As an artist who sees urban beauty where others fail to look--and loads of interesting history in a city that is often said to have none--Sheila Klein is currently having a love affair with Los Angeles’ street lights. “I think street lights are romantic,” she declared recently to a Bureau of Street Lighting employee, who stared at her incredulously.
But if Klein hasn’t made her case on the romance thing, she has won support for an ambitious art project from people who install and maintain the City of Los Angeles’ 220,000 street lights. Called “Vermonica” after its location in a shopping center parking lot at Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, the artwork consists of 25 street lights of various styles and vintages. Rather like a giant candelabrum, installed on a grassy strip leading to the Hollytron audio-video equipment store, Klein’s artwork will be turned on with the parking lot lights every night for a year.
“Two years ago, I decided to do something with street lights because they have such a wonderful sculptural presence in the city and they are overlooked,” said Klein, whose past projects include urban “jewelry” such as a massive ring of traffic lights installed last summer at Union Station.
“I had imagined a more heroic, monumental installation of street lights that could be seen from a greater distance, possibly on Mulholland Drive or in Baldwin Hills,” she said. “And I didn’t begin with a big community-based project in mind. I just wanted to raise awareness of street lights.”
But the artwork that has evolved is the result of an enormous community effort, including a $6,000 grant from the city’s Cultural Affairs Department; a gift of $3,000 from Hollytron shopping center owners Victor La Cagnina and Larry Field; donations of various services and materials from merchants and--most importantly--the loan of street lights from the Board of Public Works and volunteer labor from the Bureau of Street Lighting. “This is a $200,000 project, but I did it for $9,000,” Klein said, acknowledging her indebtedness to all who helped make it happen.
Dealing with the complexities of government bureaucracy, city property and private enterprise hasn’t been easy, but the project is a success because “it captured the imaginations of a lot of people,” Klein said. Brochures on the project are available at Hollytron and the Cahuenga Branch Library, both in the shopping center.
A self-taught, 41-year-old artist who prides herself on operating “out of the loop” of the art world’s Establishment, Klein grew up in Pittsburgh, spent a dozen years in Seattle and moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. She has taught courses in environmental art at Otis School of Art and Design and worked with A2Z, an artists and architects cooperative, while launching herself as an artist in the public realm.
Her first move in realizing “Vermonica” was to contact officials at the Bureau of Street Lighting who were “wary but willing” to help, she said. Then she applied for--and eventually received--a grant from the Cultural Affairs Department. Among her next stops was the Board of Public Works, which approved a yearlong loan of lights.
When her ideas for locations turned out to be too complicated or the sites lay outside the city’s jurisdiction, she consulted Earl Sherburn, Cultural Affairs’ community arts director, who suggested the Hollytron shopping center because its street-side buildings had burned during the riots that followed the state verdicts of the Rodney G. King police beating case.
Klein liked the idea of building on the site of destruction, as well as the site’s proximity to the Bureau of Street Lighting’s office and storage yard, so she called the owners of Hollytron center and got an enthusiastic response.
Then came the biggest challenge--finding volunteer labor for the specialized task of moving and installing the lights. “I had to go to a meeting at the Bureau of Street Lighting to see if some of the crews would donate time,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh sure, these guys are going to volunteer to work with some artist who wants to do something with street lights.’ But when I finished explaining what I wanted to do and asked what they thought, someone yelled, ‘Vermonica,’ and 27 people signed up. I couldn’t believe it. They worked four weekend days, some of them for eight or 10 hours a day, and some of them had to drive in from a long distance. They were great.”
The volunteers labored far beyond the call of duty, but the project was rewarding for people who generally labor in obscurity, according to bureau superintendent Frank Sandoval. “This is something rising from the ashes, a new beginning,” he said.
The 25 lights Klein selected for “Vermonica” are emblematic of the 250 styles of lights currently used in Los Angeles, she said. Bearing names of the companies that made them--General Electric, Lalux, Monax--or for the streets and neighborhoods they serve, they compose a strikingly varied candelabrum. Topped by one, two or three bulbs, and ranging in style from streamlined contemporary numbers, dubbed “cobra heads,” to ornate designs produced several decades ago, they provide a historical sampling of lights installed in Los Angeles since 1925, when the bureau was established.
“Vermonica” will only remain in place for a year because the new poles and fixtures are part of the bureau’s inventory and the old ones provide back-up for damaged lights that need to be replaced.