Why Shepard Fairey and PUSH Will Be Painting Outside Art of Elysium Gala

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Shepard Fairey

Spike Jonze, Moby, Beck and Karen O are curating the Sept. 5 street art at downtown L.A.'s The Theatre at Ace Hotel

Most fundraisers for the arts feature star-studded guest lists and exorbitant ticket prices — along with a chance to be bored over cocktails by well-heeled patrons who willingly part with a small fortune to sit next to Sting or some other luminary. Well, on Sept. 5, The Art of Elysium is doing things a little differently this year at downtown L.A.'s The Theatre at Ace Hotel, where Shepard Fairey, Spike Jonze, Beck, Jakob Dylan, Moby and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs' Karen O are curating a street art event and concert in the newly refurbished Spanish Gothic 1927 movie palace.

Founded in 1997 by filmmaker Jennifer Howell, The Art of Elysium aims to affect social change by making art available to striving artists and young people battling serious illnesses. Genesis – A Celebration of Emerging Artists will spotlight up-and-comers in the four main disciplines that make up the foundation's philanthropic framework — music, fine art, fashion, and theater/media arts — with tickets ranging from $98 to $284.

"This Genesis project is about doing something that makes the fundraising component less expensive than buying a seat at the gala," Fairey tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It makes interacting with these people, who are cultural heroes, as well as experiencing some new people they're endorsing, a very accessible proposition."

Fairey elected to mentor street artist PUSH, whose brightly colored geometric murals have been beautifying L.A. neighborhoods for years. Both artists hail from L.A.'s fertile street art scene, with Fairey's ubiquitous "Obey" posters glaring from Echo Park to Malibu, and his Obama "Hope" poster playing a significant role in the 2008 election. Fairey, PUSH and the rest of the gang will be gathered outside the theater, where guests can watch as new artwork emerges.

"Having them see something go from start to finish makes someone realize that if you develop the skill set, in a few hours you can make a really beautiful piece," says Fairey. "That's one of the reasons that we're working with PUSH. He works quickly because he has a whole history in graffiti of working fast to get it done before the cops arrive."

Whether he's using stencils, stickers or screen painting, a hallmark of Fairey's work is technical transparency. By demystifying the process, he hopes to inspire those who may be daunted by a lack of training. And with budget cuts for arts education, lack of training is endemic; in the past seven years, Los Angeles Unified School District has seen a 76 percent cut in arts education in elementary schools.

"One of the things that I find really frustrating is that the culture we create in the United States is one of our few viable exports," observes Fairey. "The psychological benefit of creativity and how it makes people feel, how it builds their self-esteem, how it builds problem-solving skills that are not based on any rote memorization or static response to things, it can apply to so many ways in life."

Like PUSH, Fairey got his start in the skate scene designing boards for friends while attending Idyllwild Arts Academy in Southern California and later moving to Rhode Island School of Design, where he developed his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" stickers, which spread like wildfire up and down the East Coast and eventually the world.

His artwork and merchandising has made Fairey worth an estimated $15 million, though some call him a sellout for putting "Obey" hats and T-shirts in department stores like Nordstrom. To his critics, he responds, "One of the reasons I've done street art and album packaging and T-shirts — they're ways to take art to the people in more accessible ways than selling high-priced paintings at galleries or doing installations in museums."

While he doesn't need the exposure, he remains committed to getting his work seen legally and illegally, slapping up stencils and stickers before the cops catch him, although such activities led to his arrest on vandalism charges in Boston while on his way to the opening of his show at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2009.

"I still enjoy doing street art. It's liberating — the freedom of it is important to me, symbolically," says Fairey, who recently completed his "Peace Tree" mural on the side of Koreatown's The Line Hotel, with permission from the owner. "Every opportunity I have stems from being a risk taker. To other people it's vandalism, and it makes them feel like the fake structures they cling to are eroding, and they're terrified. I'm not that way. I love it."