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Crews Repairing Freeway Murals

Restoration of the L.A. Marathon artwork is the beginning of a $1.7-million project.

September 29, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

As cars roared by at midnight Saturday, an artisan meticulously carved around the paint-chipped face of a female jogger depicted on the "L.A. Marathon Mural," which sprawls across a wall alongside the San Diego Freeway, near Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood.

Using a metal spatula, he traced around the curls of the figure's dark brown hair and then down, over the bright red and orange graffiti that covered her torso. Next, four other workers peeled the image off like loose wallpaper.

Several hours later, it was taken to a studio, where hundreds of pieces of the 5,000-square-foot artwork will be put back together like a jigsaw puzzle and then restored by the mural's artist, Kent Twitchell.

Repair of the L.A. Marathon mural is the first step in a $1.7-million citywide restoration project funded by the state. The task of preserving 11 Los Angeles freeway murals marred by weather and graffiti is being administered by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which hopes to eventually restore 40 of the city's 2,500 murals.

"A good handful of these murals are, aesthetically speaking, world-class art," said Bill Lasarow, president and co-founder of the conservancy. "You don't just toss away world-class art because there's a problem with it."

Today, crews are scheduled to take down "L.A. Freeway Kids" on the Santa Ana Freeway near Los Angeles Street. The 1984 Glenna Boltuch Avila mural honors the city's diverse population of children.

The "7th Street Altarpiece" by Twitchell and "Olympic Series/Eye on '84" by Alonzo Davis, both on the Harbor Freeway, will undergo on-site restoration, also beginning today.

The L.A. Marathon mural was created in 1990 and is 18 feet high and 236 feet wide. It features a string of joggers painted in neutral tones, including a dark-haired man wearing a "Pueblo High" T-shirt and a blond woman wearing a blue bandana. Its surface is cracked and wrinkled from harsh weather and it is splashed with vivid yellow, red and green bursts of graffiti.

The mural, which will cost about $50,000 to restore, will be reinstalled in about a year in an undetermined location. Annual maintenance costs will run between $1,000 and $5,000.

"Once it's preserved, it will be able to last for hundreds of years without any damage," said Nathan Zakheim , who is directing the crews.

He has restored various murals and artworks across the region. But he has never taken one so large off a freeway wall in the middle of the night, restored it and then put it up again.

Beginning this colossal assignment was not easy, he said.

When the mural was created, it was painted on paper and then glued to the wall. A 12-person crew arrived at midnight Friday and began chiseling the image off the wall. But the paper was so delicate that it began to break apart.

In addition, "it was very, very labor intensive," Zakheim said. In less than eight hours, the crew managed to remove only a 10-by-20-foot piece of the mural, a tiny fraction of the work.

The workers returned Saturday, ready to try a new method.

"It's like reinventing the wheel each time," said Dhanan Zakheim, Nathan's son, who works with his father on such projects.

Workers again balanced themselves on an aluminum stairway as six spotlights shone on them. They carved out each image separately, as though they were cutting gingerbread dolls out of dough.

Cars raced by so fast that the stairs trembled. But workers continued, pouring water between the peeled sheaths of painted paper and the wall, to loosen the glue. As one poured, two others held a 10-foot metal rod that looked like a big rolling pin. They placed the rod against the paper and gently rolled the paper off.

"This is the first real test of our new system," Zakheim said. "It's absolutely miraculous."

Art resources have greatly improved since the mural was first created, Zakheim said. Now, "we're using materials that last like rock," he said. "It will be strong enough to go through a carwash when we're done."

He sees the process as a mission to improve the city.

"I want to give high-quality artists a chance to paint in cities. If murals can't be preserved, then the city won't want to keep putting them up," he said. "The dream is that this will be an outdoor museum for Los Angeles, like a street museum."

Lasarow, the mural conservancy president, said that some of the murals are worth thousands and even millions of dollars each.

"These have real asset value," he said. "These are top quality artists, who in many cases have produced some of the best work of their careers in these locations."

Protecting such murals will boost tourism and civic appreciation for art, Lasarow said. He said he hopes the Los Angeles project will serve as a model for preserving murals in cities across the state.

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