REPORT: Los Angeles


Restoration of “Lita Albuquerque Monument
Kent Twitchell
Photo: Gil Oriz

In 1984, the city of Los Angeles received a unique gift: a set of ten murals, conceived by ten forward-thinking artists of the day, placed along the walls of the freeways running through the city’s center. Commissioned as part of the arts festival organized in conjunction with the 1984 Olympics, which was held in LA, the murals were designed to share a cherished piece of local culture with visitors while marking a pathway to the Coliseum. Much like the statues that lined the path leading to the ancient Olympic Stadium in Greece, the murals were regarded as an exemplar of local art production, and became a great source of civic pride.

For years following the Olympics, downtown commuters could pause in the midst of a traffic jam to enjoy Glenna Avila’s LA Freeway Kids, which depicted a procession of carefree children, or contemplate John Wehrle’s Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo, which re-imagined the rings of Jupiter as debris from Greek and Roman ruins. Further east on the 101 Freeway, a pair of matching murals by Kent Twitchell-Lita Albuquerque Monument and Jim Morphesis Monument-faced each other beneath an overpass, seemingly gazing at each other, and forming a gateway through which one passed to reach the less constricted environs of Echo Park and Silver Lake.

“The freeways are the connective tissue in LA,” observes Robert Fitzpatrick, the director of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in LA. “The murals, which reflect the vast and individualistic landscape of the city, are a story that is still being told.” Now living in Paris, where he is affiliated with the international art fair organization FIAC, Fitzpatrick was back in Los Angeles in late April for a reunion event with eight of the ten original muralists at Twitchell’s downtown studio. He waxed nostalgic about being introduced to LA’s burgeoning mural scene by Alonzo Davis and Twitchell, who also proposed the freeway idea to him. Fitzpatrick instantly fell in love with the concept, agreeing to push it through as an official Olympic commission.

Gary Lloyd, an artist who has also served as a model for Twitchell’s murals, shared Fitzpatrick’s enthusiasm. “The freeway murals changed the way people thought about murals. Suddenly they could be art, they could be paintings, they could be portraits-seen from the car or the sidewalk. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities. People all over the world went nuts over them.”

Not everyone was a champion of this visionary idea, however. Judy Baca, one of the original muralists, and an early community arts activist, fought against it at first. “I thought the freeways were a no man’s land,” she recalls. “They couldn’t be owned by any community.”

In fact, Baca had a good point. Murals have historically been deeply rooted in specific communities, supported and cared for by their constituents. Without that grounding, a public work of art is more vulnerable to outside forces-and so it proved to be with the freeway murals. As time went on, natural wear and tear, along with an onslaught of vandalism from street taggers, began to take a serious toll on the artwork. The murals began to disappear from view, obscured by graffiti and assaulted by the elements.

Restoration of “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo”
John Wehrle
on the 101 Freeway (1984 Olympic Freeway Murals)
Photos: Courtesy Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), founded in 1987 by a coalition of artists and arts advocates, soon stepped in. They began a long-term, grassroots campaign to restore, preserve, and maintain the murals. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Olympics, and the MCLA’s work is almost done. They have successfully restored four of the murals, and are in the process of restoring two more. Baca, meanwhile, has taken responsibility for the maintenance of her own work, Hitting the Wall: Women in Marathon, through her Venice-based nonprofit, SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). Three of the murals, sadly, have been deemed damaged beyond repair.

Isabel Rojas-Williams is the executive director of the MCLA and she believes absolutely in the importance of the work the organization does. “Murals are the voice of the people,” she asserts. “This is how we identify ourselves. I give mural tours all the time and you should see how the kids respond to them. The murals speak a universal language that they all can understand, regardless of ethnicity or education. Murals are the gateway between the art of the streets and the art of the institutions. They connect the past with the future.”

When asked about the drastic increase in vandalism-which had previously been kept at bay by an unspoken code of honor among street artists-since the 1990s, Rojas-Williams does not hide her concern. “If you ask me, this change in attitude occurred after art programs were eliminated from public school curriculums. Opportunities for expression were taken away from the youth, and they had to seek other outlets.”

Part of the Conservancy’s strategy going forward involves aggressive outreach to youth, inviting them to participate in various events. At the same time, the MCLA also continues to reach out to a wider audience as well through special programs like their exhibition and panel discussion at the 2014 LA Art Show this past January. Titled “Will LA Reclaim Its Title as ‘The Mural Capitol of the World?’” the event featured an inter-generational mix of artists and strived to be positive and inclusive. So far, their tactic of building grassroots alliances, along with a rapid-response monitoring and maintenance system, seems to have succeeded in reducing the number of graffiti attacks on the freeway murals. Meanwhile, the organization is also working actively to protect the rights of mural artists through advocacy and the enactment of public ordinances.

On August 24, MCLA will have its official celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Olympic Freeway Murals. It will take place at the historic Pico House in downtown LA and include a cocktail mixer with the artists and a live auction of donated artworks. The day will also feature the release of the 30th Anniversary Edition of the Olympic Freeway Mural Portfolio, produced by Lapis Press. Fittingly, all proceeds from the event will benefit the activities of the MCLA, thus not only celebrating the legacy of the murals, but preserving them for the next generation.