John O’Kane

Long Beach is losing one of its great artists to gentrification. Peytch has occupied his studio for 29 years on 14th Street just east of the 710 FWY. He’s worked in several genres since getting his aesthetic inspiration growing up in Germany but settled on mobile sculptures when he moved into the space on 14th. Now these art forms are not exactly what you might think. They’re not those kinetic objects with hanging rods that play with the principle of equilibrium, what you might find on a pass through the galleries on the monthly art walks in downtown Long Beach. His space is filled with a wide array of exquisitely sculpted mobiles that are in various states of arrested development. Some were mobile en-route to his studio, others were towed in.

Peytch’s life-long love is with vintage Mercedes cars, treating them like works of art. He’s worked on many over the years but prefers those made from the 1970s through the mid-to-late 1980s since they’re more durable and less electronically complicated. This is also a stretch that nurtured his formative years and which most nostalgia-driven consumers of pre-owned German quality are driven to. The streets of Long Beach are filled with these marvels, their owners members of a virtual subculture who acknowledge each other with nods, waves and honks. Most find their way to Peytch’s place.

Its suite of workspaces truly conjures an artist’s studio, one where the creator lives with his work, thoroughly cohabits with his materials, the stacks, clusters, mounds, and layers of substances that will be processed into product. It’s no state-of-the art ultra-efficient techno-repair palace where the proprietors adhere to a set schedule and everything is in its place, catalogued and measured and slotted like in some military installation.

Artists simply don’t thrive in this kind of environment. Peytch is surely an efficient worker but passion playfully delivers his results in a space that’s raw and random. The mass of parts—generators, hoses, wheels, wrenches, lug-bolts, brake pads, motor mounts, etc.—can be left exposed in their everyday clutter, easily retrievable at a moment’s notice according to his “method,” the ability to scan the inventory quickly and recognize the item he needs (not unlike the power to pick out relevant words on a page thoughtfully read). You get the feeling he eats this kind of challenge up.

If he should not find what he needs the creative instinct really kicks in. He scours the area for parts that are close enough to warrant some customizing, using whatever materials he can to collage the vehicle back to health. The great tradition of German engineering that gave us these marvels demands that parts be precisely measured, otherwise the whole system might be damaged. Trimming a hose to fit might keep the machine running smooth for a good while but it will likely need to be replaced well before its time and even possibly affect the functioning of another part in due course. But Peytch has mastered the nuances of size and shape. One day he needed to replace a fuel filter on a 1983 Diesel but he didn’t have this particular one so he scrounged around and found one from a 1984 to make the appropriate modifications.

He prides himself on the ability to get the vehicle in good enough shape that it will not need servicing for quite some time. He’s apparently not satisfied unless he can repair the vehicle so well that its current condition is improved and even approaches the quality of its origins.

It’s the artist’s temperament to never accept the existent!

And this means to always improvise. On another day he found a small part he needed that had languished in a nearby stash, but the encrustations from its years of obscurity had to be removed so he rummaged through the trash and found a plastic container, pulled out his pocket knife and sculpted the perfect receptacle for marinating the part in baking soda.

Peytch’s creative atmosphere encourages multitasking, the time for diversions and interruptions, impromptu chats with clients and visitors who drop in, especially those with emergencies, and time to explain to a customer why the work was done. We can all relate to being brushed-off by our doctor or a repair person with phrases that betray the anxiety of having to spend precious time making you feel assured about what the problem really was that you brought to them, urging you through the exit with the consolation that they’re the expert and not to worry!

Peytch the expert is the Tony Romo of car repair. He overcompensates for all the pundits that refuse to explain why it took four hours to get your car to stop stuttering, or why a routine maintenance check-up led to your need to apply for a loan at the local credit union. Time’s not an issue. Take a seat and let him orate about why your transmission is slipping, graphically explain how the configuration of bands works or doesn’t work in that mystery box, what likely caused the dysfunction, stressing the need to frequently monitor the fluid level. Or why you need a valve adjustment to extend the life of the car, what a valve is, where it’s located, what function it provides in the car’s combustion system. You come away wondering if Peytch perhaps got a masters degree in combustion technology at the Free University of Berlin. He pelters you with enough information that you’re tempted to take notes and enter the DIY world, even scrounge around for your dog-eared owner’s manual at Planet of Books on Anaheim.

If you’re not currently in need of repairs, Peytch will likely not mind if you peruse his gallery, the part of his studio for the aesthetically-inclined. Now this is not a space in back or peripheral to the action, a kind of sidelight that Peytch offers to his fans as cultural compensation for waiting out the repair time, stocked with cheese and crackers and rotgut wine. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. Some regulars see it right away but if you’re a novice and aren’t especially art-minded you can possibly access it when the light changes and you squint, suddenly seeing objects thrown into relief like you’ve slipped through a wormhole into another dimension.

These objects are the truly vintage variety of Mercedes from even further back in time than usual, exquisite immobile sculptures gracefully occupying space. They need attention, often major service, but for the moment they lie only in potential readiness to be worked on. In fact, the owners are likely in no great hurry to get their vessel running for fear of lessening its life span. They’re probably pondered its fate for a long while, relishing its sheer beauty. Hence the expired plates from some time in the Bush administration.

Some customers climb inside the cars to admire the artistry, and even frantically make offers, but Peytch quickly shoos them away, making sure no dinks or smudges spoil the canvases…

My 1981 Mercedes diesel developed a serious sputter during the week and a friend of a friend highly recommended Peytch. I called him on Friday and relayed the symptoms. He said it was likely a fuel line problem and graciously agreed to fix the problem the next morning while I waited.

I’m waiting outside his studio with his two loyal employees, Israel and Poncho, when a black Mercedes sedan turns the corner at Oregon and 14th, coming straight toward us. As it approaches I notice that it appears to be similar to my car. The driver parks in tandem to mine and two identical structures face off. He proceeds to inspect mine like he’s sizing it up for potential purchase and finally smiles before slipping the vehicle into a lane, telling me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours. I decide to explore the area, perhaps find a café or coffee spot and catch up on the day’s news. He says he’ll call me with a heads up.

Peytch’s place is in a kind of strip mall of wholesale businesses with recently standardized facades, and I quickly discover that the entire area is a variation on this pattern, elaborated with warehouses and home-conversions. The only island of commerce within reasonable walking distance is Dino’s Burgers on Anaheim. Its scatter of customers are either waking to the day with monster coffees or finishing off the previous night’s dealings with ballast. The Dinosaur burger appears to be the substance of choice. I get the breakfast special and a small Dinosaur burger on the side.

Getting the call after a pleasant few hours of chats and doses of headline news, I meander back to a buzz of activity outside Peytch’s place. Several of his loyal customers in waiting are schmoozing it up but a few are animated about the arrival of the landlord, or his representative, who apparently came by to complain about the number of cars parked around the area. This is a common occurrence according to Peytch and the very issue that led to his need to move. His original lease, from 1991, specified that only seven cars could be parked within the confines of his allotted rental space. As his business grew this limitation could not realistically be enforced, but it wasn’t until recently when a new owner bought the strip of property. Peytch believes this has more to do with the changing nature of the adjacent businesses whose owners mostly cater to an upscale clientele and don’t want his kind of action to taint it.

Anyway, Long Beach’s loss is Bellflower’s gain. Peytch’s mobile sculptures are now housed in his new studio at 10506 Trabuco Street.