Nearly six years after her untimely death at the hand of a billboard painter, Kent Twitchell's "Old Woman of the Freeway" is coming back to life in a resurrection that is being hailed as pivotal in preserving other California public artworks from destruction.
Restoration of the famed Freeway Lady mural, which loomed above the Hollywood Freeway near downtown before it was suddenly painted over in 1986, will begin in the next few months following a settlement reached Wednesday that ended more than four years of litigation.
The 11th-hour settlement (a trial date had been set for the following morning) was hailed by the arts community Thursday as a precedent-setting move that should legitimize murals as artworks of value and guard against the loss of future public art.
Under the settlement, Twitchell will receive $175,000, including $125,000 to restore the mural and $50,000 in attorney's fees.
"This is a victory for all artists, and not just public artists," said Amy Neiman, Twitchell's attorney. "This sends a real clear message to landowners that the rights of artists and the value that art contributes to society can't be ignored. You can't just cavalierly remove someone's artwork."
The mural, which depicts a bright-eyed elderly woman wearing a colorful afghan, was painted in 1974 as part of a county art program funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Twitchell, a Los Angeles artist recognized as one of the world's most important muralists, selected a wall of the 25-room Prince Hotel at 125 W. Temple Street as the site because of its visibility from the 101 Freeway, and was given permission to paint the mural by the building's owners.
A few years later, a small public outcry resulted when a parking garage was built adjacent to the Prince Hotel, obscuring more than half the mural. But no steps to save the work were taken until it was entirely--and without notice to Twitchell--covered over in 1986. The underlying mural is believed to be intact, and conservators restored a small portion (which was soon painted over again by the building owner) a couple of years ago to prove that the work could be saved.
Earl Steen, attorney for building owners Koichi Kurokawa and the Prince Hotels Inc., called the whole incident "unfortunate" and said that Kurokawa learned the hard way about the value of the artwork on his property.
"I don't think he realized what was involved there, and once he did, the problem wasn't so much in restoring the mural, but in who was going to pay what. I mean, this isn't a small amount of money. . . . My client initially was agreeable to restoring (the mural) and I think we would have agreed to restore it even without the legal compulsion, had it been a little more economically feasible."
The "legal compulsion" Steen referred to came from a precedent-setting decision handed down last year in conjunction with a Boyle Heights mural by the East Los Streetscapers muralist group. That mural, called "Ancient Energies," was bulldozed in 1988 from the wall of a Shell service station to make way for a parking lot. That case is still embroiled in settlement negotiations to determine the value of the lost artwork, but state appellate and Supreme courts have both ruled that murals are protected under the California Art Preservation Act of 1980, which requires owners of artworks to give artists 30 days' notice to remove their works before they are destroyed.
"Until these cases came along, I think a lot of people weren't aware that this legislation was even there, and I don't think that my client was aware of the act and that he was obligated to find the artist," Steen said. "But people need to be aware of this, and I think what will come out of (the Twitchell case) is that it will help preserve other works of art. They've had these same kind of (laws) in Europe for ages, but L.A. is such a new city that we're just now dealing with these things."
Artist Frank Romero, who has painted about 15 major Los Angeles murals--of which only six are still standing--called Twitchell's settlement "really good news."
"It's nice these laws are finally being tested and it's gratifying to know that you can win such a settlement," Romero said. " . . . usually, you can't even find (an attorney) to fight these things for you, and the murals are usually gone in 10 years. Hopefully, this is a legacy that will let us preserve some of the more important ones."
Muralist Wayne Healy, a founder of the East Los Streetscapers group and a contributor to about 20 Los Angeles murals, said that the conclusion of Twitchell's case should help his own settlement negotiations with Shell Oil over "Ancient Energies." (A Houston-based spokesman for Shell Oil declined comment on the Streetscapers case, citing a corporate policy against discussing cases still in litigation.)