Past To Present
Archival researcher and artist brings history to life
By Jessica Laskey
A vintage ad for a cyclery inquiring “Why are the Tallest People the Laziest?” snuggles next to a poster for a Frank Sinatra concert, which sits above a front page from the defunct Sacramento Union. This is perched above personals ads from the 1940s. Those are next to an old Sports Illustrated cover featuring Kings stars Vlade Divac, Jason Williams, Peja Stojaković and Doug Christie.
What does this amalgam of historical documents have in common?
The answer is archival producer, researcher and artist Chris Lango. He’s been a resident at the Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street since 2015.
“My whole journey (working as) an archival researcher has allowed me to be in situations—and meet people—that are totally interesting because of what has been saved,” Lango says. “In real time, those people might be viewed as strange, but in time, what they’ve done is so valuable you can’t put a price on it.”
Lango has made a living sifting through archives for almost 30 years. The Michigan native started as a television sports producer in Connecticut before joining KCRA in 1993.
While working for Channel 3, Lango did side projects such as documentaries on pioneering architect Leonard Starks, boxing champ Max Baer and Kings forward Chris Webber’s collection of African American artifacts.
When the economy tanked in 2008 and TV work got scarce, Lango volunteered to process film for the Center for Sacramento History, a gold mine of local historical materials.
The center had recently received a collection from the family of Nathaniel Colley, the first African American attorney in Sacramento, who fought for fair housing, employment and education during a civil rights career that spanned almost 50 years.
“As I was leaving one day, I looked down and sitting on top of a stack of papers was a telegram from President Kennedy,” Lango says. “That led me down this path.”
The telegram invited Colley to Washington to discuss civil rights.
Since then, Lango produced a documentary with Steve Davis Productions about Colley that aired on PBS KVIE. Lango also produced a documentary on the history of Capitol Mall and a video about the fight for fair housing in Sacramento as part of the history center’s series “Unlocking the Past,” which recently won a 2023 Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History.
Lango works with the Nathaniel Colley Civil Rights Coalition, a nonprofit aimed at preserving Colley’s contributions. He’s working on a documentary about Virna Canson, “the mother of civil rights in the West,” with a grant from the Sacramento Office of Arts and Culture.
In 2014, Lango began to create large-scale installations of hundreds of reproductions of historical documents that he arranges “like the biggest bulletin board” at restaurants and his place at the artist lofts, which he opens each month during First Fridays.
“I have a collection of letters to the editor from back in the day and I hear people reading every single one,” he says.
Lango’s choice to live at the artist lofts was serendipitous. During research, Lango learned Colley’s first job was as a store clerk packing textbooks in a warehouse at 11th and R streets, the warehouse that became the lofts.
He also learned the third floor where he lives in the 109-year-old building once housed the Secretary of State’s central records repository.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in backrooms going through old archives and now I live in one,” he says.
For information, visit @journal.artist and @firstfridaywal on Instagram and check out Lango’s YouTube channel.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com.Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.