Janitor-turned-sculptor cranks out political satire
Retired state worker Laura Harling is a trim 64-year-old with an engaging smile and a humble demeanor. Whatever stereotypes exist for political satirists, she certainly doesn’t fit them.
But that’s what the former casino dealer, state file clerk and janitor has become. In a series of delightful interviews over the last couple weeks, Village Life has confirmed that she’s enjoying the ride.
Harling estimates that she’s created roughly 40 pieces, most of which pay tongue-in-cheek homage to otherwise respectable pubic figures.
Harling recalls an instructor at Sacramento State discouraging her from continuing in sculpture. “To him, sculpture was these big strong pieces that weighed 2 tons,” she recalled. “He didn’t think girls could ever succeed at it.”
In some ways he was right. Harling has yet to sell a single piece. But that’s a conscious decision, a result of an affection for her oven-sized pieces, whose political substance and satirical bite more than make up for their lack of mass.
“They’re my friends,” she said from her home in El Dorado Hills. “It would be hard to part with any of them.”
She’d like to have a show one day. “Maybe when I get older.”
Her most celebrated recent piece has Gov. Jerry Brown doing a tango with his Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. It got a lot of attention at the California State Fair, including local TV spots and even a spread in Harpers.
The former and current governor was also the subject of her first piece, and was indirectly responsible for spawning her career. As a janitor with the state she cleaned his apartment, which she described as a Spartan bachelor pad.
The inspiration for the first “Jerry” came in 1989 from the back of a cereal box, which she said reminded her of a shrine.
“I thought we needed a shrine in our house, and a household God to go with it,” she said, tongue firmly in cheek. She carved a whimsical Buddha for her cereal-box shrine, “But it just didn’t work.”
By then the former and current governor was out of office and studying Buddhism in Japan, and also made a high-profile side trip to visit Mother Theresea’s Home for the Dying in India.
When Harling read about it she knew who needed to occupy her shrine.
A younger, and clearly more limber version, of “holy man” Jerry Brown sits in the lotus position in her shrine.
“I thought it was kind of cute,” she shrugged.
A satirist was born.
The piece was embraced by the local media and later appeared in Harper’s magazine with another Brown, Willie.
The darker Brown’s statue depicts the former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor wearing a crown, seated atop bags of money on an oversized throne, his face bearing a familiar satisfied grin. He’s surrounded by tiny lobbyists bowing in supplication.
The piece reflects how far the satirist’s eye for detail has developed in the intervening years.
Harling and her husband Dave bought a modest home in the Lake Hills neighborhood in El Dorado Hills in 1976, when El Dorado Hills was more cattle ranch than suburb.
Their house is tiny by El Dorado Hills standards, with Harling’s handiwork evident in every room, many on custom designed pedestals beneath Plexiglas cases. Space constraints require most to live in the attic, only escaping briefly when a curious TV or local newspaper reporter comes calling.
Harling’s studio consists of her couch and dining room table.
From the couch, Harling carves a head from plastic polymer. When she’s satisfied with the likeness, the golf-ball sized cranium spends a couple weeks in her pocket, she said, while she gets to know her subject and decides how best to depict them.
The balance of the statue consists of wire, plaster strips and more plastic polymer.
Harling wants her subjects to be instantly recognizable, “If someone asks who it is I feel like I’ve failed,” she said.
She strives for absolute realism in the face. From the neck down, the satirist takes over and anything goes.
Harling majored in art at Sacramento State, and said she did well in beginning sculpture before being dissuaded by the professor with the Rodan complex.
She graduated in 1969 at a time when the French sculptor himself would have had a hard time landing a job with an art degree. Even the Peace Corps turned her down.
She added a teaching certificate, but quickly realized that she lacked the fortitude to work with children.
For two years she dealt cards at a Stateline Casino as a stopgap measure, but the long hours on her feet combined with the noise and smoke wore her down.
Her career problems seemed over when she landed a state job as a file clerk, but even that didn’t work out.
“I was never very good at it,” she recalled. “There were all these rules for different documents.”
A friend pointed out that the pay range for state janitors was comparable to what she was making as a clerk. Her boss supported the move.
Thus began a 19 year stint as a janitor, “the highlight of my career,” said Harling, in what seemed an example of the sarcasm that defines her work.
“No, I really liked it,” she said. “My mind was free to roam. It was a great job.”
She worked all over the capitol building. “I talked to people, knew everyone and followed all the issues,” she said.
She might still be a janitor if she hadn’t torn a rotator cuff changing florescent tubes.
A refreshed teaching certificate landed her volunteer work teaching art classes at a housing project in Folsom but rekindled her interest in art.
Two rewarding years teaching GED accreditation to inmates at a state prison in Blythe, CA, followed. “I learned how to accept people,” she said. “They treated me with a lot of respect.”
On a studio tour of her living room, Harling, with her wrap-around smile, hefted bulky Plexiglass covers on and off her sculptures with an ease.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson checked in as “Jurassic Pete,” his likeness atop a dinosaur body. Wilson saw the piece and loved it, she said, but not as much as his wife Gail.
Willie Brown also returned a favorable review of his piece, although he thought his stubby legs, which Harling left dangling above a plush hassock, should have been longer.
Other Harling subjects include an automatonic Al Gore being controlled by aliens and
George W. Bush channeling Slim Pickins atop a missile in a Dr. Strangelove homage.
Ross Perot, ears at attention and pointer stick in hand, stands before pie charts comparing “my money” and “my brains” to “everyone elses.”
The cast includes President Richard Nixon in the familiar double peace sign pose, a cloned Elvis, and the Clintons in bed — a bloated Bill munching a Big Mac. Harling spins the Clinton piece around to reveal dirty laundry behind the bed.
President Barak Obama appears as “Sir Change-Alot” pulling a sword from an anvil.
A pudgy, diaper-clad “Little Newty” Gingrich, toy gavel in hand, bawls his dissatisfaction.
In Harling’s most recent effort, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin enjoys a cup of tea, rifle in hand, seated atop a polar bear skin rug.
What motivates Harling? “I like to make people laugh,” she said. “I guess that makes me a clown.”
If you’d like to make some people laugh, and have access to a suitable exhibition space, consider hosting a show of Harling’s work. She can be contacted through her website — lauraharling.com — where you can also learn more about her and see photos of her work.
The Mountain Democrat’s free online gallery also contains photos of Harling and her “friends,” at mtdemocrat.com.