Eric Myles (Class of ’87, B.S., studio art) once painted in the oversized scale needed for billboards. Today, he makes a larger-than-life mark on the intellectually disabled as program manager of the South Los Angeles art center of the Exceptional Children’s Foundation (ECF).
Myles’s work is currently featured in the exhibit, “I Have the Right,” now on view at the PICTURE Cultural Art space on the California State University, Dominguez Hills campus through Summer 2012. His charcoal drawings, “Zapata” and “Freedom” incorporate meticulously rendered images with freeform paper collage. He says that he has recently begun to utilize this style because of “a fragmentation of time.”
“I used to draw very tight, representational images,” says Myles. “I was becoming an illustrator instead of tapping into issues or emotions. These are more intriguing. I like to try to provide the viewer with a mystery… and let him or her determine what I’m trying to say.”
For an upcoming show at the Ontario Museum of History and Art this spring, Myles is working on drawings that channel his parents’ Southern heritage, particularly in terms of regional customs and cuisine. An imposing image of a rooster is accented with hot sauce labels; “Freedom” is also embellished with labels from popular Southern foods.
“I’m a city boy, but my parents are from Homer, Louisiana,” says the Los Angeles native. “I used to spend summers going to the South. There was also a large contingent [in L.A.] of friends and family from the small rural town my parents were from. They would tell stories about the people and the food.”
Myles, who was raised in Hawthorne and attended Morningside High School, describes himself as “one of those guys who could isolate myself and just draw.” A great fan of comic books, Myles and his friends would strive to draw the human form as realistically as possible. After graduation, he pursued his major in studio art at CSU Dominguez Hills, studying under Gilah Yelin Hirsch, John Goders, and S. Glen White.
“It was a wonderful experience, I learned a lot,” says Myles. “They gave me the foundation but once I left there, I was still learning.”
Myles went on to study painting in the graduate program at CSU Los Angeles and to take additional classes through UCLA Extension, Otis College of Art and Design, and Los Angeles Trade Tech, where he learned the nearly extinct art of billboard painting.
Myles, who also worked as an adult special education instructor for LAUSD, has held several positions at ECF over the last 23 years, including art instructor, special education instructor, and program supervisor. The agency, which provides other programs such as supported employment training, adult day activities and training in self-help, domestic, social, and community skills, has four art center facilities, including a studio and gallery space downtown. Myles says that whether students end up selling their work for profit – 50 percent of the sales go to ECF – or simply use the center as an activity to satisfy their interest in art, he and his staff work to provide “a surrogate home.”
“We act as family,” he says. “I tell [new] art instructors, ‘Don’t be surprised if you become a junior psychologist, a junior social worker. You’re going to wear many hats; it’s not just art that you’re going to be teaching.’ There are going to be days when students want to vent, they have to process. They know when somebody really wants to listen to them.”
ECF was originally established as a program for intellectually challenged children in Los Angeles in 1946. However, the organization currently serves a large number of clients aged 18 to 65, many of who actually grew to maturity while in ECF programs. Myles says that students’ participation in the program has helped to alleviate their disruptive actions.
“Years ago, our program was a behavioral program for students who were considered too volatile, violent, [or] socially inappropriate,” he says. “It wasn’t that we provided art therapy, but the art did become therapeutic. The students began to enjoy the process in addition to the camaraderie and relationships they have with their instructors. Students are just working, enjoying themselves. And [with] students who were really physically aggressive and prone to physical assault, a lot of that behavior de-escalated.”
Myles says that the students’ lack of inhibition and desire to learn a productive skill keeps him “grounded.”
“As an artist, you see what they try to do,” he says. “If they’re able to struggle with trying to make a line, surely I can’t complain, and go ahead and do what I do.”