Urban Garden / Art Out There

On Sunset Boulevard, just west of Elysian Park, amid a jumble of panaderias, botanicas, Chinese herbal healers, beauty salons, check-cashing places and dentists, where all signs point toward Dodger Stadium, the Sunset Art Park is at once startling and mysterious. It's impossible to drive by this sunbaked strip and not ask what those huge, brightly colored acrylic paintings and large-scale metal sculptures are doing there. Lacking a ceiling and a facade, this sudden opening looks like a gallery unhinged from its moorings. Which is exactly what it is.

The park is the most flamboyantly public extension of Jovenes' Inc.'s long-running art program for homeless and at-risk youths. On a recent Sunday, the nonprofit group invited artists and participants for pizza and soda and to linger in the afternoon sun. "We started working on this project two years ago," says Ernesto Montano, Jovenes' art director and designer of the art park, which opened in June. "We decided to use a space that no one used to give some sense that art is the spirit of the community."

Dressed in a neat red shirt and blue jeans, the 36-year-old Montano pauses at a wrought-iron sculpture of a figure with an ominous bone in its chest cavity, titled "Heartbone." Nearby an immense but delicate metal rose, long-stemmed with three thorns, curls into itself. Both pieces are the work of professional artists. High above, hanging on whitewashed walls, are three acrylic paintings that evoke comic book superheroes. On the adjoining wall is a painting of young immigrants holding the flags of their native countries and their new home. These were created by students from various art programs throughout the city. By mixing the work of professionals and amateurs, Jovenes hopes to raise questions about art and society, says its 53-year-old director, Father Richard Estrada: Who makes it? Who responds to it? What does it mean? "I was always taught that to be an artist you have to stay within the lines," he says, "but it turns out it's just the opposite."

Not that long ago, Estrada explains, the park was an abandoned construction site, strewn with garbage and drug paraphernalia. The Working People's Law Center had planned to build new offices there, but the project soured. The center's founder, Art Goldberg, was delighted with Jovenes' plan to reclaim his lot. "I was thrilled--I'm an art patron," says Goldberg, who continues to pay the taxes and other expenses incurred by the park.

Watching the visitors, spinning ideas for more art shows, concerts and community events, Estrada surveys his handiwork. "This is really urban development," he says. "It's all about bringing life into the dead bones of this society. Don't you think there are a lot of dead bones around here?"

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