Life among the saints


Back at the turn of the century, in days before we relied on MapQuest, painter J. Michael Walker was thumbing through his faithful Thomas Guide, looking for something elusive -- a particular street that started with S.

His eyes fell on a column of street names that began with “Saint,” “San,” “Santa” or “Santo” and he had an epiphany: He’d happened upon “all the saints of the City of the Angels.” That moment launched him on what he calls a “metaphorical road trip,” searching for the “soul of the city” and documenting it in art.

A $6,500 city grant in 2000 (which commissioned bus shelter paintings) got him started, but it would take eight years and more than 100 paintings for Walker to meet his goal -- to visit those “saints,” see how past and present intersect within the city’s busy grid, and to reflect how often contemporary life on the street somehow reflects, or seems to comment on, the story or quest of its namesake saint.


The fruits of Walker’s work will be on display starting Friday at the Autry National Center Museum of the American West and in a book, “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” (published by Heyday). Although much of the work is a mediation on L.A.’s past, the ghosts that pass over this land, Walker talks about some of the sites he visited where the present and past meet seamlessly.


-- Lynell George

San Julian Street

The saint: After a tragic set of circumstances, Julian had wandered the earth “in tatters,” Walker says, and ultimately “set up a hovel to serve other travelers.”

The place: The southeast end of San Julian Street has “come to describe the physical and existential heart of skid row,” Walker writes. Peopled with wanderers, clinics and drop-in centers, today it’s filled with what he sees as modern-day San Julians. With permission from LAMP, one of the area’s clinics, Walker photographed some of its homeless clients, weaving them into the tapestry of San Julian’s travails.

St. Albans Street, Highland Park

The saint: Albans, a Roman soldier, is “famous for being the first martyr who died for his faith,” Walker says, and it’s said that as Albans walked up a hill, roses appeared in his path.

The place: Here, Walker was struck by the blooming rose bushes. But the most compelling image was a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone line. “Urban legend is full of stories about what that symbolizes,” Walker says: Gang territory, drugs sold here, the site of a fallen soldier.

San Remo Drive, Pacific Palisades

The saint: Describing Romulus (Remo in Spanish) as the most anonymous and unknowable of saints, Walker depicted him with eyes obscured by sunglasses.


The place: Gated communities in Sylmar and Tarzana also carry his name. “He was one of the most ascetic saints,” Walker says, “so the irony is that his name ends up being associated with the materialistic [Westside].”

San Onofre Drive, Pacific Palisades

The saint: Onuphrius was “an ascetic who started out in a monastery with other monks who had taken a vow of silence. But even there,” says Walker, “there was too much noise.” So he retreated to the desert.

The place: San Onofre “was by far the noisiest street I visited, with McMansions built all the way out to the curb. Some tribute to an ascetic who was seeking peace.”