History, One Coat at a Time
Restoration of “Chagall Returns to Venice Beach” is part of a citywide mural preservation effort
By Christina Campodonico
When Christina Schlesinger looks at her mural “Chagall Returns to Venice Beach” on the Israel Levin Senior Center’s walls, she doesn’t see years of wear and tear. She sees stories.
The formerly L.A.-based painter, now living on the East Coast, recently returned to Venice to restore the iconic mural on the 200 block of Ocean Front Walk.
Schlesinger’s effort is part of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ CityWide Mural Program, a $750,000 endeavor to restore and preserve historic fine art murals throughout Los Angeles and to fund new murals.
“Chagall Returns to Venice Beach” is one of nine murals being restored by the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) under a contract with the city.
For Schlesinger, who lived here in the 1970s and cofounded SPARC along with filmmaker Donna Deitch and current artistic director Judy Baca, coming back to Venice really did feel like a home-coming, she says.
SPARC, which brought Schlesinger back for a 10-day restoration residency earlier this month, is also excited about the artist’s return.
“As a young generation of artists, it’s really incredible to see the origins of SPARC and the mural program in Los Angeles,” SPARC Project Manager and artist Carlos Rogel explains. “We’re seeing multiple generations coming back and being able to connect with Christina and SPARC’s mission — with Christina it’s this added layer of institutional memory.”
This is the third time in 24 years that Schlesinger has worked on the mural. The artist first created the mural, originally titled “Chagall Comes to Venice Beach,” in 1991 through SPARC’s Neighborhood Pride mural program.
Schlesinger took inspiration from Venice landmarks and fanciful elements from the artwork of famed Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall to create a surreal landscape, where Jewish iconography and Venice bohemianism meet. A few fanciful mash-ups include a saxophonist angel floating alongside a glowing menorah and a roller-blading woman with wings crossing paths with a fiddle-playing flying fish.
Schlesinger repainted and restored the whimsical mural, renaming it “Chagall Returns to Venice Beach,” in 1996 after damage from the Northridge earthquake and subsequent building repairs forced the Israel Levin Senior Center to destroy the original.
For Schlesinger, working on the mural once again is a rare and unique opportunity “to relive something that was so wonderful and that gave joy to so many people,” she says.
Like the new coats of paint she applies to the mural, Schlesinger’s memories of the mural are still fresh.
A palm tree reminds Schlesinger of the woman who painted it — Sybil Grinnell, a young Brit who came up to Schlesinger one day and asked if she could paint. Schlesinger agreed and Grinnell became a member of her crew.
An angel calls to mind another contributor to the painting — Bill, a homeless vet who came to Schlesinger one day with a very small drawing of an angel and asked her if he could put it up on the wall. Schlesinger welcomed the suggestion, but told Bill he needed to make the angel bigger, so she showed him how to enlarge the drawing through a grid technique.
When Schlesinger looks at the huge blue waves crashing on the mural’s depiction of the former Pacific Ocean Park Pier, she thinks of Dougo, another homeless man who worked on the mural during its second restoration in 1996. Dougo suggested that Schlesinger include the beloved seaside amusement park, so she turned over that section of the wall to him to paint.
From a ribbon spilling out of a seashell, Schlesinger is reminded of her late friends Rick Barnett and poet Dora Bayrack, whose names are both memorialized on the scroll. Barnett, along with his boyfriend Eric Gordon, first proposed that Schlesinger paint the mural on the Israel Levin Senior Center. Bayrack, 95 years old at the time, insisted that Schlesinger include a poem in the mural.
“She used to patrol the wall everyday telling me what I was doing right and wrong. I learned a lot about the Yiddish language [and] Yiddish poetry from her,” Schlesinger recalls.
Written in Yiddish and English, the poem is titled “Roots” and continues to appear on painted papyrus scrolls above an entrance ramp.
All of these stories contribute to the mural’s historic legacy within Venice’s community, Schlesinger says.
“My father said that a country without history is like a person with amnesia — lost and confused,” says Schlesinger. Her late father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, political advisor and public intellectual.
“Without the history, without our history, we’re lost and confused, and this is part of the history [of Venice],” she continues. “You need to know your history. Venice should have history. It’s just turning into a playground for the rich, but you have to have a sense of the history of the past. So this [mural] gives that.”
This latest restoration is not only a window into the past, but also a glimpse into the future. SPARC plans to digitize “Chagall Returns to Venice Beach” through a specially developed scanning and camera technique.
“We’re creating high-resolution tiles of the mural so they are conserved digitally at scale. If any of these murals were to be damaged beyond repair, we would be able to create a digital reproduction of the mural — so high-resolution, you can see the bristles on the surface of the paint,” Rogel says.
Whether in pixels or in paint, it seems “Chagall Returns to Venice” is prepared to stand the test of time.
Learn more about SPARC’s efforts at sparcinla.org.