After artist Tommy DiVita graduated high school at San Dieguito Academy in his hometown of Encinitas four years ago, he was accepted into 13 art colleges around the country, including UCLA.
He chose California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, widely recognized as one of the world’s top art schools, yet undiscovered by many Santa Clarita Valley locals.
Tommy DiVita in 2008.
After four years of study and dorm life at CalArts, DiVita exhibited his senior BFA4 thesis, a project he called “Home Sweet Home,” in February, and picked up his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree on May 18.
“I visited the school and really liked that they had animation, fine arts, graphic arts, photography, theater and music,” he said, explaining his choice. “I also liked that I would have a studio to work in at CalArts.”
One of DiVita’s first projects as a CalArts freshman was a class assignment to create sculpture only from items found at a local 99 Cent Store.
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Inspired by 12 different animal masks he’d seen at the budget store, DiVita created his own version of a modern-day zoo, crafting animals including an elephant, gorilla, giraffe, zebra, pig, cat, rat, poodle, seal, rooster, dog and even a puffin out of plastic containers, dolls, toys, mops, laundry baskets and other “found objects” from the store.
“When I create a piece, I like it to be multifaceted,” he said then.
Four years of study at CalArts, DiVita said as he prepared to graduate, “have helped me to think about what my pieces mean. They have helped me with the conceptual aspect of my art.”
For his senior show this year, DiVita created a display that is at once fascinating, provocative and disturbing. He built five miniature doll houses from MDF board and sculpted half a dozen bizarre-looking dolls.
Divita may have titled the project “Home Sweet Home,” but this is no bevy of Barbies in the ‘burbs.
“The dolls and their houses are based on personal afflictions, insecurities, obsessions and self-harm,” he said. “I want to make the viewer realize that these people, the dolls, live with their afflictions and insecurities. It is their home; it is their life. Everything around them is a part of their affliction, and reflects their insecurity.”
The “Home Sweet Home” concept and images didn’t just spring from an overactive imagination.
“These are all afflictions that either I have had to deal with or someone close to me has had to deal with,” DiVita said. “These houses are symbolic interpretations of these struggles. The dolls are all made out of sculpey. They are made to resemble dolls, and constructions from our society. The houses I created act as settings for the characters.”
DiVita gave each of the five doll houses has a name. “There’s ‘Trichotillomania’ (Hair Puller, pictured above right),’Eating Affliction’ (anorexia/bulimia), ‘Self-Injury’ (cutting, self mutilation), ‘Gender Identity Issues’ and ‘Dysmorphia,'” DiVita said.
Especially provocative, since syringes make most people feel uncomfortable, is the aforementioned “Dysmorphia” (pictured at left). A couple dozen syringes penetrate the doll-house’s A-line roof. Inside the house are a disfigured female doll and a male muscle-man doll sticking needles in his buttocks.
DiVita says there’s more the piece than just shock value. “It may include aspects of acne dysmorphia, excessive plastic surgery or excessive tanning, something I call ‘tanorexia,'” he said. “That dollhouse is about people who exaggerate their inner flaws and insecurities relating to their physical appearance. They believe those flaws can be fixed by having plastic surgery. These dolls are representations of people who have excessive plastic surgery done to their bodies.
“A number of my dolls suffer from what is called body dysmorphic disorder, and having excessive plastic surgery is a form of it.” DiVita said. “Those dolls refer to people who believe that they need plastic surgery to change the way they look. The syringes are part of the plastic surgery procedures. They also represent procedures like botox injections or steroid injections to build up muscles.”
DiVita’s hope was to “get people to question themselves about these afflictions,” he said. “I tried to create a serious yet whimsical perspective as digestible as children’s toys are in our society. I wanted people to recognize aspects about themselves in the show. Perhaps people would not recognize themselves immediately or directly. There might even be a surprise at the realization they have shades of one or more of these things.”
DiVita said it took him two years to build the houses and sculpt the dolls.
“I first made a house out of cardboard and then the measurements were put into a CNC (computer numerical control) router program,” he said. “The pieces of the house were cut out of MDF board on a the router, and the pieces assembled into a house. I then designed the outside of each house and its windows, door and roof. Then each house had to have its interior design. The houses have elements of sculpture, collage, assemblage and painting.”
DiVita also came up with a creative way to display his works at the CalArts gallery from Feb. 9-11.
“I wanted the gallery to appear to be a large doll house, so people would be walking around inside a doll house,” he said. “I wanted it to represent a doll house within doll houses. I had a door on the (gallery) floor, which represented entering the doll house. I had doll house furniture set up around the gallery, and I also had friends dressed in costume as life-sized dolls.
“Each house was on its own pedestal,” DiVita said. “The pedestals were covered in artificial grass. I made the doll houses look like a neighborhood, arranged in an arch to represent a cul-de-sac. And if you looked closely enough, you’d find a key for each house.”
When asked about his post-graduate plans, DiVita said he has “several projects in mind that I want to start on. Internships, applying for jobs and continuing to create will be part of my post-graduate plans.”
And what would DiVita like to be doing in five years?
“Well, I think I will be creating. It may be in an academic setting or a commercial setting, or both,” he said.
See lots more of “Home Sweet Home” online now at www.disorderdollhouses.tumblr.com.
All photos: Courtesy Tommy DiVita.