Karen Mack is the founder and executive director of LA Commons, an arts organization that helps communities tell their stories and artists create dynamic works of public art. A lifelong Angeleno, her work focuses on issues of civic engagement and creative placekeeping. Before participating in the Zócalo/LA Commons event “How Do Artists See the Next L.A.?,” she talked about her bathroom cleaning strategy, the piece of public art that inspired her most recently, and why she evangelizes for civic engagement by young people.
What’s your favorite ice cream topping?
I love caramel, so anything caramel. Caramel sauce on a chocolate—[actually,] don’t get me started talking about ice cream because I will be talking for two hours about my favorite flavors!
What’s the last thing that inspired you?
We [LA Commons] are part of Why We Rise, and there was a piece in Grand Park called Celebration Spectrum—a canopy that was created from party supplies from all the different cultures of Los Angeles, and then dublab put some music to it. The whole idea is to capture in one place all of these parties that we missed during COVID. To have that experience while we’re out exploring on Memorial Day was really fun.
What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
When I was 17, I called up the president of CalArts and said, “I want to help artists.” Where did that come from? I have no idea. My family wasn’t into art. He invited me to come up to a grant writing workshop. Forty years later, what am I doing but writing grants all the time. There was another person subsequently, Alitash Kebede, who’s from Ethiopia originally and an art dealer. She kind of took me under her wing and introduced me to all of this wonderful art, and that set me on this path, which was long and windy—but here I am today doing work that’s very related to those two experiences.
What’s your favorite under-the-radar spot in Los Angeles?
We live near Hancock Park, where LACMA and the La Brea Tar Pits are, so we call that the “big park.” And we call this place—a little pond at the back of an office building, kind of a buffer between the office building and the houses—the “little park.” It has turtles and koi—it’s such a nice spot to be able to walk to.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To be able to make other people’s wishes come true. That sounds kind of cheesy or self-serving. But I feel pretty happy in my own life: I get to do what I want to do. So how can I help other people find the joy that I have in my life?
What’s hanging on your living room walls?
I have a picture an artist friend painted of my daughter when she was maybe 1, which is very special. And then I have an elephant head from India—a mask. We have a lot of masks in our house. We also have one from Indonesia, a monster-looking mask meant to scare bad spirits away when they come to your house. I have a cat that’s painted by the artist Frank Romero. I have a painting of a festival from Japan. Oh, and I’m forgetting the centerpiece: a painting of faces by Jose Ramirez, who’s another really awesome artist from Los Angeles.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Cleaning my bathroom. [Laughs.] Do you ever watch Front Line? That’s my favorite TV show, so I’ll turn that on and go to town cleaning. Watching TV and cleaning is my jam.
What do you most often find yourself evangelizing for?
Civic engagement by young people. I feel like young people—if we can activate them, that’s our future. They’re so awesome in terms of their passion—which adults respond to. We saw what they did with that Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally [for Donald Trump], where they bought up all the tickets. That’s what needs to happen: bringing their passion and energy and imagination to the problems that we have.
What book have you re-read most often?
When I started LA Commons I was on this metaphysical journey, sort of intentionalizing what I wanted to have happen around my own life. So I read this book, Creative Visualization, and I created a vision board. I cut out little tiny pictures of myself and drew people around me in different places in L.A. I had myself show up all over the place on this piece of construction paper, and voila, it happened.