Words on Wheels
Ed Leeper takes some literature to the streets.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Shelly, the autobiography of Shelly Winters, rides next to Bucky, A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller, by Hugh Kenner. Harry S. Truman, by Margaret Truman, rides next to a Signet paperback volume of Voltaire’s Candide. Doris Lessing’s Stories rides on a shelf close by The Last Juror, by John Grisham, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace and The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.
Together they ride—with another 350 or so books, including a bunch of mathematical texts—on Ed Leeper’s old Toyota longbed pickup, as part of his current art project, “Liquid Books.” Painted on each of the pickup’s doors is a tribute. “THESE BOOKS ARE FROM THE ESTATE OF MOE TURNER,” an old friend of Leeper’s family and longtime professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, who passed away last year.
On each side of the truck’s bed Leeper has inscribed an invitation and a challenge: On the driver’s side it says: “I HAVE READ 318,692 PAGES. HOW MANY HAVE YOU READ?” On the passenger side it says: “THESE BOOKS ARE ALL FREE READ A FEW AND STRUT.”
In the past week or so, I have seen Ed’s longbed parked, festooned with its big “Liquid Books” signs, at the Safeway parking lot on Forest Hill, at Lake El Estero, and in downtown PG. Every time I’ve seen it, there was a small crowd surrounding Ed’s bookmobile.
I spent an hour last week visiting Ed and his rolling artwork at the MPC Farmers Market. Before getting into the cab to hang out with the artist, I spent some time perusing his stacks and visiting with his audience. I’d only been there a few minutes when I struck up a conversation with a man who held three books by the crime writer Ed McBain.
“He wrote The Birds, the Hitchcock movie,” the man explained. “Then, he had to make a living, so he wrote 30 or 40 of these detective books.” The man did not want to give me his name. (Was he ashamed his friends would not approve of his literary taste?) But he handed me a book: The Kiss. How generous, I thought. “There’s nothing better to read on an airplane,” the man said, before walking off.
Soon after I sat down in the passenger’s seat to talk to Ed, a woman approached with an armload. “Wow,” she said. “What a wonderful thing.”
“That’s the standard reaction,” Ed said to me. Then he
called after her. “I’m an artist,” he said. “You have just
participated in an artwork.”
• • •
Ed Leeper is 78 years old. He is a retired Army officer, and has been working as an artist and performance artist on the Peninsula for years. Much of his work is political, but that’s not the whole of it.
Last year, he created a sort of cemetery of crosses in Windows By The Bay park. Each cross bore the name and, in most cases, photograph of a soldier killed in Iraq. The piece was stunning and touching. When I visited, most of the visitors were in tears.
He has used his longbed (that’s what he calls the truck) for numerous art projects. For the past year or so, he turned it into a political art project aimed as an attack against the war in Iraq. He decorated it with hand-painted signs that said: “The Rich Start Them, The Poor Fight Them, and the Young Die.” (“Herbert Hoover said that, of all people,” Leeper explained as we sat in a shaded parking space at MPC.) Before that, Leeper stuffed the truck full of huge crumpled gobs of computer-printer paper and decorated it with signs that said “PAPERWORK.”
“Half of my work is more like this,” he said of Liquid Books. “It’s just pure silliness.
“This is probably the most popular thing I’ve ever done. It’s getting big smiles. A lot of big smiles.”
I couldn’t help but pick up an armload. My favorite so far is an old Monterey Museum of Art catalogue: Small Wonders, the Etchings of August Francois Gay, by David Kelso. I also have Travels in a Stone Canoe, by a couple of National Geographic writers who went native, and Art of Travel, a hilarious thing first published in 1842. For my sweetheart I took home Turaround, a 1931 novel by Thorne Smith, which begins with this sentence: “Clad in a fragile but frolicksome nightgown which disclosed some intersting feminine topography, Sally Wilson sat on one edge of her bed and turned a pair of large brown eyes on her husband.” Now that’s art.