Olympic Freeway Murals Come Alive Again

Originally published in Fall 2014 Quarterly Magazine

John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" - 101 Freeway at Spring St.

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” – 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Larger-than-life faces, a child frozen in a handstand, flying mythical columns, and colorful cartoon cars stream by on concrete walls as commuters and visitors from around the world speed or crawl by restored murals.

This is Los Angeles, “mural capital of the world,” and home to the 10 Olympic Freeway Murals from 1984.

Angelinos are fortunate to live and work in a metropolis surrounded by public art created by esteemed muralists. But it is easy to take the beauty of the artwork for granted as drivers sit behind the wheel.

Yet these murals beckon and bend to the rushing nature of traffic. They were created to be experienced in motion – an inspiring backdrop during a hectic day.

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), “Although we were all excited to host the Olympics in Los Angeles thirty years ago, in my memory the excitement occurred as I opened the Olympic Arts Festival calendar and saw the opportunities to enjoy world-class art along with world-class sports!”

Unfortunately, mural art is more susceptible to not only highway expansion and the elements, but also taggers who illegally vie for the public’s attention with their own message, placed directly on top of the commissioned works. Because of this, Caltrans painted over the walls. And supporters of the original art have called for restoration.

On August 24 of this year, MCLA held a 30th anniversary celebration fundraiser to help the effort.

The original 10 muralists were honored at the historic Pico House: Glenna Avila, Judith F. Baca, Alonzo Davis, Willie Herrón III, Frank Romero, Terry Schoonhoven, Roderick Sykes, Kent Twitchell, John Wehrle, and Richard Wyatt.

According to Wehrle, “It was wonderful to see people … who went through the same fairly harrowing experience” of making art on the shoulders of some of the busiest freeways in the world (the 101 and 110.)

It was also an honor, Wehrle said, to be counted among the reputable muralists chosen “to represent a vision of LA and the chance to work with other visionary artists of the highest caliber.”

Wehrle’s 24’ x 207’, Keim silicate paint Olympic mural, Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo is an homage to the ancient Greek games and man’s reach into space as a Babel-like tower becomes the rings of Jupiter.

Rojas-Williams said, “As an art historian and scholar of murals, I’m inspired by the history conveyed by the murals in our city. The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals were painted by some of LA’s most iconic muralists.”

The painstaking restoration is well worth the effort. Avila’s L.A. Freeway Kids took six months for preliminary drawings and another six months to prepare and paint acrylic onto the wall. The mural stands 20 feet high and 225 feet long, and some eight additional artists were hired to help complete the painting.

The mural depicted real children in Avila’s life, playing and running while wearing t-shirts of iconic, kid-friendly places around town: the Los Angeles Zoo, the former Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Disneyland, and UCLA.

At the forefront of the restorations is Herrón III, artist of the Olympic mural Struggles of the World. Lauded by both Avila and Wehrle, Avila stated of him, “He’s my hero.” And though Herrón III has helped to restore multiple Olympic Freeway Murals, he has yet to work on his own.

Of the 10 original murals, five murals have been restored, one is in the process, two are candidates to be restored in the future, and two have been destroyed in a freeway expansion project.

Rojas-Williams adds, “Murals are important because they convey the voice of the masses, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. Murals serve as an education tool; they empower. They are like open-air books, which educate communities about their history … The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals brought tremendous pride to Los Angeles.”

The 10 Olympic Freeway Murals:

Glenna Avila’s “L.A. Freeway Kids,” — 101 Freeway near Los Angeles St.

Judith Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” — 110 Freeway at 4th St.

Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” — 101 Freeway between Alameda and San Pedro
 St.

Kent Twitchell’s “ Lita Albuquerque Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass
 and “Jim Morphesis Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” — 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84” — 110 Freeway, 3rd St. onramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Willie Herrón III’s “Struggles of the World” — 101 Freeway at Alameda St. (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Terry Schoonhoven’s “Cityscape” — 110 Freeway, 6th St. off-ramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Roderick Sykes’ “Unity” — 110 Freeway, Figueroa St. exit (destroyed)

Richard Wyatt’s, “James and Spectators” –110 Freeway at Adams Blvd. and Flower St. (destroyed)

To find local murals and learn more about MCLA, go to muralconservancy.org

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