The City of Angels has its share of saints, as artist J. Michael Walker is busily figuring out. This spring, he has embarked on a project to inventory 23 city streets named after holy men and women, then research the names, connecting them to specific events in Los Angeles history. He will focus on the northeastern part of the city, an area bounded roughly by Vermont Avenue, Soto Street, and Washington and Colorado boulevards.
Walker will draw the Christian saints in ink, and the finished product, which will include brief biographies of the saints and short histories of their streets, will be displayed in bus shelters near corresponding street signs. To make the project useful for students, Walker is also designing a study guide geared to local fourth-graders, whose curriculum generally includes California history.
Walker's "Los Santos de Los Angeles" project, funded by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, received one of six grants made to small arts organizations and independent artists this year. Grants range in value from $1,500 to $10,000 and are based on recommendations by an independent panel of artists, educators and administrators. Walker's idea won favor because it helps recapture L.A. life more than 150 years ago.
And though some might raise eyebrows at the city funding an effort with religious overtones, city officials say the goal is about history and education, not conversion.
"Funding projects with a religious component is rare," said Arleen Chikami, a grants associate in the Cultural Affairs office. "Michael Walker's project is historical and contextual, not narrow and specifically religious in ways that would limit accessibility. Our main purpose is to support projects that foster community involvement."
Often, modern street names relate to the history of the land on which the thoroughfares are built. How so many of the blessed found permanent places of honor in Los Angeles is a mystery that is taking Walker back more than two centuries, when Los Angeles was still known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. By sifting through city records, checking Web sites for tidbits about the cluster of smaller cities that make up Los Angeles County and reading through his own collection of books on the lives of saints, Walker is uncovering historical details most Angelenos do not know.
San Rafael Avenue on Mount Washington, for example, was once part of Rancho San Rafael that sprawled from Glendale to Highland Park. The title of the ranch was established in 1798 by Cpl. Jose Maria Berdugo (the family name was later changed to Verdugo).
St. Vincent Court downtown served as a driveway into St. Vincent college, a school that began in a house once owned by rancher Vicente Lugo. He donated the house to the parish priest in the 1850s. The house was made into a school and named for Lugo's patron saint, Vincent de Paul, a 17th century French priest who founded the Vincentian Fathers.
"The history of a city resides in its names," said Walker, 47, who lives in Montecito Heights. "For at least a decade, I've been fascinated by evidence of a spiritual overlay on Los Angeles' history and culture. The prevalence of saints' names creates a spiritual geography."
Best known for his paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he imagines her at home in modern, rural Mexico, Walker's art overflows with images of saints as they were portrayed in the Mexican tradition during the Colonial era. One painting, "The Miracle of San Jacinto," is currently on display at the Phyllis Kind gallery in New York.
Walker's idea to connect his research to education led him to Jeannine Patria, who taught his son Jacobo, now age 14, when Jacobo was in the fourth grade at Mount Washington Elementary School. "Los Santos de Los Angeles" includes San Rafael Avenue, the street where Mount Washington Elementary is located.
"From a strictly historical standpoint, the students should know why there is a San Rafael Avenue," Patria said. "Our school ground was once part of San Rafael ranch." She plans to take her students on a walking field trip to streets with saints' names near the school as part of local history lessons.
Walker is seeking funding for a Web site that he'd like to launch before his first works are placed on view around the city next fall. "I'd like feedback from the old-timers who might know things I won't find anywhere else."