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Rushing Waters: Reclaiming Pacoima with Public Art

"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima | Justin Cram
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Beginning in 2010, the late great KCET writer Ed Fuentes wrote again and again in his weekly column about how Los Angeles is one of the greatest mural cities in the world. This can especially be seen in Boyle Heights, the Arts District and Leimert Park, but another neighborhood with just as many murals is Pacoima in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. 

Boasting more than thirty murals, most along Van Nuys Boulevard, Pacoima is now affectionately called Mural Mile for the many murals within the district. Most recently, in late November, a massive mural, "Rushing Waters," debuted in Pacoima. Coming in at over 10,000 square feet, it's one of the largest in the city.

I mention Fuentes because he was always the first to report a new mural and other developments on public art across Southern California. The murals in Pacoima are no different, Fuentes was writing about the area in 2011 when it first started evolving, and he was one of the first to cover Levi Ponce, the lead artist in this mural.

Though Ed Fuentes passed unexpectedly in February 2019, I still come across his 200-plus essays whenever I am researching public art in Los Angeles. This is why this story is written in his memory.

Fuentes saw murals as a way of sharing public history of the city that may not always be represented in the mainstream. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times wrote a story on Fuentes. The writer, Larry Harnisch, called Fuentes a "larger than life human cyclone" in the piece.  Within the essay, Fuentes explains why he loves murals and how they represent the city's alternative history:

Murals were designed to be art for the masses, and in the case of ethnic-based murals, spoke for those underrepresented. In Los Angeles, its own identity is lost because it’s a region people come to reinvent the city, and/or reinvent themselves. This current legacy of remaining murals, plus the manifesto of current artists, may not realize their work represents another undervalued voice: The city’s own history.

The new mural in Pacoima was painted in this same spirit of telling untold history, including narratives connected to Native Americans and the Armenian Genocide.

Rushing Waters

Located at San Fernando Road along the Metrolink train tracks, next to Paxton, the 118 Freeway and the massive Pacoima Plaza, “Rushing Waters” is 25 feet tall and 500 feet across. Paying tribute to Pacoima’s indigenous and environmental history, it appears like a revelation as you drive down San Fernando Road or exit the 118 Freeway.

Honoring both natural and manmade landmarks in and around Pacoima like Hansen Dam, the Sylmar Aqueduct, San Gabriel Mountains, the Los Angeles River, Whiteman Airport and nearby freeways, the most prominent and obvious image within the mural is a 25-foot tall Tataviam Village woman pouring her bowl of water onto the land. The mural was painted over three weeks from November 4th to November 25th. A team of nine artists painted the mural led by Pacoima native Levi Ponce. Ponce selected artists Erica Friend, Cristian Cardenas, Gore, Hector “Tetris” Arias, Jose Javier, Juan Pablo, Mighk Rivera, Red Ortiz and photographer Lisa Lee to join him in the project.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, Levi Ponce and the team that realized the "Rushing Waters" mural | Courtesy of Council District 7
Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, Levi Ponce and the team that realized the "Rushing Waters" mural | Courtesy of Council District 7

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez provided funding, and the mural itself was on the drawing board for over four years. Ponce has had the vision for the project since 2015. Pacoima itself has evolved a lot over the last decade. The district’s revitalization has been driven from within by its own citizens. Artists like Ponce, Kristy Sandoval, JP Reyes and Manny Velazquez, along with the environmental justice group, Pacoima Beautiful, have transformed Pacoima's streets into a much more vibrant landscape. Prior to their recent work, Pacoima was one of the Valley’s most neglected landscapes.

A long shot of the"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima | Justin Cram
A long shot of the"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima | Justin Cram

Ponce is proud to be one of the native artists that have helped transform the landscape. “This is a historic endeavor,” he says, “and my team and I are extremely honored to be trusted with a project that means so much to Pacoima and what it will represent for generations to come. We hope this project serves as a catalyst for change not only in art but for the people of this beautiful City. For years, red tape kept this project out of reach — I commend Councilwoman Rodriguez for stepping up and making this project a reality for our community."

Ponce prides himself on being a community-based artist. “Growing up in Pacoima made me more aware of the differences in resources available in Los Angeles neighborhoods,” Ponce says. “And my art became a tool for helping to shape neighborhoods and the resources available in them.” Over the years, he has collaborated with a wide range of artists, businesses and organizations.

This mural though was a different story because they had several environmental factors to contend with as they painted. The main issue was being next to the railroad tracks. Due to the dangers and potential liabilities, they actually had to undergo a brief training session about safety precautions and procedures before they could begin painting the project. Moreover, the location of the mural next to train tracks made the massive 500-foot wall a popular site for many years with local graffiti writers.

“Given the history of the wall," Ponce explains, "I tried to work with local graffiti artists of different experience levels. It would have been amazing to have an open weekend for the general public to come and paint, but safety and liability wouldn't allow it. Normally my murals are open for community participation at any scale, and everyone who participates grows at their own pace. But because of the project environment, I only had 15 days to execute 10,000 square feet and was allowed eight assistants...:" Erica Friend painted the section in the middle of the 25-foot-tall native Tataviam village woman. Ponce consulted with local Tataviam elders before the composition to make sure the 25-foot tall woman was represented correctly. 

"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima. The image shows a Native American woman holding a basin of water. | Justin Cram
"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima. The image shows a Native American woman holding a basin of water. | Justin Cram

"It was a great honor to be asked by Levi Ponce,” Friend says, “to paint the prominent mural figure of the Tataviam village woman. Painting the centerpiece of the largest above-ground mural in the San Fernando Valley in nearly 50 years is an experience that words can not express. Being the only female artist to paint is very special and meaningful for me, my family and community. Just being able to paint side by side with other graffiti artists and share their energy to complete this wall is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.­­ "

Another prominent feature within the mural is the blue "Forget-me-not" flowers. They are, Levi Ponce says, "A nod to all the Armenian families living, working and playing in this part of Los Angeles." The owner of the building is Armenian, and there's a large population of Armenians in the San Fernando Valley, so Ponce was happy to include these flowers throughout the mural. The "Forget-Me-Not" flower grows naturally in many places around the world but especially in Armenia. The Armenian Canadian blogger Tallin Orfalli explained in 2015, their symbolism:

This forget-me-not-flower expresses eternal remembrance, also that evokes the past, the present and the future experiences of our Armenian people. This year, the theme is forget-me-not, and this flower is the official emblem worldwide to observe this as the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

Revisiting Ed Fuentes's idea that murals share underrepresented history, the content of "Rushing Waters" adheres to this theme perfectly. 104 years after the fact, there are still many nations that do not recognize the Armenian Genocide, even though 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915. The dozens of Forget-Me-Not flowers all across "Rushing Waters" remember these fallen Armenians.

"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima. The image shows large blue forget-me-nots. | Justin Cram
"Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima. The image shows large blue forget-me-nots. | Justin Cram

Writing on the Wall

In the spirit of further remembering, I want to bring the narrative back to Ed Fuentes. From about 2006 to 2012, I would see Fuentes a few times a month around Downtown LA. We were both deeply active in the emerging artistic community. His blog was called, “View From a Loft,” and Fuentes was photographing and blogging about art events in spaces like the Crewest Gallery while writing about all things art related around Downtown. I was doing poetry events and walking tours around Crewest, the Lost Souls Cafe and in the galleries along Spring Street. Fuentes and I would often be in the same locations. By 2010, Fuentes started writing for KCET. He called his column “Writing on the Wall.”

Fuentes knew Levi Ponce and wrote about Pacoima’s transformation extensively for KCET.  Fuentes moved to Las Vegas around 2013 to attend school, and during this time, he still wrote several columns for KCET. He eventually earned an MFA at UNLV. While in Vegas, he started a blog called “Paint this Desert.” His writing in Vegas shared the same spirit as his L.A. work. 

The Las Vegas Weekly writer Danielle Kelly honored Fuentes in an essay right after he passed. “Most of Las Vegas knows Ed for ‘Paint This Desert,’” Kelly writes, “the blog that began as an Andy Warhol Foundation grant-funded platform for exploring Las Vegas murals and public art. In Ed's hands, it evolved into a living archive of the Las Vegas arts community, a home for showing the world the city's vibrant creative ecosystem.” Kelly called him a “shapeshifting arts instigator” and runs down a list of several projects he made happen while in Nevada.

Fuentes also created a small chapbook of his work while in a Creative Writing course. In the middle of 2013, he emailed me this collection of his work as he was finishing the class. I recently found the email, and as fate would have it, one of the pages within the book pays tribute to the work of Levi Ponce. Below, I quote Fuentes's prose poem piece "Ponce’s Pacoima Posse,” in its entirety:

Ponce doesn’t want to change the world. He wants to change his street and he started with a looming and menacing monochrome of Danny Trejo, the actor tied to Pacoima’s streets. The stare-down is thrown up against a background splitting greens and blues, and a low-rider and bike are ornamental symbolism. Even poles become part of the installation. One becomes a light standard lit at night. Another pole is a way-finder that says “Pacoima” with a hint of gang calligraphy. The sky, beaten homes, and parking spots with oil, are part of the street art mural visual. Like the words on the chest of the portrait, the oil in the lot work form an urban tattoo. Without the fragmented urban moments around the painted image, the work would say less. Within the photo, the mural and environment are a collage.

When I found this piece by Fuentes about the work of Levi Ponce, it reminded again about how insightful the man was. Pacoima’s Mural Mile was widely covered by 2018-2019, but Ed was there in 2011, years before anyone else.

In one of Fuentes’s last essays for KCET in 2017, he writes about how “murals became a representation of an alternative and real Los Angeles and redefined what art could be for a city.” Levi Ponce and the other artists in this project are doing exactly this by redefining Pacoima. “Growing up in Pacoima," Ponce shares, "a lot of us felt like underdogs in the city. This sentiment is often romanticized... I never liked feeling like a victim and always fought to better myself and my environment. When I started painting murals, I didn't set out to paint a specific mural — I set out to change the environment as a whole." 

“I love that the neighborhood is growing; it inspires me to continue doing my part with public art. I am part of a generation that's reclaiming Pacoima and am proud to help push the neighborhood’s aesthetics to levels that compare to cities with much greater resources.”

Simultaneously, Ponce has been a part of a larger movement in Pacoima with artists like Kristy Sandoval and Manny Velazquez. Together these artists are following the example of Judith Baca, one of the greatest muralists in the history of Los Angeles. Baca is also from Pacoima, and she's been painting murals across Southern California for almost 50 years. Baca's "Neighborhood Pride" program has painted over 150 murals across Southern California, honoring neighborhood history.

Indeed, Baca’s "Great Wall of Los Angeles" located just south of Pacoima along the Tujunga Wash and next to Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood is over 2,700 feet long and by far the biggest mural in Southern California. A KCET essay in 2012 states that the Great Wall was painted as “a bold illustration of the history of California from the state's prehistoric past to the struggles of its ethnic minorities for civil rights and equality.” Baca’s example with the Great Wall set the template for the work these younger artists now continue.

All of this is to say, the new 500-foot long mural in Pacoima is carrying on an important legacy of using murals to convey people’s history in a way that the public can access easily. Salute to the team of Pacoima artists who finished “Rushing Waters.” Levi Ponce and these other artists are game-changers reclaiming Pacoima through public art, and like Ed Fuentes, they are doing their part to shift the narrative of 21st century Los Angeles.

Top Image: "Rushing Waters" mural in Pacoima | Justin Cram

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