Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

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Volume 8, Number 2 -- Spring, 1997


In recent months a number of top murals ringing the downtown L.A. freeway system have been tagged repeatedly. While some are protected under the Mural Rescue Program (MRP), not all of these have been protected with sacrificial coating. Three MRP murals in the area, Frank Romero's "Going to the Olympics," Glenna Boltuch Avila's "L.A. Freeway Kids," and John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" have no sacrificial coating. Each poses special conservation problems that MCLA is currently evaluating as plans are made for restoration.

In addition, Kent Twitchell's diptych mural, "Seventh Street Altarpiece," was about to be seriously damaged by earthquake retrofitting working being conducted by CalTrans when MCLA intervened during March to call it to the attention of the agency. They responded quickly with a contract enabling conservator Nathan Zakheim to protect both murals [please see the accompanying article, below, by Zakheim--Ed.]. Still, there was some relatively minor damage sustained by both murals during the early phase of the retrofitting work. Also, fill-in work on two of the walls separating the images curb both their visibility and aesthetic impact. In addition, going back two years, Roderick Sykes "Unity," also on the Harbor (110) Freeway at Adams, was destroyed in the course of previous retrofitting work by CalTrans. Attorney and Board Member Richard Solomon has made efforts to lay the groundwork for CalTrans to eventually commission Sykes to recreate the mural in a new location.

These factors add up to a crisis that threatens the city's single most visible concentration of murals since the bulk of them were created during the Olympic year of 1984.


Who has not seen the murals of Lita Albuquerque and Jim Morphesis facing from across the Habor (110) Freeway, signaling each other silently but with the intense sensitivity that artists share? The "Seventh Street Altarpiece," one of Kent Twitchell's top works, exemplifies the potential of site specific mural art. It offers a sense that, in spite of the flickering drive-by perception of the two faces framed by upheld hands that are now separated by two concrete walls apparently barring all communication, that hope does indeed exist.

This is the product of our earthquake abatement people at CalTrans, who recently began to fill in the rows of columns between the freeway lanes that created an amazing "Doppler Effect" between the two faces. Now you can barely see Morphesis' visage, which is hidden behind a wall that blocks the view from across a single bus-only lane. He is trapped in something of a dark cave.

I came upon the scene of the threatening activity driving casually by. When I saw the Big Machines and the many cuts, gouges and scrapes on the surface of the murals I pulled over and screeched "Whattheheckisgoingonhere?" at the astonished workmen in aluminum hard hats.

I learned that concrete was soon to be poured--which would certainly splash all over the mural surface, as one worker volunteered--and that no one had considered the mural as something to worry about during the retrofitting of the overpass.

A series of telephone calls from MCLA President Bill Lasarow and attorney Richard Solomon resulted in a concerned response from CalTrans. A contract was quickly patched together and approved by the agency to protect the two faces in place. MCLA has also made efforts to address the question of relocating the mural to a new location where both its visiblity and aesthetic impact will be reinstated, calling on assistance in doing so from several local and state officials. While this additional step would require a separate contract, I meantime oversaw completion of the work's protection during the course of retrofitting. Several layers of non-woven fabric were placed over the two heads to act as a protective facing. The top layer is comprised of a waterproof membrane that will ward off splashing concrete as well as penetrating spray can paint.

Though currently covered with extensive graffiti, this will wash off easily enough as both walls are protected with sacrificial coating. After work has been completed and the fabric is removed the limited damage to each can be repaired. After de-waxing them temporarily, a coating of Acryloid B-72 applied to the surface will protect and consolidate the paint.

If relocation of the murals can be arranged the facing material now in place will facilitate removal using the "Strappo Method." The fabric protects the skin of paint while pressure is applied to pulverize its bond to the concrete walls. The murals are then peeled from the wall and rolled into large tubes for transport.

The backs are cleaned, then reinforced with a new fabric and acrylic gel backing. Still covered by the facing, the murals can then be remounted at a new location using acrylic gel as adhesive. The covering fabrics can now be removed so that the murals can be cleaned, repaired and inpainted, re-varnished and finally coated once more with the protective sacrificial wax.

It cannot be assumed that any new location will completely reproduce the conditions and effects of the old one. But MCLA, working with artist Twitchell, has determined optional locations that are not scheduled for earthquake retrofitting that would be better than the current location under the new conditions. Whether it will be possible to realize this in the immediate future cannot be said at this writing.



Compiled by Robin Dunitz

All you mural artists out there, if you want your public to know what you've been doing lately, please send the information, along with a picture if possible, to Robin Dunitz, PO Box 64668, Los Angeles 90064. Or you can call 310 470-8864.


The following new murals were completed through March.




Hugo Ballin was one of the more colorful and controversial artists to work on the government-sponsored art programs during the Depression. While other artists ran afoul of government censors or offended public sensibilities with daring compositions, Ballin's problems began when he decided to teach a lesson to the so-called "art experts," whom he felt were ruining art by pushing "modernism" down the throats of the public. The artist's controversies were the result of a deliberate attempt to show people how inept the Federal Art Program administrators and the art critics were that supported their policies.

For many years Ballin was a fixture of the Southern California art scene. Born in New York City in 1879, the artist moved to Los Angeles in 1921, where he found work in the film industry as a set designer. He also established a successful career as a muralist. Locally, the artist is best known for his murals at the Los Angeles Times, Griffith Park Observatory, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, County-USC Hospital, and the B'nai B'rith Temple. Yet Ballin represented the older generation of painters who were being eclipsed by younger artists, whose European-influenced modernism was favored by local government art administrators. Ballin must have felt that, little by little, artists like Fletcher Martin, Helen Lundeberg and Grace Clements would corrupt public murals (and consequently taste) with their avant garde approaches.

However, this artist was a force not to be taken lightly. Acknowledged by his peers with election as an associate member of the National Academy and Southern California Co-Chair of the National Society of Mural Painters, he decided to defend the old school, whose artistic style was theatened by the "cancer" of modernism that was gradually gaining acceptance in the United States.

"School Days," the one mural that Ballin executed under the Public Works of Art Project at El Rodeo Elementary School in Beverly Hills (1934), is one of the most stunning of the local federal murals. Situated in a breathtaking Spanish-style building with heavy wooden beams, his Byzantine-influenced mural is beautiful in execution and didactic in composition. It is the perfect artwork to instruct young impressionable children in concepts of beauty.

Ballin must have become very disturbed by the art being created under the various federal programs. The "battle" between modernism and conservative art, as it was then called, was a very heated debate, filling pages of the paper in the 1930's. "Sanity in Art," a conservative art association, took aim at modern artists with diatribes regularly published by sympathetic art critics in papers like the Los Angeles Examiner and the Evening Herald and Express, and held exhibits to educate the public to the values of traditional art. The modern view was espoused by Los Angeles Times' critic Arthur Millier. Ballin's first salvo was to send two paintings to an exhibition at

the National Academy of Design. One was a traditional portrait of "Dolores del Rio" under his own name; the other was a spoof, titled "Mrs. Katz of Venice," under the pseudonym A. Gamio, which the jury accepted into the show. The title pokes fun at Leo Katz, a leading Southern California modernist whose murals were removed from the Frank Wiggens Trade School as offensive to public morals. New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell pointed out A.Gamio's work as one of the highlights of the exhibit. Ballin had pulled off a major embarrassment against the modernist art establishment, believing he had revealed their lack of judgement. As one sympathetic Los Angeles critic, Herman Reuter, chortled, "a mighty deflation of stuffed-shirt." However, both Millier and Jewell insisted that the hoax work really was superior to the "Delores del Rio" composition, which was tagged "a piece of imprudent vulgarity, best quickly forgotten."

Ballin upped the stakes when he took on the Section over a mural commission. The artist was bitter about earlier being denied the prestigious Beverly Hills Post Office commission, and was insulted about being offered the decoration of "so unimportant a space" as the Inglewood Post Office. He circulated a false story that he had submitted six serious sketches and a hoax sketch that showed "licentious and low brow" behavior by California 49'ers. The government, he claimed, only wanted the "almost communist" composition. The truth was far from this. The committee had recommended that Ballin be given the commission, but that appointment was subject to the submission of preliminary sketches. They knew his reputation as an artist, and felt he could do much better work than the "trite" designs he submitted. Unfortunately, Ballin was out to reek havoc, and he opted to inflict damage on the federal art programs' public image over executing the commission.

Needless to say, Ballin never did another federal mural. Los Angeles was only one of many battlegrounds between the conservative and modern factions of the art world. The Ballin affair stands as a small skirmish that helped mark the evolution of our Southland art scene.


by Art Mortimer

In painting a public mural this past summer in Billings, Montana, potential vandalism became an immediate issue. The mural was in the "other side of the tracks" part of town. A lot of disadvantaged and/or trouble-making kids lived in the area. And the mural was in a public park on the side of the building for a community swimming pool. A lot of the neighborhood kids came to the pool in the summertime, and some groups (dare I say gangs?) had apparently claimed part of the park as their turf.

At about the midpoint in the project, the mural was vandalized by scratching several parts of it, and it became apparent that a serious anti-graffiti coating would probably be a very good idea--there was a certain amount of resentment in some people about this outside project being done in "their" park. But in Montana, what sort of resources are available? Probably not many, it seemed. This was the first serious mural ever in Billings (the largest city in Montana at 175,000 souls), and there was little or no knowledge about mural techniques and procedures.

We (the committee, City and I) decided that a strong, permanent anti-graffiti coating was probably our only alternative available. But the anti-graffiti product company whose literature I had brought with me from California apparently had closed down, as I was unable to contact them. Someone locally suggested that I go to Sherwin-Williams and see what they had available.

What I found out was that they have a couple of really excellent choices available to anyone who is interested. They carry "ARMAGLAZE 9000," a permanent, polyurethane coating. MCLA mural conservation expert Nathan Zakheim has described the perils of polyurethane coatings over long periods of time (they eventually degrade, discolor, shrink and crack under harsh conditions), but we saw no other alternative. But we did find that the product is warranteed for 120 months (10 years) and also has "high level of resistance" to ultraviolet light, the primary culprit in the degrading of these coatings. Also, upon application I found that it substantially enhanced the colors in the mural, making them richer and brighter than before coating. We figured that ten years of protection in a dangerous situation was better than nothing, even if the mural started to self-destruct at the end of that time.

I also found that Sherwin-Williams now carries "Graffiti Melt" from Genesis Coatings. This is the same wax-based sacrificial coating used by the Mural Conservancy in its Mural Rescue program, by SPARC, and by several local private anti-graffiti companies here in Los Angeles. The clear wax coating is sprayed over the mural, and if it requires graffiti removal the coating melts off with a hot water pressure washer much like the spray wands in a do-it-yourself carwash, taking the offending graffiti with it; a fresh coating of wax is then sprayed over the cleaned area.

For the Mural Conservancy, this service is provided by a company which contracts to maintain the wall for a certain fixed fee per month or per year. All that is required is to call them when a mural is hit, and they come out and clean it and reapply the coating all in one trip. But in places outside of big cities, this service is usually not available-until now.

To my surprise, Sherwin-Williams supplied me with complete technical specifications from the manufacturer, as well as instructions in wall preparation, application, graffiti removal and reapplication of the coating. The instructions even describe what sort of sprayers to use, what water pressure, and a suggested method of spraying for maximum effectiveness.

This is great news! Now anyone, almost anywhere in the U.S.A., can obtain and maintain the sacrificial anti-graffiti coating our experience has shown to be the most effective. Cities, or other similar entities, who already possess the necessary spray equipment can easily set up a maintenance procedure for any and all murals they are responsible for, and do the work on an as-necessary basis, no longer having to contract with an outside company to provide the service.


During a recent conversation with the owner of Nova Color, the acrylic paint manufacturer in Culver City, he stated that he is working to develop an ultraviolet shield for acrylic paints. Conservator Nathan Zakheim has stated that ultraviolet light is the main culprit in the degrading of acrylic mural paints, and he recommends applying a coating over murals to protect them from these "deadly" UV rays. It would be a wonderful thing if the UV shield could be incorporated into the painting process or even the final varnish with any mural. I'll pass along word on this as I hear of it.




From l. to r., Robin Dunitz, Norma Wrege, Mark Bowerman, Arthur Mortimer, MCLA Board members who led March's Mural Activist Workshop.


A group of fifteen new mural activists attended MCLA's first annual Mural Activist Workshop on March 22nd at the Roxbury Park Community Center. The Saturday morning session featured presentations by a group of six MCLA Board members giving the group an inside view of the nuts and bolts of the Mural Rescue Program (Mark Bowerman and Arthur Mortimer), Mural Tours (Robin Dunitz), Fundraising (Richard Solomon), Technical Workbook (Norma Wrege), and the Newsletter and Web Site (Bill Lasarow). Michelle Isenberg served as moderator.

Breaking up into small focus groups after the presentations, many of these new activists listened to and discussed with the Board members how they will best be able to help further the mission of MCLA.



The postponed Artsathon arts telethon that was originally announced to broadcast Presidents' Day weekend has finally put its legal paperwork in order, and is now on track to produce the event on Veteran's Day, November 10th. Look for more details in the next Newsletter.


Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles Journal

Published quarterly, © 1997, 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.