When Rodolfo Rivademar drove from San Pedro to Echo Park Lake this week, he parked his car, bee-lined across the grass and sat down cross-legged as close as he could to the water's edge.
So low to the ground, he couldn't see the downtown skyline, the sprays of the fountain, the paddleboats or the swans.
All he saw was all that he'd come to see: lotus after lotus after lotus.
No one's sure who brought the first lotuses to the lake, but since the 1920s, they've made a home in its northwest corner. Each summer they spring up impossibly perfect from the sludge, and visitors come to gaze at them, paint them, photograph them.
They cannot get enough of the luscious creams and deep pinks of the petals, the velvety leaves the size of Frisbees, the surreally showerhead-shaped pods.
"They have movement, subtlety. They have a very free-flowing quality," said Rivademar, 46, an artist originally from Argentina. "They are fascinating. They can be painted over and over again. They are a subject that has no end."
On his head, Rivademar wore a broad-brimmed straw hat, held in place with a leather cord. On a palette, he mixed watercolors and dipped delicate brushes into a sliced-open water jug. He painted a dark line down the center of a page, then began meticulously outlining leaves on the left side. He wet the page, then wet a brush tip, dabbed on a bluish green and touched brush to paper. Color spread gently, shading in a corner of leaf.
Passing children crouched to watch. A little girl with a teddy bear T-shirt stretched out alongside him, rapt.
He looked ahead intently, showing no sign of noticing.
"I am first observing the leaves, the configuration of the leaves. When they turn and you see the leaves from underneath, the veins are like the veins from a human body," he said.
"I start simple, very simple and small, then go to more elaborate," he explained.
A few feet away from Rivademar, Mike Lindell, 62, of Cerritos, stood barefoot on the concrete path beside the lake, wearing old, faded jeans and a camera around his neck. He'd come to take photos for a friend in Riverside he'd persuaded to turn his empty swimming pool into a water garden.
"He's had the pool dry for years. I'm showing him the possibilities," said Lindell, a retired nuclear instrument technician.
Lindell's brother, Kim, 52, took a day off from building houses to come along, not for the flowers but for fish. He stood in paint-splattered jeans and flip-flops, holding a fishing rod and surveying the water as he pulled at his Harley-Davidson cap.
The Lindells drive to the lotuses every year, they said. They thought nothing of their 1 1/2-hour wade through traffic.
Alongside them were other photographers, some snapping shots of family and friends in front of the flowers, others attempting to capture the flowers themselves with the help of serious cameras and long lenses. They unfolded ladders to train their lenses over the blooms and used long poles with hooks to pose the petals face forward.
Don Heins, 75, in a crisp checkered shirt and khakis, perched elegantly on the second rung of a six-foot ladder, resting his camera lens on top. The president of the Pasadena Photochromers, a slide club, Heins said he was doing advance work for a group field trip.
"I needed to see how high they were, what size ladders we needed," he said. Lotus photos, he said, do very well in competitions.
As his wife, Janet, sat patiently in their station wagon, reading a page turner, Heins leaned over the ladder toward one particular big, fat flower.
"Sunshine and a bee, too," he said as he focused, adding, "Well, that's too late," when the bee buzzed off too fast.
A hot May brought the lotuses early this year. Now, just a week from the annual Lotus Festival, they're at their peak. In October, after the spent pods have tipped their seeds into the mud, the park's gardeners will push through the stalks in paddle boats, chopping them to a couple of inches below water level.
For now, admirers of the flowers arrive early each day and keep on coming, said Echo Park's senior gardener, Phil Molina, who has watched over the flowers for the last six years. Visitors come in the dark of night, too, he said, to surreptitiously snip away buds and pull out roots.
At water's edge, many of the spindly stems have been chopped off, he said, as he walked along the rim of the lotus bed.
"See that bud that's coming up?" he asked, pointing to a long stem's fuchsia tip. "It'll never make it. Someone will grab it."
The Chinese, he said, cook with the roots and the seeds. They wrap up meat and rice in the big leaves.
He tries to tell people the flowers are off-limits, he said. But when monks show up from a temple and ask for some flowers, he often relents. Lotuses, because they rise pure from the dirt, are Buddhist symbols of enlightenment. Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus.
"I give them the flowers for their Buddha. But I can't give everyone one," he said. "Then we'd have none. And people all over would be sad."