Quirky, bohemian Venice may seem an unlikely venue for a memorial to the POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War, but there it is.
The massive mural, filling a block-long brick wall of an RTD bus yard, is the work of Vietnam veteran and artist Peter Stewart.
Against a black background reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the mural presents the names of 2,273 soldiers still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. At the center are the words, "You Are Not Forgotten" and a painting depicting five soldiers from America's 20th-Century conflicts, including a woman from the Gulf War.
Dedicated late last month, the mural is the first such work nationwide to pay tribute solely to POWs and MIAs, Stewart said. Since its completion, the wall has gotten people looking, talking and even crying.
"It's a moving experience, because it's in black-and-white," said Albro Lundy III, son of Maj. Albro Lundy Jr., an Air Force pilot reported missing in 1970 during a mission over Laos.
'It's concrete, solid evidence that . . . he is there and he's part of that group of 2,273 men that are still there," Lundy, 32, said, referring to his father. "What (the wall) means is that there was a man, Peter Stewart, who cares enough about my dad and these other guys to do that for us.
"That's just pure love," added Lundy, a Beverly Hills lawyer. "It's one small step in a major fight against the United States government to bring the men home."
The U.S. government has listed the elder Lundy as killed in action. His body has never been recovered, however, and family members say they believe he is alive--a belief that was bolstered last summer after a photo, commonly known as "The Three Men" or the Robertson-Lundy-Stevens photo, was widely published around the world. It showed three men whom family members have identified as Lundy and two other American officers, Maj. John L. Robertson and Lt. Cmdr. Larry J. Stevens, who were imprisoned or missing in action from the Vietnam War.
The Defense Department has dismissed the photo as fraudulent, but its release rekindled doubts and hopes of family members and brought a new round of attention to the long-simmering debate over the fate of the POWs and MIAs still unaccounted for.
Last month, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), head of a special Senate committee, disputed almost two decades of Administration claims that all Vietnam War POWs had been accounted for when Washington and Hanoi signed a cease-fire accord in 1973.
Stewart said he was inspired to tackle the mural after attending last year's welcome home parade for Desert Storm veterans in Hollywood and seeing a float carrying former prisoners of war.
"I wanted to raise people's awareness that there are still MIAs and POWs unaccounted for," said Stewart, a Navy veteran whose Vietnam tour of duty was spent working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
Already it has brought forth responses from the community and from families of POWs. Neighbors have thrown in their support by chasing off would-be vandals intent on defacing the wall.
"When I was painting, people were honking their horns and doing a thumbs-up motion," said Stewart, 36, who recently moved from Venice to Reseda. "The more names I put on the wall, the more emotions I got from people," he said. On one occasion, a man pointed to his brother's name.
The mural is the first politically oriented work for Stewart, a self-taught artist who "flunked every art class" but has created murals and painted walls at a variety of sites across the country, including Gold's Gym in Venice.
Stewart undertook the project in part to raise money for the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation, a support organization for all American veterans and their families. Thus, the group's phone number, (800) 366-8823, is listed on the wall. And the work, which ran up a bill of between $12,000 and $15,000, was supported by private donations of funds and materials. Stewart donated his time as well.
Those who live near the wall seem, for the most part, to be taking it in good stride.
"It's great--I actually helped work on it," said Brian Snoddy, 23, owner of a laser printer maintenance and repair service who offered to pitch in after watching Stewart at work across the street.
But neighbor Jonas Thaler, 38, was annoyed. "It doesn't show much respect for the current state of graphic arts," said Thaler, a filmmaker. It's offensive and ugly and politically inconsistent and oversized."