While some might see the wing walls of Glendale's historic flood gates as looming pieces of concrete, artist Robert Rossoff saw a canvas--not for paint, but innovation.
A pre-visualization artist and a painter by trade, Rossoff took his experience working on films such as "Shrek 2," "Shrek 3," "Madagascar," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," and "Alice in Wonderland," and channeled them into animating this intimidating piece of land along the Los Angeles River in Glendale as part of the nearly half-mile Glendale Narrows Riverwalk project due to open this fall.
Rossoff is the artist behind "Egret's Flight," a series of egrets drawn stop-motion style on each of the fifteen 4.5-feet tall by 8-feet long wing walls abutting the historic floodgates at the intersection of Paula and Garden Streets.
The installation begins lyrically, with a trout swimming through three "frames." As the trout exits on the fourth wing wall, an egret swoops in, wings flapping until it reaches the last wing wall. A subtle nod to its neighbors Disney and Dreamworks, the "animation" was tailor made for this section of the Glendale Narrows, one of the last remainders of the river's wild, natural past. In this area, birds such as snowy egrets and blue herons were in abundance; so were carp, bass and tilapia.
Pre-visualization is a process of mocking up complex scenes in a movie or animation without having to incur the cost of production. With the help of pre-visualization artists, directors are able to experiment with different staging options such as lighting, angles, or stage direction, all before ever rolling the cameras.
It was the same technique Rossoff employed when grassroots non-profit North East Trees (NET) asked him to submit a possible design for an art installation as part of the Glendale Riverwalk last year. "I did a pre-viz work-up just like I would for any director," said Rossoff, who had already worked with Tim Burton at this point. His submission impressed NET and eventually won for him the commission.
Rossoff compares his installation to a large-scale flipbook "where the viewer moves and the flipbook remains stationary." Usually a painter, Rossoff had never before worked on such a large physical scale. His work usually made it to the big screen, yes, but almost never to reality. "I've never done something quite like this before," said Rossoff, "It's the first time that I've had to hire contractors and all that kind of stuff."
It was his lack of engineering experience that perhaps ultimately led him to a breakthrough. When he first proposed the work the Glendale City Council, Rossoff thought to sandblast the design on the existing walls, only to find that it was technically impossible. As a result, he invented a new process, which he's hoping to patent in the coming weeks. "I'm just using an artist's imagination of how one would construct something like this," said Rossoff.
Rossoff and his contractors came up with the idea to use channels and lathe and plaster processes common in building to embed his design onto the existing wall. Rossoff first drew all the images full-scale by hand and scanned them into his computer. He translated those images in aluminum with one inch deep "channels" delineating the outline. He then painted the channels black on the inside and filled it in with removable foam. The aluminum panels were then affixed to the wing walls. Rossoff's team of plasterers then added around the channels a one-inch thick metal wireframe filled it with plaster. When the foam was removed from the chnnels, the original handdrawn image emerged from the wingwalls.
It was a harrowing process, said the artist, mostly because no one knew if it would actually work. It was only when they took the foam out of the aluminum channels to reveal the black paint that they knew the experimental process was a success. "Before that moment, it could have all gone to nothing." Rossoff is now registering for a provisional patent for the process. "So far, I know of nobody who has done this technique for creating permanent one-inch deep line drawings into a plaster wall," said the artist.
It isn't just the wing walls getting a makeover. A meandering line at the front of the wing walls represented acknowledged the Los Angeles river line, which surrounds the whole area.
"Egret's Flight" came to an end with an old wall that Rossoff and his team covered with flagstone, echoing the outline of the Verdugo Mountains beyond. Once again, going back to the digital domain, Rossoff logged onto Google Earth, panned fifty feet above the wall and sketched out the mountainline beyond. "If you're an egret, that's what you would be seeing, the perspective of the mountains," said the artist, "It's a way of elevating the viewer in their mind above the spillway."
Within this, mountain silhouette are embedded mementoes from Glendale residents, a participatory element the artist asked of the community. "Some of the stuff that people gave us was just heartbreaking," said Rossoff. One of the contributions included metal dog tags from a resident whose son was killed in Afghanistan.
Further away from the river sits a small zen meditative area. A circle of rocks encloses two rectilinear benches, which sit perpendicular to each other. One bears the Tongva words mú' chemqál and the other its translation, "we are still here." Together, the benches form a diamond, a nod to Glendale's moniker as the Jewel City. Capped off by three large rocks, Rossoff hopes the site will be a place for contemplation of the Los Angeles River and its surrounding nature.
When Angelinos might see just another welcome piece of greenery, Rossoff will forever remember this as his contribution to Los Angeles. It would have been too easy for him to paint each wing wall. In fact, everyone had encouraged it, but Rossoff resisted the urge to go down the easy road, whose output would soon fade with time, and instead took a chance to contribute something lasting. It's a decision he doesn't regret, despite working long hours on a tight project budget. "I've done something to help my community," said Rossoff, "That's the best art can do--to touch people, to get people to think." At the very least, the artist says his mother, a former LAUSD teacher for 25 years, would be proud.
Aside from the installation, the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk Park will also host an equestrian facility, a bicycle and pedestrian path along the L.A. River, a picnic area, entry parks at both the west and east ends, and California native plantings throughout the park. North East Trees has been working on the full project since 2006. The project was funded by competitive grant applications from the California State Natural Resources Agency, the River Parkways Grant Program, and the California DOT's Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation program, the City of Glendale, Glendale's Department of Community Services and Parks, the County of Los Angeles Proposition A grant. Latest projections put the opening of Glendale Narrows Riverwalk Park mid-October this year.
Check North East Trees for project updates.