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HIGHLAND PARK : Recycling Vacant Site Becomes Art Form

When they arrive at La Tierra de la Culebra, a park carved out of an abandoned lot, schoolchildren hop onto a serpent’s head sculpted out of rocks and dirt and walk the 450-foot snake’s body, balancing themselves with outstretched arms.

They wind their way past olive trees, herbs, a vegetable garden, flowers and exotic plants that have found new life at the park. A small pond, which contained koi, waterlilies and papyrus and was recently destroyed by vandals, awaits repair. And an amphitheater is taking shape as youths carve out three benches from a hillside, decorating them with broken tile, shells and colorful rocks.

It has been a labor of love, frustration and inspiration for environmental sculptor Tricia Ward, who initially envisioned a six-week youth program of classes taught by local artists after last year’s riots.

Twenty months later, Ward and other members of ARTScorpLA, a nonprofit arts and education organization, continue their efforts to show about 25 youths a day how something can be made of nothing and how art affects their environment. They have worked with donations from the community and a $10,000 grant from the Los Angeles Conservation Corps for the plants.

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“We come here to work,” said Yolanda Escobar, 11, who visits weekday afternoons with her friends. “We work on the culebra, on the plants and doing other things.”

Martha Lugo, 12, said that if it weren’t for the park activities, she would probably be home, bored in front of the TV.

Others say the park gives them a safe place to kick back with friends, and work with plants. Corn was planted at the tail of the serpent, because according to Shoshone Indian beliefs, the tail, which pushes the head of the snake, contains wisdom, and wisdom feeds knowledge.

And some youths enjoy an opportunity to express themselves artistically.

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Sal Oseguera, 17, and his friend Erick Barraza, 18, painted a likeness of the late Jim Morrison, their musical idol, on the north side of a toolshed at the top of the terrace. “When we have problems we just come here,” said Oseguera.

The park is also used for community events. On Saturday, the park will celebrate the winter solstice from sunrise to sunset, with free workshops on art and music.

The two-acre lot at 240 S. Avenue 57 once contained five houses which were demolished by developer Willard Michlin, who wanted to build a 30-unit condominium complex. But when neighbors protested and the economy soured, Michlin had the lot--trees, houses, trash and all--covered with a dirt mound that sloped in a 45-degree angle from back to front about two years before Ward came along.

“When we arrived, every piece of greenery had been obliterated,” Ward said. “They tore down trees that were 100 years old and an oak tree that was 150 years old. Amazingly, we were able to unearth some of the stumps and brought them back to life. “

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Michlin, who agreed to let Ward use the land for the neighborhood park, said he has no plans for the land, at least for three or four more years. “If it keeps the kids off the street and doing something constructive, it’s valuable,” he said.

Information: (213) 259-2423.

--MARY ANNE PEREZ


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