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ART & ARCHITECTURE | Art Notes

Cedars-Sinai Calls In a Specialist

For its big mural showing the history of Jewish medical contributions, the center turned to Terry Schoonhoven.

April 18, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Terry Schoonhoven is part of a rare breed of contemporary artists who make a living by fulfilling other people's desires for really big pictures. "I entertain all commissions. This is my bread and butter," said the 53-year-old muralist during an interview in his Larchmont-area studio, where he is finishing his latest project. "Jewish Contributions to Medicine," a 12-by-71-foot panorama of Jewish physicians and scientists from Talmudic times to the present, soon will be installed in the Harvey Morse Auditorium of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and unveiled May 2.

With more than 40 murals to his credit, Schoonhoven has painted everything from a trompe l'oeil sky and window in a private home in Venice and an illusionistic corridor on the Ahmanson Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to an automobile graveyard at the Department of Motor Vehicles in downtown Los Angeles. One of his most ambitious recent projects is a 250-year travelogue through California history, executed in ceramic tile and installed in 1993 at Union Station.

Probably best known for adorning huge outdoor walls with whimsical fantasies and apocalyptic warnings about Southern California, Schoonhoven is a Midwestern transplant who seems to view his adopted home with a mixture of wit, fondness and critical irony. He moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and did two years of graduate work at UCLA, after growing up in Freeport, Ill., and earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin.

He got his start as a muralist with the Fine Arts Squad, a small group of artists he established in 1969 with painter Vic Henderson. "The idea was to get art out of the studio and into the street," Schoonhoven said.

The squad made a big splash in the early '70s with memorable images, such as "Isle of California," which depicts the Golden State being transformed into an island by a violent earthquake, on a building in West Los Angeles; and "Ghost Town," a mural on the Conejo Security Bank in Thousand Oaks portraying the surrounding shopping center in ruin. The group disbanded in 1974, but Schoonhoven continued on his own, distinguishing himself in 1979 with a huge mirror image of a street scene on Windward Avenue in Venice, followed by a varied array of other murals.

Schoonhoven obviously has the ability to visualize and execute grand-scale projects, and he has managed to land enough jobs to keep going, but it hasn't been easy. In addition to the technical and physical difficulties of painting murals, artists must contend with the vicissitudes of art funding as well as the agendas and tastes of their clients.

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"In the '80s there were corporate commissions, but those have dried up. Now it's all percent-for-art projects," he said, referring to regulations requiring developers to use a small percentage of construction costs of new public buildings for artworks.

Private commissions, such as the Cedars-Sinai project, are extremely rare--but welcome, he said. Although painting a sober Jewish Who's Who of medicine isn't exactly his stock in trade, Schoonhoven said it has been a satisfying project.

It was initiated by former Cedars-Sinai board Chairman Joseph Mitchell and his wife Beverly, who wanted to donate a mural on the history of medicine to the hospital. "I nearly fell over when I heard about it, because medical history is a great interest of mine," said Dr. Leon Morgenstern, the director of the Center for Health Care Ethics at Cedars-Sinai and chairman of the mural project.

Art patron and collector Stanley Grinstein, who heads the hospital's Advisory Council for the Arts, thought Schoonhoven was the artist for the job and approached him about two years ago. But it took several months for the idea to evolve into a workable form.

With a committee of seven physicians, Morgenstern began delving into the subject to determine how it might be surveyed succinctly. They soon agreed that the entire history of medicine was far too broad, but a Jewish version of the topic would be "do-able," Morgenstern said. Even so, it was necessary to limit more than 100 worthy contenders to a group that could be portrayed on the mural. "Terry didn't want a sea of faces," he said.

The committee eventually came up with a list of about 40 major figures and a "supporting cast," bringing the total to 55, Schoonhoven said. Among the luminaries are Maimonides (1135-1204), the leading physician in the court of Saladin, sultan of Egypt; immunologists Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) and Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916); and virologist Albert Sabin, who discovered an oral vaccine for polio and died in 1993. A group of female Nobel laureates includes Rosalyn Sussman, Gertrude Elion and Rita Levi-Montalcini.

Morgenstern said it wasn't easy for the committee to make the final cut of Jewish physicians and scientists. He doesn't expect the lineup to please everyone, but neither does he shy away from criticism. "The more discussion, the better. It's meant to stimulate," he said of the mural.

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