Cassie was born in the High Desert of Southern California, where her parents met, and moved to Riverside when she was 11-years old. “It was a big change from a town of 1,000 people to a big city, but one that I loved,” she remarked. Her mother grew up in Orange and attended college at the University of California, Riverside. Furthering her Riverside roots, Cassandra’s grandmother set up employment at the local Denny’s, the site of a Hell’s Angels scuffle Cassandra’s dad retold her, one of the great motorcycle stories he shared with her over the years. The conversation would continue with the discussion of our hometown. I posed this question to Cassandra, to which she answered interestingly.
“When people ask me where I’m from, I say the Desert because I consider Riverside as part of that.” I followed up with that thought, asking her to elaborate on the inclusion of the High Desert. “Well, I feel like I moved from a historic place to an even more historic place. I learned quite a bit while in the High Desert, then I became myself in Riverside.”
This statement presented me with an interesting thought – how far can the perception of the “hometown” be stretched? For Cassandra, it stretched beyond Riverside’s city limits. After establishing Cassandra’s feelings on her hometown, we then moved onto her influences and training as a youth.
“My mother is a painter, so when we moved she became involved in the arts community at the Riverside Arts Museum. I also became a museum person, so when we moved to Riverside, I looked for that place where I could learn about this new place we were living. The museum became a large influence on me.”
I found it compelling that Cassandra had an artistic influence in the house daily. I, too, had my father who’s an amateur singer growing up who is an influence for me, so I understood the power that having a daily reminder of what one is looking to become, or even surpass, in their art.
“Well, art is a broad word with a lot of different meanings for me. It started right away, with a great friendship with Gaila Sims who’s increasingly pro-Riverside history and in her teachings, so being around her really influenced me to form who I was at the time and believe that it is possible to work as a artist. Also, her mother Susan Straight is a prolific writer in her own right, so she’s a major influence for me, too.”
The mentioning of Susan Straight makes sense. Born, raised, and residing in Riverside herself, Susan is a great example of someone from Riverside who perfected her craft. Some of her well-regarded publications include Aquaboogie: A Novel in Stories (1990), A Million Nightingales (2006), and Take One Candle Light A Room (2010), among a slew of others. Having written her first short story while taking a class at Riverside City College at the age of 16, she’s been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, has had short stories win the Edgar Award and the O. Henry Award; and was awarded a Lannan Prize for Take One Candle Light A Room, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Highwire Room. Currently, she teaches Creative Writing at UCR. To say the least, she has been able to realize her dream as a writer and make a living while doing so.
Furthermore, Susan is well regarded in the community, as a literary leader. I visited the Barnes and Noble at the Galleria Mall at Tyler and asked a few associates working there if they knew of Susan Straight and had any thoughts on her. One associate, an aspiring writer, called her “an inspiration to the community.” Another called her a “really good writer and I’m glad my teacher forced to make us read her.” Considering she’s an inspiration to Cassandra, Susan Straight has influenced a pretty wonderful photographer in her own right.
After learning some of Cassandra’s major influences were both painters and writers, I was eager to learn about her technical education, if applicable. Her answer was a bit surprising, considering her seemingly trained photographic eye.
“I’ve actually never taken a photography class. I did a summer program on painting at UCR. Mostly, though, it was a personal exploration with photography for me. I learn best by doing, picking up my camera and shooting. That’s how I practice. Going on walks and practice portraits on my friends helped a lot. When I was younger, it was about soaking up other people’s work at the Art Museum. I spent so much time there that I actually became the subject for a local photographer’s exhibit as I sat on my chopper in downtown. It was pretty cool.”
Being a museum junkie and practicing her craft best by doing – including into her upbringing in the High Desert and Riverside led right what’s inspiring Cassandra’s recent work.
“Most of the work I’ve been producing has been lifestyle shots and portraits during motorcycle trips and whatnot. Motorcycles and chopper building is a big part of my family history. I inherited my motorcycle from my family along with some old pictures. I now feel like I’m helping to create my own little moment in history. If I can capture those moments and share it with people that’s great. I think about my grandkids and being able to show them, so it’s about capturing those moments in time and the spirit involved that I hold really close to my heart.”
“Money isn’t important. Popularity isn’t important. There are so many things that don’t matter. But there’s moments like fucking heartbreak when your motorcycle breaks and you’ve got three dollars and your phone’s dead; those moments matter. All about preserving the heart and soul of this special thing is important and that it needs to be done. I want to do it. I shoot for some motorcycle magazines in Los Angeles. I own a motorcycle shop with my boyfriend. It’s amazing how much I’ve been able to fill my life with this.”
From there, I arrived at two questions I was very eager to ask her: do you do any work in Riverside still, and while in Los Angeles, do you feel like you have taking a part of or are representing your community of Riverside in any way?
“I honestly just don’t make it over there due to lack of a home base. With that, I still definitely have pride, you know? I’m proud to say I went to school there, I played basketball there, and it’s still a special place. Since I’m also a producer for other photographers, I travel a lot. I would certainly like to, though, and it would be cool to reconnect with the community. I try to make it back every holiday, and I stop at Simple Simon’s or my coffee shop when I’m nearby. It was pretty special to have grown up in a place like that with a strong community.
I followed up with asking if she felt Riverside is a suburb of Los Angeles. She defined suburban as “new and dull and lifeless” and that Inland Empire tends to “carry this suburban stigma from L.A., but it’s its own urban center, and I love it.” She expanded on that thought, saying that she never felt the need to escape Riverside, but rather explore.
“Right after high school, I moved to San Francisco at age 17. I was born with a need to explore. After that, I lived in Madrid for 2 years, traveling Europe and North Africa, then back to SF, then Southeast Asia, then back to SF for 5 years. Then finally down to LA. I decided to try LA out for size and I really fell in love with it.”
I ended our discussion with a question – simply put, what does Riverside mean to you? “Riverside feels like a lot of pride within family, history and community. I’m happy to have learned there.” In viewing her wonderful work located at dustdiablo.com, it’s clear to see all of these influences found in her work.