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Richard Wyatt: Artist for Los Angeles

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"City of Dreams/River of History" at Union Station | Photo: Stuart Preston/Flickr/Creative Commons

As the great Ed Fuentes demonstrates week after week, Los Angeles is a city of murals. Dating back to David Alfaro Siqueiros, Dean Cornwell, and Hugo Ballin, epic paintings as public art have always had their reign in this city regardless of any city policy efforts to stifle it. One of the most prolific contemporary muralists is Richard Wyatt. His monumental work graces the Watts Towers, Capitol Records in Hollywood, White Memorial Hospital, Ontario Airport, the Metro Stop at Wilshire and Western, and the East Portal in Union Station. This week L.A. Letters celebrates the important public murals of Richard Wyatt with extra close attention paid to his eighty-foot long mural in the East Portal at Union Station.

Born in Lynwood and raised in Compton and the Crenshaw District, Wyatt is an artistic giant highly skilled at weaving layers of cultural history in a large public mural. His artistic destiny began auspiciously at UCLA, when he was 14, in 1971. He attended an outreach program where he was commissioned to paint a seven by nine oil-on-canvas mural. The work was so well-executed that it was displayed in Campbell Hall at UCLA until 1991. In 2010 UCLA put Wyatt's mural on the front page of a university publication, but they did not know who painted it. Luckily Wyatt is an alumni, and when the magazine was mailed to his home, he ended up calling them up to let them know that it was his mural from so many year ago.

Wyatt working on a mural on Hollywood Boulevard, 1989 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Wyatt working on a mural on Hollywood Boulevard, 1989 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Wyatt told the L.A. Times in 2010, that he would ride the bus over to UCLA from Compton at 14 with his "art-partner-in-crime," the now deceased Guillermo Anderson. Like so many others in this town, the early youth art programs accelerated his artistic destiny. UCLA loved Wyatt and Anderson's piece so much that it was shown at the Fowler Museum in their 2010 exhibit, "Art, Activism, Access: 40 years of Ethnic Studies at UCLA." The curators at Fowler must have been pleased when they discovered that their mystery piece was created by one of the most prolific muralists in Los Angeles over the last 30 years.

After graduating from UCLA in 1978, Wyatt began creating murals across the city, including one on the 10 Freeway in 1983 in time for the 1984 Olympics. Last year Wyatt told the Daily Bruin that his studies at UCLA inspired him to pursue public art. Following the Olympics he eventually painted at the Watts Towers Art Center and the Nat King Cole Tribute on the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. He's done dozens of large works over the years.

One of Wyatt's largest pieces is "City of Dreams/River of History" at the East Portal in Union Station. The mural is eighty-foot wide and hangs a few floors above the long hallway. Travelers walking west towards the train tunnels from the rear of the station can see it when they look up. The mural itself is near the Gateway Plaza Building and on the eastern edge of Union Station. Wyatt always studies the history of a site before he creates his piece, and in the case of Union Station he told Metro Art he hoped to "contribute to a sense of reaffirmation in a city that becomes aware of its past, of the accomplishments of its present, and in the possibilities of its future -- its dreams."

In order to pay tribute to the city's history, the East Portal not only contains Wyatt's mural, it also holds two hundred floor paving elements created by artist May Sun. Wyatt and Sun collaborated on the art for the East Portal. They considered the history of the Los Angeles River and how close it was to the site. They wanted to recognize the forgotten history of the river and its importance to the first indigenous residents, and later the Spanish pobladores. Back in the early 1990s, when Wyatt and Sun created their work at Union Station, Friends of the L.A. River had only just begun to catch on, and the consciousness of the city's history was nothing like it is now in 2014. Sun and Wyatt played an important role kick starting civic spirit with their visionary work.

Photo: stewickie/Flickr/Creative Commons

The small floor paving elements reference native animals and plants, like turtles, trout and sycamore leaves, along with other symbols like a Tongva fishing hook. These elements symbolize the original flora and fauna of the Los Angeles River. The symbols also represent elements that were here before Los Angeles when the river flowed freely without concrete. A bench near the aquarium is embedded with real rocks from the river. The symbols created by May Sun also frame Wyatt's mural. One has to look extra close around the perimeter of the huge piece to see the subtle symbols framing it.

Wyatt's mural contains images of Native Americans, early Spanish settlers of the L.A. basin, and contemporary Angelenos. Wyatt also includes Chinese nationals because he knew that the original Chinatown was located where Union Station is now. Wyatt mixed races, economic backgrounds, and time periods, with the intention to create a work for all the people who use Union Station. Knowing that it's a major crossroads, he painted the proper cross-section to create an iconic work. To top it off, Wyatt's grandmother is in the middle left portion of the mural, and his cousin fills the far right hand corner.

The best time to see it is near the end of the day. Light pours in from the glass atrium above, spotlighting Wyatt's meticulous rendering in oil on metal panels. May Sun's symbols accent his monumental magnum opus. Around the time this project was completed, Wyatt was interviewed by Huell Howser in 1996.

Wyatt designed two 52-feet long ceramic tile murals for the Wilshire/Western Metro Station. In the aptly titled, "People Coming" and "People Going"; the community appears in motion walking away and towards the train tunnel. In his statement to Metro Art about the Wilshire/Western piece, he said, "I try to bring back the human connection by monumentalizing people rather than buildings and objects. Hopefully, people will connect to the idea of how important they are to making the city, and mass transit, work."

One of his first big commissions was the Capitol Records Mural in 1990. Titled "Hollywood Jazz: 1945-1972," the mural depicts 11 jazz musicians, a real roll call of heavyweights: Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and drummer Shelly Manne. They all appear together in a gracefully rendered color field.

''Hollywood Jazz'' at the Capitol Records Building | Photo: Andrew Dunn/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Cole's charisma dominates the mural. Considering both his historical importance as a musician and that the royalties from his records funded the building, it makes sense his face is the central image. Cole sold over 15 Million records for Capitol in the postwar years. When the Capitol Records Building was built in 1956, it was called by some, "the house that Nat King Cole built." The equally important Duke Ellington is almost as big in Wyatt's mural, but he's off to the right side. Located on the south side of the building, adjacent to a parking lot, this important mural was restored in early 2013.

Wyatt's veracity in capturing historic jazz musicians is in high demand. The Santa Monica Museum of Art featured Wyatt's series of works on the history of the Central Avenue Jazz scene. The series not only honored artists like Buddy Collette, Art Tatum, and Dexter Gordon, it also celebrated the venues that made Central Avenue famous, like the Downbeat Room and Club Alabam.

Wyatt does it for his city. He's visited hundreds of classrooms and lectured widely over the years. He's often had students assist him in completing murals as well. In his artist statement, he says, "subject matter of my work celebrates the people of Los Angeles. It's a visual acknowledgement and/or record of the importance of people and their contribution to the development of this city."

This universal visual acknowledgement created by Wyatt is a perfect fit for sites like the Wilshire/Western Metro Station, the Ontario Airport, and Union Station. Crossroads of the city deserve art that reflect the masses. Wyatt is an artist sensitive to his city's needs and he responds accordingly. The layers of cultural history overlapping in his work harken back to the timeless aesthetic present in murals by Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and locally by Dean Cornwell and Hugo Ballin. Wyatt has also painted murals of his mentor Cecil Ferguson, John Outerbridge, and other works at LAX and along Hollywood Boulevard. Considering this storied path began at 14, there's no question he's a man of destiny.

Richard Wyatt is a Los Angeles hero and one of the city's most prolific muralists. Salute to his prodigious contributions to our city's artistic landscape. For all these reasons and more, Richard Wyatt is an artistic giant in the topography of L.A. Letters.

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