Artist reunites with mural he created nearly three decades ago

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Thirty years ago, a Los Angeles painter a couple of years out of art school began to photograph the people and storefronts along Broadway downtown. For nearly two years, the artist worked on a series of paintings based on those photos. Scholars agree that he created a seminal work of L.A. art. The artist hadn't seen the work after it entered a private collection a decade ago. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was present when he saw it again.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: At the RAND Corporation's sleek Santa Monica headquarters, old friends meet again – the 60-foot-long Broadway Mural and its creator, John Valadez.

John Valadez: It's good to see it again in the way the grouping is, inside here, it's really nice. And then I see what I always dreaded. When I first started I used this color for the flesh tones. Some of the faces and the feet are green, I mean these people are green, you know.

Guzman-Lopez: Valadez used cheap oil paints, then more expensive ones, to create 10 oil-on-canvas portraits of the varied swirl of people, colors, and cultures on Broadway. In one panel, an African-American man in military uniform waits with a boombox on his shoulder.

In the next, a young couple parades in white Mexican folkloric outfits, an earthy red and gold terrazzo floor radiates from a theater ticket booth, and a newsstand's periodicals scream nearly 30-year-old headlines. RAND researcher Benjamin Carney walks by the painting every workday.

Benjamin Carney: One of the things I like about it is the diversity, the color. Another thing about it is I like the subject matter because this is RAND and we're supposed to be doing research that improves people's lives, and so it's nice every day as we come to work to pass a mural that represents people's lives in all their diversity.
Guzman-Lopez: John Valadez, standing right here, painted this mural. What would you ask him about this mural?
Carney: Did you paint this from life, did you see it, did you take photos, photo reference?
Valadez: They come from a series of photographs, I forget how many. The idea was to make it look like it's one setting.

Guzman-Lopez: The RAND Corporation began 63 years ago as a think tank for the U.S. armed forces. It's become a policy touchstone for government, charities, and the private sector.

Valadez says he regards the mural's prominent place in the RAND lobby as subversive, because it places depictions of marginalized, working-class people in the sleek corridors of power.

Valadez: It comes from observation of the street, because I love the street ever since I was a child. For me downtown L.A. was the center of the world. I lived in Boyle Heights.

And when my mother would bring us downtown to go see the Bullocks, May Company, Clifton's Cafeteria. For me, so when I got out of art school I wanted to do a series of work based on what I thought was paradise, you know.

Guzman-Lopez: Computer innovator Peter Norton bought the Broadway Mural when the downtown L.A. business that had owned it left its longtime home. The mural's on loan to RAND.

In the last three decades, Valadez has exhibited his work nationally and in Europe. He's created art for the Santa Ana federal building, the State of California building in downtown L.A. and the Memorial Park station on the Pasadena Gold Line. He says the Broadway Mural gave him the confidence to work on all those projects.

Valadez: A year-and-a-half working on one thing, it taught me, later on I worked two-and-a-half years to do a painting. I really got used to working labor intensive, getting it done. Completing a vision, because this was a fantasy realized.

Guzman-Lopez: A fantasy, he says, that's still on view 30 years later along Broadway in downtown L.A.