This article was originally written in November 2011. But due to a technical glitch, it was lost in cyberspace until now.
If you are ever in northeastern Los Angeles, California, USA, and you happen to be in the neighbourhood called Eagle Rock. Perhaps you may find yourself passing by 7171N. Figuerora Street. If so, then you will be passing a lovely piece of public art. A mural is painted on the walls of the stairway which leads up to Glen Arbor Avenue. It depicts a group of people doing tai chi in a local park.
You don’t have to go to L.A. in order to see the mural. Thanks to Google Earth, it is “visible from space.” I learned about the mural while online and wanted to learn more. So, I tracked down the artist and gave him a call.
The mural and the story behind it says something about community, about the importance of public art, and about the growing popularity of tai chi during the past decade.
A view of the mural from Google Maps Street ViewThe mural was originally painted in 2004 by artist Roger Dolin. But at the time there was some question about relevance of tai chi to this neighbourhood. There were no tai chi classes in the immediate area, and few people practised the art. But the Eagle Rock Community Council unanimously approved the work, which includes scenery from the local Yosemite Park in the background.
The painting suffered from graffiti over the years. It was so bad that all the figures in the painting had been tagged. Locals complained to the city, and were able to contact Mr. Dolin to see what could be done to restore it. The matter was placed on the agenda of Eagle Rock Community Council, which voted almost unanimously (-1) to have the mural restored. When I reached Mr. Dolin on the phone, he only had a few more days left before the restoration would be complete. The project is challenging because the surface is not smooth. Where a smooth surface would have required one brush stroke, this would require at least 4 strokes to cover all sides of a bump. The surface texture also affected the content, since highlights could not be placed in areas which had too many natural shadows.
Interestingly, there was less concern about the relevance of the tai chi to the local neighbourhood during the restoration. There are now several tai chi classes being conducted within walking distance of this painting.
Dolin himself is a tai chi player, and has featured tai chi in several other paintings and a couple of murals. “I’ve been painting tai chi figures for a long time.” said Dolin. “I would go out to the World Tai Chi Day and take pictures. I would do the movements in the centre of a thousand people. Occasionally I would stop and take pictures all around me. Then I would go back to doing tai chi.” Dolin specializes in figurative art. He takes photographs of the subjects, then painted individual studies before painting the mural.
When making public art, Dolin likes to involve the community. So, when passersby showed interest, Dolin would sometimes invite them to help. He had local people pose for the painting, which also includes his own Yang style tai chi teachers, Doria Cook-Nelson and Jeannie Shannon. “I let a couple of kids in the neighbourhood help in this mural. A little girl walks by there everyday, and I asked her if she would like to help. So she came by with her mom and dad on a Saturday. When you see the final pictures, you will see some improvement over the original. They painted the flowers on the front and all of the grass. She made it so much brighter and friendlier than the first version.”
The restoration has given Dolin a rare opportunity to hear the positive feedback from people who are affected by his work. He said, ‘The comments are basically that they like the community being brightened up and cheery, and that it is being taken care of. I was really surprised how many people felt that way. The people who stop to tell me how much they appreciate it are obviously passionate about it because they are stopping on a rather dangerous street to tell me that. I say “Thanks. That’s great. Now, get out of here before you get rear-ended!”‘
“I’m sold, not only on the value of public art, but on the value of getting involvement from people in the community. The things that I will remember from this mural now will be things like the little girl’s face when she helped paint, and how she comes back and sees that this is her mural. As long as she lives there, or if she maybe comes back with her kids, she can point at it and realize that she helped with that.”
Dolin came to public art relatively late in his career. Previously, most of his work was commissioned by hospitals and health care offices. But he has now become more interested in local community projects like this one. He also works with teacher Emily Goff at Daily High School, where they construct murals that can later be installed in other locations such as a Rotary Club, other schools, and a juvenile hall.
There is a difference between this sort of public art and the big commercial installations. This sort of art is like a an inukshuk that says “People are here. This is a community” It serves as a statement that people here care about the place and about the people in it. It also indicates, among other things, that there is an Eagle Rock Community Council that tends to the affairs and concerns of the people who live here.
Public art that involves the community can have more personal impact as well. One of the figures in the painting is a boy who was 8 years old when he posed for the original painting in 2004. While Mr. Dolin was working on the restoration, a woman who he believes to be the boy’s mother, paused in front of the painting. She smiled, touched the painting and gave it a kiss. Then she continued on.
For more information about the art of Roger Dolin, visit http://www.rogerdolin.com
– Ian Sinclair
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