Murals With a Message for Society : Painter Captures the Spirit Behind Struggle in Compton

Times Staff Writer

When artist Elliott Pinkney of Compton says, “Art is all around us,” he is speaking philosophically.

“It might be in the form of a fine car or a beautiful watch, a fancy suit. It’s still a piece of art,” he said recently, explaining that he believes art is more than paintings hanging on museum walls.

When Pinkney says art is “all around” Compton, though, he is probably speaking literally about his work. For years, his murals have adorned walls throughout the city.


On freeway underpasses, on public buildings, inside churches and at commercial and industrial sites, Pinkney’s murals celebrate the spirit and vitality of people struggling to bring about social change.

“I suppose I was influenced by the Mexican muralists when it came to how they . . . make social statements,” Pinkney said. “They were basically where the mural art started so I spent a lot of time studying their work.”

“Medicare,” a mural Pinkney painted on a county public health clinic at Rosecrans Avenue and Alameda Street, pays homage to the struggle against sickness and pain. An oversized, white-coated figure of a health professional stands in the center of the mural, enfolding smaller portraits of ill and disabled people.

Inside the Dollarhide Neighborhood Center, “Spirits of America” features the Statue of Liberty, along with such U.S. heroes as Abraham Lincoln, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and educator Mary Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women.

Eight of Pinkney’s Compton murals were created a decade ago under a grant from the California Arts Council. Some murals that he painted on the sides of private commercial or industrial buildings have been destroyed as the city redevelops and replaces old structures with new ones.

Georgia Native

But the 54-year-old artist, a warm, soft-spoken Georgia native, may get the opportunity to put his signature on one of the city’s largest redevelopment projects, the transit center that is under construction on Willowbrook Avenue in the heart of downtown. City officials have asked him to present a proposal to the City Council for a mural to adorn the inside of the center, which is scheduled to open in 1990 when the light-rail line begins operating between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.

The transit center is named after Martin Luther King Jr., and Pinkney wants the mural to be about the life of the civil rights leader.

A few Pinkney works, like one he painted on the side of a lawn mower repair shop, are what he calls his “fun murals.” The large, round smiling face of the sun oversees a patch of whimsical flowers and a man pushing a lawn mower.

Most Pinkney murals, though, are about social and political change, with figures drawn in heroic, three-dimensional proportions. Like gospel singers who vocalize the suffering of people yearning to be free, Pinkney emphasizes the struggle, painting sober faces locked in a determination to overcome.

And every Pinkney mural is multiethnic, filled with faces of different colors. The technique, he says, is deliberate. “In the city of Compton we have black, Chicano, Samoan, some Asian, so, I try to put everybody in . . . so that people can identify . . . so people won’t come by and say this is a black mural. Well, it isn’t. It has all kinds of people in it.”

Pinkney’s populist art roots were nurtured in Brunswick, Ga., a small town on the Atlantic coast where he was born and raised. His father, a farmer, died when Pinkney was about 6. His mother did day work in homes.

Comic books, not museums, were the American institution that introduced him to art. Superman, the Green Hornet and Dick Tracy, not Picasso or Monet, inspired his creativity.

“We’d sit around on Saturdays and draw cartoons,” Pinkney said, recalling how he and his boyhood friends spent their leisure time.

After serving in the Air Force and spending time in Alaska and California, he returned to the Southland to get his art degree from Woodbury University, a fine arts and design school.

“I always say if I had it to do over again,” Pinkney said, “I would still be an artist.”

Though most people in Compton come in contact with Pinkney through his murals, he is known in Southern California art circles as a master printmaker, says John Outterbridge, a friend of Pinkney and director of the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles. He calls Pinkney’s work “poetic,” with deep spiritual undertones.

Met in Compton

Outterbridge and Pinkney met on the streets of Compton when Outterbridge was co-director of the now-defunct Communicative Arts Academy Inc., one of the pioneer arts projects that sprouted in inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other cities across the nation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Outterbridge recalls that he was collecting debris off the street for a sculpture project at the academy when Pinkney came up behind him and said, “ ‘I sure would like to help with getting this done.’

“And he went back home and came back with some slides (of art) he was working on,” Outterbridge said.

Pinkney’s serigraphs--silk-screen prints--have been shown widely in galleries and museums around the state and country, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Afro American Art, the San Bernardino County Museum last year and, most recently, in a one-man show in Macon, Ga.

He was recently commissioned by the city of Compton to produce the poster advertising its music festival in May. He also does posters for the Watts Towers Jazz Festival, a project that he undertakes for free as a contribution to the Watts Towers center, says Outterbridge.

Pinkney’s love of music inspired his lively series of serigraphs featuring faces of such jazz greats as John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. In his other musically inspired prints, abstract figures and musical notes float in space.

The Rose Avenue house that doubles as Pinkney’s studio and the home he shares with wife Louise and the youngest of their three sons, Gary, 17, is filled with prints, as well as his oil paintings and sculpture. He has also printed and published two volumes of poetry.

Explains Ideas

“Art is like . . . if you haven’t ridden a bicycle in a while and you get back on one, all the excitement returns,” he said, explaining what drives him to work with different art forms.

Pinkney’s productivity is amazing--he turns out an average of three new prints a month--given that he has worked full time for almost 23 years at Clopay Corp., a national manufacturing firm in the Dominguez area, just south of Compton. Clopay specializes in home-design products, such as window blinds. He is Clopay’s director of artistic art and printing.

The artist is now working on a catalogue and a series of flyers that he will use to promote his work through the mail. They will be sent to galleries, museums and collectors. His aim, he says, is to get relatively inexpensive art such as his serigraphs, some of which sell for as little as $50, into the hands of as many people as possible.

Though the list of galleries in which his work has been shown is extensive, he hopes his mail promotion will allow him to bypass what he calls the “ritual” of galleries, with their preview parties and preferred clientele.

“I’m really not a gallery person . . . because the only thing you will find at the galleries are big art buyers,” he said.

“Art is not just for the rich.”