Historians, Activists Fight to Save Renowned Sherman Oaks Mural

Art historians and local activists in Sherman Oaks are decrying the likely destruction of an 85-foot-long mural created in a Jewish neighborhood. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The mural is on the north wall of the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center on Burbank Boulevard. The center, known as the JCC, was built by Jewish families flocking to the San Fernando Valley's new homes after World War II. Les Paley was in his early 30s then.

Les Paley: We built the center back in '59; we were there, my wife and I, our family. November of 1959, they cut the ribbon for opening of the building.

[Klezmer music plays]

Guzman-Lopez: Unlike a synagogue, the JCC's focus wasn't on religion. It was mainly a place for family activities.

Paley: Our children lived around the corner, and they walked every day to the center. Three of our children. What did they have? Drama, dance, guitar classes. It was our social life of my generation, my peers, was around this center.

Guzman-Lopez: The center's main hall was the setting for wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, and other rites of passage. Fifteen years ago, Paley and other JCC leaders received a public grant to commission a mural for the center's main outside wall.

They picked John Weber, a Chicago based muralist with an international reputation. Weber recently visited the Sherman Oaks mural for the first time since he and a crew of volunteers finished it. The center's director, Weber said, wanted to depict the Passover Seder, or dinner, commemorating the Jewish exile from Egypt.

John Weber: She said, what we asked for was the themes of the Haggadah; the Haggadah is the text that's read at the Seder. But we want them translated in such a way, translated, right? In such a way that our non-Jewish neighbors will understand.

Guzman-Lopez: Weber used vibrant blues and greens, and warm orange, browns, and yellows, to depict 19 different scenes: children's folk dances, hands breaking matzos, and the clasping hands of people of different races. A Jewish Star of David, Arabic designs, and Persian flower motifs frame the images. He titled it "Our History/Toward Freedom."

It's one of his best works, Weber says, looking at its still vibrant colors. But he's distraught. Financial troubles led the JCC to sell the building recently. The Help Group, a non-profit that aids autistic and learning disabled children, bought the site and plans to remodel the building. The organization notified the artist that it doesn't plan to conserve his mural. That's about all that's required by law, said intellectual property lawyer Les Weinstein.

Les Weinstein: The owner has the right to do what he wants with it, providing he gives the artist 90 days notice as a matter of precaution, so he can remove the mural, but if the artist doesn't remove the mural within the 90 days, he's going to be out of luck.

Guzman-Lopez: Leaders of the Help Group declined an interview. Weber said his mural doesn't promote the Jewish religion, and he's even willing to remove the painting's Jewish symbols. In emails to KPCC, the Help Group's Vice President said the mural is not consistent with the organization's mission and its plans for the building. UCLA art historian Paul Von Blum knows the mural well. He was a member of the committee that commissioned the artwork.

Paul Von Blum: It may be legal, but it's unwise. It's unwise to destroy a work of art of that stature. The loss of that mural in Los Angeles I think would be comparable to the whitewashing of the Diego Rivera mural in New York in the '30s.

Guzman-Lopez: Artist John Weber said it's too expensive to remove and preserve the mural. At the very least, he hopes to take a high quality digital photograph of his artwork. Several of his Chicago murals are now gone, having suffered a similar fate. It's a personal loss, he said, and a loss for people who want to understand a neighborhood's history.

Weber: In the United States, we often view our urbanscape, our cityscape, as disposable. And the psychological importance of historical landmarks, historical markers, is, I think, very gravely underestimated.

Guzman-Lopez: A generation ago local arts leaders called Los Angeles the mural capital of the world. Few say that these days. Many of the city's vibrant murals have been lost to graffiti and neglect. John Weber hopes the loss of his Sherman Oaks mural will at least spark a discussion about which works of art are worth saving.

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