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Uncovered Olympic Glories: Murals Restoration on the 101 Freeway

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As the sun beat down on the earth, heat fizzled from the surrounding concrete, sizzling the temperature a few degrees higher. Perched on scaffolding at the edge of the 101 freeway, artist Willie Herrón III and his assistant Melody Betancourt bake in the sun while wearing hard hats and day-glo vests.

The two are putting the finishing touches on one of Los Angeles's prized possessions, Frank Romero's "Going to the Olympics." Colorful low-riders seemingly chug alongside modern-day speed machines, zooming by at 60 miles per hour. Above them, wrestlers are locked in perpetual combat and a horse whinnies in triumph. Bright, colorful and evocative, Romero's mural is a welcome sight along the somber gray of the city's freeways.

Every so often, boisterous beeps come from the free flowing highway a few inches behind Herrón and Betancourt, as if lending them moral support for the painstaking work. It is all in a day's work for Herrón, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles' official restorer.

He has been working with conservancy since 2012, bringing back some of the city's Olympic gems from the edges of collective memory and into the windshield purviews of thousands on the Hollywood freeway.

"We thought we could bring murals back to their original glory to create a drive-by gallery," says Herrón, whose extra-bronzed skin is evidence of the hours under the sun he spends with other people's murals. Romero's is the third mural he's brought back to life, after working on Kent Twitchell's "Lita Albuquerque Monument" and Glenna Boltuch Avila's "L.A. Freeway Kids" last year.

Commissioned in 1984, these murals are part of ten pieces created during the Olympic Arts Festival in commemoration of the city hosting the Summer Games. The effort was a milestone in the city's art history, adding credibility to L.A.'s "mural capital of the world" claim while burnishing sheen on the careers of muralists in the city.

An artist and muralist who emerged in the Chicano arts movement of the 70s, Herrón has been restoring his own works for more than 40 years. It was that experience and his generosity, which led Isabel Rojas-Williams, the conservancy's Executive Director, to engage his services in the restoration of the Olympic murals on the 101 Freeway. Herrón 's own "Luchas del Mundo" is part of that historic commission, which the artist hopes to revive last.

"[The Olympic murals are] an important part of our history," says Rojas-Williams, "They speak about something that happened in our city that brought tremendous civic pride."

Sadly, that bright moment in history slowly faded, as graffiti, construction and natural weathering bore down on the works. With no clear plan for preservation and maintenance, the murals slowly decayed.

In 2007, CalTrans began to "hibernate" the murals. The agency coated murals with an environmentally friendly organic material and covered it with gray paint, which could be peeled away once funds are available for restoration.

It is this gray paint that Herrón and his assistant have been peeling away using highly pressurized water shots aimed at a precise angle and specific temperature. After re-touching the colors -- careful not to make it seem too bright or new -- Herrón then coats it with a protective layer that will last another decade. From there, more questions emerge however, "Once restored, who then is going to keep it preserved?" asks Herrón, "I think it's the city's obligation to manage it."

Restoration work is fraught with many difficult tasks. Not just physically and logistically, but also financially, relates Rojas-Williams. The conservancy has been funding their restorations through mural tours, membership and online fundraising. "In reality we're begging everyday from different people." In a 10-day span, Rojas-Williams has met with nine council members and one senator pleading the conservancy's cause. She believes that by preserving these public works of art, the city is paving the way for a richer cultural legacy.

"Murals are the cultural breach between street art and arts institutions," says Rojas-Williams, "If you have a child looking at a mural, he doesn't need much explanation what's going on in that huge painting, which is probably cause for that kid to want to go to a museum or gallery later in life."

Unfortunately, not all of the city's legacies can be preserved. Out of the 10 murals, only seven could be saved. Three murals on the 110 Freeway were irreparable. Richard Wyatt's "James and Spectators" and Roderick Sykes "Unity" were damaged during highway repair. Natural weathering got to Alonzo Davis's "Eye on 84" before CalTrans could.

Nevertheless, the conservancy perseveres, knocking on doors and entreating for dollars and services. Its next restoration is John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo", a spacey piece of work that shows the detritus of classical Greek buildings and sculptures float endlessly among planets.

Follow the conservancy's progress on their Facebook page. Learn more about murals in Los Angeles on KCET Departures' publication, Land of Sunshine.

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