She was known as the “Ivory Queen of Soul” and “Lady T” for her success in R&B music.
A Venice High School graduate who was raised in the Oakwood neighborhood, Teena Marie found stardom with soul-tinged songs as a Caucasian artist at the industry’s premier label for African-American talent and later paved the way for disgruntled performers to be able to leave their record labels.
And now a Venice-based photographer is collaborating with an iconic muralist to create a lasting image of her.
Tony Vera, a former street performer on the Venice Boardwalk, has been a longtime fan of the singer, who was born Mary Christine Brockert.
“I used to see her on Soul Train (a long-running musical variety show that featured R&B, soul and disco performances),” Vera recalled. “She’s a part of Venice’s history.”
Vera has commissioned Rip Cronk to paint the mural. Cronk, whose works of art include a Venice Boardwalk self-portrait, a mural of the late Doors frontman Jim Morrison called “Morning Shot” and a recently refurbished and extended version of “Venice on the Half Shell” now called “Venice Kinesis,” met with Vera last month when the photographer presented him with a $10,000 check.
“Rip was the only guy that I thought about doing it,” Vera told The Argonaut.
Cronk could not be reached for comment.
The plan is to paint the mural on the west side of an apartment building at 1902 Pacific Ave.
The windfall is part of a legal settlement that Vera received from an altercation at Los Angeles International Airport that the photographer had with former boxing champion Mike Tyson two years ago.
Vera says he plans to use the proceeds from the settlement to film a documentary on 9/11 as well. He was philosophical in his reasoning for wanting to speed up the Marie mural project.
“You never know how many days you have on this earth, so do something good,” he said.
Olla Mitchell, who lived in the predominately African-American neighborhood of Oakwood in the 1970s when the R&B singer lived there as a teenager, said one of her young neighbors was Mickey Boyce, a longtime friend of Marie’s who was a backup singer in her early band when they auditioned for Motown Records in the mid-1970s.
“She was someone who was able to be comfortable in that cross cultural divide,” said Mitchell, who now resides in Santa Monica, where Marie was born.
The singer, whose most popular hits were “I Need Your Lovin’” and “Lover Girl,” died on Dec. 30 of natural causes at 54. A funeral for Marie was held at Oakwood Park earlier this year. She was a trailblazer of sorts, becoming Soul Train’s first white female guest in 1979.
In 1982, Marie became embroiled in a lawsuit with Motown over details in her contract and the release of a new song. A subsequent lawsuit resulted in what is now known as “The Brockert Initiative,” a law that made it illegal for a record company to keep an artist under contract without releasing new material for that artist.
In these instances, artists are able to sign and release with another label instead of being forced to stay with a company that the artist feels is not acting in their best interests.
“It wasn’t something I set out to do. I just wanted to get away from Motown and have a good life,” the singer said later in a Los Angeles Times article. “But it helped a lot of different artists to be able to get out of their contracts.”
The owner of the building where Vera wants Marie’s mural painted is also a high school friend of the late singer.
“We graduated in 1976, and she was a really good friend,” said Allen Sarlo. “She was funny, energetic and boy, could she sing.
“She was a true Venice girl.”
Sarlo says he had a feeling that Marie would be a star when they were in high school and followed her career when she signed with Motown. “She was special,” he said. “We all knew that Teena was headed for the big time.”
Vera’s quest to honor Marie comes at a time when city officials appear to be reconsidering a new direction on murals and how they are defined. Recently, the city’s Planning Commission began a reexamination of the municipal sign ordinance regarding outdoor advertising in city parks and at the same time explored options for a new mural ordinance.
The current definition for a mural is a sign that is painted on or applied to and made integral with the wall, a written message of which does not exceed 3 percent of the total area of the sign.
According to the commission, murals can be permitted under limited conditions on city, county, state and federal property pursuant to a legally adopted specific plan, supplemental use district or development agreement.
Several artists – including Cronk and other muralists – have long scoffed at the city’s position that equates signs with murals.
The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee directed the commission earlier this month to examine how the city can preserve and protect existing murals as well as facilitate the creation of new murals.
“It will be at least three months before we can schedule this item with the Planning Commission,” said Tanner Blackman of the Planning Department.
The template for the new ordinance will be a Portland, Ore. mural law that was enacted in 2009. In Portland, there are two ways that murals can be installed: one being through a public art program where they gain funding and are incorporated into the city’s public art.
The second is under Portland’s Original Art Murals Project, which is part of the new city mural code change.
“This is the one that has been greenlighted to move forward (in Los Angeles),” Blackman said.
According to Blackman, the impetus to move ahead with a change to Los Angeles’ mural ordinance were a string of victories in court against outdoor advertisers.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, says there is a clear distinction between signs and murals.
“We have a very deep, rich mural history in Venice that often tells these wonderful stories of heritage and culture,” he said. “They are clearly artistic expression and deserve to be viewed separately from commercial advertising.”
The councilman introduced a motion in June to separate murals from advertising and spoke before the land use and planning committee about the importance of crafting new guidelines for murals.
“I’m hopeful that we can come up with an ordinance that the community will be proud of,” he said.
The Venice Neighborhood Council unanimously backed a resolution May 24 to encourage Rosendahl to submit the motion to the council.
“Venice is the epicenter for murals. We are very passionate about mural preservation and protection,” said Clark McCutcheon, who submitted the Venice council motion.
Rosendahl said he has talked to Vera about the Marie mural. “There’s still a process that we have to go through, but I’m very supportive of what Tony wants to do,” the councilman said.
Sarlo, whose surfing documentary “Work to Surf” recently won first place at the Other Venice Film Festival, said having his high school friend on the side of one of his buildings would help to preserve her memory. “It will keep her legacy alive,” he added.
Through sheer determination, Vera said he won’t rest until the mural project is complete.
“This has been a fantasy, and now it’s going to be a reality,” he said. “I don’t care what we have to do to make it happen, but we’re going to do it.”