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The Tile That Binds

When Art Salutes the Urban Mosaic

March 14, 2004|LESLEE KOMAIKO

"Plop art" is what community development types call public art with no fathomable connection to its context. You've seen the stuff: big old non sequiturs in the landscape. The folks at the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles make a practice of doing better than that. The philosophy at the agency, which operates in 37 Los Angeles neighborhoods in need of redevelopment, is that art with a strong link to its setting has a vital effect on community improvement.

Consider a recent agency success story: "I Am My Own Rainbow," artist J. Michael Walker's 180-square-foot tile mural on the exterior of downtown Los Angeles' Weingart Center Cafe at the city's largest homeless shelter. The design, which Walker calls "a secular altarpiece for the community," tweaks traditional Spanish and Mediterranean tile decoration to pay homage to the Weingart community. In its center stands a powerful, beatific black man with outstretched arms and a rainbow emanating from his hands. Four faces, each accompanied by a statement such as "I Will Be Slow to Anger" and "I Will Not Give Up," bracket the mural.

Walker knew he wanted to work in "Malibu or Catalina-style tile, which is historically relevant to Los Angeles and Southern California," but settled on the mural's contents only after spending time with Weingart residents. "There were issues that seemed to recur as to the problems they confronted," says Walker, who was selected by a panel of artists, community representatives and designers to receive the Weingart project grant through the Downtown Cultural Trust Fund.

"This provided narrative for the piece. Men mentioned that they needed to work on controlling their anger. With women, self-esteem and learning to accept oneself were basic elements." The project's title also came out of those discussions. "There's always somebody who is writing and drawing in his notebook, whom I'm attracted to as a self-taught artist myself," says Walker, a Montecito Heights resident whose continuing "All the Saints of the City of the Angels" project explores L.A. streets named for saints. "One guy had written this phrase--I Am My Own Rainbow--in his book. I asked if I could borrow it and he proudly said yes."

If this sounds like "un-plop art," that's the idea. "Los Angeles was created ... without a lot of attention to design," says Julie Silliman, cultural arts planner for the CRA/LA. "Over the last 10 years I've watched a desire for sub-neighborhoods. We're creating villages and districts. One way we do that is to try to make those parts of town look different than others. I think artists are great at creating custom features."

"Around Disney Hall, people aren't lacking for art," Walker says. "But you get around 5th and San Pedro, San Julian, and there's not much beauty there. Yet those people are just as desirous of beauty and trees and blue skies as anyone else."

Paul Tepper, the center association's vice president, says Walker's mural has been well-received. "He captured some very deep feelings in the clients and managed to transform their words into art. It reminds people that change is possible. And no one's graffitied it, not a drop, not a scratch."

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