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Wall-to-Wall Art : Painter Hails the Spirit Behind the Struggle for Social Change in Murals Throughout Compton

March 12, 1989|MICHELE FUETSCH | Times Staff Writer

When artist Elliott Pinkney of Compton says "art is all around us," he is speaking philosophically.

"It might be in the form of a fine car or a beautiful watch, a fancy suit. It's still a piece of art," he said recently, explaining that he believes art is more than paintings hanging on museum walls.

When Pinkney says that art is "all around" Compton, though, he is probably speaking literally about his work. For years his murals have adorned walls throughout the city.

On freeway underpasses, on public buildings, inside churches and at commercial and industrial sites, Pinkney's murals celebrate the spirit and vitality of people struggling to bring about social change.

"I suppose I was influenced by the Mexican muralists when it came to how they . . . make social statements," Pinkney said. "They were basically where the mural art started so I spent a lot of time studying their work."

Mural Painted on Clinic

"Medicare," a mural Pinkney painted on a county public health clinic at Rosecrans Avenue and Alameda Street, pays homage to the struggle against sickness and pain. An oversized, white-coated figure of a health professional stands in the center of the mural, enfolding smaller portraits of ill and crippled people.

Inside the Dollarhide Neighborhood Center, "Spirits of America" features the Statue of Liberty, along with such American heroes as Abraham Lincoln, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and the black educator Mary Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women.

Eight of Pinkney's Compton murals were created a decade ago under a grant from the California Arts Council. Some murals that he painted on the sides of private commercial or industrial buildings have been destroyed as the city redevelops and replaces old structures with new ones.

But the 54-year-old artist, a warm, soft-spoken Georgia native, may get the opportunity to put his signature on one of the city's largest redevelopment projects, the transit center that is under construction on Willowbrook Avenue in the heart of the downtown. City officials have asked him to present a proposal to the City Council for a mural to adorn the inside of the center, which is scheduled to open in 1990 when the light rail line begins operating between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.

Mural on Civil Rights Leader

The transit center is named after Martin Luther King Jr. and Pinkney wants the mural to be about the life of the civil rights leader.

A few Pinkney works, like one he painted on the side of a lawn mower repair shop, are what he calls his "fun murals." The large, round smiling face of the sun oversees a patch of whimsical flowers and a man pushing a lawn mower.

Most Pinkney murals, though, are about social and political change, with figures drawn in heroic, three-dimensional proportions. Like gospel singers who vocalize the suffering of people yearning to be free, Pinkney emphasizes the struggle, painting sober faces locked in a determination to overcome.

And every Pinkney mural is multiethnic, filled with faces of different colors. The technique, he says, is deliberate. "In the city of Compton we have black, Chicano, Samoan, some Asian, so, I try to put everybody in . . . so that people can identify . . . so people won't come by and say this is a black mural. Well, it isn't. It has all kinds of people in it."

Pinkney's populist art roots were nurtured in Brunswick, Ga., a small town on the Atlantic coast where he was born and raised. His father, a farmer, died when Pinkney was about 6. His mother did day work in homes.

Comic books, not museums, were the American institution that introduced him to art. Superman, the Green Hornet and Dick Tracy, not Picasso or Monet, were the characters that inspired his creativity.

"We'd sit around on Saturdays and draw cartoons," Pinkney said, recalling how he and his boyhood friends spent their leisure time. After serving in the Air Force and spending time in Alaska and California, he returned to the Southland to get his art degree from Woodbury University, a fine arts and design school.

"I always say if I had it to do over again," Pinkney said, "I would still be an artist."

Though most people in Compton come in contact with Pinkney through his murals, he is known in Southern California art circles as a master printmaker, says John Outterbridge, an old friend of Pinkney and director of the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles. He calls Pinkney's work "poetic" with deep spiritual undertones.

Met in Compton

Outterbridge and Pinkney met on the streets of Compton when Outterbridge was co-director of the now-defunct Communicative Arts Academy Inc., one of the pioneer arts projects that sprouted in inner city neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other cities across the nation in the late '60s and early '70s.

Outterbridge recalls that he was collecting some debris off the street for a sculpture project at the academy when Pinkney came up behind him and said, " 'I sure would like to help with getting this done.'

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