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CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS : Artists Overcome Bureaucratic Whitewash : Art: Two muralists will be paid to redo their park project, which city workers painted over after an administrative mix-up last year.


ECHO PARK — Kit Kollenberg was expecting to take an admiring maternal look at her son's mural as she drove past Echo Park on her way to work one day last December.

Instead, she was stunned to find three men with huge paint brushes whitewashing his efforts to portray his Asian neighbors scavenging for lotus roots when the Echo Park lake was drained.

"It was devastating," Kollenberg, a child-care counselor at UCLA, said of seeing her son's artwork covered by institutional beige paint. "I could not understand why three people with big paintbrushes were covering Michael's mural."

The reason was a bureaucratic blunder that left even the bureaucrats feeling bad.

The "bureaucracy" moved to correct the mistake Monday at a meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners, which voted unanimously to pay her son, Michael Blasi, and another youth, William (A-1) Gomez, to restore their drawings to the Echo Park storage building at the intersection of Echo Park Boulevard and Laguna Avenue.

While no one seems sure exactly how the blunder occurred, just about everyone agrees it was the result of a comedy of errors without the comedy.

"I really felt badly that the artists' work was taken out," said Manuel Mollinedo, assistant general manager for the Griffith-Metro Region of the Recreation and Parks Department, who gave the order to paint over the murals.

"I don't care what they put up," said Mollinedo, who had been on the job less than three months when the controversy erupted. "Honestly, I'm not an art critic. As long as the board approves the project, it's fine with me."

It was, in fact, the question of board approval that seems to have triggered the move to paint over the murals.

The mural project began a year ago, when the Board of Commissioners approved putting a mural on one wall of the storage house. Artist Barbara Benish was commissioned to do the work, an exquisite gold and blue rendering of the theme "A Tree in the Middle Place," or "El Arbol del Medio."

Benish, who could not be reached for comment, apparently decided to get a number of neighborhood residents involved in the project, including Blasi, a 17-year-old senior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and Gomez, 20.

She encouraged the youths to expand upon her theme, which comes from the Book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve are prohibited from eating the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden.

Each of the youths came up with an original design.

"This is the most integrated neighborhood in the city," said Blasi, who grew up in Echo Park. "There's everything here. Cambodian restaurants, Buddhist temples next to churches. A few years ago, they drained the lake and I remembered the Asian families picking lotus roots to cook with.

"I liked the idea of drawing something that showed people going back to their roots," Blasi said of his mural, which portrayed a large hand cradling a lotus root.

Gomez, a resident of nearby Silver Lake, was determined to give legitimacy to the work of others who paint graffiti. He dedicated his mural--a brightly colored rendition of his tag name, "A-1"--to youths who have run into trouble painting graffiti and to a 17-year-old friend with AIDS.

"The project changed and evolved into a different thing," said Al Nodal, general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department. "Barbara Benish didn't let us know what was going on, but the Recreation and Parks Department overreacted."

What the Recreation and Parks Department did, according to Mollinedo, was meet with Benish at Echo Park and obtain her permission to paint over the murals because they were not consistent with the original plan.

"There's a formal contract process," Mollinedo said. "You just can't go in and paint a mural any place you want. I'm probably talking like a bureaucrat, but Barbara Benish should have explained the process to those kids."

In the ensuing weeks, the artists learned more than they wanted to about bureaucracy.

"I had no idea that the bureaucracy could be so narrow-minded," Blasi said. "Artists should definitely have more protection. (The process) has been pretty interesting, but I'm still totally hostile about what they did to my mural."

In the end, the process worked fairly quickly. The Cultural Affairs Department had offered a grant of about $3,400 to be shared by both muralists and to cover the cost of their paint.

At the Feb. 8 meeting, the two artists--along with Nodal--made a brief presentation to the Recreation and Parks Commissioners in which they asked to be allowed to restore their artwork to the storage house walls.

Commission President J. Stanley Sanders asked, "Any discussion? Any questions? Any objections?" When there was no answer, Sanders declared, "The motion is approved."

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