport them to a new location, wherever that might be.

The daunting cost of the move, and a growing perception that the group should move away from its underground origins toward a more conventional and transparent existence to ensure continued survival and growth, has led to a decision to seek 501(c)3 status, as a nonprofit serving the public good.

Horse Cow Research and Development, as the group will now be known, is in the process of applying for that status, and an interim “fiscal sponsorship” has been secured with Fractured Atlas, a San Francisco-based group that provides a temporary umbrella for organizations like Horse Cow. There’s a “donate” button at the Horse Cow Web site; any contributions made are directed to Fractured Atlas, which will disburse moneys to Horse Cow once a detailed request has been submitted on how it will be spent.

“We’re just a little diamond in the rough that needs a lot of polishing and chipping,” Denault said.

“Yeah, we’re artists,” Steinke added. “This is a whole new language to us. We’re good at making stuff; we like making beautiful things, building stuff, being physical, getting it done. So this is a new page we’re turning, focusing on all this bureaucracy and paperwork—stuff that’s overwhelming for us. We’re gonna do it. We’re pretty driven.”

The idea is to undergo the kind of metamorphosis along the lines of what similar organizations, such as the West Oakland-based Crucible (, and others have done. The emphasis seems to be toward becoming a sort of Burning Man University, offering classes in the arts both industrial and fine, along with sustainable-living skills, personal transformation and things like the esoteric art of fire dancing, which has been taught at Horse Cow by a woman named Sequoia.

Welcome to Burning Man University

During the frantic search for new digs, the Hood property became a real possibility—which sent up red flags to supporters in the community like Mogavero, who sees a symbiotic relationship between Horse Cow and urban Sacramento: The group and the city nurture one another, which won’t happen if Horse Cow moves 14 miles south.

“It’s such a long drive,” he explained, pointing out that environmental responsibility means getting people out of their cars, not into them. “To set up a situation where this wonderful institution can only be shared by people who are going to spend half an hour in a vehicle to get down there is not a good thing. And then, on top of it, the very culture that they’re engaged in—young people with marginal economic resources—are the ones who are going to have the most trouble getting down there.”

So alternatives were drafted, with one site in particular, a former city incinerator in the Richards Boulevard corridor just north of the rail-yard development area, holding particular promise.

Workshop of the telescopes: “mad scientist” Gene Oldfield and his inner-city vehicle laboratory at Horse Cow.

Photo By Anne Stokes

It might be easy to dismiss the Horse Cow: a bunch of whimsical artists traipsing nomadically around Sacramento, erecting a series of more permanent Burning Man playas in abandoned warehouse spaces and junkyards, seeing wonder where others see brownfields and rust. These artists prefer to avoid conventional process when they conceive an idea; why get bogged down in plans, permits and regulatory red tape when you can plow full speed ahead and build something cool, while the enthusiasm is still aflame?

But there are people, like Mogavero, who understand the vision and energy that an artist enclave like Horse Cow can provide to Sacramento.

“I have deep appreciation for these folks,” he said, citing a couple of reasons—the practical benefits they bring to a community, and the essence of the spiritual character they provide. He also referenced the best-selling book from 2002 by Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, which explained what a city needs to have in place to nurture economic development. “What can you do for your community to make it more economically fertile?” Mogavero asked rhetorically, answering his question with Florida’s point that if you really want your community to hum, and be a place that nurtures its future, you need a creative class. “And that could be anything from geeks that do computer stuff to artists, and everything in between. But he very much pointed out, and it’s something I agree with deeply—that the arts nurture a certain sensibility in the community, and they’re essential.”

According to Mogavero, a city’s future depends upon how it treats its young artists, and the people who follow their art. “The opera, the symphony, the ballet in its classical manifestation—it’s an older audience,” he said. “They’re established. It’s not an environment where there’s a lot of gateways and openness, where young people kind of out here on the edge can jump in and participate and be engaged and that sort of thing. There just aren’t a lot of open doors to funky people, peripheral people—folks who are not the essence of this culture. And in my opinion, that is a really essential ingredient of turning and retaining our young people, so they’re not fleeing to San Francisco and New York and Boston.”

Mogavero dislikes the term underground, calling Horse Cow “the funky edge of the art world, the bright youth culture,” and marvels at the caliber of creative individuals the group pulls into its orbit. “These are all college-educated kids they’re attracting,” he said. “They’re not dummies.”

Primitive cool: “Hank Williams”<b> </b>by Liz Markham, a student of Steve Vanoni’s at Short Center North. Since its inception, Horse Cow has been a champion of outsider art.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Horse Cow’s relationship with Sacramento is, in Mogavero’s estimation, like DNA in a body that repairs its fabric in small, insidious ways rather than in the grand, overarching gestures of well-funded institutions.

“They hit that mark on the head better than anyone in the community,” he opined. “Not by a little bit, but by fuckin’ eons.”

Unfortunately for Horse Cow, the city of West Sacramento locked the group out of the levee site in early July, and after an administrative hearing on July 16, it was decided that the artists could access the site only in two-hour intervals, a stricture that makes it considerably more difficult for them to move forward. Although the artists had stopped living on the property after the April fire event, they were returning frequently during daylight hours to pack, and one on-site watchman was locked in overnight to guard their belongings.

Whether or not there was any late-night partying going on, as was alleged, is a point of contention. At the hearing, an open-house event at the site on Sunday afternoon, June 28, which sought to attract officials from across the river in Sacramento along with media coverage, was brought up as yet another wild party at the Horse Cow. This writer witnessed most of it, and if that event qualified as out of control, then the National Guard might be advised to step in from now on to quell maple-syrup uprisings at Kiwanis International pancake breakfasts.

The Horse Cow artists are crestfallen by this latest development and are scrambling to find a new site, move their stuff there and get on with building Horse Cow No. 4. At this stage, any dispute that isn’t resolved fairly quickly may prove fatal to the group. For Vanoni, just returned from Europe where he witnessed a much more symbiotic relationship between artists and cities, the situation is a real head scratcher. “I just don’t get it,” he said.

At a time when California is broke and broken, not just financially, but in spirit, what can this state—historically, the engine of so much creativity in America and in the world—do to restore its status as the place where cool new things emerge? Considering the challenges that lie ahead in surviving and moving toward a sustainable model of living, can we afford to ignore our seedbeds of creative energy when they arise? And: If art works on esoteric as well as practical levels, and feeds the souls of the people—entrepreneurs, state policy-makers, scientists, other artists—who can spark another renaissance in this state, can we make a good case for supporting these urban enclaves of creativity?

“Sacramento needs the Horse Cow!” Vanoni exclaimed. “Urban artist communities are needed globally. They are happening centers of culture—thriving and alive. They represent talent, energy and culture; they make a place live—or not.”

Vanoni’s sojourn to Europe has brought him into contact with a number of artist communities: La Fiche in Marseille, Terre Blanque in Saint-Lys, Mix’Art Myrys in Toulouse. “Estonia has a great one in Tallinn, the Polymer Factory, and their whole country is about the size of Sacramento,” he said.

“Sacramento can help its artists, who in turn help make Sacramento buzz and thrive,” he concluded. “Give the young people a place where they can go and make shit happen.”