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A Man, a Mural & Moses

January 20, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE

We pull off Coldwater Canyon and into the driveway of the house that Ben Hur built. I'm holding a cowboy duster. Kent Twitchell is holding a sepia photo of Abraham Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial.

We have come to monumentalize Charlton Heston.

Twitchell paints murals. BIG murals. Most days, he can be spied on scaffolding, at work on "Harbor Freeway Overture." If you've been on the 110 North at Eighth Street, you've seen it, all right--members of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra gazing down from the 14-story Citicorp Plaza garage.

Now, he wants to see Heston four, five, maybe 12 stories high, on a building somewhere in Hollywood. Heston, his hero.

From the moment Twitchell first saw him in "Ben Hur" (18 screenings, at last count), he's "just had this thing" about Charlton Heston.

"I'm going to paint him as if he were the Lincoln Memorial--in front of a broody, threatening Western sky."

Heston, in shorts and stocking feet, greets us outside his knoll-top home, looking neither broody nor threatening. He has good news. He's rounded up a vintage Winchester rifle for this photo shoot.

Inside, Twitchell and his photographer, Dana Ross, set up in the studio where Heston's photographer/wife Lydia normally works. Lights, camera, props. This will be the image from which Twitchell will paint Heston larger-than-life.

In due time, The Man appears again, looking pretty big. He is wearing a dark green shirt, jeans-and the rent-a-duster from Western Costume. A red kerchief is tied at his throat. His Western hat appears well-worn.

"Well," he says, "I suppose you're wondering why I've asked you all here . . ."

Heston takes an ivory-handled prop pistol from its holster and spins the chamber to make sure it's empty before buckling on his gun belt.

"You can deal with the stocking feet?" he asks. Twitchell, re-draping the duster and retying the kerchief, explains that on his murals feet disappear. "There's something about seeing the feet that takes away the strength."

As Twitchell is shooting Heston, he himself is being filmed by a local documentary team. For them, Heston has gone on record as being "delighted to be memorialized by Mr. Twitchell." Especially as a benign (albeit gun-toting) cowboy, sort of a "generic" American Western figure.

To Twitchell, who was reared on a farm in small-town Michigan, Heston at 70 is the embodiment of "a simpler, cleaner, more charitable time, something we had when I was a kid growing up in the '40s and '50s."

Heston stands patiently atop a blue footlocker. First Twitchell has Heston holding the rifle in front, the butt resting on the ground. Twitchell likes the pose. "A lot of strength, architecturally."

Heston thinks the rifle held in the crook of his arm looks "a little more imminent." Maybe, Twitchell suggests, he should hold it with folded arms. Heston, no stranger to Westerns (he's currently in "Tombstone"), says a real cowboy wouldn't do that because he couldn't get at it.

The actor poses for an hour, chin up and strong. Then he shakes hands all around. Yes, he says, this will be a first, though he once appeared three stories high on an El Cid poster.

We say goodby and head back to Twitchell's studio in Echo Park. He is pleased with the shoot, though he knows he may "take it on the chin" for painting Heston with guns.

No matter. "I want to do a cowboy and I don't want to take his guns away just to be politically correct."

When he finds a suitable site for Heston, he'll seek private funding, as always. He'd like to start and finish it in 1995.

A few days after the Heston shoot, Twitchell is 14 stories above the roar of the freeway atop the Citicorp Plaza garage. He buckles himself into a harness and climbs over the wall and onto the gently swaying scaffolding. Once, he was terrified of heights, but that was many murals ago.

Twitchell isn't actually creating up there. In his studio, he makes a mural cartoon, grids it, photographs each of the grids and enlarges them onto a long strip of blotter-like material. Next, he saturates the material with acrylic and paints it. Finally, he glues the strips onto the mural wall. (The chamber orchestra mural, covering a nine-story wall and two adjacent eight-story walls, will have 346 strips, each 30 inches high and up to 8 1/2 feet wide).

At 51, Kent Twitchell did not expect to be a renowned outdoor muralist. As a kid painting roosters on the side of the barn, he dreamed of Norman Rockwell. Still, he always thought big. "Stonehenge, Mount Rushmore, those are the kind of images I really loved."

In 1971, he was offered a wall at 12th and Union. He wanted to do Marilyn Monroe floating through space, but the building didn't lend itself. So, he created a 15 by 20 foot Steve McQueen. He'd found his calling.

Now Twitchell dreams of Charlton Heston, Monument. He dreams of him in earth tones, sort of carved out of a cliff.

Like Mount Rushmore.

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