Last October, crews began tearing down the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles so they can build a 71 story hotel, retail and office space. During the process, an exciting discovery was made. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson has the story.
It was April of 2012 when Gregory Johnson--an interior designer from Koreatown -- was rummaging through the hotel's ballroom at a liquidation sale. At the end of the room, he saw a stairwell: "here was a sign that said "more" and just a handwritten arrow," said Johnson. "And it turned out to be the hotel's storage facility for like holiday things and the banquet tables. It was a really, really large space.
That's where he saw the mural: a fifteen foot wide mosaic mural, made of thousands of tiny glass tiles: blues, oranges, reds, blacks. A huge landscape depicting the oil industry as it was in Los Angeles probably in the late 50s, early 60s. Offshore wells either in Long Beach or Santa Barbara, oil tankers heading into port, sprawling refineries and finally--far off to the right--a truck gassing up at a nondescript station. Johnson fell in love, but went home without buying it.
"And I just kept thinking about it all night long," he said. "I mean, it just seemed so beautiful . And it just seemed like what would happen to it is either it would get destroyed or they would contact some salvage company and it would go back east somewhere or whatever."
After some wheeling and dealing, Johnson bought the mural for just over $5,000. Bu once he had the mural, there was work to do. First, it was dirty: The room the mural lived in wasn't always storage.
Up until the 1980s it was home to the Los Angeles Petroleum Club--for decades members and guests drank, and smoked next to the mural ... and it smelled like it. "I started with a toothbrush, because I had been in contact with a couple people who had installed these," said Johnson. "They said I had to be really careful about it. So I just spritzed on solvent, like lysol. Because it was so greasy."
But more importantly: how did it get there? And who created it? Johnson reached out to Lillian Sizemore — a mosaic artist and researcher in Sausalito She's made a name for herself in the mosaic community investigating the history and provenance of mosaic works. "The editor has termed me Miss Marble," said Sizemore. "Like Miss Marple, you know?"
When Sizemore first looked at the mural, she thought of a Millard Sheets--a giant in the world of LA mosaics. When it became clear they were looking at someone different, the leads began to dry up. Sizemore looked to a couple of Texas mosaicists who had similar murals behind them--no go there.
And this wasn't necessarily the work of a very experienced mosaicist. "Looking at the cuts and the way that they're placed," said Sizemore. "They're very random and you can tell that there's not a confident hand there. And the adhesive is probably some sort of basic Elmer's glue. So that sort of indicates right there that this was not a professionally executed job. The design is professional, but the technique is not."
It could've been anyone. An artist friend of the hotel owner. A college art student. But then — on the bottom right of the mural -- Johnson found a signature. "When I told [Lillian], I said I don't know if this is a joke or not," he said.
The name? John Smith.
"It's like a needle in the haystack here," said Sizemore. "But, as it turns out, once we had that name, both Greg and I were able to track down a John Smith who was an active artist in the LA modernist movement. But he was more known for tapestry and not for mosaic."
However, said Sizemore, Smith was mentioned a magazine article about mosaic work. That makes him the best lead, and his focus on tapestry means the inexperienced tile work makes sense here.
But still, nothing absolutely conclusive. Sizemore, Johnson and I have each tried to track down the artist or his family. So far, no luck. But a work of art this amazing deserves credit, so we're put the call out to you: do you know a John Smith who worked in tapestry? Or, even better, mosaics?
Please, let us know in the comments!
And for more on the mural, check out Lillian Sizemore's own exhaustive investigation at Mosaic Art Now.