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Personal Best

A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : At 70, Mural Artist Remains a Perfectionist

August 11, 1994|ED BOND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After three arduous months of climbing scaffolding, 70-year-old Frank Martinez gazed at the mural alongside San Fernando Road and decided that, of all his works, this was the one of which he is most proud. And, he decided, it would be his last.

"That's the best I have done," he said to himself.

The pride came not so much from the mural itself, which adorns a wall of the Al Jal Inc. building alongside San Fernando Road, but because he had been able to work with a group of Sun Valley teen-agers on the project and plant some idea in their minds about what art is.

But Martinez--who considers himself an easel painter--was unable to get too satisfied with himself. It may have taken a walk around his Pacoima home after finishing an artwork in his back-yard carport, or maybe another trip to Sun Valley to see the mural along San Fernando Road. But finally Martinez came to a conclusion: "My God, I think I can do better."

And so, the work will probably not be his last. Martinez is still striving to be a better artist, something that started when he began making shapes out of mud as a toddler. He quit high school to join the Army during World War II, then attended art school in London after the war. He never finished high school, but he has made a good living as a designer. The bell tower for San Fernando Elementary School, where he was a student, was one of his projects.

"The neighbors don't even know that I can paint," said Martinez. His works have sold in Europe and Australia, and he has painted or designed murals for TELACU (The East Los Angeles Community Union), the Olympics and the Smithsonian Institute. But now he paints mostly so that his family will have "some memento that I existed."

The Sun Valley Community Venture Council commissioned nationally known artist Joe Gonzalez to paint the San Fernando Road mural, depicting four eras of San Fernando Valley history. Gonzalez brought Martinez in to design the project, and it became more than just a work of art for Martinez.

"For me, it was a very happy marriage," Martinez said. He was glad for the chance to work with local Sun Valley teen-agers who had volunteered to work on the project. He wanted to teach kids how to paint again--something he had not done since the 1960s, when he worked to discourage East Los Angeles kids from graffiti-writing.

There was less graffiti then, and, as Martinez puts it, "I still wanted to change the world." But that was before the responsibilities of a wife and five children.

"You know something?" he said. "It's (graffiti) still going on. I think we failed. This new generation that has come in doesn't have the same love of country . . . hopefully, somebody can motivate them."

That failure seemed apparent when, a few weeks before the Sun Valley mural was completed this spring, a vandal threw black paint on the wall, splattering two panels depicting a Spanish mission and a stage coach. But the paint was sanded off, and the vandalism only delayed the dedication of the mural a couple of weeks, until late June.

But vandals have not returned. And Martinez is more optimistic.

"The proof is that they have respected it," Martinez said. "Hopefully they'll keep respecting it."

Better yet, he's hoping that vandals will come to appreciate art, or develop some healthy envy. "They may say, 'Why don't we show them we can do something better than that?' " Martinez said. "Fine. That's what it's all about."

Now, Martinez wants to better his own work, perhaps with a mural honoring veterans from the Valley. He envisions a work involving a waving flag with the faces of the wartime Presidents superimposed on it along with the individual soldiers from World War I to Vietnam.

But that's only a dream now--someone would have to offer him the materials and the space.

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.

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