True Colors


Paradise is showing up in the strangest places these days.

In the shadows of the 4th Street Bridge within the warehouse sector of Boyle Heights, an avant-garde artist has created a model of what he hopes will be an environment of tranquillity, inspiration and contemplation.

Artist Norman Zammitt recently finished his prototype vision of "Elysium," the mythical Greek resting place of virtuous people after death.

Painted along one 30-foot-long wall of his Boyle Heights studio, Zammitt's "Elysium" is a rainbow of horizontal colors graduating from an intense magenta through shades of fiery oranges and yellows to more than a dozen hues of blue. The colors, illuminated by ultraviolet lighting, seem to radiate from the wall.

Zammitt's aim is to create a room for quiet reflection at a university, museum or other public spot by painting all four walls in a similar way.

"I knew there was no way for me to verbalize this concept to anyone, so I decided to do one wall and show people," said Zammitt, whose works have been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Library of Congress and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Because Zammitt did not have the space in his studio to paint "Elysium" in its entirety, one must imagine the intensity of being surrounded on all sides by the blaze of color. But even his one wall has impressed those who have seen it.

Last week, the lone "Elysium" wall was showcased as a backdrop for a dance performance by choreographer Despina Tsiknas.

"It was magnificent to dance in front of the wall," said Tsiknas, who earlier this year combined classical and modern dance for a command performance before the Moroccan government in Rabat. "There was a power coming from the wall that helped me get through the presentation last week. I felt like I was in front of a pristine, unrestricted view of a sunset."

Among those attending the performance were retired federal Judge William Lasarow and his wife, Marilyn. "I know the 'Elysium' concept has been a desire of Norman's for many years," said Lasarow, who has works by Zammitt in his private art collection. Others who have collected Zammitt's works include producer Norman Lear, billionaire John Kluge, the late author Truman Capote and the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

"I think if he could get four walls at a university or some public space to exhibit his Elysium, it would be just tremendous," said Lasarow.

Marilyn Lasarow said Zammitt was her art teacher in the early 1960s, shortly after he graduated from the Otis School of Art near MacArthur Park. "Elysium is such an exciting idea because Zammitt is the only artist I've ever seen who can get such a tremendous release of color," she said.

"I think the idea of it being a space, a surrounded environment, would be an incredible experience. At a university, it could be one of the best educations a student could get because the total immersion would put one truly alone with one's self. It would be such a great place to think."

Although Zammitt calls the work "Elysium," he said this is not his idea of heaven.

"Some people who see it say that it reminds them of paradise, that they are among the clouds," he said, adding that others who see it feel they are standing within the scorching reds of the mural, more as if they were in hell, looking up to heaven. "I like the dual ambiguity," he said.

David Arzouman, an award-winning composer who traces his creative beginnings to the late 1970s when he worked with Zammitt in his Pasadena studio, said he was deeply moved by the power of "Elysium."

"[Zammitt] inspired me to learn about the whole creative process of art," said Arzouman. "He had a single-mindedness when he was working. He was like a hunter going out on a lion hunt."

With his sample wall complete, Zammitt is searching for the public forum to show it off more widely. He said he will begin the hunt by contacting local universities.

"It's too bad he hasn't had more commercial success," said Lasarow. "But Zammitt has an uncompromising integrity that is so refreshing, and that's far more important to him."

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