Panoramic Window on Griffith Park's Past : Ceramic Artist Takes Long View

Times Staff Writer

Belying its tranquil location near a Griffith Park picnic area, a 60-foot, three-dimensional mural takes visitors back to a time when thunderous volcanoes erupted and saber-toothed tigers prowled the area.

"A Ceramic History of Griffith Park" vividly portrays plants and animals indigenous to the park and their relationship to human inhabitants throughout history.

Park officials say the idea behind the mural--on display at the Visitors Center and Ranger Station, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive--is to discourage vandalism.

"We felt that if we could teach people the heritage behind the park, they would understand and respect Griffith Park," said Elaine Katzer, a ceramic artist and former city employee who created the work.

The ceramic montage and accompanying explanations also serve as teaching aids for rangers giving tours to schoolchildren.

"The older kids appreciate all of it, but the first-, second- and third-graders mostly like looking at the animals and the Indians," Deputy Ranger Janice MacDonald said. "They ask a lot of questions."

The mural, mounted in five panels on a courtyard wall, took five months to create. Nearby, Katzer also sculpted life-size figures of several birds of prey found in the park.

Although the last panel was finished in 1986, the mural was not officially dedicated until last month because of scheduling conflicts and poor weather, Katzer said. Materials cost about $1,500, said Sheldon Jensen, assistant general manager of the city Recreation and Parks Department.

Katzer did the mural as part of her job as a graphic artist with the parks department. The job also entailed working as illustrator at the Los Angeles Zoo and Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro. Her position in the parks department was cut from the tightened city budget midway through the creation of the mural, but officials kept her on the payroll until she finished, Jensen said.

Katzer, 54, since has worked at Sun Studio Creations in San Pedro, where she creates large-scale sculptures.

In developing the mural, Katzer and volunteer Judith Hopkins, a biologist who wrote the accompanying descriptions of the panels, researched the ecology and history of the park for about 10 months. The artist created the ceramic figures from sketches she drew based on direct observation, photos, skeletons, fossils and experts' descriptions.

A quest for accuracy and detail took Katzer and Hopkins on long hikes through the park and to museums, libraries, gardens and other parks throughout Southern California.

"We had to collect the plants from all over because some of them bloom only at certain times and only for so long in Griffith," Katzer said. "Spring happens so fast here."

The mural's story of Griffith Park begins 300 million years ago with sculptures of a mesosaur, an aquatic dinosaur that swam off the coast of California. Other extinct animals portrayed include the dire wolf, imperial mammoth, dwarf antelope, American camel and a relative of the California condor.

"The kids really like that, because those animals aren't around anymore," MacDonald said.

The tale unfolds quickly, depicting more recent times. A Gabrielino Indian and her utensils symbolize the first inhabitants, while a conquistador and a depiction of the bell tower of the San Gabriel Mission mark the Spanish arrival in 1769.

"The Spanish were probably the first humans to abuse the park by introducing plants and animals that the native plants and wildlife had to compete with," Katzer said.

A costumed cowboy and fandango dancers represent the era of sprawling ranchos in California after 1833. A likeness of landowner Griffith J. Griffith marks his donation of the park to the city in 1896.

Depictions of the Hollywood sign, an observatory, riding ponies and park rangers Doc Jefferson and Lucia Ruta represent the park today.

Jefferson said the mural is an important tool in educating the public about the need to preserve the park. "Unfortunately, we still have some problems, especially with graffiti," he said.

The mural can be seen during regular park hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Jensen said the work was shown in October to guests from the National Recreation and Parks Assn. convention who "were quite impressed with it. None of their parks around the country had anything like it."

Katzer has created other public works, including ceramic murals at the Bellflower Public Library and the Chula Vista Library, a fountain at Lawry's Food Inc. in Los Angeles and a fountain at the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens in Melbourne, Australia.

But Katzer says the Griffith Park mural has special meaning for her.

"Of all the works I've ever done, this one was a real labor of love. But it was a lot of labor, let me tell you!" she said, laughing.

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