Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

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Volume 7, Number 4 -- Summer, 1996



by Robin Dunitz

Artist Kent Twitchell displays a print version of the original "Freeway Lady," while behind him the mural begins to reemerge.Photo © Melissa Anderson

Many Kent Twitchell fans were excited to read in a recent L.A. Times article that the "Freeway Lady" is about to return. We've been waiting for almost ten years now. I spoke to Kent shortly after that newspaper story appeared and was disappointed to learn things are again at a standstill, but thrilled to hear about all Kent's other mural projects in the works.

So far the owner of the Prince Hotel has paid out $10,000 of the $250,000 he agreed to in the settlement of a few years back. Kent's (and the Mural Conservancy's) conservator, Nathan Zakheim, recently did some preliminary removal of the white paint covering the image, but will stop until further funds become available. Negotiations between Amy Nieman, Kent's lawyer, and Mr. Kurakawa continue. Kent is optimis tic that the money will be paid soon, as Mr. Kurakawa appears more willing to work things out.

In the meantime, Kent is hoping to start a new mural in the city of San Bernardino by the end of September. The five-story-tall portrait will either be James Whitmore as humorist Will Rogers or Hugh O'Brien as lawman Wyatt Earp. The most likely site is an historic theater in the downtown area.

It also looks likely that by the end of the year he will get back to work on the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra mural facing the Harbor Freeway in downtown L.A. He has decided to go ahead with the money raised, using art students at Biola University as assistants. Kent will add another 25 musicians, including two other large figures. That project was originally funded by the 1%-For-Art fee charged to large developers, Mitsubishi in this case.

Kent has been living in northern California with his family since shortly after the earthquake of January, 1994. There is a good possibility they will be moving back to L.A. soon. In the meantime, Kent spends several days a month down here working on various projects. He has agreed to lead another day-long tour of his murals in Fall, 1997.

Other mural concepts Kent has in mind to do in the not-too-distant-future are Charlton Heston in Hollywood, Johnny Cash in Nashville, and a young, raw Elvis in Memphis. Stay tuned.


By Nathan Zakheim

Conservator Nathan Zakheim and artist Kent Twitchell take a break beneath the "Freeway Lady's" tight-lipped surveillance.
Photo © Melissa Anderson

Once again, it is time to re-visit the "Old Woman of the Freeway" Kent Twitchell's consummate masterpiece of the mural genre. Originally painted in 1974, the mural was bifurcated in 1978 by the erection of a one story building in front of it. The roof line of the new restaurant and club belonging to the Prince Hotel (owned by the redoubtable Mr. Kurakawa) neatly cut it in half, covering the "Freeway Lady" from the waist down with concrete blocks and paint.

Interestingly enough, the lower portion of the mural was carefully preserved by the general contractor who (knowing well the eventual non-endurance of things constructed) carefully preserved a ventilated air space between the mural and the wall so that the mural could at some future time be re-displayed after the concrete-block bar and club was no more (He apologized to Twitchell, saying that he was appalled to see how much of the mural had been covered by the revised plans of the designer; an earlier version had left more mural on display.).

In 1986 the building owner succumbed to the notion of using the space occupied by the mural as a location for advertising that would be visible from the northbound Hollywood Freeway. Through his agent, Blue Wallscapes, the visible upper portion of the mural was coated with nonsoluble sign painter's block-out paint labeled with the contact number of the agency. Mr. Kurakawa eagerly awaited advertisers to come flocking to have their billboards pasted there for some gratifying fee.

Instead, the segment of the greater Los Angeles Community concerned with the creation, preservation and appreciation of art flew into a collective rage. Meetings were held, and articles were published in the local press as well as magazines and newsletters. In the midst of this expression of outrage, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles was founded by a group of muralists and other supporters to right this specific wrong.

The upshot: rather than profiting, Kurakawa encountered costs. First, Cal Trans blocked sale of the wall space for billboard advertising. Federal law prohibits such sale within 100 feet of a freeway--only signage promoting the building's business occupant(s) is permitted. Then, represented by arts attorney Amy Nieman (then of Folger and Levin), Twitchell sued Kurakawa for violations of the California Art Preservation Act, a law specifically designed to protect artwork and requiring notification of the artist prior to any work being done to a physical structure that could negatively impact the work of art--which Kurakawa had not done.

Murals have been accorded removable art status under the Art Preservation Act due in part to application of my own "Strappo" mural removal method, which allows the paint layer to be removed from the wall without the wall itself being significantly damaged. I not only found a way to remove the white over-paint from the "Old Woman of the Freeway" but also found that the mural could be removed from the wall well within the parameters of the "Strappo" technique, should that become necessary.

After a considerable amount of litigation, Mr. Kurakawa not only found himself without the right to paste advertising over Twitchell's famous mural, but out of pocket for a court-ordered settlement with the artist and his attorney of $250,000.

At this point Twitchell called in Nathan Zakheim Associates and asked that a representative area be revealed so that freeway travelers could see that the mural was alive and well and that it would be brought back to life very soon.

The eye area was selected as the specimen area to be revealed. The artist confided that the two eyes were different: One was very strict and severe, while the other was filled with grandmotherly love, kindness and compassion.

In our discovery phase, at which time we were able to test the mural with a variety of solvents and over-paint removal techniques, we discovered that the best technique for removal was miraculously simple. Using heat guns, we were able to loosen the layer of white paint covering the mural by melting the layer of Liquitex Gloss Varnish that the artist had used to coat the surface of the acrylic paint. This enabled us to gently lift the coat of white paint from the surface, leaving the mural image in a completely undamaged condition.

Fortuitously, the binding medium of the acrylic paint and the gloss varnish used to coat it share identical melting points. This was due to the fact that, both being Liquitex products, the same basic formula was used to create each.

The ability to melt the varnish without melting the paint layer depended on the fact that the pigment of the paint absorbs heat due to it's chemical composition, and thereby increases the temperature at which the paint layer melts as compared to the melting point of the varnish. The few degrees of difference between the melting point of the varnish and the paint comprised our miracle!

Working with precision within that narrow variance of temperature has allowed us to remove the white covering paint front the layer of varnish without melting the paint itself, and we were able to rernove an area approximately 14" high by 30" wide.

Imagine our horror to find that after only a few weeks of renewed visibility, the punctilious Mr. Kurakawa had ordered the area we had uncovered around "The Freeway Lady's" mysterious eyes painted over again! This time, however, the white block-out paint had been applied over this most important area of the mural. And worst of all, the varnish had been stripped during the process of removing the original coat of insoluble white paint. The new coat of block-out was directly touching the mural and as a result, almost impossible to to remove.

Last year the artist once again brought me to the "Freeway Lady" mural site. This time we removed large areas of other parts of the body, and coated the areas revealed with Soluvar after the block-out paint had been removed using the heat-gun process. This newest attempt at revealing the painted surface of the mural left bright patches of colored clothing exposed.

After a brief fanfare of publicity, together with optimistic projections for the completion of the work, the restoration process descended dismally once again into the quagmire of inactivity.

Wait a minute, wasn't there a settlement meant to finance full restoration made several years earlier? Didn't Kurakawa receive a court order to pay for this restoration, along with legal fees and punitive damages to compensate the artist for a small portion of the indignity and infamy of having his masterpiece obscured?

Well, ten thousand dollars had in fact been paid by Kurakawa, all of which went to cover a portion of Folger and Levin's legal services. The rest is something of a mystery. The artist apparently was required to pay $600 for filing fees, and more than a year went by before that was done. After that, despite a court order, several years slipped by. No payments, no promise of payments, and no court action to compel payment.

Certainly the legal minds pursuing this case were not the feral, single mindedly savage type about which the plethora of lawyer jokes have been created. Unlike a person with a late parking ticket or a delinquent Columbia House Video payment, Mr. Kurakawa was left in undisturbed peace. Of course, he languidly hinted that he probably didn't have enough money to pay, or that the sum should be cut in half so that he could, but even that did not produce the usual flurry of settlement conferences and intense and urgent fax storms in which terms would be haggled, stipulations entered and conditions imposed.

So it came as no surprise to the small, underfed, but patient army of conservators that this Summer, once again, work needed to be done "on spec" at the "Freeway Lady" mural site. The equipment was once again dragged in the intense summer heat to the oven-like roof. The press feasted their lenses once again on the repeatedly newsworthy conservation "miracle" of paint being lifted off of melted varnish to reveal the undamaged mural surface beneath.

This time, Monica Valladares had joined the crew. Fresh from Mexico City and the excavations of the Templo Mayor of venerable Aztec origins, she applied her conservation and archeological training to excavation of a modern painting from under an even more modern attack of official vandalism and graffiti. From her perspective it was very hard to understand why, in the United States, one of it's most estimable works of public art would so quickly be buried under white paint in the lifetime of the artist. As a specialist in colonial religious paintings, she was used to the ravages of time taking centuries, not mere decades, to accomplish it's erosion. For her, this was an experience of culture shock.

The heat guns were plugged in and aimed; the cameras began their staccato, motor-driven frenzy; the artist posed with a variety of paraphernalia including a conservator or two; Kurakawa, almost sonambulant after so many years without a sign of hostilities, or even a small border skirmish, welcomed one and all to the Prince Hotel, making courteous suggestions as to where to plug the power cords and where we might conveniently store our ladders. Large amounts of paint came off of the melted varnish, and as usual, revealed the pristine surface of the mural.

What a difference the passage of time had made!

Now we were dealing with repeated coats of white paint over repeated applications of multicolored spray can graffiti. Areas that we had previously cleaned had been "hit" with more graffiti and naturally, the tidy Mr. Kurakawa had arranged for white paint to be applied each time that occurred. The heat-gun loosened paint came off in bizarre sheets in a Jacob's coat of paint of many colors. Aided by the use of chopsticks to hold the infernally hot sheets of paint, the conservation team revealed large areas of mural paint.

The two day effort had ended. The bottles of Evian water had been drunk. The press had given thorough interviews with everyone (including Mr. Kurakawa, who was a bit taken aback by the ferocity of the media team). The artist and his attorney smiled and declared it all to be a huge success.

Then, as so many times before: Tired, hungry, overheated, and unpaid, we all went home.



by Bill Lasarow

Set aside a portion of the upcoming President's Day holiday this February 17th to do a little TV viewing. A coalition numbering more than 40 of Los Angeles' non-profit arts organizations is planning a 5-hour telethon that day in order to show the world what smaller organizations--most of the time overshadowed by the L.A. Philharmonics and L.A. County Museums of the cultural world--mean to the town, and the kind of talent they are laden with. And, yes, this is a major group fund-raising effort for organizations operating on budgets of under $750,000 annually.

Often strapped to maintain their programs from year to year, many non-profit arts organizations have struggled during the 1990s due to relentless and significant budget cuts and restructuring of state and local art agencies along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Thus the telethon coalition emerges in part as a constructive response to significantly declining government support, asking taxpayers to fill the vacuum voluntarily.

Host cable station KWHY, channel 22, normally broadcasts business news during daytime hours, and Spanish-language programming at night.. In addition to music, dance and comedy performances, MCLA plans to oversee an in-studio mural project during the telethon broadcast. Details should be available for publication by the time of the next Newsletter. A number of TV spots have already been lined up by project organizers, along with a local media blitz, so you can be sure that you'll be hearing more about it--a lot more! If you need more information or are interested in helping out as a volunteer please call MCLA, (213) 481-1186.


by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

Milford Zornes at work on his Claremont USPO mural.

One of the biggest misunderstandings when discussing the four major art programs--Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), The Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section), Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP)--sponsored by the Federal government during the Depression years is their purpose. They were NOT primarily art programs, but RELIEF programs that hired artists. It was unfortunately a key point that even some of the art program administrators failed to comprehend.

From the very beginning, the programs were under intense pressure to keep costs down, employ as many as possible (in May, 1937 the WPA/FAP alone employed 37,250 people), and produce quality artwork that avoided public controversy. The money for these various programs came from Congressional appropriation, which carefully watched spending levels and public opinion. Some of these mandates could be as brief as three months (especially with Federal One, which sponsored the WPA/FAP). This continual need for Congressional approval fostered a sense of impermanence and created anxiety about the future, if any, of the programs.

Art officials, who kept pushing for a permanent national art program, never realized that the projects were kept on a short funding leash for a reason: So that they could be canceled quickly when their usefulness was over. This was not the machinations of evil "art haters" in Congress, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. An examination of budgetary requests and correspondence between the President and program officials show that it was Roosevelt's desire that the tentative status of the programs exist.

President Roosevelt was a brilliant politician who understood not only the average American, but Congress as well. Congress gave him all the money that he requested for the art programs because he knew just how much they would go for. In the middle of the worst depression in U.S. history, to ask for and receive millions of dollars in federal funds to support artists is nothing short of a miracle. However, the President never pushed Congress or backed them into a corner over money.

While the art that was produced, especially in Southern California (just think of George Stanley's Muse at the Hollywood Bowl, of Fletcher Martin's murals at the San Pedro USPO, or Edward Biberman's mural at the Venice Post Office), was often beautiful and widely praised, they were expensive to produce, based on the man-month, the system the government used to gauge program costs. Construction projects were the bulk of the federal relief programs, and they employed thousands of people, often in rural areas, many of whom were unskilled or semi-skilled labor--which tended to keep the costs low. The average man-month for the WPA was $59 (on average it cost $59 to employ one man/woman for one month). On the other hand, the WPA/FAP man-month cost was $99.80, or almost 70% more.

The art programs hired fewer people who cost more to employ. The majority of the workers were skilled artists paid in the highest wage classification--professional--who lived in urban centers where the cost of living was higher (The government salaries were tied to pay in the private sector in each region). So on a per person basis the arts looked very expensive. Only the theater program was more expensive than art, about $200 a man-month per person, with the writer's program, music, and the historical records survey cheaper. Thus, in July, 1938, even through the art program took only 13.3% of the total Federal One budget (theater took the largest piece with 29.1%), on paper it appeared wasteful. Ultimately, roads, schools, dams, and public buildings will win out over murals, mosaics and statues, expecially if they appear cheaper.

This is why we see so many projects that require more than a solitary artist. The great success of the Long Beach Mosaic is that it required an army of workers to cut and assemble the tiles, thus reducing the average man-month cost. This is the same concept with the many petra-chrome murals that are unique to Southern California. It is not just the durability of concrete or tile to stand up to the intense local sunlight that was important, but the fact that so many people were needed to complete the projects and lowering the man-month cost.

The beautiful public art created during the almost ten-year life of the various programs served as propaganda that supported the President's New Deal ideals and reinforced traditional American values to a public badly shaken by the Depression. It was never primarily about the art, but getting as many people as possible working for as little as possible. Once World War II jump started the economy and relief was no longer necessary, the art programs were discontinued as quickly a possible.



. . .Thoughts on Starting and Developing a Community Mural Project

by Arthur Mortimer

Muralist Art Mortimer with his latest mural project, "South Park Mural", located in Billings, Montana.

(Published originally in the MCLA Newsletter, v. 7, n. 4 & v. 8, n. 1)

A mural project can be a very daunting prospect to a community: Where do we start? How do we raise the money? How do we find artists? How do we select an artist? How much should we pay for a mural? What are appropriate themes for the mural(s)? These questions, and many others, can seem overwhelming to people in communities with little or no experience.

Let me take some of these questions one at a time and try to answer them from an artist's perspective.


My experience with communities has been that the best place to start is: In the community. Start with local people who are involved in the arts. Look for people experienced in fund-raising. Look for people, perhaps in local government, who have had experience in awarding commissions or contracts for community projects. Maybe there are artists in the community who have had experience with public art projects and competitions--maybe even an artist or two who has had experience painting murals. Find people with experience that is in some way relevant to the process you want to undertake and get their input--and hopefully even their participation.

Most community mural projects I have been involved in have been organized and brought to fruition by a committee of citizen volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to make a mural project a reality for their community. They have had meetings, asked questions, gone to City Hall for support and even money, looked at artists' slides, done fund-raising in the community, organized community forums, etc. In some cases there has been a local Arts Council or other such organization that has provided the focus for a mural project.


I have encountered several different ways of raising money for mural projects. Sometimes a grant or series of grants from government and foundation sources can be obtained to fund a project (although this is less likely in an era of downsizing and government deficits). Corporate sponsors are often a good source of support, particularly local corporations whose success involves goodwill in the community and who have a history of sponsoring community events.

Several communities I have been involved with recently have been raising money by producing and selling limited edition prints of the artist's renderings of their mural designs, numbered and signed by the artist, to local collectors and supporters as a way of funding each mural.

Private donors and community boosters will also make donations (especially if they can get a write-off on their taxes). One community even made it possible for citizens to add an extra dollar or so to their monthly utility bill, and that money went to the mural project. Most projects use a combination of the sources mentioned above plus a few original twists thrown in for good measure. Be creative!


Depending on the experience level and competence you are looking for in an artist, and the amount of funding you have, different routes are available. For low-budget local projects, local artists are a great resource. Most have little or no experience with murals, but are eager for the opportunity, and often produce remarkable results under the right circumstances. Larger projects, with larger budgets and more ambitious quality goals, probably indicate finding more experienced and recognized mural artists. There are many of these in most parts of the county. The West Coast and large eastern cities are home to many accomplished and experienced mural artists. Surprisingly, some small towns and cities also are home to very accomplished artists. Communities that have already produced murals or started mural projects will probably be happy to share their resources with you, as well as their own experiences.

Several books have been published in the last decade or so about murals in particular cities and regions of the country. These are a good resource for artists and for becoming familiar with different styles of murals. Also, the California Arts Council used to keep a list of artists who have done murals that was available to communities. Authors of books on murals are a good source of artists' names and addresses. In particular, MCLA's own Robin Dunitz, author of Street Gallery--Guide To 1,000 Los Angeles Murals and a soon-to-be-published book on the murals of California, is a great resource for experienced and talented mural artists of all types and styles. MCLA is a valuable resource for information on many mural artists and their work; mural techniques, maintenance and preservation; referrals to experienced artists and other mural organizations.

MCLA also maintains a Web site on the Internet ( which contains information on many murals in the Los Angeles area, articles on mural preservation and restorations, educational materials, and bio-graphies of many mural artists, along with photos of their work.


Most communities organize some sort of competition to select an artist based on his or her submissions. The most common way is to first advertise (either by contacting artists directly or by advertising in art publications such as Artweek [west coast] or Art Calendar [east coast]) for artists to send in their qualifications for a preliminary selection process. This is called a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) and usually asks for a certain number of slides, a current résumé, possibly a letter of interest and other supplemental information.

Frequently, communities will select an artist based solely on qualifications and then work with that artist to develop a concept and design for the particular project. A possible second step is to select a half-dozen or so finalists from the responding artists and ask them to submit proposals. This is a Request for Proposals (RFP) and usually invites the finalists to submit some sort of proposal within certain guidelines by a certain date. An honorarium is usually paid to finalists. Serious muralists usually will not respond to an RFP unless the amount of the commission is substantial. Most experienced muralists are happy to participate in a lower-paying project if they don't have to make a proposal in order to be selected. Proposals are a lot of work and require a big commitment of time and energy in order to do a good job.



This varies greatly depending on the circumstances. As an artist, I certainly encourage you to pay as much as you can possibly afford. Murals require a tremendous amount of time for research and design, planning, and finally painting. Artists have to pay bills and eat just like everyone else. Small projects by local artists should be do-able for a few thousand dollars. A large, important project by a nationally known artist for a large city or major corporation could run into six figures easily. Most projects fall somewhere into the lower range of the middle, in my experience. My rule of thumb is: Can I make enough on this project to pay my bills, live for the duration of the project and get me through to the next project with something left over? Different artists work at different speeds: some paint faster than others. But speed or slowness are no guarantee of either quality or efficiency. A general range for me would be something on the order or $10.00-$20.00 per square foot, plus travel, lodging and equipment expenses if it is necessary to travel to and live in your community while painting the mural. Larger murals can be done for less per square foot provided the overall amount is substantial. A $7,000-$15,000 commission will secure the services of many experienced mural artists if the project is of moderate size, provides them with a good opportunity to express themselves and is not too far from their home.


This is mostly up to the community. Each community has its own particular history, citizens, and view of itself. Anything that is of importance to the community can probably be a good theme for a mural in the right artist's hands. Historical themes are the most popular and accessible, and different artists have different ways of approaching such themes. The committee can select which approach or approaches they like best, and then work with the artist to develop it. A mural project provides an opportunity for a community to see itself through the eyes of artists who can depict for people their community in a new light and in a fresh way. It is important to give artists input into the process once they are selected and not tie their hands by being too specific about subject matter and content. Select an artist you feel comfortable with, let the artist make a proposal based on general guidelines and community input, and then work with the artist to improve or refine the proposal if necessary. It is the artist's job to be creative, to come up with new ideas and ways of doing things.

There are, I am sure, plenty of other questions that people might have about starting and seeing through a mural project. As an artist, I have probably had experience with most of those issues. Please feel free to contact me via the Mural Conservancy with questions or problems if you think I can be be able to help with answers.

Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles Journal

Published quarterly, © 1996, Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA).

Editor: Bill Lasarow
Contributing Editors:
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.