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Tension Frames Plans for Artwork

Proposal to re-create Freeway Lady mural on the wall of a Sherman Oaks gallery draws opposition from neighbors.

September 07, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

When Shanna Winner learned that a critic had characterized her great-grandmother as "evil-eyed," she was horrified and saddened.

The charge appeared in a news release recently distributed by media consultant Edward Lozzi, objecting to the planned re-creation of Kent Twitchell's famed "Old Lady of the Freeway" mural on the wall of a Sherman Oaks art gallery. Winner's great-grandmother, character actress Lillian Bronson, sat for the portrait.

This summer, the Valley Institute of Visual Art gallery announced that Twitchell had agreed to re-create his 1974 mural on one of its walls. The institute has a contract with Twitchell to create an updated version of the Freeway Lady, destroyed through a series of mishaps, on the side of its building at 13261 Moorpark St., near Fulton Avenue, by 2006.

The mural, which shows a white-haired, bright-eyed woman wrapped in a multicolored afghan that stretches out behind her and frames a moon in a black night sky, is expected to cover most of the 26-by-90-foot wall.

Twitchell will be paid $65,000, and the institute hopes to raise his fee, plus an additional $35,000 for maintenance. About $10,000 has been raised so far, gallery officials said.

Persuading Twitchell to agree to the project was widely regarded as a coup for the institute, a consortium of San Fernando Valley-based community arts organizations, according to board member Susan Kuss.

But Lozzi and a columnist for the local Tolucan Times strongly objected. In his news release, Lozzi described the Freeway Lady as "disturbing" and "notorious" and said "the painting has a set of enhanced alien eyes with an astrological planetary background theme which could scare the pants off of the squeamish and substitute for any horror film poster."

Winner, 35, who lives in Simi Valley, was dismayed.

"I don't understand it," she said, of the suggestion that her great-grandmother represented some alien force. Bronson appeared in more than 80 films and countless TV shows before her death in 1995 at the age of 92.

She was perhaps best known as a pioneering female judge on "Perry Mason" and as Fonzi's motorcycle-riding grandma on the classic TV series "Happy Days."

She was a wonderful great-grandmother, said Winner, whose most vivid memories of Bronson are of "sitting in the back of her little VW Bug," being driven to performances of children's theater, museums and other cultural activities.

Twitchell, too, was surprised that his decision to resurrect the Freeway Lady, a tribute to his beloved grandmother, had caused a stir.

"The last thing in the world I expected was a controversy about the least controversial thing I've ever done," said Twitchell, who now lives in Northern California. "Thirty years and I've never heard anything like that. People from all ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life seemed to automatically like her."

The Freeway Lady has had a troubled history. One day in 1986, Twitchell discovered that the mural -- painted on the side of a Los Angeles hotel -- had been painted over by a billboard company. That violated California law requiring notification of the artist. The mural was being restored when it was vandalized with graffiti in 2000.

Joining Lozzi in protest was Greg Crosby, whose Crosby's Corner column appears in the Tolucan Times.

He blasted the return of the Freeway Lady on Aug. 18 in a piece headlined "Art -- Shoved Down Your Throat."

"How would you like it if I moved into that house next door to you and painted a huge mural on the wall that faces your window?" he asked readers.

"We are literally right around the corner from where the proposed mural is going to be," Crosby said.

He said he had chosen his Sherman Oaks house largely because he liked the "old-fashioned, 'Leave It to Beaver' neighborhood."

"It isn't Sleepy Hollow," Kuss said of the area around the institute. The Moorpark and Fulton intersection includes a strip mall with a busy coin laundry, a 7-Eleven with a large sign, a liquor store whose sign is lighted at night, and at least one large billboard.

In an interview, Crosby said it is the scale and location of the mural that he objects to. Like Lozzi, he fears it will attract curious crowds as well as vandals with spray cans.

Crosby said he had received letters from readers of his Aug. 18 column objecting to his characterization of the Freeway Lady as a potential icon for aging "baby-boomer feminists" and to his characterization of Twitchell's image as "hard, dried-up, humorless."

Crosby said his remarks were meant to be humorous, but that had not come across to those readers who objected to his characterization of older women.

"I don't criticize the man's talent," Crosby said of Twitchell. "I don't want anything there [on the nearby wall], whether it's a big old woman or a big old man or a huge gorgeous model.... I don't like painting in public places. It's just a bigger form of graffiti."

Nonsense, say defenders of the mural.

What would be so terrible about seeing a great mural from your condo, they ask.

Judi Bernberg, a collage artist affiliated with the institute , mocked the notion that the mural would hurt local property values:

"The horror! The horror! They would rather see a blank wall than the same wall enhanced by a famous -- not notorious -- old lady. They should know that when Gustave Eiffel built his tower ... many were initially horrified. That tower became the symbol of Paris, recognized worldwide."

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