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The Bigger Picture : 'The Living City' Mural Modestly Claims All of L.A. County as Its Subject, Showing a Wide Range of Ethnicity and Eccentricity


With a fine-point brush in one hand and a can of Coke in the other, Sandra Drinning paints a face so small it could fit on a dime.

But it is no small work of art on which she is working. The detailed face is one tiny part of her 16-by-94-foot mural on the outside wall of the H & K Supermarket on Western Avenue in Hollywood.

The 28-year-old Drinning, fueled by Cokes provided by the Korean supermarket and sweet-potato pies supplied by her mother, has spent six months working on "The Living City," which modestly claims all of Los Angeles County as its subject matter.

"It is by far the most detailed mural in the city," said Eric Gordon, a spokesman for the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), which subsidizes public murals throughout Los Angeles and paid Drinning $8,000 for the project. "But perhaps more importantly, it is the most ethnically unifying mural in the city."

Although not quite finished, Drinning's work was officially unveiled Monday night at a ceremony that featured a speech by Gordon and food by Dorothy Rogers, the artist's mother, who had stayed up until 2 that morning making three cream cheesecakes, four sweet-potato pies and more than 50 tuna sandwiches.

The occasion attracted the attention of curious shoppers from the H & K Supermarket, well-dressed patrons interested in Drinning's work, and the artist's friends and family. A homeless man wearing elaborate headgear proudly pointed himself out in the mural to passersby.

In Drinning's depiction of Los Angeles, every ethnicity and eccentricity is represented in figures and in architecture. A pimp in a feathered cap, a Domino's delivery man, a black Bart Simpson and a graffiti artist are some of the characters set against a backdrop of famous landmarks and infamous freeways.

"I wanted to depict every type of person, from the homeless to the privileged," says Drinning. "And through architecture, I wanted to depict different ethnic groups. Watts Tower represents blacks; Mann's Chinese (Theater), Asians; Olvera Street, Latinos; Beverly Hills, whites, and, of course, this supermarket represents the Korean community."

With so many different communities to choose from, Drinning had difficulty selecting which one should be her centerpiece, but settled for the downtown area.

"Of all the landmarks, I could have chosen for the center, I chose the Union Bank," she said. "When I put it in there, I wanted to stress the word Union in bold white letters, even though in reality there's not much of a union in Los Angeles. But in the mural, I wanted to have a union, to tie people together."

Each community in the mural is surrounded by colorful freeways snaking through the entire city like a maze of rivers. Like moats around castles, the broadly stroked freeways cordon each community off from the next. At the same time, they swirl through the mural, mixing and moving the colors from one area to the next, illustrating Drinning's ideal of flexible ethnic boundaries that define and distinguish without excluding.

"In art, you paint what you hope for," she said. "I don't know if this union will happen, because of the cultural and language barriers, but it is what I hope happens."

In creating the mural, Drinning practiced what she preaches. Her five-person crew is a microcosm of the city's ethnic population. Julio Crespo is Latino; Masakela Poles is African-American; Samara Tanzaws is part Japanese and part Russian Jewish; Esther Kwan Tak, whose mother works in the H & K Supermarket, is Korean; Lesley Grant is the child of English parents, and security guard Mohamed Manford, who has watched over the mural like a guardian angel, is Libyan. Drinning herself is three-quarters American Indian (Cherokee and Choctaw).

The mural's utopian theme of urban unity was inspired by Drinning's life experiences, which she said taught her the danger of segregation and cultural ignorance. When attending school in an all-Latino neighborhood in Texas, she said she became a target of racial slurs. In another part of the state where she spent part of her childhood, Drinning saw racism focused on blacks--in particular, on her half-sister, who is black.

"Here is a someone who I grew up with," Drinning said. "A woman who is just like me. She doesn't act different because of her color, and yet we're perceived differently."

In her mural, each community remains distinct only in style and color. Drinning has crammed them together, giving the visual impression that they are unified, all part of one city.

She gives the same impression with the cars on the freeways; each is a distinctly different car, but nonetheless a car, and all in the same traffic jam. Her ultimate message is that people, though vastly different in color, culture and even language, are all people.

"When people don't know what someone is really like, they make things up," she says. "People who don't know Asians find them cool and aloof, but from what I've seen working here (in Koreatown) every day, they aren't that different."

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