ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

L.A. again carries a torch for 1984 Olympic murals, their artists

Artist Richard Wyatt: 'We were drawn to put art in places where people wouldn't necessarily expect to find it'
L.A.'s surviving Olympic freeway murals are being restored on the 101 and 110

The party Aug. 24 has a name: "The Olympic Freeway Murals: Celebrating 30 Years." The guests of honor: nine of the country's most lauded muralists, gathered together for the first time in three decades, to commemorate the anniversary of artwork they painted for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles event coincides with a massive project to restore the giant artworks. The celebration will include the unveiling of a limited-edition Olympic Freeway Murals box set of photography by John Humble, not to mention the presence of such Olympic athletes as gold medal swimmer John Naber and boxer Paul Gonzales.

Still, the stars of the show remain the men and women whose artworks are again enjoying their day in the bright Los Angeles sun.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Murals: An article in the Aug. 20 Calendar section about the restoration of murals created for the 1984 Olympics misspelled the first name of artist Glenna Avila as Glenn.
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"Why do we wait to celebrate them until they die?" asks the conservancy's executive director, Isabel Rojas-Williams. "Why not celebrate them while they're still painting and making history?"

The 1984 summer arts team is indeed an accomplished bunch. Street artists Willie Herrón III, Richard Wyatt, Kent Twitchell, Glenn Avila, Frank Romero, John Wehrle, Judy Baca, Roderick Sykes and Alonzo Davis all will be present Sunday. Terry Schoonhoven died in 2001, but his widow, Sheila, will attend.

As part of the Olympic Arts Festival, they created 10 vivid murals along the 110 and 101 freeways. Before the year was through, however, vandals had begun to deface the artworks. Time marched on, and the damage got worse. Layer upon layer of graffiti piled up, and three murals were destroyed by highway construction or the elements. Beginning in 2007, Caltrans started covering the murals with gray paint to prevent further damage.

In early 2012, the Mural Conservancy launched the effort to restore the remaining seven in time for the 30th anniversary. Today, five are finished and two remain to be done.

"I didn't realize it, but it's archaeology, and I'm an archaeologist," Herrón says of the restoration process, which he's overseen. "I know what I'm looking for, but it isn't until I find it that I know it."

The process involves the careful removal of the gray paint and graffiti until Herrón suddenly uncovers a swath of the original paint. He does this until any further removal would damage the artist's work. What he can't uncover, he carefully re-creates. It's painstaking work, but he believes in it.

"I always thought of my art as something I'd pass down to my children so they'd have a sense of who I was," he says. "I always thought my art had to be something permanent. And as long as the wall is still there and the city still cares, then it will be."

Late on a recent afternoon inside Southern California Edison's stunning Art Deco building in downtown Los Angeles, Herrón is meeting with Wyatt, Twitchell and Rojas-Williams to discuss the restoration process and the state of modern muralism in light of this summer's mural-versary.

The group says Los Angeles experienced a mural renaissance in the 1970s, thanks to a proliferation of paint on walls across the city, most of it put there by ethnically diverse artists. The vast city soon became known as a mural capital of the world. That heyday is gone, however, with murals replaced by the more ephemeral breed of street art known as aerosol art.

Because aerosol art is created with spray paint, the artists were lumped together with graffiti taggers, though aerosol artists saw themselves in a different league. Today, the Olympic muralists say, both aerosol artists and graffiti artists have come of age and have developed a healthy respect for the lasting nature of murals.

"It just takes a minority to destroy murals and turn them from oases of art to graffiti-ridden blights," says Twitchell, rubbing his snow white beard thoughtfully. "Then people see murals and equate them with ugliness, and that changed the way people thought about murals."

Restoration and, more important, maintenance, is changing that thinking. Like historic architecture in modern cities, murals are once again rising to the surface, only now they are artistic time capsules.

Although his Olympic mural was destroyed, Wyatt is thrilled to see the other works come back. For him, it signals a newfound legitimacy for an oft-maligned art form.

"We were drawn to put art in places where people wouldn't necessarily expect to find it," he says of his start in muralism in the '70s. "There was a counter-narrative where people in the quote art world didn't consider it fine art."

Adds Twitchell: "We were in a gallery, but the gallery was where it belonged: in the city."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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