I never thought Los Angeles needed an avatar, since so many Angelenos have created new identities for themselves already. But last week, by accident, I wound up in the company of two fine L.A. archetypes, both downtown.
Seeing them on the same day persuaded me that they're two of my favorite pieces of public art in Los Angeles. Both were made in the last 20 years and both were designed to give this sprawling, many-tongued city a universal female image who transcends ethnicity. If you have an hour free in downtown Los Angeles, you can walk between them (or take a one-stop ride on the Red Line) to pay respects. And they're free to see.
At Union Station Los Angeles, it’s the big mural by Richard Wyatt over the east portal, titled "City of Dreams/River of History." The painting, which went up in 1996, is 80-feet wide and full of memorable faces and multiple cultures, but the star is the girl in the middle, who wears a turquoise blouse.
She might be Latina or she might not, but you can tell she's got spirit and brains and she's going to do a better job taking care of this place than we have. Also, she's looking especially bright these days because Metro workers did a big maintenance job on the mural earlier this year — a job that included pigeon-dropping removal.
Anyway, even though she's just a girl, I think of her as Our Lady of the Trains.
Meanwhile, just a few blocks west (and across the freeway), there's the sculpture that welcomes worshipers and visitors to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Grand Avenue. Chiseled by sculptor Robert Graham for the cathedral's opening in 2002, she hovers above the tall, bronze entrance doors, her golden tone backed by a semicircle that creates a halo of blue sky.
I couldn't guess her age exactly and I definitely couldn't guess her heritage, which is what the artist intended. As the church's website notes, her long hair "summons thoughts of Native American or Latina women," but her eyes, lips and nose "convey Asian, African and Caucasian features." She's got no jewels, no crown, no veil, no sleeves, but confidence and dignity to spare. (The edge of the halo behind her, however, could use a new coat of paint.)
No doubt there are many other public-art personifications of Los Angeles out there, but I'm not sure they could beat either of these two. I suppose I like Our Lady of the Trains a little bit more than Our Lady of the Angels, but I'm fickle. A coat of paint could change that. And a city like this needs all the heroines it can find.