Motorists may have noticed something missing recently on the east side of the San Diego Freeway (405) near Los Angeles International Airport.
Renowned muralist Kent Twitchell’s Los Angeles Marathon Mural, which was painted between 1988 and 1990, has been removed.
But there’s no need for mural appreciators to get nostalgic over its loss. The mural is in fact doing just fine, undergoing a new process in art restoration technology in the studio of Nathan Zackheim, located near the Playa Vista development.
Tucked away in a studio on the same land parcel where Howard Hughes designed the cockpit for the Spruce Goose aircraft, Twitchell and Zackheim and a team of about a dozen college students work daily on the restoration process.
The Los Angeles Marathon Mural, which consists of 26 figures that make up a 236-by-18-foot work, is expected to be re-installed at a yet-to-be-specified location within Los Angeles.
A few locations have been discussed by Twitchell and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, but thus far the two parties have not been able to agree on a suitable location, says Twitchell.
Los Angeles Marathon officials are anxious to have the mural in place before March 6th, when the 20th anniversary Los Angeles Marathon is set to take place.
“I’m trying to oblige and help them realize this goal,” says Twitchell.
But there is a small chance that if Twitchell and city officials cannot agree on a location, that it could wind up sitting in storage, Twitchell says.
The original source of funding for the mural came from the private nonprofit City of Los Angeles Marathon, not from public funds, says Twitchell.
“These types of mural projects are usually not funded by taxpayer money, as a lot of people like to think,” says Twitchell.
Twitchell, Zackheim and crew have been working diligently every day to complete the restoration, he says.
The restoration crew is attempting to restore the mural to its exact former state. They don’t plan on making any alterations, even though some sections of the mural need to be completely repainted, says Twitchell.
The Los Angeles Marathon Mural has been badly damaged over the last 15 years by decay, smog, graffiti and spray paint, as well as the gray paint used by California Department of Transportation officials to cover up the graffiti.
Some entire sections of the mural are being repainted due to the damage.
Putting the mural back in its original location is not an option, since the San Diego Freeway (405) was widened to a point that the mural cannot be safely maintained, says Twitchell.
Zackheim, an art restoration specialist, has been in charge of the elaborate and uncommon process of removing the giant mural from the freeway wall and reassembling it.
“People don’t even look at murals as something that can be removed,” says Twitchell.
“Nathan [Zackheim] is one of the few people with the expertise to be able to do this,” says Twitchell.
The removal process includes applying a coating of a material over the original mural that is so strong that the original mural paint will stick to it.
“Once that dries, we go in like a hammer, like a woodpecker, and vibrate the mural loose from the wall behind it,” says Twitchell, describing the process.
“We then roll it up like a carpet, clean the back of it, and reapply it to a false wall of polyester in the studio,” he says.
Once it’s restored, the mural gets a coating of “B72” applied, much like what was done to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome to preserve the work of Michelangelo, says Twitchell.
Twitchell received a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from what is now Otis College of Art + Design in 1977, during the days that the campus was in downtown Los Angeles. Today, a number of the college students working as part of the restoration team are Otis students who attend the school’s Westchester campus.
Twitchell started his career as an artist for the United States Air Force during the first half of the 1960s.
In the early 1970s, he began making street art monuments to cultural heroes.
Some of his first of this sort of work were mural depictions of Strother Martin and Steve McQueen.
By 1973, his work had gone large scale with his five-story “Bride and Groom” mural and his “Old Woman of the Hollywood Freeway” piece.
Other famous Twitchell murals include the “Julius Irving Monument” in Philadelphia, and the “LA Chamber Orchestra,” painted on buildings in downtown Los Angeles with high freeway visibility.
More recently, he painted a public monument to Will Rogers in San Bernardino.
He has also painted monuments to visual artists Edward Ruscha, Jim Morphesis, Lita Albuquerque and Gary Lloyd.
His six-story depiction of legendary Venice artist Ruscha, located at Olympic Boulevard and Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, is one of his personal favorites, he says.
Twitchell’s murals are most often larger-than-life portraits or biographical works.
His process of selection subjects is quite random and unmethodological, he says.
“There’s just something about certain people that really makes me have a strong desire to paint them,” he says.
And the 62-year-old painter keeps an ambitious list of people he wants to include in upcoming murals.
His most recent short list of subjects he has considered painting includes actors Robert Duvall, Steve Buscemi, Vince Vaughn and Kurt Russell, he says.
He has also flirted with the ideas of painting murals of Charlton Heston in Hollywood, Johnny Cash in Nashville and John F. Kennedy in Berlin.
Another he plans to work on includes a monument to Charles White, a former Otis instructor that Twitchell considers to be his mentor, on the building that housed the old Otis school.
He plans to do a recreation of his “Old Woman of the Hollywood Freeway” piece, a popular mural that was removed in the mid-’80s. The piece will be repainted on the side of an art gallery in the San Fernando Valley.
Finally, he has plans to do three murals at Hillside Memorial Cemetery in Culver City, once he is finished with the Los Angeles Marathon Mural restoration.
Through his mural portraits, Twitchell’s work puts a face on the Los Angeles cultural scene of today and highlights important cultural figures. But with modern mural restoration technology that enables murals to transcend their transitory existence and be preserved for decades and even centuries, how relevant will Twitchell’s portraits of today’s shining stars be decades from now?
“It’s not my job to decide that,” Twitchell says. “Somebody else gets to decide that. The culture will get to judge the relevance of the works.”
For now, Twitchell and other muralists are able to extend indefinitely the life of works in a medium that at one time had been viewed as a temporary means of artistic expression.