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A mural showing Frederick Douglass in the middle, flanked by an African American man holding an African American child on one side and a Black soldiers and slaves on the other side.
A detail of "Our Mighty Contribution" in Crenshaw, more popular known as the Great Wall of Crenshaw. | Carren Jao

12 SoCal Public Art Projects That Explore Race and Marginalized Histories

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The celebrated Haitian author Edwidge Danticat in her book "Create Dangerously" writes, "One of the many ways a sculptor of ancient Egypt was described was as 'one who keeps things alive.'" This idea of using sculpture to keep something alive also applies to murals, historical markers, monuments and other forms of public art.

At the untimely deaths of Los Angeles Laker legend Kobe Bryant and the celebrated rapper Nipsey Hussle less than a year apart in 2019 and 2020, literally dozens of murals of both fallen heroes were painted all over the City of Angels immediately following their demise. This tradition of lionizing departed cultural icons (see the murals of Selena around L.A. or Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn) is not necessarily new, but the quickness and sheer number of murals that appeared honoring both men testified to their impact on the public and world at large.

The role of murals in remembering historic figures over the last century goes back to the three great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros in the 1930s. Even before that, for thousands of years, humanity has always used epic works of art like murals or massive sculptures to commemorate larger than life figures or to keep significant history alive.

Many monuments are intentionally constructed as incarnations of power, and in highlighting the history of the powerful, there are other histories of the marginalized and disenfranchised that get overlooked or forgotten.
Amy Converse, art historian and curator

"At their highest moments," master muralist Judy Baca writes, "murals can reveal to us what is hidden, challenge the prevailing dialogues and transform people's lives. Murals exercise our most important right of free speech. And, indeed, murals can be the catalyst for change in difficult times."

In this era when many old monuments are being torn down and history is being rewritten, a diverse milieu of public art, especially murals can play a significant role presenting an alternative and more equitable history. In this way, public art like murals and other commissioned examples of public art are new monuments rooted in inclusivity that can help right the wrongs of history. Socially conscious public art is an important part of the conversation around rethinking what makes a monument.

Art historian and curator Amy Converse states, "Many monuments are intentionally constructed as incarnations of power, and in highlighting the history of the powerful, there are other histories of the marginalized and disenfranchised that get overlooked or forgotten. Imperial monuments represent a one-sided conversation that celebrate the history of the mainly white Western men responsible for genocide, rape, the slave trade and other forms of abuse and exploitation that lie at the foundation of colonialism itself."

Master muralist Judy Baca already foresaw this era of rethinking previous monuments in the 1990s. In her 1996 essay "Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society," she denounced what she calls "the cannon in the park" school of thinking when it comes to monuments and public art. She contends that "Monuments may be like the adobe formed from the mud of a place into the building blocks of a society; their purpose may be to investigate and reveal the memory contained in the ground beneath a 'public site,' marking our passages as a people and re-visioning official history."

A woman in a small golf cart drives along beside a long mural in a riverbed.
Judy Baca drives alongside the Great Wall of Los Angeles during its restoration in 2011. | The City Project / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This essay will show several examples of public art in Southern California that investigate deeper memory and offer alternative examples of monuments for the 21st century.

What is Public Art?

Murals and sculptures are the most obvious forms of public art but there are also installations, fountains, wall treatments, benches, pergolas, skylights, stained glass windows, sidewalk plaques and even more specific collaborations between artists and architects that can be considered public art. On many occasions, these pieces are created specifically for a designated location like a train station, community courtyard or lobby of a large government building. For example, each Metro station around Los Angeles County has site-specific public art piece(s) created for their location.

In 2004, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted the County's first Civic Art Policy, which allocates 1% of design and construction costs of County capital projects to a Civic Art Special Fund. Otherwise known as the "one percent rule," this policy essentially means any large new structure built by Los Angeles County must use 1% of its budget for the creation of public art. This is why dating back to the late 1990s, Los Angeles has had one of the biggest public art programs in the country. Moreover, there are also hundreds of public art pieces across Los Angeles County and the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan region.

Different kinds of people from an older bearded man, a young girl, an Asian woman, an older Asian man and an African American man looks out.
This one aspect of May Sun and Richard Wyatt's collaborative artwork "City of Dreams/River of History" at Union Station showcases the different kinds of people who call Los Angeles home today. | jpellgen/Flickr/Creative Commons

In addition to the public art pieces created and commissioned for libraries, courthouses, fire stations, train stations, sports arenas and hospitals, there are also numerous standalone pieces around the city and county that may not have been officially commissioned by a government organization or some public group but the piece can definitely qualify as public art because it is deeply appreciated and visited by masses of people.

Some of L.A.'s most popular examples of public art include "Urban Light," adjacent to LACMA, the seven-foot bronze sculpture of Bruce Lee in Chinatown and the several sculptures in front of Staples Center honoring athletes like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabber, Wayne Gretzky and announcer Chick Hearn among several others. These examples may not be as politically charged as most of the public art mentioned in this essay but for the millions of citizens who love personalities like Bruce Lee or Magic Johnson, they remain very meaningful.

...'public art,' as defined by cities throughout the United States, implies a work of art created through a public process.
Mark Johnstone, "What Is Public Art?"

"Urban Surprises: A Guide to Public Art in Los Angeles" is a book published in 2002 under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles's Cultural Affairs Department. Essentially a catalog of all the public art across Los Angeles, there are also a few short introductory essays that define public art and further clarify what it is. Though an updated edition is definitely needed because dozens of new pieces of public art have emerged over the last two decades, "Urban Surprises" is still a valuable resource with a treasure trove of information.

One of the essays in the book, Mark Johnstone's "What Is Public Art?' makes some important clarifications. For Johnstone, "'Public art' has a different meaning, especially in the art world than commonly perceived. Often, the term is used in reference to a work of art located in a public place; however, 'public art,' as defined by cities throughout the United States, implies a work of art created through a public process." Furthermore, Johnstone notes, "Public art has two basic components — process and product."

Community engagement is one of the most obvious intentions of public art but there is also this idea of reflecting the culture and history of the location and the larger idea of "placemaking" that connects to celebrating each location. Public art frequently reflects the nature of the space or geography it inhabits. In many cases, public art's purpose serves a higher objective connected to celebrating local history, honoring overlooked citizens, combating racism or sometimes even just embodying something beautiful as a way of inspiring the viewers who see it and engage with it.

Three of the biggest public art programs in Los Angeles County are the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department's Public Art Programs, the Community Redevelopment Agency's Downtown Art in Public Places and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority's Metro Art Division. As Gloria Gerace writes in "Urban Surprises," "Each of these three programs is tied to new construction, each program focuses on a slightly different direction; and, each program is active and prolific."

This is why you see public art in a variety of milieus from Metro Stations, plazas, lobbies of skyscrapers, courtyards of government buildings, libraries, theaters, courthouses and cultural centers among a number of other miscellaneous locations.

With these official commissions, there is usually a selection process for both the artist and what they create. There are questions and concerns raised to make sure the piece is appropriate for its space. "Communities are organic — they change," writes Roella Hsieh Louie in "Urban Surprises." "Each must consider whether or not the art they select will contribute to future inhabitants. Is it going to provide some kind of education and inspiration for the future? Is it going to convey the essence and importance of community space? How does it reflect the community?" These questions corroborate with Baca's essay mentioned earlier, "Whose Monument Where?"

An Alternative Urban History

Public art at its very best can even become a monument. In this era when the idea of a monument is being contested, a deeper discussion of what exactly is a monument or even public art is timely. Andrew Hurley's book, "Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities" uses several chapters to examine monuments, historical markers, sidewalk plaques and preserved historical sites.

Hurley points out that much of the history encountered by people and children "out in the streets and public places of the city reinforced the dominant narratives. That is, most of the history produced for public display in town squares, along roadsides and on building facades tended to celebrate the achievements of elite white men."

In another passage, Hurley cites author James W. Loewen who conducted a cross-country survey of monuments, markers and preserved historic sites during the late 1990s. Loewen not only discovered "that women and African Americans were severely underrepresented," he found that the "founder of the Ku Klux Klan, appeared on more historical markers in Tennessee than any individual in any other state." Loewen's findings were an important early step in a bigger movement across America to create a more equitable urban history. Loewen's best known book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me," remains one of the best selling history books of the last three decades. In the sequel, “Lies Across America,” Loewen looks at over 100 monuments across America and was the first book to call for the removal of Confederate monuments as examples of bad history.

Facts like Loewen's findings in Tennessee are why dozens of Confederate monuments and other markers of white supremacy that publicly venerate this history and the historical figures who actively worked to suppress human rights of women and people of color have begun to be removed across America, especially in the South. An article in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic titled "Who Owns America's history?" written by Phillip Morris reports that there are "more than 1,940 statues, memorials, street names, and other public symbols of the Confederacy in 34 states and the District of Columbia." Morris also writes in his essay that there have been 242 removals in the past decade.

PBS Newshour on Virginia taking down Robert E. Lee statue.
News Wrap: Virginia taking down Robert E. Lee statue

In addition to the removal of Confederate monuments, in Los Angeles a Christopher Columbus statue was removed from Grand Park in November 2018, and there have been statues honoring Father Junipero Serra toppled and brought down across California including a Serra statue near Olvera Street in June 2020. There have been even more extreme versions of this where Serra sculptures were vandalized at various Southern California parishes and an arsonist even set the San Gabriel Mission on fire. Vandalism and arson are obviously going too far, but this does show the rethinking of these older monuments is central to the zeitgeist of these times.

Meanwhile, on July 31st the Los Angeles Times reported that at Hollywood and Highland, the large white elephant sculptures that honored D.W. Griffith's 1916 film "Intolerance" in the middle of the massive courtyard of the shopping center were removed because Griffith's most famous 1915 film "The Birth of the Nation," celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures. Griffith was the son of a Confederate army colonel and his film single-handedly revitalized the Klan in the late 19-teens after they had been suppressed by law enforcement in the 1870s.

All of these instances have been a part of a larger campaign across America that really accelerated after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In addition to removing these outdated monuments, there have been street-renaming campaigns and a number of different methods to offer a more accurate in-depth history like thematic city tours, writing workshops where participants write their own oral history and other initiatives that as Michael Frisch calls it, "share authority."

There are now starting to be even bigger campaigns. In October 2020, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation pledged $250 million to fund new monuments and new public art that reflects a more complete history of the nation. In Los Angeles, similar efforts have been underway for the last 45 years because of visionaries like Judy Baca and Dolores Hayden.

Hurley also makes an important point about heritage versus history in the context of public art, placemaking and historic preservation. In his perspective, history and heritage are not the same thing. History is more objective, while heritage is nostalgia based and can be used to frame the history in service of a particular group or even marketing. In other words, Hurley says, "History aims to explain the past, the purpose of heritage is to justify or motivate present-day actions and stances." Raymond Williams called this cherry-picking curation of history "selective traditions." The Confederate monuments and the like fall under this category.

"Urban communities gravitate toward the heritage end of the spectrum," Hurley writes, "to the extent that they perceive the past as a means of marketing their location to outsiders, attracting investment and stimulating tourism. When economic motivations drive public history, creating the right impression frequently trumps the quest for accuracy." Examples of this are all over America. Many of the historic districts are just about marketing real estate or making money from tourism. The heritage is used as a commodity, rather than portraying an accurate history.

It is this liminal space where public art can come in to tell the forgotten stories or to even offer what Dolores Hayden calls an "alternative urban history." Judy Baca's lifetime of work over the last 50 years has done this, especially her 2,800 foot long mural, "The Great Wall of Los Angeles." Baca's "Neighborhood Pride" program painted over 150 murals across Los Angeles County in dozens of neighborhoods. These murals were always painted in collaboration with artists from the location and in honor of each specific community. Dozens of other muralists have followed this template set by Baca.

The Power of Place

Dolores Hayden's seminal book from 1995, "The Power of Place" proposes that the practice of civic history through public art and urban preservation is placemaking that creates a more equitable urban history. In 1984, Hayden founded the nonprofit organization "The Power of Place" in order to commemorate forgotten sites across Los Angeles.

Hayden and her team created public art projects in Little Tokyo and the Historic Core commemorating forgotten urban history. The installation art park created by Hayden and The Power of Place in 1990 for the 19th-century African American woman Biddy Mason is adjacent to the Bradbury Building. These projects repositioned important forgotten stories of relegated women and people of color within the context of California urban history. Hayden presented an alternative urban history offering a new perspective on Los Angeles history.

Hayden's ideas have spread across the country and a number of other cities have implemented public art and urban preservation programs as a means of creating more equitable urban history. As she notes, "The power of place — the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens' public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory — remains untapped for most working people's neighborhoods in most American cities, and for most ethnic history and most women's history."

In the last few years, the city of Los Angeles has started its own Civic Memory project. Public art plays an important role in this. Dating back to the 1970s, L.A. has been one of the mural capitals of the world. Murals can especially be found in Boyle Heights, the Arts District, Lincoln Heights, Highland Park, Echo Park and now even further afield in areas like Pacoima.

Besides Judy Baca and the legions of muralists, there's the towering influence of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers and the Community Arts Movement that emerged from Watts in the second half of the 20th century producing public artists like Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Timothy Washington and so many more. Though Rodia's Towers were built independently by him, their iconic status and the template they set for art rising out of the community, make them a touchstone of public art for not only Angelenos, but art aficionados internationally.

Learn more about The Watts Towers Arts Center and the many artists inspired by it.
The Watts Towers Arts Center

In just the last two years, the city of Los Angeles initiated the Civic Memory project in order to preserve city history in a more thorough and equitable manner. For the sake of this account, a handful of locations will be discussed below that accomplish this feat while falling under the umbrella of public art such as a mural, monument or sculpture. Almost all of them are in Los Angeles, but there is one location in San Diego and a reference to public art in the Bay Area.

Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument

Located in Montebello just south of the 60 freeway along Garfield Boulevard adjacent to Bicknell Park and a golf course, the Armenian Genocide Memorial was built in 1968. Visited by thousands of people every year, especially on April 24th, the annual day of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide, the sculpture is visible from the highway and various vantage points around Montebello, Monterey Park and the Greater Eastside. Standing over 75 feet high and designed by architect Hrant Agbabian, the sculpture consists of eight cement columns that incorporate the cone-shaped steeples typical of Armenian churches. The memorial was a major development at the time because Turkey denied the genocide and there were even Turkish groups threatening to blow up the monument if the city council approved the proposal. Donations came in from all over the world to fund the construction and the total cost was $125,000. The city of Montebello donated the land because Montebello was the first Armenian enclave in Southern California. It remains the oldest and largest memorial in America dedicated to the Armenian Genocide.

Biddy Mason Park

Biddy Mason Park
A surprisingly hidden park in downtown LA. The park commemorates the complex, difficult, and very successful life of Biddy Mason who was born into slavery and died as one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. | Don Barrett / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This mini-park in downtown Los Angeles is directly south of the Bradbury Building in between Broadway and Spring, 3rd and 4th. Designed by landscape architects Katherine Spitz and Pamela Burton, the park features one of the most poignant pieces of public art in Los Angeles, the artwork "Biddy Mason Time and Place," which remembers the life of Biddy Mason, a 19th century African American woman born a slave, but declared free in California in 1856. She would go on to become a successful midwife and businesswoman who eventually owned the land this park now stands in. The 80-foot-long poured concrete wall by artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville offers a timeline of Mason's life adorned with objects, text and images relevant to the trailblazer's life like agave leaves, wagon wheels and a midwife's bag, as well as an early map of Los Angeles and Mason's freedom papers.

Mason's triumphant journey begins at the northern end of the installation. Along the wall there are short notes about her heroic journey like "Biddy calls a meeting to her home to organize the Los Angeles First African Episcopal Methodist Church, 1872." The wall concludes after 80 feet with the quote: "Los Angeles mourns and reveres Grandma Mason."

I gave tours for many years for both Red Line Tours and the Downtown Art Walk that included Biddy Mason Park and I have seen hundreds of viewers touched and inspired by Mason's story. It often catches people off guard that this small park in the middle of L.A.'s Historic Core was once the land of a former slave who became one of the wealthiest people in early Los Angeles.

Chicano Park

Located in the Barrio Logan district of San Diego, Chicano Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and it has the highest concentration of outdoor murals located in any one site anywhere in the world. Situated underneath a major interchange of two San Diego freeways, Chicano Park now has over 100 murals on the several gray concrete columns holding up the intersecting expressways. Founded on April 22, 1970, Chicano Park was created by Chicano movement activists that were protesting a Highway Patrol station that was going to be built on the present location of the park.

Murals painted on the underside of bridges in San Diego's Chicano Park.
Chicano Park is a 7.9-acre park located beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge in the neighborhood of Barrio Logan, in central San Diego, California. | kellinahandbasket / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The park's creation was further inspired by the malaise lingering in the area after hundreds of homes were demolished in their neighborhood to build Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge. Their efforts eventually resulted in the land being given over for a community park. An onsite museum is slated to be built in the coming year. One of the stewards is Ethnic Studies Professor Alberto Lopez Pulido from the University of San Diego who runs the "Turning Wheel Project" in partnership with the Chicano Park Steering Committee. Their work focuses on spotlighting community stories from lesser known pockets of San Diego. Similar in spirit to Judy Baca and Dolores Hayden, Professor Pulido promotes people's history as a way of empowering the youth, women and people of color.

Great Wall of Los Angeles

Up until recently, the Great Wall was the longest mural in the world. Coming in at over 2,800 feet, the mural is a 10,000 year history of California from the last ice age to the 1984 Olympics. Located along the Tujunga Wash between Oxnard and Burbank boulevards in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, there are images of Native Americans, Biddy Mason, Albert Einstein, Chinese railroad workers, the citrus industry and Rosie the Riveter. Painted over seven summers from 1976 to 1983, the mural is going to be extended even further now thanks to a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The epitome of people's history, Baca's mural also included assistance from close to 300 teenagers who helped her paint it through community programs. One of Baca's favorite phrases is "collaborate first, then paint." She not only paid the youth who worked with her, she used the process to educate them about deeper California history and also to empower them in their own journey.

Jackie Robinson/Mack Robinson Sculptures

Two large bronze sculptures of notable African American men across from Pasadena's City Hall.
A bronze sculpture of groundbreaking baseball player Jackie Robinson and his brother Olympic medal winner Mack Robinson, created by Ralph Helmick and John Outterbridge. | Little Koshka / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

These two bronze portrait head sculptures created by Ralph Helmick and John Outterbridge of groundbreaking baseball player Jackie Robinson and his brother Olympic medal winner Mack Robinson are located in Centennial Square in Pasadena just across from the city's City Hall. Both men grew up in Pasadena, so honoring them in their own hometown with these sculptures is apropos. Jackie looks east past City Hall towards New York where he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mack looks directly at the front door of City Hall because he stayed in Pasadena after the Olympics and worked for the city for many years. Though Mack was not as well-known as Robinson, he won a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics and has a Pasadena post office and stadium at Pasadena City College named after him. The bronze heads are impressive both from a distance and up close. A closer look reveals that text and bas relief imagery are embedded in their hair making reference to their many accomplishments in politics, sports and community service.

Sankofa Passage in Leimert Park

The Sankofa Passage is a community-initiated site along Degnan Boulevard in Leimert featuring 16 bronze plaques with two names on each plaque. Almost like Leimert's Walk of Fame, the project is intended to preserve, document and educate the world about the many African American artists and visionaries who made their mark in the Leimert Park/Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Names like Horace Tapscott, Billy Higgins, Marla Gibbs, Clora Bryant, Eric Dolphy, Kamau Daaood, architect Paul Williams and 25 others are honored on the plaque within a bronze pyramid bordered by slave branding iron-shapes enclosing their name, artistic field, place and year of birth. Sankofa is an African principle and symbol from Ghana that asserts we must learn, respect and recognize the past so that the present and future generations can move forward. Initiated by Clint Rosemond, the Sankofa Passage honors the legacy of these illustrious artists and also offers a bridge for aspiring artists to strive for and be inspired by.

A diamond-shaped plaque embedded into the cement floor with the names Horace Tapscott and Alonzo Davis is written out.
One of the many plaques along Sankofa Passage, a community-initiated des tination designed to pay tribute to the rich artistic legacy of Leimert Park and the Crenshaw Area. | Ricky Richardson
A plaque on the cement floor of the street with the names Marla Gibbs and Paul R. Williams in it.
The plaque that recognizes Marla Gibbs and Paul R. Williams' contribution is included at Sankofa Passage. | Ricky Richardson

Learn more about the role of Leimert Park in Los Angeles’ rich jazz legacy.
The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy

Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park

Formerly known as the Marsh Street River Park in the Elysian Valley area colloquially known as Frogtown, this green space is now named after Lewis MacAdams, the poet and environmentalist that co-founded the Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1985-86. In 2018, a four-sided sculpture of MacAdams was installed in the park. Created by Eugene Daub, the sculpture stands six and a half feet tall and is a large rectangle near the north end of the park and just south of the riverbed. The sculpture includes MacAdams' face with his trademark hat and his quote, "If it's Not Impossible, I'm Not Interested." This quote is especially appropriate because nobody thought there was much possibility of restoring the Los Angeles River back in the 1980s when MacAdams started his efforts. The other three sides of the sculpture include lines of MacAdams' poetry, including eight lines about frogs because the park is in Frogtown. Though MacAdams passed in 2020, there's now an annual Lewis MacAdams Prize for the best public art proposal along the Los Angeles River. Lines of MacAdams' poetry are also etched onto metalwork at the Cypress Park Gold Line Station, about two miles east of the park. There are quite a few other examples of poetry used as public art across Los Angeles, but the Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park and sculpture are the most obvious.

Three Public Art Pieces in Little Tokyo's First Street

An engraved timeline on First Street celebrates a century of businesses along the street. Created by artist Sheila de Bretteville along with contributions by Sonya Ishii and Nobuho Nagasawa, the timeline on First Street serves "as a public path connecting the doorways of the row of modest preserved buildings, the church and the museum." It not only marks the different businesses at the various addresses, but also remembers events like the 1942 opening of the internment camps, the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and the war period from 1942 to 1945 when Little Tokyo became Bronzeville an African American neighborhood because all of the Japanese had left to the camps and the beginning of Nisei Week in 1934.

''Remembering Little Tokyo on First Street'' public art by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Sonya Ishii, and Nobuho Nagasawa, planned by The Power of Place | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa