Despite winning the narrow support of the Mount Washington Association (MWA) on Monday evening, artists Zach Christensen and Robert Sipchen learned that their efforts to create a mural on a bulkhead near a local monastery has its fair share of powerful opponents.
After a spirited discussion, the Mount Washington Association voted 14-8 in favor of granting conditional support to the artists efforts to create a narrative memorial to their childhood friend , who took his own life in January after long struggling with schizophrenia.
However, mural opponents such as Mount Washington lawyer and (SRF) member Hank Shaeffer promised to fight the mural project every step of the way.
Shaeffer told the crowd of about 30 community members who gathered in the Jack and Denny Smith Community Center that the city's zoning code prohibits public art projects in residential areas, and that he would appeal to the Los Angeles City Attorney should the artists get the approval of Departments of Public Works and Cultural Affairs.
"I oppose this, I want to make that clear. And I will take it to the city attorney if needed," Shaeffer said.
Presenting the Work
The works of art propped up on the stage of the Jack and Denny Smith Community Center--including a large, multi-hued buffalo, a playfully shaggy yellow creature, and the head of a leonine beast--have been called “charming and whimsical” by fans, like muralist Jay Richards, and “sacreligious” and “disrespectful” by SRF member David Brunk.
Artists Christensen and Sipchen, along with friend Antonio Villaraigosa Jr., have been making the rounds of community meetings in order to .
The dissenting points of view expressed by Richards and Brunk in were characteristic of last night’s meeting of the Mount Washington Association, during which Association members and interested neighbors engaged in a spirited-verging-on-heated discussion about the mural.
Parents Speak Out Publicly in Support of Mural
Keith Rohman, with wife Connie in attendance, commenced the meeting with an emotional statement in support of the artists and the mural memorializing his son, Jack.
Rohman told the crowd that he and Connie have been behind the mural from the beginning but had decided to publicly speak out in support of the project because many of the Association members are “friends and neighbors” and because Connie serves on the Association Board.
Acknowledging that some of their friends might not support the mural, Rohman said, “Connie and I want you to know that you were friends before, and will be our friends afterwards.”
Rohman fought back emotion at the end of the speech when he praised his son’s friends who have dealt with “terrible loss by pulling together, by trying to do something memorable but which involves a long and challenging process
“Connie and I are so proud of the young men they have become,” Rohman added, urging the crowd to give Jack’s friends “a respectful hearing” before leaving with his wife so that the issue could be discussed freely.
Self-Realization Disapproves, Won’t Take Public Stance
the 52-panel mural Christensen, Sipchen and Villaraigosa would adorn a bulkhead along Mount Washington Drive between San Rafael Avenue and Canyon Vista Drive.
The bulkhead is city property but is surrounded by land owned by the Self-Realization Fellowship, whose followers consider the former Mount Washington Hotel “holy ground” because it was the home for many years of the Fellowship’s founder Paramahansa Yogananda.
The suitability of painting a mural in such close proximity to the SRF and the fellowship’s stance on the projects were two of the evening’s livelier topics of discussion. A major issue was whether the SRF had been approached about or consulted with the project.
Private Conversations vs. Formal Channels
Zack’s father, Warren Christensen, who has privately worked with “key members” of the SRF on previous community projects, expressed deep gratitude and respect for the SRF. He then reported that his SRF contacts had twice declined to see a presentation about the mural because, as a monastery, they can’t take a public stance on the project.
Shaeffer told the elder Christensen and the crowd that because the SRF was also a corporation, a formal letter to the Board would have been more appropriate.
The elder Christensen acknowledged that the “SRF is very, very clear that they don’t want [the mural],” but indicated that the religious organization would also defer to the greater community’s wishes so as not to be divisive.
Many in the crowd, including avid supporters of the mural, expressed respect for their monastic neighbors and acknowledged the need to take their wishes into consideration.
Legality of Mural in Question
Shaeffer also warned the artists that he had studied the city codes regarding murals, and, in his opinion, the Department of Public Works couldn’t approve their project even with community support, as public art projects are prohibited in residential zones.
Kai Newkirk, Councilman Jose Huizar’s Field Deputy for Mount Washington and Eagle Rock, said that, according to Pat Gomez of the Department of Public Works, there was a moratorium on murals on private property but not on public property.
Supporters Want to See Final Mural Renderings
Last summer, the young artists, along with Jack and other friends created a temporary, guerrilla installation on the bulkhead that generated equal amounts of admiration and controversy. For the memorial mural, the young men have tried to garner community support before submitting final renderings to the Department of Public Works and then the Cultural Affairs Commission.
Many in the crowd supported the mural in theory but expressed a desire to see the final renderings before offering formal approval. Kelly Thompson said that she had done “many murals” and the artist “always has to submit renderings to the community.”
Carol Jacques, who described herself as a “long-time activist”, told Christensen and Sipchen that she while she applauds their efforts, she wanted to “see what I’m supporting.” Christensen estimated that the final renderings would be done within a couple of months and Jacques asked the young men to bring the renderings back at that time.
Association member Eliot Sekuler disagreed strongly with the need to publicly vet the mural’s content, commenting that if acclaimed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros had submitted his murals for public approval, they would have “come out looking like Disney renderings.”