Every work day, nearly a quarter of a million people pass Lita Albuquerque. With a nose the size of Jimmy Durante's entire body and stray gray hairs visible from 50 feet away, she is hard to miss, magnified to gigantic, microscopic dimension there on the Harbor Freeway's 7th Street underpass.
Albuquerque's face, which is nearly two stories tall, was painted for the Olympic Arts Festival's freeway mural project by celebrated Southern California muralist Kent Twitchell; it has since become one of the most famous murals in the world, reproduced internationally in newspapers and magazines, broadcast on television programs everywhere--and, of course, seen by just about everyone who drives through downtown L.A.
It has been a strange and glorious experience for Albuquerque, and for dozens of others who have been the subject of Twitchell murals so realistic you could swear they're Gargantuan photographs fused on walls.
"The first time I saw it, I almost had a car accident," Albuquerque recalled. "I had no idea it was going to be that visible. A lot of my friends almost had accidents, too, when they saw it. When I agreed to do it, I was under the impression it was going to be on a dark tunnel somewhere that nobody would see it."
Albuquerque, an environmental sculptor, said that when the mural first went up "I felt like I looked 115 years old."
"But the older I get, the better I look in that picture," she continued, adding that she now gets a great kick out of passing herself twice daily on her commute from the Westside to her studio in downtown Los Angeles.
But she doesn't always pass by with pleasant expectations. On days when she's been feeling particularly vulnerable, Albuquerque admitted, she'll find herself driving by fearing that her face has been been ravaged by vandals and thinking "I hope they didn't do it today."
So far, she's been protected. And in general, Albuquerque's found the experience of her image being exposed to public scrutiny and potential attack almost without a downside. "I'm a celebrity at my local lunch restaurant," she laughed. "Some people look at me and put their hands up near their cheeks, the way they are in the mural. Kent is an incredible painter."
For Jim Morphesis, the artist whose face is painted on the freeway underpass opposite Albuquerque's in roughly the same, playful palms-by-cheeks position so it looks as if the two are engaged in their own dialogue, being a mural subject has been a markedly different experience.
"It was really flattering initially. There was a feeling of excitement but then a feeling of embarrassment. For that reason, I rarely drive by it," Morphesis said, referring to the fact that the mural of his face and hands was defaced with graffiti and then scarred by someone using an instrument that knocked whole chunks of concrete out. (Of the Olympics freeway murals, the Morphesis half of Twitchell's "Seventh Street Altar Piece" was the most accessible to vandals, being stationed at a former freeway bus stop near a stairway from 7th Street. The work is currently being repaired.)
"You do take it (the attack) personally," Morphesis volunteered. "It's a little embarrassing because my ego's involved. I have to remember it's not my face, it's my image and it's Kent's painting. You do take it personally, especially since Kent is so personal about who he chooses for his subjects. He really sees himself as a folk artist who's painting contemporary icons. He sees artists as very spiritual people."
Pigeons Just Too Much
Through the ordeal of being a mutilated icon, Morphesis has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humor. He observed that when Twitchell first began the work, "there was a pigeon problem over that wall that made me a little nervous, so Kent worked out a protective screen. Pigeons would have been entirely too much. Someone could vandalize it, but pigeons? "
Not all of Twitchell's subjects have to worry about their personal image. Several of his models have been asked to pose not as themselves but as Jesus or assorted members of the Holy Trinity.
For instance, both Jesus Reyes, a welder, and Billy Gray, the actor best known for his role as Bud in the TV series "Father Knows Best," have been depicted as Jesus on Los Angeles walls; Reyes on a liquor store in South Central L.A. finished last year and Gray 40 feet tall in "The Holy Trinity" completed in 1977 on a wall of the Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design.
Reyes, whose family calls him Jesus but whose friends often call him Jesse, was chosen by Twitchell before the artist even knew that both his subject and his model shared the same name. In comparison to "The Seventh Street Altar Piece," "Christ at the Liquor Store" has been seen by relatively few people. It can best be viewed from the parking lot of the Tiger Liquor store at 111th Street and Vermont Avenue, a couple of blocks from Reyes' home.
What happens to your life when you suddenly find yourself looking like the neighborhood Messiah?
"It's an honor to have your face serve others. My family feels so proud of me," Reyes said. "I feel like God's blessing me more and more. I have more friends now, I think. But I don't feel like a star."
Either because graffiti artists are afraid to embellish a picture of Jesus Christ or because Twitchell ingeniously enlisted gang members to help him paint, "Christ at the Liquor Store" has remained free of gang markings--despite the fact that the wall was formerly covered with them. But gang participation in creating the mural was not enough to deter a motorist from ramming a car into the torso of Christ, leaving a gash in the painting.
"I felt personally hurt when it happened," Reyes remembered. "I wanted to kill whoever did it."
To Billy Gray's knowledge, his portrait as Jesus at Otis/Parsons has not been defaced--at least not in this country. The mural is perhaps more famous in France than it is here because it was used in advertisements for French menswear.
"I did have a bit of a twinge about being portrayed as Christ since I was raised a Catholic and have argued with people about how much damage Catholicism has done to the world, but being in the mural is really kind of uplifting. I can't blame Christianity on Christ," Gray said, pointing out that in the painting he is only the top half of Christ; another model was used for the lower portions.
With the "Gary Lloyd Monument," on the wall of City Seafood Co. at 531 S. Towne Ave. in downtown Los Angeles, there was no need and little possibility for body part substitution; the mural, finished in 1983, is an extremely tight view of Lloyd's face.
A conceptual and performance artist who works in media ranging from satellite transmissions to traditional painting, Lloyd met Twitchell in 1971 when Twitchell enrolled in a lettering class that Lloyd turned into an art class at Cal State L.A. In one assignment he asked the group to "do something 30 by 40."
Most of the class thought he meant 30 by 40 inches, he said, but he meant 30 by 40 feet. Twitchell went out and painted the face of character actor Strother Martin on the side of a Hollywood antique store. Thus was born the second Kent Twitchell mural, the first having been the face of Steve McQueen painted on a friend's house in 1971. Lloyd served as technical adviser on several of Twitchell's early murals.
"All I did was validate his ability," Lloyd recalled. "Kent is now recognized as a pioneer in public portraiture." An artist who considers himself a regionalist, Twitchell has painted 18 outdoor murals in Southern California and one in Northern California.
In a way, Twitchell's "Gary Lloyd Monument" returned the validation his teacher once provided him. Not only does Lloyd feel his stature among his peers has been enhanced since the monument was installed, he's noticed that his girlfriend, artist Karen Kristin, will take her relatives to see the huge public portrait of him. Suddenly, Lloyd said, "this bizarre, low-key celebrityhood" instills new respect, a feeling that replaces the "well, you're an artist but you're not a real full, member of society" attitude.
'Old Woman of the Freeway'
Lillian Bronson, the actress who posed for Twitchell's "Old Woman of the Freeway" mural that can be seen from the northbound Hollywood Freeway, experienced a similar reaction when her face appeared there in 1974. "It's just consistently a very great recognition of a tough old woman who can still perform, somebody who can really hang in there," she offered. "To have young people so interested in that old woman delights me. Several times, I've had great, big strapping young men stop me in the street and say, 'Hey, are you the old woman of the freeway?' "
Artist Ed Ruscha, whose six-story standing portrait at 1031 S. Hill St., is recognizable but still in progress, has found just the opposite reaction. The name Ruscha is well known in the art world and beyond, but Ruscha indicated that no one he's met on the street has recognized him from Twitchell's painting.
In any case, Ruscha feels honored to be a subject. "I have a running acquaintance with that wall," he said. "I look up and feel like there's someone I can talk to."
For some mural subjects, the result is that viewers, too, sometimes want to talk with the objects of their perceptions. Ceramicist Paul Czirban, a long-term friend and neighbor of Twitchell's, found that after he appeared in a 1979 Torrance Education Department building mural called "Six L.A. Artists," women were making inquiries as to how to reach him.
"When Kent was painting, they'd say to him, 'Is he really built like that?"' Czirban remembered.
(In the mural, Czirban was featured wearing a sleeveless shirt that revealed a taut, muscular body and what Czirban called a "fixing the prey" look in the eyes.)
"Kent told me that one of the women who worked there would watch for a long time and finally she said to him, 'Do you know this man?' And he said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'You mean you know his phone number?' "
To make things easier, Twitchell suggested that Czirban simply leave a bunch of his cards on the ground in front of the portrait printed with the words, "For more information, call . . . " And to this day, Twitchell laughs that when his neighbor threatens to get out of line, all he has to do is remind him, "Straighten up, Paul, or I'll go down there and take a couple of inches off your biceps."