When J. Michael Walker first visited Santa Clara Street, he felt a twinge of disappointment.
"There's nothing here," he thought as he scanned the two-block street in southeast Los Angeles, hemmed in by red-brick walls, barbed wire and railroad tracks.
Where could he find St. Clare?
Then he understood. Santa Clara Street lay at the heart of a threadbare industrial zone. Its windowless warehouses and boarded-up factories were coated with truck dust, its streets empty of people. Similarly, St. Clare had sought poverty. She embodied self-denial.
So Walker painted her as a gentle-faced woman standing next to barbed wire and security bars, lifting a railroad lantern. He inscribed his painting with a poem he composed for the saint and her street:
Santa Clara had sought the privilege of absolute poverty,
And found it here, on this meager portion of a street.
That was seven years ago. Street by street, from Boyle Heights to Pacific Palisades, Walker has spent the intervening years studying saints and the histories of the 103 streets of Los Angeles that bear their names. He walked the pavement to see how the two might intertwine.
Then he created images of the saints in sumi ink and serigraph on 4-by-6-foot pieces of paper, adding his poetry in ink. Curving across the top is an arch with the words, "Todos los Santos de Los Angeles."
Walker decided to mark the end of his project with the publication of "All the Saints of the City of the Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on its Streets." His book will appear early next year, published by Heyday Books and the Autry National Center. Publication will coincide with an exhibit that will begin in February at the Autry's Museum of the American West.
But along the way to publication, Walker discovered something magical. His stories of saints and their streets were really not as neat as the page proofs stacked at his studio in Montecito Heights. This is an unruly, ever-changing city, and its stories were changing, too.
Last week, Walker returned to Santa Clara Street and found a changing landscape.
He swerved his dented gray Hyundai past delivery trucks and 18-wheelers. As he drove with one hand, he pointed out a new taco shop, pricey new condominiums in the Fashion District and then drab gray warehouses and barbed wire.
The street is still bleak, but now it doubles as a parking lot and a shortcut to the Santa Monica Freeway, and machines hum inside the red-brick factory walls.
"This project has taken me to places you would not normally visit," he said.
San Pablo Street, for instance, ran from railroad tracks past weedy lots and faceless buildings northeast of downtown. Then it turned into a dirt road leading uphill to a bluff overlooking the city and the cathedral windows of County-USC Medical Center.
He thought of the hilltop as a spot where St. Paul could issue his epistles.
Although he is not a formal Catholic, Walker feels a close affinity to Catholic spirituality and culture, and despite his Arkansas roots, "more Latino than not," he said.
The project sprang initially from his years in rural Mexico, where small saints' images, or retablos, adorned walls in nearly every room in the rural homes, typically as inexpensive offset lithographs framed in tin. These images were more intimate than looming stained-glass saints in large city churches. They kept watch over the rituals of people's lives.
Walker said his pages were "affording the saints an opportunity to comment on how they've been used in Southern California."
As he proofs the final pages of his book in a small garage studio at the Montecito Heights home he shares with his wife, Mimi, Walker works with a chamber music CD playing. He's surrounded by three walls of California history texts and art books -- Goya, Velasquez, Kandinsky. Through the south window, he can hear water running in the garden koi pond installed by a previous owner.
Raised in Little Rock, Ark., in a Baptist family, Walker, 55, studied art and philosophy in college. He left school in 1974 to do volunteer work in Mexico's rural Copper Canyon area and met Mimi there. They married in her home village of Bocoyna, Chihuahua, and later moved to Los Angeles, where Walker has worked full-time as an artist for the last two decades.
His research on the saints is rooted in a $6,500 grant in 2000 from the city of Los Angeles, which commissioned paintings of the saints to hang in bus shelters near their namesake streets for two months. But Walker delved further.
He learned that the vast majority of city streets with saints' names did not get those names during the Spanish-Mexican era, as many people assume, but during the great expansion of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Real estate developers assigned the names randomly as part of what Walker said was "mission fantasy."
Out of that randomness, Walker found meaning. Much as the British Navy once press-ganged -- or kidnapped -- young men to be sailors, the men who built Los Angeles pressed the saints into service, Walker said.