Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Community Treasure Needs More Treasure

Muralist Single-handedly Restoring Landmark
Michael Sedano

The road curves around the base of Mt Washington, its beckoning two-lane span an open stretch as far as a lone driver can see. Floor it. 

The car whips around the curve hugging the inside shoulder, the driver exults in the sound of tires gripping the asphalt. 

Orange cones ahead!

A quick swerve and that wasn’t close at all, the driver thinks, the woman in the rear view mirror quickly forgotten. 

Pola Lopez doesn’t offer a finger of farewell. The noted artist takes the speeders and the vandals with measured doses of equanimity and distress. These, too, are of the muralist’s community. This labor of love exists for them, too. Other passersby offer saludos of honks and shouted "thank you!", stopping now and again bringing tokens of appreciation, mutually felt.

The woman braved a dash across traffic to come meet Pola Lopez and her guest, Mario Guerrero.

Most days, Lopez is out there restoring David Cervantes’ time-ravaged mural of indigenous gente painted at the foot of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, a property of the Autry Museum of the American West. 

Although Pola Lopez works for the community to restore their arte, the public art covers 150' of a retaining wall belonging to the Autry.

A grant and other funding pays for the restoration. Lopez won’t say, but they’re getting a bargain. She’s among the most accomplished United States American painters, her work offers complexities of color and metaphor that leaps off the canvas at you with measures of delight, curiosity, desire, and satisfaction to have seen this.
Sedano, Anaya, Treviño, Lopez on wall

Walk into good museums or notable homes and you’ll see a striking Pola Lopez in the collection. 
For example, visitors stepping into Rudolfo Anaya’s front door are greeted by Pola Lopez' painting of a quintessential Nuevo Mexico portada. 

So while Pola Lopez would never say this, I am: community leaders have to do a lot more to support the restoration of this mural. Minimalism is OK in its place but that place is not in preserving community treasures.

Look for the Autry to unload the landmark building sitting up there on prime real estate urban L.A. tierra. This section of the Arroyo Seco has money written all over it. The view from the museum opens up to the sea. There's undeveloped acreage on those slopes dating back to when the mural's faces lived here. Across the narrow valley, more vacant land, and along the rio runs a rail line into the heart of the city or out to the boonies.

Southwest Museum of the American Indian, rechristened Southwest Museum Mt. Washington Campus (link)
234 Museum Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90065
Pola Lopez describes surface prep to Angel and Mario Guerrero.
That retaining wall down on Marmion Way is holding back the moving earth. Up the road, the slope spills over defeated wooden barriers mounding in micro-landslides lining the curbside. The Cervantes-Lopez mural guards the wall here. 

When Pola completes her tarea there's going to be magnificent and powerful medicine on this slope. And the earth will not swallow it. Healing the mural makes the community healthier for the joy people breathe in, seeing that history every time they take this road.

Painted in 2004, covered with several layers of “buff” to conceal the fading abused surface, it won’t matter if there’s a tony condominium complex on that southern slope. Indian people are the heritage of this place, the mural reminds any who speed past, or live above these faces, to remember their history.

When the grant started releasing funds they sensibly covered the mural with blue plastic tarps. A crew of paid labor drove 12” wooden stakes above and into the base of the wall. Eyelets received hooks that stretched the blue plastic tautly across the hundred foot span. A photograph offers the sole evidence of the tarps. One night, furtive hands worked hard to pull down the tarps, and in a few days all the covers disappeared, leaving only wooden stakes with silver eyelets underfoot; tripping hazards at the base of the wall.

This panel is work-in-progress and gets hours of shade to allow uninterrupted attention to the meticulous work.
Replacing the tarps without additional security is going to be pointless. There’s no secret to the disposition of the plastic sheets. Encampments along the adjacent Gold Line and nearby cement river sparkle now with brand-spanking new tarps. That mural site will be an inexhaustible supply of tents and walls at the cost of a night’s vandalism. At least the night people aren’t tagging the art, right now those walls are incredibly vulnerable.

The glowing color and emerging detail Lopez is installing into Cervantes’ work a tagger sees as a canvas to express themself. To date, taggers haven’t defaced the surface. Restoration specialists Willy Herron & Leah Moscozo only recently blasted off years of latex paint before repainting the surface with a clear overcoat. Visitors to the site can pick up slabs of the old mural that stuck to the whitewash. When Lopez’ work is complete, the two fragments I kept will be proof that the same mural can be in two places at once.
Pieces of sky. Flip over those white blots like jigsaw puzzle pieces. 

Covering the wall comes with substantial expense that isn’t in the budget. Nor are video surveillance and illumination, as if those measures prevent night visitors. Tarping and cyclone fencing, there’s the ticket. Community respect and succor for desperate souls sleeping without a roof could be mejor que no?

The grant holder, Avenue 50 Studio, has a PayPal website (link) and invites the community to contribute to the restoration project, not the tarping specifically. Maybe if Avenue 50 were flooded with money, security of the work would take on immediate priority.

The work itself calls upon Pola Lopez to become superwoman chicana artist. She works alone out of tight-fisted budgeting. I am only imagining that the absence of a paint mixing apprentice, and lack of another brush or two painting on the wall, reflect not the artist’s preference but her penury. If she wants the help, she has to hire it. Any number of voices offer to help, but to Lopez, who has mentored hundreds of young painters, this project must have seasoned, skilled hands. Artists don't ask artists to work for free.

Ironically, and astonishingly to this outside observer, knowing that Cervantes is working a day job in L.A. so he couldn't do the restoration full-time, means the wall owners and budget-makers can recruit the OG's talent to help restore his original work. And Lopez wouldn’t be working alone.

City crews could erect scaffolding for safety and efficiency. 

An umbrella would help. Lopez says her work plan calls for her to do the work west to east. The mural tracks cultural roots of indigenous gente, on the side near the Gold Line station comes Northwest natives with other native people populating subsequent panels. The location of shade encourages Pola to jump around from shady spot to shady spot. There's a harmony in letting natural light dictate where the artist paints life into Cervantes' Edenic idyll of native life. There's sensible efficiency to work the plan left to right.

Highland Park is fortunate having Gil Cedillo as its voice on the City Council. He acts like a collector. I bet his walls at home have good stuff, like Cheech.

Gil Cedillo's office publishes a district arts magazine in English and Spanish that brings local artists into the public eye while contributing to community identity. Cedillo's an arts activist. In fact, the councilman’s office helped fund the Cervantes-Lopez project. 

Restoration was a grand idea in 2018 when Cedillo wrote a $10,000 check to kick start the work. It remains a grand idea. Cedillo needs to step up yet again for the mural. CD1 has the most to gain by jumping proactively on a situation primed for neglect.

Lopez began the restoration itself by signing a contract with Willy Herron & Leah Moscozo, the world’s leading experts on mural surface recovery and preparation. Professionals like them understand the right tools, the chemicals, the process, the skillful care. You can't let some tyro with a power washer anywhere near the delicate surface under that buff exterior.

Weeks of meticulous work removes multiple layers of utilitarian coatings, miraculously leaving behind the original brush strokes, sacrificing what was beyond repair and had lost adhesion.

Pola Lopez' restoration method matches color and fills in from original photographs. Respecting the original surface
where possible, Lopez blends color around peeled back original paint, stiffened by the clear top coat.
Several coatings follow. Anti-grafitti coating lays down a tough membrane impervious to solvent-based spray paints. A top coating of durable urethane or some other chemistry weatherproofs the surface, flowing across paint chips and filling cracks and pinholes against water and air infiltration. I’m guessing the clear coat adds a measure of ultraviolet protection against nature’s most punishing element, the sunlight.

That’s where Lopez was on the magnificent project a couple weeks ago: a prepped surface covered with tarps and rarin' to go. She had that used step-ladder, rickety six-foot folding table where she mixed her colors, tubs of old brushes, and the best attitude in the world. Then those vandals struck to immense disappointment. Yet, the artist holds her head high, a slight tremor noticeable when she lets herself think about the senseless people.

Unfazed, Lopez works with dedication. With shade at the first panel, work begins according to plan. This initial part of the story is being told again. A sculptor creates a totem pole, a history emerging from the wood. And the paint. And the restoration.

The artist's attitude is sunnier than August’s sol, despite needing those tarps, and some shade, that aren't in the budget. Maybe they're in someone's heart, if they're not in a councilman's discretionary funds. For sure, security against theft and vandalism of this art lies entirely in Cedillo's bailiwick--he is local government.
The Original Muralists

Step up, gente, even though it's not up to you. You can help because you want to help.

Avenue 50 has a PayPal page (link) where you can send money and refer all your rich friends to do you a favor and give fifty or a thousand bucks. 

Volunteerism is great but in this case that mural needs real money. Government tipos like the councilman need to convert hard cash into social capital. Safeguarding this mural can only endear oneself to a voting public and build a reputation for serving la vida local.

Sellers and buyers don't want to see a grafitti-smeared wall punishing their property value--that's why they covered the placas with white skin. If malcriados and nihilists find their buey to the wall again, the easiest solution is whitewash, and a la chin... and abandon la cultura.

The fate of the Cervantes restoration project rests in the owner’s hands and the councilman's: the Autry Museum of the American West, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs in concert with Council District 1’s Gil Cedillo. Avenue 50 is not the solution, volunteerism isn't a sustainable model for restoration of this scale, and ongoing preservation. 

Give what you can to Avenue 50 Studio. It's never enough, still non-profits can't cut checks for money they don't have.

L.A., The Autry, Gil Cedillo, you have a crisis on your hands. Do nothing and Pola Lopez goes on with the work. No matter what our would-be cultural heroes do, Pola's in it until the work is accomplished. And "those guys" would be heroes at a time el pueblo sorely needs heroes, verdad?

It’s a crying shame Pola Lopez is going it alone facing this crisis. "Those guys" are going to send out press releases and pound their chests like they painted it themselves, when Pola's done. 

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