Volume 7, Number 2 -- Winter, 1996
by Robin Dunitz
Time sure flies when you're having fun...chasing murals especially. I can't believe it has already been three years since I published Street Gallery: Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals. While my book isn't exactly obsolete, there have been major changes since the end of 1992. That is why I decided to publish an Addendum to my book.
Eighty-five pages long, my Addendum includes corrections and destroyed murals, plus more artist biographies. The bulk of the text, however, is the description of about 200 new murals.
A number of significant new murals have been completed in just the past few months. As usual, SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center, based in Venice) has been in the forefront of sponsoring some of the most meaningful. Very unfortunately, SPARC's funding for new murals was eliminated for this year. Hopefully this will only be a temporary setback for local muralism. Contact the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department, and/or the Mayor's Office to voice you support for this valuable program.
Here are a few of the past year's Neighborhood Pride: Great Walls Unlimited projects (the program SPARC sponsors):
22-year-old muralist, Eliseo Silva, created a 100-foot long panorama of 4000 years of Filipino and Filipino-American history at 1660 Beverly Blvd. in Echo Park. It is called Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy). Many of the significant historical figures depicted are making their debut on a local wall, emphasizing how long overdue this history is. For example, Larry Dulay Itliong led the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 and convinced Cesar Chavez to join him in forming the United Farmworkers Union in 1967.
Artist Alma Lopez directed a Woman's Public Art Workshop, out of which came a mural at Plaza Community Clinic at 648 Indiana St. (near Whittier Blvd.) in East L.A. The mural, entitled Que Esconde La Esperanza? (What is Hidden in Hope?) was a collaboration between several artists and the women of Esperanza Project, mothers recovering from substance abuse. Participating artists included Sol C. Alvarez, Lupe Becerra, Isabel Mora, Patricia Soto and poet Gloria Alvarez.
Noni Olabisi is just about finished with To Protect and Serve, her forceful impressions of the Black Panther Party. Located at 11th Avenue and Jefferson Blvd., in South-Central L.A., the monochrome imagery includes scenes of the Ku Klux Klan, Bobby Seale bound and gagged during the conspiracy trial of the Chicago 7 in the late 1960s, as well as portraits of Huey Newton and Angela-Davis, and the Panther's highly regarded Free Breakfast Program. This is Noni's second mural. Her first one, Freedom Won't Wait, at 54th St. and Western Ave., dramatically captures the anguish of a community victimized by police brutality and other forms of oppression. It was painted in late 1992, after the acquital of the police who beat Rodney King sparked a violent response all over L.A.
To order a copy of the new Street Gallery Addendum, 1996, send a check for $7.50, payable to RJD Enterprises, to PO Box 64668, Los Angeles, CA 90064. That price includes sales tax and shipping. For more information, call me at (310) 470-8864. The Addendum will also be available on MCLA tours.
YOU ARE THE STAR SHINES AGAIN IN HOLLYWOOD
Thomas Suriya's You Are the Star mural, Wilcox at Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood.
Thomas Suriya's popular Hollywood mural, You are the Star, received the final touch of its recent rennovation. A Mural Conservancy team under the direction of Nathan Zakheim installed Suriya's two new panels, replacing the badly worn plywood panels that were part of the original painting. Suriya executed the new panels in his New Mexico studio during 1995, shipping them back to Los Angeles for MCLA to complete the job. A Soluvar varnish, applied during the summer, already reaffixed the original protective coating, and the sacrificial coating service was subsequently put in place to guarantee that this landmark work will be around for a looong time.
By Nathan Zakheim
Approximately ten years ago, it became the fashion to coat outdoor murals with a newly developed urethane emulsion coating that was touted to be a "cure" for graffiti. The main selling point of this coating was the fact that in was virtually indestructible, did not succumb to the usual hydrocarbons such as toluene, acetone, lacquer thinner, MEK etc. that are the usual solvent components of most marking pens and spray can paint. Certainly the idea of a "suit of armor" that could withstand the worst that graffiti vandals could dish out had a certain appeal to frustrated artists who had become accustomed to seeing their finely wrought work executed under physically dangerous and fumigatiously unpleasant circumstances wiped out by a few arrogant passes of a 98 cent can of fifth class hot rod primer.
Since urethane cannot be dissolved in most substances known to humankind, it would seem that the final and most enduring mural protection had finally arrived courtesy of the large chemical companies that had already developed an awesome array of acrylic products (Products that included the vulnerable polymer "Rhoplex" emulsions used for mural paints as well as the harsh solvent-based acrylic monomers used for spray can paint). In the battle to the death between monomers and polymers, urethane surely seemed the shining armour in which the knights of future muraldom were destined to ride.
Alas! who could have predicted the fatal and tragic flaw of mural protective hubris! As graffiti vandals gnashed their collective teeth in frustrated rage at the ineffectiveness of their impotent spray cans as a means of permanently disfiguring governmentally sanctioned public art, urethane, the kindly friend of artist and art aficionado alike began to turn in the flaky gruesome fashion of "Friendly" alien monsters in an Ed Wood film.
First, the trusting artists stood agape as the treacherous substance began to yellow in the Ultra-Violet radiance of the sun! Helplessly, they watched their vivid hues sink into ghastly dull browns and greys. Then the treacherous urethane began to separate from the mural paint itself, much as the skin molts on a snake. Those with strong nerves would wait in the heat of day and the cold of night; braving rains and frosts to gaze with horror-stricken eyes on the minute and almost imperceptible crackling of the paint as it loosened first in pin-head little bubbles, then in patches and sheets, taking the precious final glazes and color areas with it as a stain. Now, a leprous white crept over the mural composed of de-laminated urethane film.
Then came the rains, bringing liquefied smog and grime, oozing beneath the leprous coating, impacting the fractured mural paint, gathering in impacted toxic globs, seething with inherent venom and petrification. Ah! the secret life of mural paint! First hot, then cold, light then dark, loose, then tight, wet, then dry whipped by rain, parched by sun, occasionally gouged by the bumper of an errant car. Using stop-frame photography like Disney dramatizations of an opening flower, they would seem to writhe! All in the thrall of Ultra-Violet light: the great killer of transparent coating film! From a microscopic view, we see the thickness of the film, following the contours of the mural paint and wall in a lumpy and ungainly way; sometimes thick, sometimes thin. The deadly rays of Solar Attack plunge through the surface of the film, only to be repelled by the surface on the mural paint side! Particles of light bouncing back and forth between the twin surfaces of the urethane film like nuclear ping-pong balls begin to smash the helpless and vulnerable molecules in their way. Accomplishing what no solvent dare attempt, they ruthlessly and indiscriminately side-swipe first electrons, then neutrons, then photons breaking down the integrity of their famous and reputed bond. Like cannon balls, crushing the fortifications of some ancient castle, cracks and fissures begin to form, and tired chemical bonds sigh and gradually release their hold. Heat and cold cause molecular tensioning within the urethane film itself; a "rigor mortis chemicus" of atrophying molecular chains. Stiff as mummified arms and legs of some ancient creature lost in the swirling mists of time, the film creaks like a mummy newly disturbed, and shrinks stiffly and rigidly across the minute voids it used to fill. If one had tiny ears and plenty of time, one could hear the crackling of the surface as these loose and brittle pin-head spots incrementally grow.
Moving back to a viewer's stance from the intense drama occurring microscopically within the coating of the mural wall, the saddened viewer simply sees the mural covered with whitish or translucent spots and blotches. He probably does not see them grow.
Happily, although impossible to remove, urethane "protective" coatings gradually fall off by themselves in the fullness of time. Of course, they do not leave willingly. They take whatever paint layers with them that they can before loosening and falling away in sheets.
Of course, science can step in, with wetting agents, surfactants, and bristle brushes for loosening the film. Perforating pinpricks of pattern wheels can accelerate the access of deionized water charged with loosening agents applied by trained and skillful hands.
Challenged by water after being loosened by time, the coating falls away readily enough, an ignominious ending for a substance resistant to the strongest chemicals known to man!
by Robin Dunitz
MCLA Tour Director
Eliseo Silva, Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy), mural located at 1660 Beverly Boulevard, 1995. Photo © Robin Dunitz.
By now every mural aficionado in Southern California should have received a 1996 Mural Tour Schedule. This year's tours are going to be HOT!
Every MCLA tour this year is a new one. We start the year with one of L.A.'s best, Terry Schoonhoven, on February 24th. Terry has been painting public murals since 1969, when he and Victor Henderson decided to take their fine art talent to the streets by forming the Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad. We will see one of their early creations on the tour, as well as several of his more recent, solo efforts. He's been painting murals on his own since 1974. A couple of extra bonuses on this tour will be lunch downtown amid the hoopla for the return of the Angels Flight railway. In addittion, while viewing Terry's ceramic mural at Union Station, we will take a peek at some of the wondrous new public art just being installed next door at the Gateway Transit Center. These include works by Richard Wyatt, East Los Streetscapers, Jim Doolin, Patrick Nagatani and May Sun.
On April 27th I will be leading a tour of Hollywood and Koreatown. The emphasis will be on the exciting new murals along Western Avenue. Thanks primarily to the sponsorship of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), several Asian aritsts are getting involved in muralism locally for the first time. We will also see a vibrant new (1994) work by Ernesto de la Loza, veteran East L.A. muralist and MCLA Board member, in Silverlake, as well as 22-year-old Eliseo Silva's panorama of Philipino history in Echo Park. I will finally get the chance to share my great food find with a mural tour--Si Yeon, a Koreatown all-you-can eat buffet that features Chinese, Japanese and Korean food.
On Saturday, June 22nd veteran art activist Cecil Fergerson will share his irreverant insights on life, culture, politics, racial relations and anything else, while he shows us important and often-overlooked, landmarks of local African-American history and art. Among the sights we will see are Betye Saar's downtown relief tribute to former slave Biddy Mason, First A.M.E. Church, and the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, where many famous African-Americans stayed back when they weren't welcome elsewhere. It's now a museum. A one-time janitor who sued the L.A. County Museum of Art in order to become a curator, Cecil has been organizing art exhibits at community venues for 30 years.
The theme of our Sunday, August 25th (note the slight date change!) tour is Jewish Murals. Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen's Circle, will be our guide. Murals full of history and heritage such as Hugo Ballin's 1920's Biblical mural in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple sanctuary, Art Mortimer's Fairfax Community Mural, and Zinovy Shersher's painting of Boyle Heights past and present will be among the highlights.
On Saturday and Sunday, October 12th and 13th, we will take to the freeway and travel to Ventura and Lompoc to enjoy murals and a week-end getaway at the same time. We will see a beautiful New Deal mural in the Ventura Post Office, then local artists will share some of the vibrant new works around town. Of special note is the Tortilla Flats Project, which through oral histories and lots of community involvement, recreated the history of a fascinating Latino neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1950s when the 101 Freeway was built. We will spend Saturday afternoon in Lompoc, watching about a dozen artists participate in the now-annual "Mural in a Day" event. We will also see other top quality murals, painted in recent years by such artists as Dan Sawatsky of Chemainus, British Columbia, as well as Art Mortimer, Richard Wyatt and Roberto Delgado of Los Angeles. We need 25 participants to do this tour, so call in your reservations soon. The $65 cost includes overnight in Lompoc at the Quality Inn, cocktail hour Saturday evening, and buffet breakfast on Sunday morning.
On our last tour of this year, we won't board the bus. Saturday, November 23rd we will ride the MetroRail. Our guide will be MTA art coordinator Alan Nakagawa, who last year led the Asian Murals Tour. We will view a selection of the most interesting public art found along the Red, Blue, Orange and Green Lines. Among the artist's whose work we will see are Willie Middlebrook, Richard Wyatt, Joyce Kozloff, Eva Cockcroft, Frank Romero, Francisco Letelier, Jonathan Borofsky, Elliott Pinkney and East Los Streetscapers. This tour will cost a mere $15 ($10 for members, students and seniors).
For reservations, call me at (310) 470-8864, or Jim Kenney at (213) 257-4544. You can mail your checks, payable to MCLA, to: Robin Dunitz, PO Box 64668, Los Angeles 90064. Don't delay, as these tours are filling up!
by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.
Grace Clements, The Spirit of Music, mural at Damien High School, La Verne, California, c. 1939.
You cannot imagine my surprise when the telephone call came announcing that a WPA mural had been found at Damien High School in nearby La Verne. Trust me, there was no mural there! Just two years earlier, I had walked through the campus examining the older buildings for the mural and bas-reliefs that were executed in the 1930's under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Program (WPA/FAP). Since there were no signs of the "lost" work, I had no choice but to consign them to the "lost" bin.
Well, as Father Travers, the Principal of Damien, was happy to point out, the mural was in fine health, thank you. Damien High is renovating their physical plant and the music building was one of the structures that needed some T.L.C. While removing the stucco that covered the building's facade the mural was uncovered. What the workers had found was Grace Clements' The Spirit of Music.
The mural was probably done in 1939. We can make this assumption since there is a dedication on the lower left hand corner of the mural to the "class of '39." Under the various Federal Art Programs that the government sponsored during the Depression, only organizations that were partly or wholly funded by the government (either at the federal, state or local level) were eligible for public art. In the case of schools, the local art's administrators would donate the labor required for the completion of the mural while the school would pay for the materials, which was a small percentage of the total cost. Since a beautiful and inspiring mural to decorate a building would have been a perfect type of class gift, it is safe to assume that this was their graduation gift to the school, then called Bonita Union High School.
This mural utilizes a technique called "petra-chrome," which was invented by Stanton Macdonald-Wright for the Federal Art Programs. It is concrete that is colored to create a permanent and weather resistant art work. It is a cousin of tile and opus sectile, but one that is more affordable and uniquely suited to the bright, sunny Southern California environment. It also solved another problem the programs ran into: There were only a limited number of artists qualified to create the large-scale public murals. Since the creation of the actual mural only required skilled artisans, a "master artist" could design it, while others could execute his/her design. Thus the WPA/FAP, a relief organization dedicated to helping those in need, could maintain their high artistic standards and employ a greater number of relief workers.
Grace Clements was one of the more interesting artists to work under the Federal Art Programs. A skilled modernist painter and critic who, along with Loser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, was a proponent of a movement called Post-Surrealism or the New Classicism. Her easel and print work bare little resemblance to the rather tame public commissions she did for the government, which include the Long Beach Airport, Venice High School, Bancroft Junior High School, Dorsey High School and Santa Monica High School (the last three also are petra-chromes). The government wanted nothing to do with any of the new "isms" that artists were following--just simple painting that the public could understand and enjoy.
The mural at Damien is a perfect example of this. Although the composition shows elements of Cubism and Surrealism, it remains a straightforward and easily recognizable image. Her mural is dominated by musical instruments. In the center a lute, cello or bass, violin and a guitar are set on top of and contrasted to a piano. This central grouping dominates the composition. Against this swirl are the supporting instruments: A kettle drum to the left, with a French horn above; cymblas, a slide trombone and harp on the bottom, with a choir on top. All of these instruments are tied together by musical notes, which run diagonally across the center. A little touch of modernism to soothe the soul, and we have a mural that anyone walking into a music building would appreciate. This was the kind of success that the government strived for in public commissions: Good art that the public would enjoy, and maybe even learn a little from.
We are lucky that this gift from the past has been rescued in such excellent condition, and that Father Travers and his staff at Damien are so excited about their "new" mural. Now if I can only get them interested in those four missing bas-reliefs on the old gym. . .
Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles Journal
Published quarterly, © 1996, Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA).
Editor: Bill Lasarow
Robin Dunitz, Orville O. Clarke, Jr., Richard Solomon, Nathan Zakheim
Masthead Logo Design: Charles Eley.
The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles was formed to help protect and document murals, and enhance public awareness of mural art in the greater Los Angeles area. These programs are made possible by the tax-deducible dues and donations of our members, the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the California Arts Council, the National/State/County Partnership Program, and the Brody Fund of the California Community Foundation.