Walking into the Malibu Chili Cook-Off is a bustle of lights, crowds and a cacophony of noises and smells. But one of the first things you’d stumble upon is a classic 1972 aqua blue VW bus, fixed up camper-style in cherry condition, complete with curtains and a pop-up tent—old school comforts in a modern world. This homey retro relic is the Laughing Dog Story Bus, enjoying its second year at the cook-off.
Two Malibu free spirits, Lisa Spear and Cindy Short, are behind the project that strives to connect the community through stories, art and conversation. They call the bus a “think tank creative center for community and personal art projects with no destination and no agenda except connection.”
The Malibu Times sat down with artist Short and her story bus at this year’s chili cook-off. She unpacked the bus to create a site at the festival that evokes front porch meets living room, complete with lamps, rugs and rocking chairs—an inviting spot amid the bustle of the fair to sit, relax, create and perhaps start up a conversation.
“I’ve always had this curiosity around community formation and public spaces in a mobile society—how we find our places that we can just connect without it being tied to something commercial or regulated in some other matter,” Short said. “We’re advanced technologically, but there’s also this deep alienation we all seem to feel about ourselves and about our connection to others. In this community, it’s particularly interesting because Malibu’s been through a lot of crazy stuff—most recently the fires.” Short’s home in a fire—ravaged canyon survived, she says. “I don’t know how.”
“I find it’s interesting we don’t have spaces where we get to just be and connect. I think of the old structures where you have a (town) square, where old men could sit around and play chess all day and argue politics and kids could play freely and there was never an issue around necessarily safety or being able to form identity around your connection to others—that’s what seems to be disappearing in American culture,” she continued. “Malibu’s particularly interesting in that way geographically, and it’s economically stratified. There’s this perception of what Malibu is to the outside world as if streets are paved in gold and everyone here is wealthy or a superstar of some kind and that’s just not the truth. It’s interesting how we identify as someone who lives in Malibu and how do we see one another in that and how are we connecting or how are we not.”
So, Short and Spear created the Story Bus as a space for people to connect. “We don’t facilitate or press ideas. We literally show up,” Short described. Often, when the bus pops up in Malibu unannounced, as it did one time after the Woolsey Fire in Malibu West, a music jam session will spontaneously occur. At the chili cook-off, a story weave project continued for its second year where participants can take rags and weave messages into a loom which will eventually be hung as art in a public space—perhaps the Malibu Library. The bus has sponsored a letter writing project that its operators hope will resuscitate the art of letter writing. Short loves the idea of sending someone a message, “just because you thought of them.
“We’ve had amazing feedback on that,” she shared.
On display over the weekend at the festival was a storyline—or clothesline of stories—pinned up around the bus. People shared poems, stories, thoughts and wishes. It will be photographed, archived and turned into a book “to keep a record of people’s stories,” Short said. She explained the importance of stories, saying, “We identify ourselves and understand the world through stories first. Stories are the first step toward activism and human connection.”
The bus has a special affinity for the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu, which sponsored the chili cook-off. “They show up in the community rain or shine for every person, regardless of their socioeconomics or background. After the disaster, there was misconception about what the club was doing with funding. It filtered through the club for distribution to the community, but the club didn’t see a dime of it—not a dime,” Short attested.
As for the bus—although not an official nonprofit—it too seeks community support to fund ongoing archiving Malibu story projects “to hear all different voices, backgrounds and histories.” To have the bus pop up at an event from poetry slams to weddings, etc., go to laughingdogstorybus.com.
Every time the bus has popped up somewhere, Short says, “amazing magic has happened.”