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A self-described recluse finds a connection to neighbors with her sidewalk art gallery

Olivia Arthur, a sound mixer who started painting three years ago, hangs her work outside her Highland Park home and  on a fence on the other side of the street.
Olivia Arthur, a sound mixer who started painting three years ago, hangs her work outside her Highland Park home and on a fence on the other side of the street.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

On a cloudy April afternoon, more than 30 paintings hang on the fences on opposite sides of a street in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. People in masks, out on their daily mental-health walks with their dogs, stop to look at the makeshift gallery of abstract art, while bicyclists and roller bladers slow down just enough to take it all in.

The woman behind the works is Olivia Arthur, who it turns out started staying home long before the government-mandated quarantine. The third-generation Angeleno is a self-described recluse, who for the last three years — after her beloved Chihuahua, Bernice, went missing — made a conscious decision to hunker down in her home, make art and avoid people.

Arthur is a sound mixer by profession with credits that include “Temptation Island,” “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood” and “Bad Girls Club.” But she also has been making paintings — layered bursts of color and texture — and dabbling in sculpture.

As her newfound passion grew, works began spilling out into her front and side yards and onto her fence and a nearby telephone pole. She occasionally has hung small paintings up and down Avenue 52 for people to gander while they sat in traffic, trying to get on or off the 110 Freeway.

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Arthur announced “art for social distancing — a drive by gallery for neighbors” on her social networks, and the responses rolled in.
Olivia Arthur announced “art for social distancing — a drive-by gallery for neighbors” on her social networks, and the responses rolled in.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

On her street she’s known as the eccentric art lady — a reputation she doesn’t quite mind.

But with the threat of coronavirus forcing L.A. residents to shelter in place, and with galleries and museums closed to the public, something has changed, Arthur said. She has begun exhibiting work less for her own enjoyment and more for that of her neighbors. And neighbors are connecting with her work in a way they didn’t before.

Arthur said she noticed a look of worry in people’s eyes as the lockdown set in and thought her art might bring solace, comfort or a much-needed diversion, perhaps. She isn’t big on social media, but she decided to post about her “art for social distancing — a drive-by gallery for neighbors” on Instagram, Facebook, Nextdoor and her website. She chose paintings to exhibit on her own fence and the one directly across the street, where her neighbor granted permission.

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“The thing is, I don’t want to promote people leaving their house,” Arthur said, “but I know people are walking around anyway.”

On a recent afternoon, Arthur had more than 30 paintings for passing walkers and drivers to see.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Brenda Perez lives just around the corner from Arthur’s pop-up gallery, on the same block she grew up on. She is founder of Restorative Justice for the Arts, which fights to preserve the cultural identity of L.A. communities by protecting murals and public artworks, including ones in Highland Park.

Perez’s work isn’t connected to Arthur’s, but as a neighbor and advocate of art, Perez saw value in the gallery — especially now.

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“I think it’s great,” Perez said. “I think we should have more of that if people are going to be staying home and it’s a little bit crazy-making, especially because of this sudden paradigm shift. ... It’s the importance of how art can bring us together.”

After Arthur announced her gallery, responses flooded in. She met neighbors from a distance with whom she otherwise may have not connected. One woman reached out on social media, saying she wanted to drive by with her 93-year-old mother. People have inquired about buying pieces, but Arthur said that’s not the point — especially now, when less than half of L.A. County residents still have jobs amid the pandemic.

“People might actually see things now where they wouldn’t before,” she said.

An L.A. Times survey of Los Angeles art galleries on a slimmed-down post-pandemic future. Some are banding together to weather the storm.

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She’s still working out some kinks. Sometimes she leaves the paintings — a combination of acrylic, plaster and sometimes cement on homemade panels — out overnight, and once a piece was stolen (“but that’s fine with me,” Arthur said with a laugh). She’s still trying to learn the most efficient way to install works on the fence so they don’t fall or bend with the wind, and she’s been assessing which combination of paintings seem to engage people the most.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do and how to do it better,” Arthur said. “I could help people now where I feel like I couldn’t before.”

Arthur said she has come out of her shell in a way that she didn’t feel comfortable doing after her dog went missing, she shut out the world and found consolation in art.

“I feel more connected to people,” she said.

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