A Hippie and His Van: They’re a Piece of Work, Man
With a flair for flamboyance, One Feather is turning heads – and making a living off donations from tourists eager to take pictures with his masterpiece.
By Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer | Published on 06.30.2008
Sure, a lot of hippies live in a van, but rare is the hippie who uses that same van as his meal ticket.
Meet the man who goes by the name One Feather.
Part stand-up comedian, part freak-show carnival announcer, part “peace and love” preacher, the 46-year-old Jesus lookalike – who refuses to divulge his birth name – has created a piece of work that is difficult not to stare at.
The vehicle is so bristling with décor that not a spot of original van can be seen.
The eclectic assemblage of about 5,000 pieces affixed to the so-named “Temple of One Love” includes a full-size trombone, hundreds of plastic action figures, two 10-speed bicycles, an Irish harp, several small piano keyboards, dozens of guitar picks embossed with an alien face, an 8-foot missile a la Planet of the Apes, vintage toy Tie Fighters from Star Wars, an acoustic guitar and a Jesus action figure riding a Harley – to name just a few.
But the real piece of work here is not the van. It’s the man.
With his bushy beard and long, wavy brown hair, One Feather presents himself every day as the quintessential hippie. For him, going to work means pulling the van into the parking lot at East Beach, taking a seat in a lawn chair and talking to tourists, who seem to be gravitationally attracted to his van.
His only request: a small cash donation in return for a photo.
“Take a trip! It’s all visual – no drugs are needed,” he calls out from his folding chair, his belly hanging out from beneath his too-short T-shirt, as bemused beachgoers walk past. “I’ve already done them – for your viewing pleasure.”
At first blush, One Feather seems stereotypically hippie, to the point of being cartoonish. His inflection carries that stonerlike quality of sounding perpetually surprised. And he’s definitely stoned, which he’s proud to admit. But he’s also a quick improviser and, some might say, a savvy entrepreneur.
One Feather likes to say that he hasn’t worked a day since the start of the millennium – that is, the year 2000. For that he can thank passers-by – most of them tourists – who for seven years have provided him with enough in tips to get by. He declined to say how much he earns.
However, it’s a stretch to say he isn’t working. In fact, during weekday hours his friends avoid popping by, knowing he’ll be working the crowd.
That is when he can be seen posing for pictures, rib-jabbing kids, cracking bumper-sticker-worthy remarks to passers-by and chatting up senior citizens, all while looking for a new audience.
“Just say no to Bush!” One Feather shouts to high-schoolers walking by. “If you’re going to say no to drugs, spell (no) with a ‘k’!”
Despite the coy references to drugs and sex, parents of small children seem not only unfazed but drawn to the loquacious hippie. The irony of his mainstream acceptance isn’t lost on One Feather.
“What was once called a hippie or a freak show is now called a tourist attraction,” he said during a pause in the foot traffic. “Please make sure to write that down.”
One afternoon, a family of four from Thousand Oaks approached the van on their four-seat bicycle. They were puzzled but not offended.
“It might be weird for some people, but he’s doing whatever he needs to do to keep out of trouble,” said the father, Silas Nesheiwat. “He’s passionate about – something.”
The mother, Reem, added, “My first thought, when I saw the Jesus picture, was, does he really believe in Jesus?”
One Feather loves this question.
“The world doesn’t need more Christians,” he said. “The world needs more Christ.”
A self-described “Jesus freak” once known for roaming local streets in robes, One Feather says Christians need to unlearn some of the individualistic principles of the religion.
“We’re all one. We’re all one in the spirit of love, bro,” he said. “Brother, I’m living on miracles. I’m living on love.”
A native of Pennsylvania, One Feather says he moved to California after high school. He joined the military, where he trained to become a nurse. Alas, he and the military turned out to be a bad fit.
“The greatest gift that (Uncle) Sam gave me was throwing me out for smokin’ the chronic,” he said.
One Feather went to jail for a few weeks and lost his stripes, but upon his release drew on his military nursing experience to land jobs at hospitals, he said. He was 33 when he found the van. The way he tells it, the story is serendipitous. One Feather had broken up with his girlfriend of three years in Olympia, Wash. He didn’t own a vehicle and decided it was time to get one. He wanted to leave town.
One afternoon, he was bicycling home from work after receiving his first $400 paycheck when he came across a man putting up a for-sale sign on a 1976 Dodge Sportsman. The man turned out to be the husband of a woman who was nine months pregnant. They were homeless. Child welfare officials had warned the couple to sell the van and find an apartment or lose the baby to the state. One Feather and the man made a deal. One Feather ended up with the van, and the couple got to keep their baby.
One Feather’s first project for the van was to paint, above the windshield, a picture of Earth cradled by “the hands of God — one male, one female, one black, one white.”
Shortly afterward, in 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jerry Gay took pictures of One Feather and his van. The photo was published in a book by Gay titled Everyone Has a Life to Live.
In the black-and-white photo, the van, despite being used as a canvas for hippie paintings, looks plain compared to the flamboyance of its current incarnation.
One Feather is in the photo. Then, as now, he’s the true work of art, standing before the van in a white robe.
One Feather definitely isn’t shy, or passive. He approaches groups of tourists as they approach the van in a kind of pre-emptive strike.
“It’s not my fault, man,” he says to a group of young men. “It’s my older brother’s fault. He was a hippie, man. He’s the one that put that little piece of paper on my tongue.” He laughs like Popeye – a disarming “Ge ge ge ge ge ge!”
The people laugh and one of them sticks a $5 bill into the collection plate – which in this case is a globe with a slit cut into the North Pole. Not long after, a little boy who says he’s going into first grade shyly approaches the hippie from a four-seat bicycle occupied by his mother.
“I like your van,” the boy says.
One Feather puts his hands on his knees, like an umpire. “What’s your favorite part?” he asks.
“The whole thing,” the boy answers.
“What do you think the most important thing in life is?” One Feather asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah. High five! You’re a smart kid.”
The boy returns to the bike and rides away, waving.
Not long after, One Feather stops to chat with a couple from the Bay Area. They say they’ve seen many vehicles like this, but One Feather’s work is the finest. He asks if they think his handiwork could have a shot at being in a museum exhibit. They say yes.
They also praise the chalkboard on the side of the van, on which One Feather likes to scrawl quotes. On this day, the quote is, “If you see yourself in others, than whom can you harm?”
The man from the Bay Area tells him about a good quote he saw recently. “America must be a melting pot: As the citizens burn on the bottom, the scum floats to the top.”
One Feather’s eyes light up.
“The scum floats to the top,” he repeats. “I like that! Sounds like I have a quote for tomorrow.”