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Solid Images : The vibrant murals are likely to pop up anyplace, offering passers-by not only visual relief but powerful social insights.


They are springing up like bright flowers in the drab spots of Los Angeles, offering vibrant colors and equally bold commentary on everything from urban life to pre-Columbian history to the declining state of the environment.

They are the 46 murals of the "Great Walls: Neighborhood Pride Program," an ongoing project sponsored by the Social and Public Art Resource Center, a Venice arts organization and gallery. Through the Great Walls project, which is funded by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission, 10 murals were completed this year.

"In a car-driven community like Los Angeles, murals become points of definition," said Eric Gordon, public relations director for the center, which has focused on social issues and mural commissioning since it was founded in 1976 by mural artist Judith Baca.

"They aren't just enlarged paintings, they're historical markings, a people's monument . . . they're affirmations of culture," Gordon said.

The murals, painted on walls from the Eastside to Crenshaw to the Valley, reflect the city's diversity. Among the subjects depicted are American Indian legends, Chinese symbols, pre-Columbian ornaments and figures in African-American history. Though the murals frequently address societal ills--from racism to the oppression of women to the troubled education system--their splashy colors and larger-than-life designs are aimed at uplifting.

"A mural is a narrative," said Alma Lopez, an artist and co-project coordinator for Great Walls, which started in 1988. "It speaks to a community, as well as for a community."

Lopez and co-coordinator Lindsey Haley said they try to place the works in areas with few or no murals. Once a mural site is chosen, Lopez and Haley join the artists in consulting with community groups and residents.

"We always involve the community in some way," said Haley, who is also an artist. "Very often the artist lives in the area, and can really reflect its concerns."

The marriage, however, isn't always peaceful.

"One of the artists this year wanted to do a mural of women with spiritual, dreamlike images," Lopez said. "But a Jewish women's organization in the Fairfax area where she wanted to do it objected. They wanted a more social and political emphasis. So we had to find another space for it."

The artist, Jill Ansell, took her "Immaculate Perception" mural to an East Los Angeles Planned Parenthood clinic, where it was more warmly received.

"It was really a special experience working in the neighborhood," said Ansell, who completed the project in July. "People walking on the street, patients from a nearby hospital, even homeless people stopped by every day to watch the progress. They really related to all the fantasy elements and symbols in it. I had never spent any time in the area, so it was a new thing for me."

Great Walls has an annual budget of $350,000 to cover artists' salaries, administrative expenses and art supplies. Artists are paid $5,000 to $10,000 to paint a mural, depending on their background. The program already has about 170 applications from artists interested in creating murals next year.

Murals are usually painted on buildings selected by the Social and Public Art Resource Center, the muralists or building owners. The artworks range from 40 to 150 feet in width.

Gordon said that the fact that none of city-sponsored murals were damaged during the April-May civil unrest shows the strong connection between the murals and their respective communities. "The ideal thing is an artist choosing a wall in his or her own community," Gordon said.

For example, artist Noni Olabisi, a longtime resident of Southwest Los Angeles, started her "Freedom Won't Wait" project across the street from the barbershop where she works.

"I was sitting around the barbershop during the Rodney King verdicts back in April," Olabisi said. "People couldn't believe it. One guy said, 'It's open season on brothers and sisters!' with tears in his eyes. I thought that was really deep."

The scene that day inspired the theme of African-American struggle in her mural, which depicts a somber Harriet Tubman, a man being lynched and another being beaten by a police officer. Despite the pain etched in the many faces, the last image painted is one of endurance: a runner crossing a finish line, his arms raised in triumph.

"I wanted to make people feel this mural, and not forget it," Olabisi said. "I've had all kinds of reactions, but none of them have been negative."

She recalled a police officer who, driving by, expressed doubts but acknowledged Olabisi was a "hell of an artist." Another man broke down after gazing at the mural, saying that it brought back memories of a great-grandfather who had been lynched.

"There are a lot of difficult things to face in my mural, but there's also a lot of strength and healing," said Olabisi, who was greeted warmly by nearly everyone who passes her mural at 54th Street and Western Avenue. The work will be dedicated Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m.

In the Downtown area, the art group Earth Crew consulted with elders of several American Indian nations before launching "Undiscovered America" at Alameda and 4th streets. The spray-painted mural is a tribute to the contributions of the Indians.

"When it was finished in August, some of the elders came and blessed it," Earth Crew member Joseph Montalvo said. "We felt the quincentennial focused too much on Columbus. Murals reflect true history, inspire revolutions. I'm excited to be part of that tradition."

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