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L.A. in the Round

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just west of where Little Armenia meets Thai Town and just east of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, in the newly restored splendor of the Tswuun-Tswuun Pavilion, former home of the Chu Chu Chinese Restaurant, 24-year-old artist Sara Velas welcomes visitors “from all nations around the world” to the Velaslavasay Panorama in Hollywood--"a truly landscopic experience.”

In February, with the help of a carnival barker, an organ grinder and a Romanian psychic with two fortunetelling cats, Velas unveiled “The Valley of the Smokes,” Los Angeles’ only hand-painted “panorama rotunda.” Conceived, constructed and painted by Velas, the work is a time machine twice over--the painting depicts what Velas imagines the Los Angeles basin might have looked like 150 years ago and its setting is a re-creation of precinematic virtual reality: 360-degree renditions of faraway places and famous events that flourished in the 19th century.

Velas had harbored dreams of resurrecting the panorama rotunda since researching its history for a project at Washington University in St. Louis. Returning home to Los Angeles after receiving her BFA in painting, she stumbled on the empty circular structure on an overgrown lot on Hollywood Boulevard, and dream met reality.

“I was just driving by and looked to my left and the building just happened to be there. Thunder sounded and there was this huge ray of light. That’s what it felt like,” says Velas, a petite woman with large, serious brown eyes and an obvious delight in what she has created. “What better place to have an attraction! Cinema and film made the city prosper, yet cinema itself did the panorama in.”

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Velas hunted down the property’s owner and enlisted the aid of friends and family, who spent 10 months renovating the building while she plotted her 70-foot-long painting. Her uncle, David Velas, a finish carpenter, assisted Sara in building a circular chamber inside the pavilion, creating a recessed frame to hide the painting’s edges as it wraps around the circumference of the room.

Velas’ father, Joseph Velas, an expert in miniature lighting components, hid strings of Christmas lights and tiny flood lamps in a soffit above the painting so that the only illumination in the black room is reflected off the painting’s surface.

“The lighting is just as much a part of the experience as the painting itself,” says Velas, “almost like you’re looking out the window. It helps with the suspension of disbelief, like, ‘Oh, I’m really there.’ ”

Visitors walk clockwise around a narrow corridor that’s swathed in orange satin valances and dimly lit by yellow Victorian sconces to enter the cool, low-ceilinged space housing “The Valley of the Smokes.” Using the Native American name for the Los Angeles basin and drawing on the earliest photographs she could find at the Los Angeles Central Library, Velas painted an exotic landscape of arid mountains and green valleys with wisps of smoke rising from barren terrain. Only the muffled sounds of traffic from Hollywood Boulevard remind the visitor of what has replaced the serenity depicted in the painting.

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The experience is so transporting that it is easy to understand how 19th century audiences throughout Europe and the U.S., hungry for a glimpse of the exotic, would have flocked to panorama rotundas displaying vistas of Cairo and Florence and legendary battles of Waterloo and Gettysburg.

In the tradition of those attractions, Velas will have to be a businesswoman as well as an artist to keep the Velaslavasay Panorama open. Although she has embarked on a grant-writing campaign and is contemplating nonprofit status for the panorama, for now most of the funds have come from the $2 suggested admission and a few donors--actress Diane Keaton, among them.

“Making sure that this building [continues to] exist is just as much a part of our mission” as the annual unveiling of a new panorama, Velas says. She says she hopes to present a new panorama in 2002 that will “incorporate the faux-terrain tradition of putting three-dimensional material in front of the painting so it becomes more like a stage set.” She’d also like to stage an exhibition of magic lantern slides, whose projected narratives were precursors of early cinema.

Chris Nichols, former chair and active member of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, has embraced Velas’ cause. “It’d be really great,” he says, “if the future of Hollywood Boulevard would be mom-and-pop businesses and the arts rather than [depending] on Starbucks.” Nicholas and Velas have mingled their two causes, with Nicholas helping Velas salvage landscaping from an Armet & Davis-designed Polynesian apartment complex slated for demolition. The landscaping will enhance the panorama’s own remnants of a tiki garden planted in the days when the pagoda-like building was known as the Tswuun-Tswuun Pavilion and was home to a South Seas-themed ice cream parlor.

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Another supporter is David Wilson, founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where Velas did a summer internship. “It’s all done on a wing and a prayer, but with sophistication and beauty. It’s very populist-based,” Wilson says. “We never talked about this directly, but it feels very much like the whole point of it is to provide an unexpected inspirational experience. Had it gone into some little corner of Bergamot Station, it would be a very different project.”

In fact, Velas admits she has very little to do with the Los Angeles art world at this point in her career. Her inspiration comes from Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church and 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich rather than from more theory-bound contemporary art. The few recent works she lists as inspirations are the blurry photo-based paintings of Gerhard Richter, the “long, skinny” landscapes of Ed Ruscha and the depopulated movie palaces of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, which share her romantic turn on realism.

When asked about where the Velaslavasay name comes from, Velas hedges a little, as if reluctant to unmask some of the mystery of her endeavor. “Maybe,” she offers, “it’s kind of an older name that incorporates something of the founders of the panorama.”

But isn’t it just a version of her family name? She won’t say. Some things are better left to illusion.

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* The Velaslavasay Panorama, 5553 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Fridays-Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Donation. Information: (323) 464-4108.


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