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Artist Answers Call to Portray Street Saints of L.A.

After discovering many saintly names on city maps, J. Michael Walker creates evocative works that tie together history and the here and now.

October 18, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, J. Michael Walker was flipping through the bible of Los Angeles motorists -- the Thomas Guide -- when his eye caught something that stirred inspiration. The City of Angels was filled with streets named for saints.

There were well-known names, like San Pedro and San Fernando and San Gabriel. There were more obscure ones, like San Jacinto and San Blas. All told, there were 86 of them. Like most every L.A. driver, Walker had probably driven many of those streets countless times.

But that day, a phrase suddenly popped into his head: "Todos los Santos de los Angeles" (All the Saints of the City of Angels).

Then came a vision: Research the history of the street and the saint for which it was named and see whether the two connected in any meaningful way. Then express the findings artistically.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Historical diary -- A story in the California section Saturday about an artist whose work blends images of saints with the Los Angeles streets that are named after them incorrectly stated that Father Juan Crespi wrote his diary in 1679. The Franciscan priest wrote his diary, the first historical record of the Los Angeles area, in 1769.

The seed of that idea has blossomed into a public art project of 60 paintings, which interweave local history and Roman Catholic beliefs into powerful commentaries on the contemporary Los Angeles scene. Crossing the bounds of time and culture, Walker uses the lives of ancient saints to illuminate the here-and-now on their streets today.

He has portrayed the throngs of homeless, the Mexican gardener, the rich and famous in palatial estates protected behind pearly gates. And along the way, he has unearthed themes of tragedy and irony, rebirth and redemption in stories of poverty, environmental degradation, misogyny and sexual abuse, racism and anti-Semitism.

"I had no idea what I'd encounter," said the bearded artist, whose work is largely being funded by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and donations through the Arroyo Arts Collective. "Ultimately, I would find significant relationships and remarkable moments of convergence."

Some of those moments are evident in Walker's current exhibit in downtown Los Angeles. The new paintings mix image and poetic text to capture the souls of 10 streets off Sunset Boulevard.

One of the most striking works portrays San Ysidro Drive, which winds past the mansions of Beverly Hills to the landscaped homes of Bel-Air.

San Ysidro, known in English as St. Isidore, was a 12th century Spanish farmer who worked the soil of wealthy landowners. In the 18th century, Walker said, the Spaniards took his story to the rural villagers of Mexico, who empathized and identified with the laborer.

The first time Walker drove up San Ysidro Drive, he said, the only people visible were Latino gardeners -- modern-day incarnations, it seemed to him, of the humble saint. "I pulled over in amazement," Walker says, clapping his hands to his head in disbelief.

One of the gardeners agreed to pose for him as an evocation of San Ysidro. His image forms the central element of Walker's work: a man of furrowed brow and quiet dignity, holding a rake as elegantly as a saintly staff.

There were other convergences. Santa Ynez, or St. Agnes, was reputed to be a beautiful and chaste Roman woman who refused offers of marriage and was eventually defiled and then martyred 1,700 years ago.

Three streets that bear her name -- Via Santa Ynez, as well as a road and an avenue -- lead into the pristine hills of Pacific Palisades, across from the lush nature preserve of the Santa Ynez Canyon. The site was a battleground three decades ago between developers and property owners over plans to carve up the land for more housing.

In a three-panel work, Walker draws parallels between Santa Ynez's ancient trials and contemporary environmental struggles, between the saint's rapacious suitors and modern-day developers of unspoiled land. The paintings depict a tranquil Ynez in a wildlife paradise, then standing resolutely, and finally succumbing to her demise, head thrown back.

Walker spins out story after story of remarkable connections. San Julian Street in downtown Los Angeles, now a mecca for homeless people, was named after a wandering saint. Santa Monica Boulevard, some of which is frequented by male prostitutes, owes its namesake to the mother of a wayward son who never gave up on him until he reformed and became St. Augustine.

He tracked down the origin of Santa Maria Road in Topanga and found connections to the Christian Church's past history of anti-Semitism. After consulting an expert on Spanish naming practices, Walker believes the rancher, Jesus Santa Maria, for whom the road was named, could have been a descendant of a Jewish family forced to convert to Christianity in 15th century Spain and change its surname. His finished work drew parallels between the "Restricted Entry" signs on the road to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

"I believe these stories have been waiting to be revealed," Walker says.

Father Michael E. Engh, a Loyola Marymount University professor who specializes in Los Angeles history, says Walker's work is "remarkably accurate."

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