When a loved one dies at such an early age, it’s almost impossible not to ask why. For more than two years, since my friend Lou Genise was diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 cancer, I asked that question: Why? In his final week, I struggled with that question. And on the day Lou died, February 13, 2009, the answer fell on me like a ton of bricks.
Lou lived for art and was art. He inspired art and of course he made art. He expressed his art best at Burning Man every year for the past 10 years. That’s where Lou got his art on, as he would say.
At the age of 38, Lou lived his life like no other. He was a fierce entertainer, whose brilliance and insight was only matched by his humor and tremendous spirit.
Lou was a self-taught fire dancer and an avid fire breather, one of the best in Southern California. In his latest show, Lou played one of the “2 Guys in Suits,” which broke the stereotypical mold of what a fire breather looks like, much less how one performs breathing fire.
Comedy and laughter were always close to Lou. His performance of Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again,” while in drag, was a clear example of how Lou broke more barriers with fire dancing, by adding comedy.
Lou also appeared in My First Big Break, a Cut Chemist video, and in the independent, Santa Barbara-made films Revenger and Those Were the Days, which contains my favorite monologue about hating Sesame Street.
Lou was also a teacher. Not only did he teach many people how to work with fire, he was a spokesman and representative for the Los Angeles Fire Department to help establish safety regulations for the city fire marshals, ensuring that fire performance could be an accepted and safe art form in many venues.
Earlier he led a fire troupe, Saturnalia, which performed up and down the West Coast as well as at many events in Santa Barbara. Saturnalia and Lou broke new ground by choreographing and narrating the performances. Lou appeared in many shows with several fire dance troupes, including Heliopolis, Phoenix Projekt, and The L.A. and S.B. Fire Conclave.
Not all of his art was fire performance. He sold jewelry, under the Landshark name, at Elsie’s bar and art spot. His leather work was envied by studied leather craft workers, from bags, wallets, and vests, to custom work specifically made for fire dancers, to a microphone holster for a music instrument store. You can still buy the Rock Strap at musical instrument Web sites.
Lou was also a musician, who found his talent late. Just watch him perform “Oh, Susanna” on YouTube and you’ll agree.
Lou was a true friend. He was a friend who would carry your guitar cases before your show. He was a friend who would always make time for you-even in his illness.
He would stay up late and make glass-infused necklaces into the night for weeks before Burning Man. Once at Burning Man, Lou would let you reach into his bag and pick one. “No double dipping,” he jokingly added.
So many friends have stories about Lou. But the stories usually ended with Lou telling the story and you laughing.
I find that the answer to my question “why?” is that we die when we’re supposed to.
What I realize, is that Lou’s art and his life live in us all, as long as we “get our art on.”