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Serpent Getting a Garden : Art Project Giving Shape to Empty Lot


HIGHLAND PARK — A mythical creature is taking shape on what was once an empty, trash-filled lot on South Avenue 57.

The 50-foot-long serpent has scales of river rock and colorful bits of tile and semi-precious stones cemented to its back.

Through the hot summer and into the fall, a group of young volunteers has been constructing it under the leadership of environmental sculptor Tricia Ward and her architect husband, John Maroney.

The serpent's current home had sat empty for about four years when Ward approached developer Willard Michlin, president of Kismet Real Estate Investments Inc., about building an environmental sculpture on the land.

Michlin plans to eventually build condominiums on the property, at 240 S. Avenue 57, which he said is owned by a trust. In the meantime, he has given Ward permission to use it.

Ward acquired about $3,000 in grants from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, which also donated the materials. The money paid for insurance and stipends of up to $100 for some of the workers, including Ward and Maroney

After clearing the lot, Ward and her workers began digging up the land, uncovering the remnants of five houses torn down to make way for the condominiums.

"It was kind of like archeology," said Alex Ratner, 18, who fondly recalled finding a green, rusty soup spoon and little glass bottles on the site.

The excavators also uncovered stone terraces and staircases, which will be incorporated into the serpent's body.

Ward decided to construct a serpent because it is a symbol of fertility, commonly used in American Indian culture.

"It's not a snake" she stressed. The word snake suggests an ordinary creature, while serpents possess a certain mystique, she said.

The project began as part of Re-Wing the City of Angels, a summer youth arts program put together by Los Angeles arts and community groups in response to the riots.

Although the arts program ended with a street fair in August, the serpent is still a work in progress. When complete, the creature will be about 500 feet long, Ward said.

During the August street festival, two shamans blessed the unfinished sculpture in a ceremony attended by about 100 people. Since then, the property has remained relatively free of garbage, said Ward, who plans another ceremony during the winter equinox.

"I love ritual," she explained. "I don't think we have enough ritual in our life."

Since the project began, curious passers-by have often stopped to inquire about the project. But not all have appreciated its symbolic importance.

"You'd tell them that you were building a serpent fertility symbol, and they'd look at you like you were crazy," Ward said.

However, the neighbors seem to appreciate the clearing of the land. Ward is also planning to landscape the property and create a community garden, where neighbors can plant on designated plots of land.

On a recent afternoon, eight teen-agers, most of them students at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, gathered in the lot to cover the dirt body of the snake with river rock.

The teen-agers were joined by about a dozen neighborhood children, who patted the earth with hoes and helped unload donated tiles from the back of a truck.

Ratner, who commutes from Santa Monica to work on the serpent, said he likes having the opportunity to use his hands.

"Somehow, it makes me feel connected to the ground, to the land here," he said, tapping the earth with his hand.

Eduardo Sarabia, a 16-year-old from Boyle Heights who later helped Ratner roll a big rock into place, said the project gives him a sense of community.

Neighborhood children, who lack gardens of their own, come to play on the 24,500-square-foot piece of land. A group of girls remembered a time when the lot was not so clean.

"There was just a bunch of dirt. There were things just thrown around," said Jasmin, 9, wrinkling her nose.

Michlin said he does not know when the condominiums will be built. "It could be a year. It could be more than that. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on financing and the market," he said.

Ward said she doesn't mind the temporary nature of the project. However, not all the participants feel that way.

"I hope it stays here permanently," Sarabia said.

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