Ventana Monthly, 4/1/2013
Life and Death and Tiramisu
The bittersweet style of Deb Dawson
By Leslie A. Westbrook—Photography by Maiana Schulze
was recently housesitting in Midtown Ventura. The last thing I expected to discover in the lovely suburban neighborhood, amidst manicured lawns and well kept homes, was a hulking, rusty hearse parked in a neighbor’s driveway.
“I found it on eBay in 2001 for $1,500,” says Deb Dawson, the creative owner of the car, a mobile billboard for her business: Desserts to Die For. “It’s a 1967 three-way Thrasher Sovereign Cadillac Superior Hearse. It runs great, but it would cost $40,000 to restore.”
Deb, who sports a nose ring and shortly cropped hair, recently retired at age 52 from the U.S. Postal Service. Although she lives in an outwardly normal house, the art collector and her new business, not to mention her home’s interior, are anything but run-of-the-mill.
Step inside the colorful living room, where the walls—inspired by Mexican folk art—are painted red, pink, and purple. A human skeleton greets visitors, as does a colorful collection of art by local artists, dead and alive, like Amy French, M.B. Hanrahan, Michelle Kemick, and gauvin. Funky pieces include a miniature train station complete with graffiti by Man One, a cityscape by Nick Wildemuth, and other Outsider Art-style pieces flanked by a bookshelf that includes titles such as “Beautiful Death,” ”After the Funeral,” “Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” and even “Snow White.”
A stack of antique postal boxes sits on the floor like a sculpture. It includes her original P.O. Box 803 from the Reseda post office, to which she’d commuted five mornings a week, beginning at 3 a.m., for the past 33 years and four months. There is also a coffin-shaped entertainment center, made by a friend, with a marmoset skull on display. Out front, a coffin-shaped mailbox with a silver bat handle greets the local mail carrier.
Miniature hearses purchased on eBay, Matchbox cars, and Hot Wheels are thoughtfully displayed on red velvet pedestals reminiscent of coffin interiors. A parking stanchion for a reserved spot at a funeral home, purchased at Necromance in L.A., adds another morbidly funky accent.
Her own work (Deb is a late blooming art history major) is scattered throughout the house, including a killer pair of bronze bookends—a coffin and a headstone—and her recently created “The Loo Gallery,” which features a vintage tampon dispenser that also dispenses feminist art, created by artist friends, for a mere two bits. She’s fond of tikis, too, and a day glow orange resin tiki head she carved and molded is part of the mix.
“My mom is English, and from the first time I visited a cemetery in England, when I was about seven, I became hooked,” admits Deb, who recently got dual citizenship. “Whenever I travel, I always visit and take pictures of cemeteries.
“England has great, scary cemeteries with headstones dated as far back as 1015. Ours are so new,” she laments, adding, “I’ve always been fascinated by gravestones.” There was even a college PowerPoint presentation she made while attending CSU, comparing gravestones of the stars: their huge fame in life ending in either grand finale style or simply with a small marker.
On her fiftieth birthday, Deb celebrated with a scavenger hunt at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Guests followed clues that included matching their birthdates with headstone dates, finding their names on tombstones, and seeking out the final resting places of stars like Rudolf Valentino.
And her baking business? Those “Desserts to Die For” come to life in her bright, airy, spic-and-span Midtown kitchen before taking a ride in the hearse. “My mom, Daphne, who’s now 88, was an amazing cook and baker, so I guess I was spoiled by that. I decided to bake my own sweets when I realized they never tasted as good at bakeries and restaurants as they did at mom’s. I guess that’s really when it all started.”
But it wouldn’t have gotten very far without Alcoholics Anonymous. Deb’s been sober for eighteen years and credits AA almost as much as her dear old mom. “I would not be where I am today if not for AA,” she says. “When I got sober I always asked for the cake commitment: I loved to bake, but most of all I loved to make people happy with my deliciousness.”
She admits that she doesn’t eat her own desserts (“I’d get fat!”), like the three cheesecakes, $50 a pop, recently ordered by the DMV, or a tiramisu for another client. Yours truly, on the other hand, indulged in a silky smooth bittersweet chocolate tart—a taste test in the name of journalistic research.
The delivery idea was inspired by the old Helms Bakery trucks that delivered donuts and treats in L.A., where she lived as a child. “They were yellow panel trucks with long wooden drawers that would pull out, just full of pastry delights. The hearse is my homage to the Helms Bakery trucks, the original food truck,” she explains.
And where could it go from here? “My goal is to have a refrigerated coffin to put desserts in for delivery. There’s a place in Santa Clarita where the guy sells coffins and does air conditioning.”
Deb’s recent post as a board member on the Ventura Arts Commission will probably find her pushing the envelope for edgier work in public places. She says she tends to play devil’s advocate—no surprise there, considering her penchant for all things dealing with heaven and hell.
“But I’m new,” she says with a sly grin. “I’m not making any waves… yet.”