Memorial for John Leech, co-founder of the Onyx Café
Sunday I went to the wake for John Leech, co-founder of the Onyx Café, which was the best artists café in Los Angeles for the past forty years. John, beloved by hundreds of hundreds of artists, died March 17. The Onyx itself lasted from 1982-1998—it transformed both the Los Angeles artists’ scene and the Los Feliz neighborhood.
The first time I wandered into the original Onyx next door to the Vista Theater must have been around the mid-1980s when the Reagan right-wing firmly dominated the culture. The Onyx was a small space with about 5-6 tables and could seat maybe 30 people. It had a black-and-white checkerboard floor, lovely color mismatched Fiesta ceramics on the tables, and a jewel of a desert case. Later I learned that Fumiko, who had studied ceramics with internationally known artist Peter Shire had hand-made the dishes. There was art hanging on the walls, of course. John and Fumiko taught me who Peter Shire was and had a show of his tea cups.
John and Fumiko wanted to have a café like that cafes John had known in San Francisco and Fumiko admired the Onyx jazz club in New York. John and Fumiko were a contrast. John was a tall, balding, bulky expatriate Englishman always wearing a fatigue jacket. Fumiko was petite, gorgeous, late twenties, and always the most beautifully dressed in the room in outfits! They created an art gallery supported by coffee—the café name was a disguise. While Los Angeles galleries charged 60% for the artists to show, the Onyx never charged the artists anything for its 16 years. They intended us all to mingle and we did.
After a while coming to the café, I would know ½ of the 20 people there. Since there were so few tables, you were forced to sit next to a new person and usually started talking to them. The people I met! First, the visual artists: Gronk, Linda Gamboa, Jeffery, Daniel Martinez, Fumiko Robinson. I was free-lancing for art, literary, and weekly newspapers, and was meeting the people I was reading about. Then, I met musicians. I always enjoyed talking to Bill Roper, the tuba player for the avant-garde group Fat and Fucked Up. I met other musicians: Vinsula, Michael Whitmore, Guy the piano player etc. There were film people: Jim Balsam was a special effects cameraman was well as bass player while Lucas Reiner was a painter and filmmaker. Some of us were showing in the galleries, putting out our first books, or performing in the clubs. The Onyx was my Paris—I was a poet among the artists! The Onyx was our living room.
My writer friends Lionel Rolfe and Nigey Lennon organized an event in the upstairs annex—for 12 hours people read and performed music. When Lionel and Nigey wanted to start the event, they asked me to be the first reader, and I read my poetry. Los Angeles Times architect critic John Pastier was haranguing against some ugly establishment building to a rapt audience. Cartoonist Matt Groening had his art work up on the wall before he went on to fame and fortune. KPFK was talking about the event as it went on so people kept coming the whole 12 hours. Downstairs Fumiko and Mary McAndrews, an Otis art student, were making coffee. Spoken word and music had taken off at the Onyx and would go on with new curators and many new musicians and many new spoken word organizers.
Fumiko moved to New York but John carried on. The original Onyx was evicted. I was writing regularly for the weekly newspaper LA Reader, and my editor let me write an article about the Onyx where I interviewed the owners and participants of a friendly demo outside of the Onyx with Chicano artist Gonk making up the slogan, “Coffee united will never be defeated. “ John lost the Onyx but then opened up months later on Vermont.
The Onyx on Vermont was much larger: two store fronts. One was a café and the second was a gallery. John nurtured a whole generation as artists, giving jobs so people could get through college and art school. At the memorial one person said he was an angel with bad manner. He could be gruff and rude, but then he would have free bar-b-ques where he would feed all of us. So what if cafe was scruffy a bit. People from the Westside looked at the scruffiness but rarely looked at the art, and the art was a whole new generation speaking out. Manuel Ocampo, a Filipino artist, had a painting show which was an utter knockout: his powerful paintings combed surrealism with a political edge. Ocampo was soon having a big exhibit in Spain and then all around the world.
Gronk was in the big Los Angeles Country Museum Chicano show, and held court from the table in front of the café. Onyx regulars came up to congratulate him. One of us! At the biggest museum in town. John gave us all a space when we all needed it most and helped launch hundreds of people. No wonder he is still so loved. No other café in Los Angeles even came close to the Onyx. John’s shows were multi-ethnic before the major museums did that. They had cartoonists like Matt Groening and often a pop sensibility in the paintings. They were a populist visual arts show off the streets heading toward the major museums.
By the mid-1990s Westsiders were coming more and more to hang out on that block in Vermont, with the Onyx, the great Skylight bookstore, Skylight Theater, the Los Felix movie theater, and the Dresden Room down the block. More people were moving into the neighborhood and rents were rising as gentrification was setting in. Of course, it’s an old story. First, the scruffy bohemian arts and then the bourgeoisie. John had a few crazies who hang out. He would throw out anyone who criticized them. He never made much money.
Of course, he was evicted again. The Onyx had made that neighborhood and now the rent was going too high. I remember a closing music performance listening to Jim Balsam and his musician friends play rock ‘n roll. It was mournful and sad and the end of the era.
Here is John’s own words about the Onyx: