Friday, September 19, 2008

Local author explores ‘Guys and Garages’


If you think a garage is just a place to park your car or to store things that don’t fit in your house, think again.
While a man’s house may be his castle, it is his garage that is his palace — a place to work, play, build things or simply escape.

Consider Barney Smith, an “extraordinary character” and retired plumber-turned-artist whose garage is filled with his more than 800 decorated toilet seats. Or Lynn, whose carpeted garage houses 10 Shelby Cobras, three hot rods and a dragster. There’s also Barry, a paleontologist who was putting together a 70-foot-long brontosaurus skeleton in his garage.
They are just three of the “guys” profiled and pictured in Helena Day Breese’s first book, “Guys and Garages.” The Santa Barbara writer/photographer — a native of England where men and their sheds are a common sight and even celebrated — interviewed and photographed 50 men across the U.S. who have turned their garages into everything but a place to park their vehicles.
“These are spaces where they can go and pursue projects or just get away and chill out,” noted Day Breese while sitting in her home in Bel Air Knolls. “It seems to be a very necessary space for men.”
That appears equally true in Santa Barbara, where Day Breese said she gathered inspiration for the book by observing her neighbors in their garages.
“It just sort of dawned on me one day . . . after watching the behavior of my neighbors, one in particular who used his garage as a decompression place,” she recalled.
“Watching my neighbors here gave me that sort of inspiration that there is a man’s space here, but it’s the garage not the shed,” she said. “I could have done the whole book in Santa Barbara, probably within 10 miles of this house.”
As it was, Day Breese began her project — she did both the writing and photography — in Santa Barbara. The cover photo features Santa Barbaran Ron Dexter in his garage crammed full of cinematography equipment and parts and more than a dozen other Santa Barbara guys and garages are featured inside the book. Day Breese also traveled to at least seven states (“I couldn’t afford to hit 50”) finding guys and garages through word of mouth.
“I would spend some time with one fellow and by the end of the shoot he would be thinking, ‘You’ve got to go see my friend,’” she said. “It was very much a serendipitous process.”
After 10 months, Day Breese selected 50 profiles and photos of guys and their garages, which was assembled into a book. The paperback book features a profile about her subject with a small image on one page with a large black-and-white photo on the facing page.
Other than the fact that the project was done in the U.S., the book bears a strong resemblance to “Blokes and Sheds,” the highly popular New Zealand book put together by writer Jim Hopkins and photographer Julie Riley. Other “shed” books — and even a television show — have been produced worldwide.
Day Breese, who came to the U.S. 25 years ago and has been in Santa Barbara for the past two decades, said there are a lot of similarities between the British shed and the American garage.
“Back in the UK, there’s very much a shed culture,” she noted. “It’s very much a shed to be occupied by men . . . It’s literally a garden shed but they’re all spaces typically men can putter around in. The garage really is the equivalent of a shed in England. And it’s very obviously a man’s space.
“And all of a sudden,” she said, “I had the basis for a book.”
For Day Breese, who had little writing experience and whose photography skills had been limited to a point-and-shoot camera, the project presented her with a variety of challenges.
Her first major task was to find a publisher, which she accomplished with the help of a friend who was a published author. Day Breese said she already had the concept of the book in mind.
“I had a very strong idea about what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was just a matter of getting up to speed on my photography skills, which were pretty much a point-and-shoot camera at the time, and becoming a better writer.”

Day Breese purchased a digital SLR camera and a lighting kit and embarked on what she describes as her “big learning curve.
“I learned on the job,” she said, noting that as time went on she became more confident and skilled in moving her subjects around while taking their picture.
When her book proposal was first accepted by a publisher, Day Breese was enrolled in a photo lighting course at Santa Barbara City College.
Her instructor later became her photo editor on the book project and handled editing the digital images in Photoshop.
“I was barely getting used to the camera itself, so starting to learn all that [Photoshop] was beyond me in the time that I had,” she said. “That’s why I needed a really good photo editor.
“I’m very grateful that in the process of producing the book, I worked with a good photographer who offered me excellent advice and I worked with a very good copy editor,” she added. “I definitely benefited from the skills of other people.”
She said that the skills she developed while working on the book will make her next project that much easier. She has two proposals in the works, and while she won’t divulge the specifics other than to say they would also be about “people and their spaces,” she hinted that they would be in the same vein as “Guys & Garages.”
“I really enjoy working in this format,” she said, referring to putting together a short article with a photo. “I love people. I think people are really what makes me excited about this whole project. You get to spend time with a wide variety of people. They welcome you into their space.”
Day Breese said she was surprised by the diversity of things going on in men’s garages.
“There were several that didn’t make it into the book because I wanted to keep it to 50,” she said, adding that if she was to do a sequel, “I’d be up and running in a second.”
One of the garages which she especially enjoyed was the one where the paleontologist was assembling bones.
“It was a standout because I never thought I would see a brontosaurus,” she said. “That was quite extraordinary.”
Day Breese said the paleontologist and others whom she interviewed were happy to open their garage doors to her.
“They don’t necessarily want to share the space with people all the time, but when they find somebody who’s interested in what’s going on in the garage, they’re very interested in talking about it,” she said. “All the men in my book threw the garage door wide open and said, ‘Come on in. I’ll tell you all about it.’”

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(Helene Day Breese’s book “Guys & Garages” is available in bookstores, including Borders and Chaucers, online at A signed copy is available directly from her at

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