Every work day, nearly a quarter of a million people pass Lita Albuquerque. With a nose the size of Jimmy Durante's entire body and stray gray hairs visible from 50 feet away, she is hard to miss, magnified to gigantic, microscopic dimension there on the Harbor Freeway's 7th Street underpass.
Albuquerque's face, which is nearly two stories tall, was painted for the Olympic Arts Festival's freeway mural project by celebrated Southern California muralist Kent Twitchell; it has since become one of the most famous murals in the world, reproduced internationally in newspapers and magazines, broadcast on television programs everywhere--and, of course, seen by just about everyone who drives through downtown L.A.
It has been a strange and glorious experience for Albuquerque, and for dozens of others who have been the subject of Twitchell murals so realistic you could swear they're Gargantuan photographs fused on walls.
"The first time I saw it, I almost had a car accident," Albuquerque recalled. "I had no idea it was going to be that visible. A lot of my friends almost had accidents, too, when they saw it. When I agreed to do it, I was under the impression it was going to be on a dark tunnel somewhere that nobody would see it."
Albuquerque, an environmental sculptor, said that when the mural first went up "I felt like I looked 115 years old."
"But the older I get, the better I look in that picture," she continued, adding that she now gets a great kick out of passing herself twice daily on her commute from the Westside to her studio in downtown Los Angeles.
But she doesn't always pass by with pleasant expectations. On days when she's been feeling particularly vulnerable, Albuquerque admitted, she'll find herself driving by fearing that her face has been been ravaged by vandals and thinking "I hope they didn't do it today."
So far, she's been protected. And in general, Albuquerque's found the experience of her image being exposed to public scrutiny and potential attack almost without a downside. "I'm a celebrity at my local lunch restaurant," she laughed. "Some people look at me and put their hands up near their cheeks, the way they are in the mural. Kent is an incredible painter."
For Jim Morphesis, the artist whose face is painted on the freeway underpass opposite Albuquerque's in roughly the same, playful palms-by-cheeks position so it looks as if the two are engaged in their own dialogue, being a mural subject has been a markedly different experience.
"It was really flattering initially. There was a feeling of excitement but then a feeling of embarrassment. For that reason, I rarely drive by it," Morphesis said, referring to the fact that the mural of his face and hands was defaced with graffiti and then scarred by someone using an instrument that knocked whole chunks of concrete out. (Of the Olympics freeway murals, the Morphesis half of Twitchell's "Seventh Street Altar Piece" was the most accessible to vandals, being stationed at a former freeway bus stop near a stairway from 7th Street. The work is currently being repaired.)
"You do take it (the attack) personally," Morphesis volunteered. "It's a little embarrassing because my ego's involved. I have to remember it's not my face, it's my image and it's Kent's painting. You do take it personally, especially since Kent is so personal about who he chooses for his subjects. He really sees himself as a folk artist who's painting contemporary icons. He sees artists as very spiritual people."
Pigeons Just Too Much
Through the ordeal of being a mutilated icon, Morphesis has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humor. He observed that when Twitchell first began the work, "there was a pigeon problem over that wall that made me a little nervous, so Kent worked out a protective screen. Pigeons would have been entirely too much. Someone could vandalize it, but pigeons? "
Not all of Twitchell's subjects have to worry about their personal image. Several of his models have been asked to pose not as themselves but as Jesus or assorted members of the Holy Trinity.
For instance, both Jesus Reyes, a welder, and Billy Gray, the actor best known for his role as Bud in the TV series "Father Knows Best," have been depicted as Jesus on Los Angeles walls; Reyes on a liquor store in South Central L.A. finished last year and Gray 40 feet tall in "The Holy Trinity" completed in 1977 on a wall of the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design.
Reyes, whose family calls him Jesus but whose friends often call him Jesse, was chosen by Twitchell before the artist even knew that both his subject and his model shared the same name. In comparison to "The Seventh Street Altar Piece," "Christ at the Liquor Store" has been seen by relatively few people. It can best be viewed from the parking lot of the Tiger Liquor store at 111th Street and Vermont Avenue, a couple of blocks from Reyes' home.
What happens to your life when you suddenly find yourself looking like the neighborhood Messiah?