‘Big B’ set the beat, and the scene for life at the beach

Brian Sisson at the Hermosa Beach Fine Arts Festival in 2004. Photo by Kevin Cody

“I paint scenes that are designed to lower your blood pressure, and make you nod in affirmation.” — Brian Sisson

by Kevin Cody

Dan Sisson recalled a characteristic lesson his dad Brian, or “Big B” as he was known, taught him when he was 12. 

“Melissa Etheridge was on the radio. ‘I said,’ I think she’s gay.’” 

“Without taking his eyes off the road, Dad said, ‘If you judge people by their sex, their race, or their religion you’re going to miss out on a lot of good music.”

The lesson has served him throughout his life better than any moral rebuke might have, the son recalled at his father’s funeral at American Martyrs Church last Thursday, July 6.

Sisson, along with his seven siblings, was baptized at American Martyrs. He met his wife Kathy in first grade at American Martyrs. He received First Communion, was confirmed, and was married at American Martyrs. He played football at Bishop Montgomery and attended El Camino College. Parties at the family’s Manhattan Avenue home, on Hermosa/Manhattan border would be shut down by complaining neighbors in today’s Hermosa. Brian’s dad Dave led the  annual Fourth of July parade with a toilet plunger.

When it was time to get on the 405 for work downtown, Monsignor John Barry told the mourners who filled the church, Sisson took the 405 to Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena.

“Brian saw life differently from the rest of us,” the Monsignor said.

He quoted from William Wordworth’s “Daffodils.”

I gazed — and gazed but little thought

What wealth to me the show had brought

“Brian was like that, an interpreter,” Monsignor said. 

Fellow artist Chris Hopkins recalled Sisson as “big, athletic and extremely goofy.”

The two met at Art Center.

“I was in the break room minding my own business when ‘Big B’ sat next to me, and said in his staccato, hyper delivery, ‘Yer quite the bumpkin arnch ya?’” 

I replied, “What do you mean?”

“Well look at cha, a work shirt, suspenders, and hiking boots,” he said. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip flops. 

I said, “Let me guess, Hermosa Beach, right?” 

Hopkins had seen a VW bug in the school parking lot with Hermosa Beach painted on the side, along with flowers and rat fink characters.

“Brian decided it would be a cool idea to come by my place with his guitar, and a six pack, and we could play some tunes together. I loved the idea but felt that anyone as goofy as Brian couldn’t possibly know more than 3 chords.”

“I cracked a beer as Brian pulled out an old nylon string guitar. He then proceeded to play like no one I had ever played with. He seemed to pull every chord imaginable out of thin air, intricate phrasings, and guitar runs I had never seen nor heard before. His dexterity was breathtaking. I don’t remember ever being that humbled.”

Dan recalled his dad taking him to band rehearsal, and putting him down to nap in the drummer’s bass drum case.

“To this day, loud music puts me sleepy,” Dan said, jokingly.

His dad’s best known band was the Big Jerks. Critics credit them with inventing improv rock, a term they copyrighted. The songs were improvised, jazz style. Band members included Karl Grossman, whose Music Focus studio the band recorded in, drummer Mark Baertshi and bass player Tony Alvarez. Their first public performance was in 1980 at the now legendary Madam Wongs in downtown Los Angeles. Over the ensuing decades, they wrote over 1,000 songs on every imaginable subject, and released over 150 CDs.


Brian Sisson. By Chris Hopkins


The frenetic Big Jerks were the mirror image of his paintings. 

“I paint scenes that are designed to lower your blood pressure, and make you nod in affirmation,” Sisson told Easy Reader art critic Bondo Wyszpolski at the 2005 opening of a show of his and Ralph Moore’s work called “Postcards from the Coast,” at the Riley Arts in Manhattan Beach.

“His large canvases, primed with beach sand, are starkly geometric, sun-drenched views of ‘nothing obvious,’ as he put it,” another Easy Reader art critic, David Buckland, wrote of Sisson in reviewing a 2004 show.

“Sisson’s acrylic canvases depict beach life, without succumbing to touristy cliches. One painting features a rusty parking meter, another a beach volleyball court without a net, while yet another depicts warnings against dogs, and alcohol on the beach, painted on The Strand wall,” Buckland wrote.

The deliberate absence of tension resulted from an abundance of talent.

Hopkins recalled being in an Art Center class with Sisson taught by a former Marine Sergeant.

“The class was drawing from a female model. We all hunkered down in an effort to do our best. Our egos were at stake. After a short while Brian was wandering around the class looking at other students’ drawings. The instructor shouted, ‘Sisson, what are you doing?’ Brian said he was finished. The instructor rushed over to Brian’s easel desk, and saw a nicely finished drawing. On the floor next to Brian’s easel desk were two more finished drawings. He told Brian, “Draw the model left-handed.” Brian was soon walking around, looking at other student’s progress.

‘Sisson!’ came a thundering shout. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve finished again!’ The teacher rushed over to see yet another beautiful sketch. He had Brian tape up his right hand into something resembling a club and draw. Once again with the same results. Then he taped a pen in Brian’s left hand and told him to draw. Again the same results. The instructor moved Brian’s easel desk  to the center of the class, this time with his back facing the model, and a pen tightly taped to his left, club-like hand. At that moment the science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, and TV personality Art Linkletter, both large donors to the school, walked in. They took one long look at Brian, with his hands taped up, and his back was to the model. They whispered to one another, rolled their eyes and walked out.”

Brian’s older brother Mike Sisson recalled Brian inviting friends over to play Kick Back. Players pressed down on the front legs of small plastic donkeys in an effort to make the donkey’s rear legs kick a ball into the opposing player’s corral.

“It’s the dumbest game ever,” Mike Sisson said.

He said his brother’s proudest achievement every year was leading the Memorial Day Trek. 

He asked everyone with a Memorial Day Trek card in their wallets to hold up their hands. Dozens of hands went up.

The 12-mile trek along the ocean’s edge, from Rocky Point in Palos Verdes to Hermosa Beach, required timing the waves, and climbing over moss-covered rocks.

“Dad loved exploring. He’d stop the car on the side of the road to explore a boulder. When we climbed back in the car, he’d name it Sisson Rock,” son Dan recalled.

When colon cancer was close to ending “Big B’s life, and son Dan would ask how he was feeling, his dad would turn the question around and ask how he was feeling.

“It was never about dad. It was always about you,” Dan said.

“Dad’s masterpiece was his life,” he said. ER


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