Falling Awake: Joseph Shuldiner (1957–2019)

Yesterday my friend and collaborator Rob Berg messaged me that my old, dear friend Joseph Shuldiner died. Of a brain tumor. It’s a cruel joke: I’m the one bingeing on cheddar cheese, and last week I was told to go on statins.

My heart goes out to his spouse Bruce Schwartz, his sister Judy, and to all he’s touched.

Joseph and I go a long way back, but hadn’t corresponded for several years. Looking for a photograph last night I came upon a half-dozen file folders containing the following mementos.

I met Joseph, a fine arts student, at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood in late 1977 or early 1978. He shared a class with my friend Juan (later Johanna) Guzmán, a Bolivian pianist and scholarship student. I asked Juan to introduce us, something I’d never done before and haven’t done since. In 2019 I’m embarrassed more by my question than Juan’s answer: “Is he gay?” “Gay as a three-dollar bill.” Juan certainly had become acclimated.

I was attracted to Joseph’s flair; he wore a tweed overcoat, had auburn hair and a full beard, and was a fantastic dancer. He was a red-diaper baby while I was late of the United Farm Workers. Joseph had read my poems in the IHC newspaper (something about “drinking soda and bitters in bars” and “boys with flashing pins in their ears”) and eventually put two and two together after I’d pursued him shamelessly. I’m bewildered by this because I believe I had several boyfriends at the time—polyamory was in the air (at least mine)—but I wanted to connect, perhaps on some other level.

We had an affair, interrupted by my summer vacation in Boulder and attending Naropa, and both of us met others, me there and he in L.A. Nevertheless we rented a loft in Little Tokyo in ’78 or ’79. Joseph’s father Max and his buddy helped us install studs and hang drywall. Joseph entered a work-study program in the neighborhood and learned graphic design.

Change Of Address Postcard
This was our change of address notice (x3), which Joseph laid out. In 2011 he wrote me, ‘‘I found our fake postcards that we made with our photo booth pix spray-mounted onto ironic found postcards.” We had raided thrift shops for images of world monuments like the Parthenon and Chichen Itza, replacing the address sides and taking care to mis-place the stamps so they didn’t cover our mugs. (Click to enlarge)

In June 1979 Joseph graduated from IHC. His senior show consisted largely of fibers—woven and otherwise (we were told to save our clothes dryer lint). The centerpiece was a huge papier-mâché-like fish-like form, with long drooping fronds sprouting from at least one tapered end. He asked me to assemble a soundtrack for the gallery (actually just a studio at the school; we were fundraising for a dedicated space).

Senior Show Postcard
Joseph created this postcard invitation in the days of single-sided photocopying, so again he spray mounted the cardstock back to back.

Joseph loved music, hence the audio for his show. One night a few years later I dropped in on him and happened to play a beer commercial, being haunted by its soundtrack. “It’s Talk Talk,” he told me, introducing me to a band that became a favorite.

Joseph and his then-partner David Moreno converted part of our loft into a small gallery that mounted exhibitions and hosted the Encounter Cinema experimental screenings. (The series was sponsored by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, where Joseph would show years later.) We all participated in one private performance that was to end with a breaking of bread. I remember Joseph’s little tea ceremony (it was Little Tokyo after all) that closed with his snuffing, mm…, tea candles with a Japanese hand fan, plunging us into the space’s darkness.

I left the loft in 1981 and, later, Joseph moved to New Mexico. (We had some differences that I won’t explore here.) When he returned to L.A. we worked together, and with others, on some AIDS-related arts projects like the Fabulous Fascist Fashion Show (Stiff Sheets).

ArtBulletin Application
Proposal, 1989, for LACE/Patrick Media Group ArtBulletin project, which produced original work by three artists on billboards. We took our inspiration from John Lennon and Yoko Ono (who actually had produced billboards) and added a static keyword crawl above and below, which critiqued the discourse of the moment. We weren’t chosen by the judges, but a friend, William Roper, was selected.

And of course Joseph always was pushing the envelope, with his constructions, publishing, personal wellness, and eats. On Tuesday I thought of Joseph fleetingly as my wife Andrea Carney and I drove past a Denver restaurant where we’d taken him in July 2007. After that meal he’d talked artisan limoncello and chamomile grappa with one of its owners.

Joseph Shuldiner Brochure

“I fall awake”

When Joseph wrote me in 2011, he said he’d found a stash of letters and poems I’d sent him. “You were a romantic even if you don’t think you were!” he told me. He definitely was, as attested by one of those untitled poems I wrote in June 1978 from Boulder.

I got his letter today
the envelope an oversized, off white

filled with dried blooms
which tumbled to my
lap as I lay open the folds

crumbles of blooms
cologned in the open air by live
lilacs, here
worth their weight
in California
in gold

(Another envelope contained a curl of cinnamon.) Here’s a poem he gave me on a scrap of rice paper.


Put me to sleep, I think I’m waking
A nudge from your elbow will do
In my side where it all collects
I fall awake sometimes
I hate when it happens
Pills roll on tabletops
Like tires falling off of cars
Oh it is an apathetic life!

Falling awake is Joseph’s conundrum and challenge. His mother Sara Lewitsky Shuldiner and aunt Bella Lewitsky Reynolds were partially raised at Llano, the legendary communitarian colony in the Antelope Valley. Sara and husband Max somehow escaped notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee but Bella didn’t, being grilled in a non-public 1951 session by a tiny HUAC subcommittee, invoking the Fifth Amendment often to questions about membership in the Communist Party and front groups. She also was asked about her association with Lester Horton with whom she had worked. It was at a Horton rehearsal that Harry Hay met dancer Rudi Gernreich, the result being the Mattachine Society, the first gay civil rights organization with legs. I learned some of this from Joseph, and while he likely had a sense of pride regarding his forebears’ endeavors, he could have felt bound by an obligation to carry on somehow, sleepwalking, to become a Barbara Kruger or Cornelius Cardew, with the message eclipsing the medium (although he did sneak in a couple of references to AIDS nonconformity we’d investigated with Bruce).

Organizing around sustenance while foreswearing flesh and butterfat—again with flair—is its own declaration. And, I dare say, of independence.

Sleep well, old friend. Now I’ll mix your shiso leaf martini.

Header image:
Joseph Shuldiner
self-published card

21 Replies to “Falling Awake: Joseph Shuldiner (1957–2019)”

  1. Thanks for informing me about Joseph.
    We all go way back. Quite a special time for all of us. It brings back moments I had forgotten.
    And where things started for all of us.
    Thank you

  2. You made him and the history of your time with him so palpable. Exquisitely. So sorry for this loss.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Talking with a friend here tonight I realized I forgot to mention that Joseph was indirectly responsible for Andrea and me getting married in 1994. “You and Andrea have good jobs don’t you?” he asked me one day. He suggested that we consider buying the house next door to his. It turned out not to be a fit, but since we’d done our prospective-buyer homework already we decided to apply it elsewhere. A woman friend who was our buyer’s agent eventually took us to our you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it-home, and we decided to get married during escrow. I remember us doing a walkthrough with the owners a couple of days later and heard squeals from the other room. Andrea had told our agent and the sellers’ female half, who both voiced their approval loudly. Not so approving was the male half (they were unmarried); he scowled around for the rest of the walkthrough, uncomfortable with the writing on the wall.

  3. Hi David… thank you for your beautiful tribute… Joseph touched so many people – everyone has unique stories – but the common thread we all agree on is how deeply impacted we were – ARE – by Joseph’s energy. His contagious laugh and keen eye for just about EVERYthing.
    I met him at summer camp in 1972! He was almost 15 and I was almost 14… we fell in love instantly (as much as we could in those days) even though we just tortured each other with flirtatious sarcasm. We re-met again and fell madly in love AGAIN at camp in the summer of 1974 – so much chaste making out – he was the Arts and Crafts specialist and my dream come true was for us to work together. We did in summer of 1976. Alot of hijinks and mayhem later – we stayed close friends forever after that.
    I moved up to Santa Cruz in 1978 but I visited the gallery at 800 Traction a few times… So many conversations, letters, visits… I have so many stories!
    Your name definitely came up and I’m sure we met at some point. I loved Joseph more than words can express – for so long.
    I adore Bruce – small world: his parents played tennis with my parents at Mar Vista park in west L.A. when we were kids. Worlds colliding in so many ways. But that’s the beauty of Joseph. There is too much to write but I hope there will be a way to share stories at some point… I don’t know too many people who go as far back as I do with Joseph… Bruce always loved to hear my vintage Joseph stories – so hopefully, when he’s ready – we will toast our special man. Please feel free to contact me if you feel like it…. I’m still in disbelief that I will not see him again.

  4. Dear Joseph, our graphic pal in Santa Fe. So sorry to read this beautiful piece long after his passing. May he be in the light of the Pure Land.

  5. I came across Joseph’s beautiful pamphlet of Towers of Light which I had kept it since his exhibit at the del Mano Gallery in Brentwood many years ago. Joseph bought the house of my very dearest friends on Eucalyptus Lane in Eagle Rock. The 100-year-old wood house with all its intricacies by Jan de Swart and his wife Ulli. That house has so much to tell about friends gathering at Christmas time singing carols in their respective languages — Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize in Physicist, opera singers from the San Francisco Opera, Alfred Schmidt of Caltech fame, students of Chinese, designers and architects and family. And silversmithing in Jan’s workshop or tea in Ulli’s kitchen with the house fragrant from warm bread or cookies. Their passing a huge loss but comforted by someone as special as Joseph Shuldiner taking on all this history. Somehow when you reduce or “stuff” some things always remain — Joseph’s little brochure with Towers of Light remain. Thank you for your beautiful writing about a beautiful human being.

  6. David, I came across this beautiful tribute to dear Joey just today. Two years ago this week, I learned of his passing from David Moreno. I know that I met you a couple of times in the late 80’s/early 90’s in the Traction/CAFAM days. Joseph and I had been friends for many years before embarking upon a very brief stint as lovers August – December of 1984. We commuted back and forth between NM & LA, and I was immediately integrated into the Echo Park world of Max and Sara. In those polyamorous years, I was double-dipping and I ended up with Arturo for 33 years and Joseph with Bruce for about a year longer. I lost them both in November – separated by two years. My only remnants of that long friendship are a couple of handwritten letters, one of Joey’s lamps, his book on vegan desserts, and Bruce’s Japanese carving tools that he gifted to Arturo. Discovering your writing today, was such a gift in the month of nostalgia when I reminisce on loves lost.

      1. David this is such a beautiful tribute to your friend. I know I’m late in posting this but I just ran across it today. Xoxo

  7. Thank you for this beautifully written tribute – good to know you’re still out there. I only found out about Joseph’s passing a few days ago from the IHC alumni newsletter – I’m not sure how the news escaped me until now. I’m grappling with all the feelings, the memories; pulling out old photos and faded slides. I have a VHS dub of the video we made shortly after graduation that needs to be digitized. That was a remarkable time, but as is too often the case, our lives took different paths shortly after college and we only stayed in touch intermittently, a phone call here and there. I guess this is life. Gone too soon.

    1. Great to hear from you, Steve. I think the last time we had contact was when you were working for AFI (the former IHC campus). You asked me to deejay an event after party or something. I’m glad I had that senior show announcement. I remember that early videotape recorder. Would love to see that video.

  8. I was just looking at the beautiful sculpture/lamp I bought from him about 30 years ago. This is a small story but it shows how nice he was. Years later, the lamp had a small tear after a move, and I got in touch with him on the off chance he would have advice on how to repair it unobtrusively. He had long since moved on to other projects but he had me mail it to him and repaired it. Most people wouldn’t have bothered. Thank you for the stories.

  9. What a great loss. I contacted him a few years ago because I purchased one of his magnificent lamps at the Smithsonian Institutions’ Annual Arts and Craft Show in Washington DC about 20 years ago. He was amazed that I maintained it in perfect condition and thanked me. I cherish it because it is imprinted with the master makers grace and generosity of spirit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *