I must have looked like a kid in a candy shop. All I remember is my jaw hanging open throughout the entire room, feeling it drop even closer to the ground each time I’d lean in and learn the origins of each piece.
How had this place been so close to me, all this time?
Charles Trapolin’s gallery in downtown Los Angeles was in an unassuming place; the corner of Main and Winston, a half-thoroughfare of a street in what is sometimes called the ‘gallery row’ area of DTLA. I’d met Charles when he came into the restaurant where I waitressed, still struggling to make it as a freelance writer, and had ignorantly passed his gallery nearly every day on my way to work. Charles was incredibly kind as a patron, endearing and talkative, thoughtful.
But my perception of him changed when, late after work, I finally walked into his gallery. He welcomed me to come inside and offered me a glass of wine, as other patrons scanned the room and chatted. What ensued was a detailed tour of his entire space, a captivating look at his encompassing work with the artist himself. And what was revealed was his astonishing depth and emotional bravery; his awe-striking compassion for other people, other worlds. His innate ability to see, explore and express connections and profundities beyond the 3-dimensional even in the most tragic of circumstances. His sense of spiritual fortitude and willingness to lovingly, almost enthusiastically, confront life’s hard truths with acceptance. Each piece told multitudes of stories as all art should, but within them a wondrously healing honesty that drew the viewer in as both participant and reverberant.
“My art really is about living.” he says. “For me, life is a blank canvas which we fill. I am focused on healing and the spiritual path in art. My individual healing practice is integral to my work as a visual and performing artist.”
Charles’s gallery, SoulAtlas, opened in December of 2019. His opening collection was, as he describes it: “a bit of moments in time through the past 30 years of my career. There were paintings, photographs and sculptures. I was using the show as a jumping off point to talk about art as a spiritual and healing path.”
Throughout the gallery in this opening were a series of woven baskets, each with an airy, almost ethereal quality.
“I started making prayer baskets after 9/11. I would write prayers and chants on paper strips. Twine them with wire and build baskets out of them. I had this question of whether the prayer’s power would be instilled in the form. I am interested in how something is empowered.”
I found myself inextricably drawn to the baskets, obsessively studying them as if to conjure out some word, some sentiment of the prayers. Ideas like prayers for 9/11 encompass so many emotions, and in looking at them I realized how daunting (even for a writer) it would be to put words to tragedy, be they words of hope in prayer, or words of emotion as my reaction to his willingness and steadfastness to fulfill such an idea.
But as I learned, Charles is no stranger to emotional hardships:
“Much of that show and my work is really about the search for meaning in the face of impermanence. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, all my friends, lovers and mentors died of AIDS. All of them. This had a profound impact on my life. While I had already been meditating, the loss of so many loved ones led me to a deeper spiritual exploration.”
Charles’s career as an artist is enthrallingly varied: he worked as a professional dancer, instructor and choreographer for a decade, showed large scale installations at the likes of Burning Man, and has worked with everything from performance art to visual art, and even body work including massage therapy.
“I love sculpting. I really love clay and plaster, I love the tactile quality of creating. So, using my hands in doing body work and the rhythmic nature of a session draw on my work as a sculptor, painter and dancer. It is a way I can fuse art with healing more directly.
“The underlying themes in my works all relate back to my spiritual quest...If there is anything that is central to my work as an artist, it is my Spiritual and Healing journey. I have studied with many gifted healers, shamans, and artists. Some who were all in one. These challenges we face just reinforced my quest.”
In our many interactions at our respective places of work, I found his presence to be one of calmness, steadfastness, and readiness. In conversation and demeanor, Charles offers a realness that feels candid, almost welcoming in a way that feels safe to discuss the state of affairs of ourselves, our world, what might lie beyond. And there can be no doubt that this uncanny ability to relate in physical and and metaphysical ways helps all his art, in all its iterations.
“There is a Sufi saying, “Love the pitcher less and the water more”. I do see our form as a vessel. Much of my work relates back to the human form. The prayer baskets, for example, for me still relate to the human form.
We are energy and various systems that flow together to make us. I don’t see the human form as a solid thing or permanent. Facing impermanence is central to my work. My Tornado Series is about this impermanent field of energy.”
Like so many artists, the pandemic hit hard in more than it’s financial tolls. His second show for the gallery, titled SEX, was prepared for debut when lockdowns began, forcing him to put not only the show on hold, but the gallery into closure. While the day is yet to be named for when SEX can take it’s rightful spotlight in the public, Charles’ original intention for SoulAtlas to have a space for healing and body work within it’s walls has moved to Hollywood, where he’s opened emBodywork Healing Arts. As if his work in art, especially sculpture, and career as a professional dancer weren’t enough to equip him, Charles’s resume boasts more accolades: certified in Massage Therapy, a BA in Dance and Body Based Counseling, and an MFA in Arts and Consciousness Studies.
“In my individual sessions [at emBodywork Healing Arts], I am focused mostly on what I am calling Energetic Bodywork.
Tui Na is the foundation of my Energetic Bodywork sessions. Tui Na is the ancient form of massage originating in China and is the precursor to Acupuncture. I love this form of bodywork as it addresses both the musculature as well as the underlying energetic systems. Working with the flow of energy/chi promotes balance and harmony within the client. Sessions may include very gentle (yin) energetic work to deeper dynamic stimulation (yang) of the musculature. I may also include Reflexology, Polarity Therapy, and Reiki. Though I also do a Swedish/Deep Tissue massage.
I believe that as artists we are working with energy and consciousness. We create something in the world and many of us would like the viewer to engage with that energy. We are all doing the same thing but with different intent. I am working with the Healing Artist archetype."
As a woman who regularly uses massage therapy as a modality of healing and embodiment, I can second his perspectives. And can think of no other healer or artist more emotionally prepared to do this work.
“When I work with an individual I am still working with energy and consciousness. Sometimes it is just about relaxing and taking the time for someone to take care with you.”
As Charles focuses his energy now on the bodies of others, his own impressive body of work continues to evolve, as does he. What the future holds for his exhibitions and possible gallery re-openings is yet to be seen, but his place in LA seems to be solidified against the odds the past year presented us all, especially artists. He still finds inspiration in the street art scenes of DTLA and the ‘Light and Space artists from this area in the 1960’s’.
“Given the challenges we are facing whether it be the pandemic, the climate crisis, etc. I lost faith in art for a bit. I really had to ask what value I could bring as an artist. Why even create anything? But I realized that if we quit making art, it would be as if all the plants quit flowering. It is in my nature to express deeper feelings and dreams, prayers for healing...
I feel like the creative wheels are moving again. They were stuck for a minute. ”
That in mind, it’s like no surprise that one of his biggest planned exhibitions involved his own body and presence, a live iteration of his physical and mental capabilities in a captivating display of willingness. I don’t mean to bate you, but I can say there may come a day when you find yourself standing beside me in awe of this man, artist, healer, and spiritual seeker in a live demonstration of his enlightened talents.
“Yes, I had to put my larger scale projects on hold for a bit. I like to say that my dreams were delayed, not derailed. Though things are definitely percolating.”