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Freeway Lady Mural to Move Off the Highway

Artist Kent Twitchell will recast the popular artwork, a tribute to his grandmother, on the large wall of a Sherman Oaks gallery.

August 08, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Once a favorite public mural, Kent Twitchell's so-called Freeway Lady was destroyed twice -- painted over by a billboard company in 1986, then vandalized while being restored in 2000.

But now it appears that the 1974 "Old Woman of the Freeway," as the work is named, will rise again. And in a most unlikely place: on the side of the Valley Institute of Visual Art gallery in Sherman Oaks.

"A second chance. You don't get many of those in life," said Twitchell, 62, a Northern California resident in Los Angeles to oversee the restoration in Playa del Rey of hismural depicting Olympic athletes.

Being chosen as the site of the reborn Freeway Lady is a coup for the art institute, a community-oriented gallery that opened in a Northridge strip mall in 1999 and has struggled to find a location more likely to attract art patrons.

Twitchell said he discovered the gallery in April, after he gave a talk on creativity to members of Women Painters West, one of the five San Fernando Valley-based artists groups that founded the gallery.

Teri Garcia and other board members invited Twitchell to visit the gallery and asked if he would consider having a retrospective of his work there. After three years in a mini-mall dominated by a fast-food restaurant, the gallery reopened in May at 13261 Moorpark St. in Sherman Oaks.

According to board member Susan Kuss, Twitchell liked the new gallery and its big, blank side wall that faces Fulton Avenue: "He took one look at it and said, 'I want to put the Freeway Lady there.' "

The wall will provide the equivalent of a canvas 26 feet high and 90 feet wide -- much wider than the wall of the Prince Hotel in Echo Park, where the 22- by 30-foot mural was originally painted.

The mural showed a white-haired, bright-eyed woman wrapped in a multicolored afghan, which stretched out behind her, framing a moon in a black, night sky. The work quickly became a favorite of those driving north on the Hollywood Freeway.

The bottom half of the mural was obscured when a parking garage was built next to the hotel. Then, without notifying Twitchell, as required by state law, the mural was painted over. The artist sued the owner of the hotel and others and, in 1992, received a settlement that included $125,000 to restore the work. When about one-third restored, the mural was marked with graffiti.

"She was really looking good," Twitchell said, but now doubts any of the original can be saved. He still has all the supporting drawings and other materials, however.

Among his many works, the Freeway Lady is his favorite, Twitchell said. It pays homage to his grandmother, who helped raise him: "She actually made me an afghan just like the one in the painting."

And the mural has special resonance for him because it marks a time of self-discovery, his choice of his own way over the fashionable way.

In painting the Freeway Lady, he said, "I was going against everything that was hip in art" in the 1970s, turning his back on abstraction and, in a way, on hipness itself. In a culture and a city that worships youth, his model was a woman in her 70s, character actress Lillian Bronson.

"It was like being Grant Wood," the Lansing, Mich., native said, laughing.

Twitchell is full of plans for a new, better Freeway Lady and glad that there is no actual highway nearby.

"I've done enough freeway murals," he said, recalling how much he disliked the constant noise of truck traffic in earlier projects.

"I'm going to consider the notion of raising her head above the height of the wall," he said. "It gives it much more of a 3-D look."

The wide wall will allow the afghan to unfurl even more dramatically, and Twitchell may also have a section of it extend above the flat roof.

The black, night sky may become a blue, day sky, and he is considering other changes.

The gallery will pay $65,000 for the work, which is expected to be completed in the spring of 2006.

A few pledges have already been received, and several fundraising events are planned in January, Kuss said.

They will be held in connection with a show of what Twitchell calls his Three Graces -- drawings and other materials related to the Freeway Lady and his murals of artist Lita Albuquerque and violinist Julie Gigante. Dates have not yet been announced.

"We figure we need $100,000, because we need to maintain her," said Kuss, adding that the exhibit will contain "some things that have never been seen by the public before."

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