The Process: Steve Sharp, “Vista Peace Vigil”

In which an artist discusses making a particular work 

The Process: Steve Sharp, “Vista Peace Vigil”

In which an artist discusses making a particular work 

The Process: Steve Sharp, “Vista Peace Vigil”

Nate Rogers
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

Hollywood Boulevard and Hillhurst Avenue meet at the north end of one of the most complicated intersections in Los Angeles—a five-sided maze that seems to confuse even the stoplights themselves, and the right of way is often taken simply by those brave enough to claim it. The intersection marks the edges of several neighborhoods—Los Feliz, East Hollywood, and Virgil Village—but the area feels like it belongs to none of them. It’s the embodiment of sprawl.

Prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon to find a certain pedestrian setting up shop here. Outside of what remains of Good Luck Bar, a now-shuttered dive that was evicted to make room for a luxury hotel, this pedestrian would be dressed in Falling Down–style business-casual attire, holding a sign, its edges a little worse for wear after years of repeated use. celebrate peace, the sign said on one side, spread love on the other. He’d then stand there for two hours or so, often dancing and gesticulating excitedly, beckoning the rush-hour traffic to “let me hear it” as the cars passed by in a fluid stream, occasionally nothing more than bright headlights glittering in the dark. Some would honk. Some would give him the finger. Most wouldn’t respond at all.

Steve Sharp calls this ongoing protest the “Vista Peace Vigil,” after the nearby Vista Theatre and the ultimate goal of the project: the promotion of peace. Before March 2020, he had been demonstrating nearly every Friday for eighteen years, since Labor Day weekend in 2002, when he originally came out to Hollywood and Hillhurst to join a protest against the coming invasion of Iraq. (One of his first signs, preceding the one he’s carried in recent years, said, don’t rain fire on children’s heads.) He estimates there were a hundred people that weekend, and though the protest continued on subsequent Fridays, the numbers dwindled, as they are wont to do. Before long the only person showing up was Steve. He had missed coming to the vigil only a few times, when he’d been sick, or on the odd rainy Friday evening in LA. And then, when COVID-19 became a real threat, even Steve was forced to decamp from his longtime spot.

Recently retired from a career in insurance, Steve, age seventy-three, has no plans of letting the yearlong pause from protesting stop his ritual for good. (As soon as it’s safe, he plans to go back out there, likely in a mask.) He doesn’t seem to have any concrete intent, either. In fact, it’s not even an antiwar protest anymore—you’ll have to hear it from the horse’s mouth, but the act is a lot more metaphysical than you might expect if you’re just passing by him on your way home.

In February 2020, we met at a coffee shop near the Vista Theatre so he could explain it all to me, and in February 2021, we caught up again via phone; if we had tried to talk on his usual corner, the buzz of traffic would’ve drowned us out. 

Nate Rogers

THE BELIEVER: Do you remember the first night you grabbed your sign and went out to the corner and no one else was there?

STEVE SHARP: Well, it dwindled so gradually… 

BLVR: So it wasn’t the type of thing where you turned around and all of a sudden you were by yourself?

SS: No, no. It was like, Oh, there’s only sixty people here; Oh, there’s only twenty people here. And then there were about a dozen of us, for, like, a year. Then it went down to, like, six, and then three, and then there were a couple of us, and then… So I don’t even know how long the timeline for the dwindling was. I’ve been out there alone most of the time for at least ten or twelve years. 

BLVR: Do people join you occasionally? 

SS: I have some old friends, and every once in a while someone comes back who used to be there and stands with me. People walk by, too, and occasionally someone gets it in their head that they want to help take the sign for a while. 

BLVR: Do you want people to join you?

SS: I just want the message to get across, however it comes. I look at it like alternative media. You know, you get so much media that says, “Blah, blah, blah.” This is just “Spread love, celebrate peace.” It’s an inside job. The history goes back to: I had a guru [Maharaj Ji, a.k.a. Prem Rawat, leader of the now-defunct Divine Light Mission] in LA in the ’70s and learned to meditate—and I’ve been meditating for forty-some years. I’m sort of an intellectual, geeky, asocial-type person, left to my own devices, so meditation is very natural to me, and from it you get a centering, a perspective that opens you up to seeing things in a broader context. Your mind settles down and you become more of an observer. And you see things. 

BLVR: It’s interesting for me to hear you say that you’d describe yourself as being asocial, because this is just about the most social act anyone in a city could do.

SS: I’ve learned a lot. I’m much better socially than I was. Matter of fact, I was a trainer for twenty years for an insurance company, in classrooms, doing demonstrations. So if it’s for a job, I can do it. But at a party I just stand back and watch, you know. 

BLVR: But standing on the corner with a sign on a Friday evening is different to you?

SS: It’s different. It’s great. There’s more daylight this week, even into the evening, so I’ll have light the whole time! This time of year I’m seeing if I can make eye contact with drivers. In the middle of winter all you see is the glare of headlights; you can’t really see anybody. So I’m doing the thing but I can’t really see how much I’m connecting, unless someone beeps or something. But with daylight saving time, I can look into every windshield.

BLVR: It does seem difficult to try to see the humanity of people in their cars. Normally that’s an issue with LA at large: We’re all kind of boxed in, and it’s hard to have positive moments with other people on the road. It’s usually an antagonistic relationship, if anything. 

SS: Well, there’s a lot going on and people have a lot on their minds, and you can see it. If you get in the habit of looking into windshields as the cars pass, you’ll see a lot of different attitudes in people. Some people are completely distracted, some people you can catch casually, and some people latch on—either positively or negatively. 

BLVR: Have you ever considered moving to a corner where there’s less car traffic and more foot traffic? Do you prefer the cars in some way?

SS: The thing about the car traffic is it’s a lot faster. Occasionally people come by and we start to talk, which is good, but then I miss all those cars. So for me, the asocial person that I am, I’d rather do the cars. 

BLVR: Your ritual is an outgoing activity that doesn’t require too much one-on-one interaction. You can maximize your effort. 

SS: It is what it is. I’m the type of person who takes things as they come. We got this protest together, and I was there, and if it had not been for the hundred people out there, I wouldn’t have started this. I’m not the person to say, I’m gonna go out there, but there I was, doing my thing, and everybody’s doing their thing. It was a big gang of people, and then it dwindled. It’s a little different than starting it alone. 

BLVR: Is there a routine that you follow before heading over to your spot with the sign? Eat a special dinner, listen to music, that kind of thing?

SS: The only ritual is to gather my stuff. It’s not like I have a last supper, or drink a glass of wine, or sing a certain song before I leave. It’s just like, Oh, it’s time to go—let me go. My system is very forgiving. I can be dehydrated for long periods of time without having any overt negative effects. I can go out after I’ve eaten or before I’ve eaten. Depends on what other things are going on during the day. 

BLVR: Do you feel like there’s been growing political complacency since you started heading out there? Recently, there have been the Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives, but it’s hard for me to imagine people starting a casual protest like this anymore, especially in LA. [Editor’s note: This portion of the interview was conducted before the George Floyd protests took place.] Like, the Black Cat is just down the street, and I feel like a lot of people don’t know that it’s basically the Stonewall of the West Coast. 

SS: There are bubbles. There are people that are in different bubbles and they live in completely different universes. This is the [Science of Compassion] theory I’m working on: It’s pan-psychic in a way. It’s underlying everything. There is no God but the whole universe, and consciousness underlies all. It’s sort of like the theory that there’s more than just space and time. People say, “‘Well, where did consciousness come from?’ ‘One time, a long time ago, there was this electrical spark that happened to these amino acids in this pool, and gradually they started to get together, and eventually, through some magic, all of a sudden we could think.’” To me that sounds ludicrous. We have experiences—that’s as real as anything else. And our experiences are unique to ourselves. Your universe—literally your universe—can be completely different from mine. I know a guy who has a dream life that’s more real than his waking life. And he actually converses with people, and they’re absolutely real, as real as people who believe in God having an experience with God. There’s a real experience. So my theory is that everybody has their own universe, which is how they intersect with the physical universe. The final step of the theory is: if consciousness is an integral part of space and time, then love somehow becomes a physical attribute that we can talk about scientifically, because consciousness thrives on love. 

BLVR: I gotta say, I’ve been driving by you for two or three years, and I’m surprised there’s this much to what you’re getting at out here. Because in my head I was like, This is the simplest message in the world.

SS: Well, in a sense it is. But there’s a lot to understand about peace. There’s a lot to understand about how to make the world better. You have to come up with a new paradigm to make people see. If only one person out of a hundred thousand saw in color, and everybody else saw in black and white, what would the scientists in the black-and-white world say about the person who says they see color? They’re delusional. Once we get to a point where people can see that these things make sense, then we can form a theoretical basis from which we can start to come together and at least have conversations about bringing people together. 

BLVR: You’ve been described as a humanist in the past. Would you agree with that? What type of philosophical system would you apply to your larger set of beliefs?

SS: I’m what you might call a neo-pantheist. We’re dealing with several unknowns, and my philosophy is: let’s see if, between the scientists, the artists, and the mathematicians, we can put those things together. My website is an attempt to begin to do that. 

BLVR: Is there anything you’re practically hoping to accomplish specifically in regard to the peace vigil? If the wars in the Middle East stopped tomorrow, would you still be going out there?

SS: I don’t know what an answer to that would be, because I can’t imagine that happening, number one, and number two, saying “celebrate peace” does not necessarily mean “the absence of war.” There’s something deeper to peace. Peace, from a spiritual standpoint, from a meditation standpoint, is that inner well of silence that people in today’s crazy world find little value in. But there’s a great deal of benefit in still rather than rushing water. 

BLVR: Does it ever feel difficult to grab your sign and do your routine, given the futility of trying to change the world? If there are perpetual wars that’ll never end…

SS: I think ultimately I’m an optimist. I don’t know how many people pass by here on a Friday night in two hours. Some react positively; some react negatively. Some roll their eyes; some ignore me. But I’m hopeful that things like this happen—that people talk and we say, “OK, well, what can we do?” And I can convince people that there’s more to the universe than space and time.

BLVR: Did this metaphysical stuff ever feel at odds with your work and career in insurance? Would you talk about amino acids and the spark of consciousness in the office?

SS: Well, I was in insurance training. I was training auto adjusters. So, with a damaged car, you see the estimate, and then see how much the car is worth. And then you deal with customers. I would tell the class, “Say to the customer, ‘My job as an adjuster is to give you as much money as I can possibly justify for your claim. As long as I can honestly justify it, I don’t care if it’s fifty bucks or fifty grand.’” My whole thing in insurance was: The people are more important than the process. If somebody’s had an accident, they’re not having a good day. They’re having one of their worst days. So you can’t just say, “Look, buddy, your car’s a piece of shit and it’s not driving—it’s a total.” You gotta say, “Tell me about your car.” Spread the love.

BLVR: Did that kind of work train you to be able to take having someone give you the finger and just laugh it off?

SS: I don’t take much personally. And there are fewer of them than there used to be—flip-offs and stuff like that. At the beginning it was rather contentious. There were counter-groups demonstrating for the invasion and stuff like that. 

BLVR: I think people are more combative online these days. They’re still aggressive, but now they just do it on Twitter. 

SS: It’s passive-aggressive. It’s I’m over here and you’re over there. In some ways it looks like it’s getting worse. If you follow this political shit in Washington, it’s like: When is this other shoe gonna drop? It’s going on and on and on. And people continue to be surprised by what’s happening, but it makes perfect sense if you look at people’s minds. It doesn’t make it right, but it makes perfect sense. But I always go back to: it’s darkest just before the dawn. If you can understand the sense of it, and you can put it all together in a larger context, then we can make some progress. 

BLVR: When the shoe drops, do you think you’re still gonna be out there? Apocalypse? Hellfire raining down?

SS: Oh, obviously I’m not a hero type. But I have no plans of stopping. I mean, we’re in fucking Hollywood. If somebody shoots me here, we’re in big trouble, but you never know. I’ve been accosted a couple times. Threatened a couple times. But it was basically just crazy people. I just try to stay back from it. And I get a lot of positive responses. People will come by and say, “I’ve been sticking by you ever since you started.” I do get some gratification from the people who come by. I don’t have any specific expectations. These little things I’m leaving up to the universe. My universe is a magical universe. I’m just trying, you know, projective karma. Karmic pillows. You keep making sure you don’t do bad things and keep pushing good stuff out there and sort of pad yourself from bad stuff that might come at you.

BLVR: And then the good and the bad—it’s better than nothing at all, right? Getting flipped off is better than no one noticing you’re even there. 

SS: Sometimes somebody will come up and we’ll start talking. We won’t resolve anything, but at least we’ll open up a conversation.

More Reads

An Interview with Andrew Garfield

Esmé Weijun Wang

An Interview with Vi Khi Nao

Kim-Anh Schreiber

An Interview with Jackson Galaxy

Alyse Burnside