When asked why she named her inaugural art show “Crazy Town,” Donna Frye shoots as straight as when she served as San Diego’s District 6 City Council member from 2001 to 2010.
“Because that’s the world we’re living in now,” the 66-year-old says, followed by a convulsive and contagious laugh.
Frye — who co-owns Skip Frye Surfboards in the Morena district with her husband of 28 years — is creating a new mixed-media piece at her backyard patio table. As birds dance and chirp on the retaining wall, she glues doodads to an untitled piece resembling a computer circuit board.
Frye says she’s created art in this exact spot since she was 10 years old. She and Skip moved back into her mother’s Clairemont house after her father died 20 years ago. Her mom is now 91.
“She was by herself and it didn’t seem like the right thing to let happen,” says Frye, who is alone in the house for the duration of this interview.“I love these colors,” Frye says, adding that she doesn’t really describe her art, “I just make it — as the spirit moves me, as the need arises.”
Frye, who got the idea to run for City Council when Skip got sick from surfing in polluted seawater, made a name for herself by relentlessly advocating for the environment and open government.
“One of the things they always would say about me is that I wouldn't compromise enough,” she says. “Yeah, there are some things I’m not compromising on.”
Frye ran for mayor twice and nearly won in the November 2004 run-off election between Ron Roberts and victor Dick Murphy — as a write-in candidate.“We did win!” Frye insists, referring to the fact that she got more votes than either candidate — if you count the ones an Orange County court threw out because some voters didn’t fill in the bubble next to her written name or misspelled her name “Fry.”
Art of the state
The whole time she was making political enemies, Frye was also making art. She crafted greeting cards for her Council staff instead of buying them, for instance. (“They’d have glitter and weirdness and oddities, and we’d laugh like hyenas,” she says.)
Until Oct. 24 at La Jolla’s Misfit Pictures Gallery, however, Frye never spread her passion beyond her social circle. (Her art will be sold via silent auction, with proceeds donated to the gallery.)
The impetus came from her best friend, Irene McCormack, with whom Frye worked briefly in disgraced San Diego mayor Bob Filner’s office. (He resigned in 2012, pleading guilty to state charges of false imprisonment and battery following multiple accusations of sexual harassment.)“I couldn’t last more than four five months under that crazy, horrifying behavior,” Frye says. “But Irene and I have been friends ever since. She does beautiful photography.”Frye and McCormack are splitting the space. (McCormack’s exhibit is called “Out of the Fog.”)
“Irene said, ‘We need to do an art show,’” Frye says, “and then Pierce (Kavanagh, owner of Misfit Pictures Gallery) emailed me, because I was joking around about it, but he was like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
“Now that she is out of the political arena, Donna uses her artwork to express her opinions,” Kavanagh said, calling her work “cerebral and weird, to match the times.”Another laugh crumples Frye’s face. “You want to feed the birds with me?” she asks.
Frye fetches a cup of meal worms and spreads it beneath the retaining wall. The circle of finches, sparrows and blue jays swells. As this reporter gets in place to shoot Frye feeding them, they frighten and disperse.
“Birds don’t pose,” Frye says, laughing again.Strange as it sounds, Frye credits feeding birds with saving her life. Frye is an alcoholic who has been sober since 1981, when she got it in her head that it would help to drive to Mission Bay every day with bags of day-old bread.
“The mama and the baby ducks would come as soon as I’d show up,” Frye says. “So I thought, ‘I’d better take care of these ducks, and I can’t do that drunk.’”
Without the ducks, and Skip, Fye says she would “probably have died because I didn’t know how the hell I was getting home every night.”
Doesn’t she miss politics?
Frye — who also served as president of Californians Aware, a nonprofit that advocates for open government statewide — says she’s still “just engaged enough” in politics not to miss it.“I’m just not able to go to all the rallies and do all the things, but I do plenty of things,” she says. “I just am a little quieter about it.” (She’s currently suing the City for what she claims is meddling with conflict-of-interest waivers.)
The next question raises her hackles slightly.
“Art is not at all like politics!” Frye replies. “Politics is nasty and factionalized and tribalized and dishonest. Art is freeing and open and decent and silly and good.”
And that sounds like potent medicine for an environmental activist who says she would otherwise grow “physically ill” watching the reversal of all environmental progress the U.S. has made in the last half century.“It helps keep me sane,” Frye agrees. “It helps redirect what is making me crazy. And it’s fun. It just makes me happy, and I hope it makes other people happy.”
IF YOU GO: Donna Frye’s “Crazy Town” art show and silent auction will be held at 6:05 p.m. (sunset) Wednesday, Oct. 24 at Misfit Pictures Gallery, 565 Pearl St. #100. misfitpictures.com
FISH TO FRYE
We asked the former City Council member for her take on three current hot-button issues.
Short-term vacation rentals
“They need to be regulated and we should not be re-zoning our entire City by allowing hotels. If we do, then at the very least, we need to require — like they do at every hotel — a 24-hour person on premises who stays there to check people in and out and make sure people behave. And they’ve done no environmental analysis. Whatever happened to CEQA? You can just go in and rezone? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re ruining communities. That’s what I like about this neighborhood — it’s a neighborhood. I know my neighbors. I get to see their kids grow up. I shop with them and have dinner parties with them and pick the mail up when they’re on vacation. It’s caring and concern.”
“I do not understand how it is that someone can take their private property and just arbitrarily, randomly distribute it on public property to make a profit. I could just run around and what – leave rocks all over the place? Just say, I like those, so let’s just put rocks there, and if you take one, pay me for it. It’s ridiculous. I’m not commenting on the bikes, right? I’m commenting on commonsense principle that you do not allow private companies to simply distribute their goods and services wherever they want with no regulations. It makes no damn sense. Not to mention the people who rent businesses on the beach who rent bicycles, who pay for a storefront and employees, who do all these things to be part of a community. So you just let people drive through in vans and dump their garbage on the sidewalk?”
La Jolla secession
“That’s absurd, that’s absurd. What’s the point? You’re part of the community. Everybody talks about all these districts that are ignored and don’t get the infrastructure. Do you know that, when I was on the Council, I finally got them to do an analysis of where the money was being spent, and which districts got the most. District 6, Clairemont, got the least, because the mayor, Dick Murphy, did not like me. And so this is how you punish people. When you have governments, the way you punish people is financially — which does not punish the Council member, it punishes the community. I have since come to make amends with him, but I’m just telling you this because that’s the way politics works.”