The scene at Dag Weiser's home on Halloween 2021.
The scene at Dag Weiser’s home on Halloween 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Santa Cruz artist Dag Weiser does it all — and he’s finally at peace with the moniker ‘Mr. Cardboard’

Artist Dag Weiser says he’s always had “a weird attitude about the impermanence of art,” which fits neatly into his one-night-only Halloween displays both this year and in years past. Though he’s more than just “Mr. Cardboard,” with a discipline that includes assemblage and painting, he’s happy to be known for his temporary art.

In the world you and I inhabit, neighborhood Halloween displays usually go up in early to mid October. But Dag Weiser doesn’t quite live in that world.

The night before Halloween, Weiser’s house on Market Street in Santa Cruz — famously the site of some of the most eye-popping Halloween displays of years past — looked as it does during any other day of the year, in need of a coat of paint maybe, but otherwise not really standing out from the other homes on the street. On the day after Halloween, same scene, nothing out of the ordinary.

But on Oct. 31 itself, in the hours around sundown, Weiser’s house was transformed into a one-night-only pop-up art spectacle. There was no traditional imagery you might associate with Halloween, but the imagery was scary nonetheless, albeit in an uncomfortably real-world way. Illuminated with a bank of theatrically colored lighting, Weiser’s yard was populated with more than a hundred penguins … on fire.

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To be sure, these were artistic depictions of penguins, rendered onto cardboard, Weiser’s medium of choice in recent years. Towering over the penguins, leering at them maniacally were a couple of giant, green-faced monsters, a man and a woman, pushing in a baby carriage some kind of grotesque creature, drooling with menace. The political message was about as subtle as a flamethrower. Welcome to “The Last Waltz of the Penguins.”

As the night grew darker, there were more spectators admiring the installation than trick-or-treaters in the crowd, including at one point at least three professional art curators. This all makes sense given that Dag Weiser isn’t some suburban dad trying to have some fun on Halloween. He’s one of Santa Cruz’s most daring and mischievous artists, a playful yet committed provocateur whose work often shines with pointed political messaging and irreverent humor.

Dag Weiser
Dag Weiser
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“He’s just wildly talented and creative,” said Melissa Kreisa, the owner of the gallery Curated By the Sea on Front Street in Santa Cruz. “I’ve never met anyone quite like him, his worldview, his perspective, the way he looks at things. There’s only a couple of artists that I’ve thought, ‘Y’know, I’d like to live in their brain for a day.’ And that would be Dag.”

Weiser’s artistic pursuits are broader than his reputation, as “Mr. Halloween.” Kriesa’s gallery featured Weiser’s work in a show over the summer that highlighted not only his cardboard art, but assemblage and traditional painting as well. He will be spending the coming months, he told me, pursuing photo-realism painting, using as subjects manhole covers on his street.

However much he wants to be considered a complete artist — and he certainly does — Weiser has learned to lean in to what he is most well-known for in Santa Cruz. That’s not necessarily his show-stopping Halloween displays, but rather the raw material that he uses to build them.

Yeah, I’m the cardboard guy.

“Yeah, I’m the cardboard guy,” he said. “I used to preface a lot of conversations with, ‘That’s not all I do, you know. I do a lot of other stuff.’ Now, I’m very happy to be noticed as the cardboard guy.”

Though there are many artists who work in cardboard nowadays, Weiser has been exploring it for years. The URL for his website (cardboardart.org) marks him as a kind of O.G. of cardboard art. Perhaps, the most prominent example of Weiser’s cardboard art is the two-faced portraits in the windows out in front of the Rio Theatre, in which Dolly Parton’s portrait morphs into that of Salvador Dali (get it?), as well as some stylized faces in the Rio’s interior.

A detail from “The Last Waltz of the Penguins," a display made out of cardboard made by artist Dag Weiser.
A detail from “The Last Waltz of the Penguins,” a display made out of cardboard made by artist Dag Weiser.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cardboard is, of course, a familiar material for artists and non-artists alike, and Weiser has always admired its utility as both a surface on which to draw and paint, and a three-dimensional medium of sculpture. And though cardboard may be durable, it’s not enduring. It’s not designed to live on for years. It’s constructed to be recycled.

What many artists might view as a big negative, maybe even a deal-breaker as far as materials go, is exactly what Weiser admires about cardboard. He’s not much interested in art that outlives its moment of creation. “It’s part of my schtick to just recycle the art and get rid of it, move on to something different.”

It’s part of my schtick to just recycle the art and get rid of it, move on to something different.

In that respect, Weiser doesn’t just casually toss away his creations. He takes delight in watching them destroyed. For years, he dragged his elaborate cardboard creations to the landfill, but one incident convinced him to make sure they were all properly recycled.

One day, he saw a set of his own art pieces in someone else’s yard sale. “I slammed on the brakes and ran over to this yard sale. I was like, ‘Where did you get that?’ And she said, ‘Somebody threw it away at the dump, so I just picked it up.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that was me.’”

In that case, Weiser actually had to buy back his own art work. “They gave me a good price,” he laughed. He then recycled the piece again.

“It wasn’t going to last forever anyway,” he said. “Cardboard is not built to do that. But I push the edge of that envelope quite a bit. I’ve thrown away a lot of pretty good-looking cardboard in the name of the ephemeral. I’ve always had a weird attitude about the impermanence of art.”

It wasn’t going to last forever anyway. Cardboard is not built to do that... I’ve always had a weird attitude about the impermanence of art.

Weiser’s casual approach to the long-term preservation of his art causes some anxiety to curators and collectors.

“It just breaks my heart that he does that,” said Kriesa of Curated By the Sea, acknowledging that she understands the ethic behind it. “I get it, but (his art) is so inspirational. Especially now, in the last few months, people come in and they just want to spend time with some art and get inspired.”

In recent years, Weiser has given away many of his pieces, often to friends. One friend in the performing arts uses them for elements in her performance pieces. Kriesa took ownership of one of Weiser’s most ambitious pieces, an enormous 30-foot column of bees and flowers, originally commissioned for the Museum of Art & History.

Little-seen but much admired: The three-story column of flowers and bees at the MAH.
(Via the MAH)

The bees and flowers work was a symbol of colossal bad luck. The piece was hung in the stairwell at the MAH in the spring of 2020, but the museum closed in reaction to the outbreak of COVID-19 two days later. The cardboard piece hung in the MAH for a year, though almost no one got to see it.

Kriesa has been showing it at her gallery, broken into three columns, ever since. She’d like to find the piece a home whether to sell it to a collector or to find “a non-profit somewhere or a children’s charity.”

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Fellow Santa Cruz artist and good friend Dee Hooker has several Dag Weiser pieces in her home. “I’m a fan of people that do art that isn’t like everybody else’s,” she said. “And when I first saw Dag’s work, I had never seen anyone do something like that, going out and getting refrigerator boxes and do these amazing installations that talk about the ephemeral.”

Hooker also admires Weiser’s willingness to zig when others zag. An overtly political artist threw his community a curveball with his beautiful cardboard creation of bees, flowers, and butterflies. “He did all that during Trump,” she said. “One year, he did monarchs and the next year he did flowers and bees. And it was partially a gift to people to have a moment to chill.”

I’m a fan of people that do art that isn’t like everybody else’s.

One thing’s for certain. If you were a day late (or a day early), you simply didn’t get to see Weiser’s army of burning penguins. Curated By the Sea has called dibs, so those who were otherwise engaged on Halloween might still get a chance to see the penguins.

In that sense, the bad luck debacle at the MAH, where one of Weiser’s most ambitious and large-scale pieces hung in a museum no one was allowed to enter, is symbolic of Weiser’s standing in the community. Whether it’s through his own design or astounding coincidence, seeing Weiser’s art in the wild is an experience worth savoring.