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SIGN LANGUAGE | SO SoCal

Media Rare

March 16, 1997|Naomi Glauberman

Eller Media Co., which by one name or another has been in the billboard business for almost a century, is located on the frayed edges of downtown Los Angeles. Almost in defiance of the decaying neighborhood, a large, bucolic mural greets visitors at the company's entryway. Based on a 1920s photograph of 3rd and Rampart, the mural depicts an unpaved road winding through a verdant, flower-filled landscape. The only structures in sight are two carefully painted billboards: One displays an immense floating straw hat, another a luscious bowl of bananas, oranges and lemons. These days, when every available surface along streets and freeways is used to sell something, it's difficult to imagine when billboards, set in trellised frames in landscaped parks, were viewed as both novelty and art. Although most of the 8,000 billboards Eller maintains in Southern California are computer-generated images, a handful--the largest, most spectacular displays on Sunset Boulevard, for instance--are done the old-fashioned way. They're painted. By hand. Eller is the only billboard company in Southern California with an on-site hand-painting studio.

"When I began a five-year apprenticeship here in 1963, there were 43 painters and we were always working," Craig Wise tells me, looking around the studio. "Today there are only 10 of us." Fifty three years old, dressed in a brown sweat shirt and white golfer's cap, Wise has an open and friendly manner. "I'm just an all-around guy here," he says, describing his many duties as pictorial artist, pattern maker and darkroom supervisor.

Sparks fly from a specially designed electric pencil as Wise perforates an immense sheet of paper with hundreds of tiny circles. He is creating a stencil, he explains, by projecting an image--a woman holding a cellular phone--onto butcher-block paper that's hung on fine copper mesh. The circles are dots that will make up a woman's face in a faux-Lichtenstein cartoon. Once perforated, the paper is unrolled onto huge vinyl sheets. Assistants transfer the design by "pouncing" a charcoal bag along the perforations, creating an outline to be filled in by a painter. "This is a very old system," Wise says, "Michelangelo used a similar method, though he didn't use an electric pencil to create the outlines for the Sistine Chapel."

In the adjoining warehouse, the sun streams though the skylights onto 17 vinyl sheets covered with thick layers of white paint--recycled billboards waiting to be repainted. In another part of the complex, a giant Tom Ewell squishes a giant Marilyn Monroe on the end of a giant couch in a scene from "The Seven Year Itch." This is just a mock-up, it turns out, for a series of much larger movie murals the painters are creating to enliven the 20th Century Fox lot. Wise, along with every other painter at Eller, urges a trip to the lot to view the actual murals--which they see as the epitome of their art.

The murals, painted on the broad expanse of soundstage exteriors, may not be the Sistine Chapel, but they are breathtaking. More than 100 feet long and some nearly that high, they rise majestically over the chaos of bustling construction and movie-making. You can walk right up to a towering Marilyn Monroe and marvel at the 12-foot-high heel of her left shoe. You can marvel at the sharp blacks, whites and shadows of Henry Fonda and the vigilantes from "The Ox-Bow Incident." The colors have vibrancy; there is a richness to the immense images that can only be achieved by painters working painstakingly with half-inch brushes. As Joe Blackstock, Eller's archivist, says, "It takes brushwork to capture the human skin. Just look at your hands, they're not like a banana or a car."

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