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Frontyard Art Display Now a Local Wonder

A brother and sister fashion sculpture from scavenged objects to turn their South Los Angeles property into a site to behold.

September 08, 2006|Arin Gencer | Times Staff Writer

On and off for 25 years, siblings Lew and Dianne Harris have worked to turn the frontyard of their South Los Angeles home into what they call the "10th Wonder of the World."

And a wonder it is.

Industrial steel pipes, painted black, tower in front of the house, topped with vents painted red. Small, bright red tubes dangle inside spheres fashioned from steel, mimicking the fire in Earth's core. Michael Jackson -- from his "Bad" album days -- makes an appearance too, engraved in a block of acrylic.

And presiding over this densely packed sculpture garden -- from atop the house's roof -- is a zebra made of steel rods, burlap, newspaper, glue and chicken wire.

Most of their material, down to the discarded white matting Dianne uses for sketches, comes from the trash.

As Lew points out, there's art in trash. Spelled backward, the "tra" in "trash" becomes "art."

"People don't realize there's a lot of things out there you can make things out of," Lew, 67, said. "All garbage isn't nasty."

He added, "In our world, we can go to the alley" -- or "Alley Cat University Research Center," as he and Dianne, 55, call the industrial areas in East Los Angeles where they search for supplies.

Many artists are thwarted by the cost of materials, Lew said, but using trash "gives people that are poor more of an opportunity." Especially in Los Angeles, where people throw away all kinds of things.

The brother-and-sister act have planted so many sculptures in what was once a front lawn that it's hard to distinguish one work from another. The house's roof is barely visible over the tops of the tallest pieces.

Lew and Dianne can often be found lounging on the parkway in front of their creation, waving to cars passing by. They welcome visitors by offering a fold-out chair next to their own seats under two large umbrellas.

Inevitably, a driver zipping along the residential street will slow to a creeping pace and stare. One afternoon, an onlooker crawled past in a dark green Toyota 4-Runner.

"Take a picture!" Lew shouted. The driver smiled.

"Next time," he replied before pulling away.

Several weeks later, the driver of a black Yukon slowed to gawk.

"Take a picture!" Lew shouted.

"I don't have my camera," she said. She passed again later, this time with her son, who stepped out of the car and slipped a coin into a black donation box -- one of the few contributions the Harrises have received in years.

Lew said the 10th Wonder project was launched in 1981, after repeated complaints from neighbors about the cars he parked on his lawn. He decided he'd do something to stop their bellyaching. He and Dianne already made smaller clay sculptures and woodcarvings.

They foraged through industrial sites that Lew had gotten to know as a truck driver.

They got rid of the cars and decided to construct something tall to grab people's attention, Lew said, although they weren't sure what it would be.

"Knowing that people were down, we were trying to inspire them to get up and think," Dianne said.

"Look up, not down," Lew added.

They would bring in a piece of steel and lay it on the lawn. Then another. And another.

"And then one day it just -- boom -- all came together," Lew said.

They transformed their finds into what Lew calls "The Mamas and the Papas and the Babies," an assortment of tall steep pipes (the adults), with a shorter one (a child) leaning against them.

Although they aren't sure from whom they inherited their artistic streak, Lew and Dianne surmise it came from their father, who sang in church and played a jew's-harp. Dianne's talent emerged in eighth grade, when she made a clay sculpture of a woman sitting on a stool, breastfeeding her baby -- a common sight in their household of 15 children.

The siblings share a house that Lew bought about 40 years ago, when he left the family home in Bakersfield. Dianne followed a bit later, when she was in her early 20s, to study fashion design at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.

Dianne's vision has touched almost every aspect of their work. Her admiration of Michael Jackson led to the acrylic replica of the singer. The zebra was the product of her longtime fascination with black and white -- and a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo.

She had painted tables that imitated the animal's stripes before, but on one particular visit, the zebras stood out as if posing.

"I thought they were just beautiful," Dianne said. Making a zebra was a logical step forward, and the roof seemed the right perch for it.

Once, a motorist who stopped to admire the sculptures said that in some African cultures, the zebra represents healing.

"People can see things that we can't see," Lew said. "We're just the originators."

Even the title of their opus reflects their careful efforts not to overstep themselves. Sure, there are seven widely known wonders of the world -- maybe eight, if you count Stevie Wonder, Lew said.

"I decided to go to 10 because I wouldn't be interfering with nothing else in America," he said. "A lot of people say, 'You're crazy.' I know I'm crazy."

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