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COVER STORY

Talking Walls

A guide to L.A.'s vast collection of murals, where artists paint snapshots of history and hope.

April 16, 1998|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They can be classical or contemporary, abstract or realistic, a humorous commentary or a poignant statement. And no manner where you drive or walk in Los Angeles County, you will undoubtedly soon find a mural adorning a freeway wall, public building, underpass or private residence.

Big, expansive and rich in story, murals transform ordinary structures into unique works of art. Not restricted to museums or galleries, murals are the people's art and often reflect the mood of the community they inhabit. With an idea, determination, time and paint, an artist can change a blank wall into a snapshot of history, a vision of hope or a reminder of the challenges of daily life.

"Murals are hidden gems," says Robin Dunitz of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, who explains that Los Angeles is one of the mural capitals of the world. Home to more than 2,000 murals--and that's not counting artwork that is pure advertising--Los Angeles offers artists a warm climate to work year-round and plenty of empty spaces on freeways, buildings and walls.

In recent years, Los Angeles has seen a "mural revival" with more artwork being officially commissioned for placement in subway terminals, schools, libraries and private businesses. Mural art is more accepted now than it was during the protest-fueled 1960s and '70s, when unauthorized murals often depicted anti-war and anti-establishment sentiments. Still, that rebellious nature often is echoed today in murals that confront mainstream society.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 17, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 21 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Street murals--The Web site for the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles is http://www.lamurals.org. In addition, the mural showing members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is titled "Harbor Freeway Overture." Incorrect information was included in a story in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.

Despite the new respectability of murals, Dunitz believes in the need to keep the public aware of new and old murals. The conservancy was formed by concerned mural-lovers when Kent Twitchell's famed "Old Lady of the Freeway" was painted over in 1987. For four years, the ethereal image of an elderly woman and her swirling shawl, located on a downtown hotel wall, welcomed commuters on the northbound Hollywood Freeway. Wanting to use the space for advertising, the owner unceremoniously had it whitewashed.

"The thing about murals is they might be here one day and gone the next," Dunitz says with a sigh. "They are not a permanent art form." Here is a sampling of the wide diversity of murals found in the Los Angeles area in the form of a driving tour.

1. Great Wall of L.A. (painted 1976-1983).

Tujunga Wash flood control channel, Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street, Van Nuys. Forty panels spanning half a mile, this mural tells the visual history of Los Angeles from the La Brea Tar Pits up to the 1960s. Judith Baca, director of Social and Public Art Resource Center, brought together more than 250 juvenile offenders who helped paint various stories of struggle, such as the zoot suit riots of 1943, Hollywood blacklisting and the division of the barrios and Chavez Ravine. The murals also reflect the progress of diverse groups of the community, such as ethnic athletes competing in the Olympics, Asians receiving citizenship status and the origins of gay rights.

2. Hollywood Jazz 1945-1972 (1990).

Capitol Records, 1750 Vine St., Hollywood. Sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Society, this mural is a testament to the legendary history of jazz in Hollywood. Muralist Richard Wyatt composed 11 great jazz singers and musicians flanked by a beaming Nat King Cole. Also included are Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Tito Puente. Wyatt knew he could never show all the artists who performed in the 30-year span, so in the background, he etched names of other jazz greats.

3. Fairfax Community Market (1985).

People's Market Building, Fairfax Avenue between Oakwood and Rosewood streets, West Hollywood. "It's like a family album or scrapbook" is how muralist Art Mortimer describes his work, located in the parking lot next to Canter's Delicatessen. A collage of black and white photographs, this mural traces historical moments for Jews in Los Angeles from 1841 to 1985. Included in the seven panels are the humble beginning of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, striking garment workers in 1900, Al Jolson singing in a synagogue and Sandy Koufax pitching for the Dodgers. An intergenerational project, this mural was co-researched, designed and painted by senior citizens and high school students.

4. Korean Farmers Dance (1994).

981 Western Ave., near Olympic Boulevard, Koreatown. Created in 1984 in honor of the Los Angeles Olympics, this mural has recently changed from a single masked dancer to a group of eight Korean folk dancers and musicians. Painted by artist Dong-In Park, the mural celebrates the Korean tradition of folk games and plays, intended to amuse audiences who wish to momentarily forget the difficulties of life. Each village had its own unique farmer band, such as the one depicted, which entertained the townspeople at local events.

5. Earth Memories (1996).

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