Category Archives: inspiration

Inspiration: The Great Wall of Los Angeles


Take a group of low-income, at-risk youths from various ethnic backgrounds, all involved with the criminal justice system, many with a history of interracial and gang warfare.

IMG_9151Employ them to work on a massive mural project documenting their various ethnic histories.

Version 2Bring together a group of artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and community volunteers to collaborate.

IMG_9141What do you get?

IMG_9131You get the Great Wall of Los Angeles.

IMG_9135I just visited this astounding half-mile long mural showing the history of ethnic people in California from pre-historic times until the 1950s.

IMG_9128It’s said to be the longest mural in the world.

IMG_9092It’s a long train of powerful, moving, disturbing, beautiful images.

IMG_9091Here’s how it came to be: In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Los Angeles artist Judy Baca about the possibility of creating a mural as part of a beautification project along the wall of the Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel that drains the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley.

IMG_9136Baca, a Chicana, took inspiration from the Mexican social mural movement, and conceived of a project that would use the space to “create public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population, but who are not represented in public spaces in any visual way.”

IMG_9086Over 400 young people participated in the making of the mural, which was begun in 1974 and completed over five summers.

IMG_9056The youths selected were employed as assistants and participated in both the planning and execution of the mural. They were paid through the Summer Youth Employment Program.

IMG_9101The participants were supervised by professional artists who worked with them four to eight hours a day.

IMG_9096They received art instruction, attended lectures by historians specializing in ethnic history, and did improvisational theater and team-building exercises.

IMG_9071There were big take-aways. Kids who had always felt themselves invisible felt the importance of their history and gained new perspectives on the impact they could make in their world.

IMG_9080The project engendered responsibility, cooperation, comradery, pride.

IMG_9084The participants learned to work together in a context where the diversity of their cultures was the focus. Thus the Great Wall, in its process of creation as well as its content, is a great monument to interracial harmony.

IMG_9025Work is never done on the Wall, as it is in continuing need of restoration. In addition, Baca hopes be able to continue the project, engaging more young people and depicting history up to the present day.

IMG_9094If you’re in the LA area, you can find The Great Wall of Los Angeles along Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Blvd and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. It runs in roughly chronological order, with the beginning on the Burbank Blvd end.

IMG_9062There really are people out there who are changing the world in wonderful ways. Here’s a video about the history and the making of the mural:

Inspiration: Alejandro Durán


Alejandro Durán, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist, has created a series of site-specific sculptures in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, in his native Mexico. His site: undeveloped, federally-protected land, a place named “where heaven was born” by the ancient Mayan people. His material: trash.

“In my current project, Washed Up, I address the issue of plastic pollution making its way across the ocean and onto the shores of Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally-protected reserve. With more than twenty pre-Columbian archaeological sites, this UNESCO World Heritage site is also home to a vast array of flora and fauna and the world’s second largest coastal barrier reef. Unfortunately, Sian Ka’an is also a repository for the world’s trash, which is carried there by ocean currents from many parts of the globe.”

“Over the course of this project, I have identified plastic waste from fifty nations on six continents that have washed ashore along the coast of Sian Ka’an. I have used this international debris to create color-based, site-specific sculptures.”

“Conflating the hand of man and nature, at times I distribute the objects the way the waves would; at other times, the plastic takes on the shape of algae, roots, rivers, or fruit, reflecting the infiltration of plastics into the natural environment.”

“More than creating a surreal or fantastical landscape, these installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament. The resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our disposable culture.”

“…Washed Up speaks to the environmental concerns of our time and its vast quantity of discarded materials. The alchemy of Washed Up lies not only in converting a trashed landscape, but in the project’s potential to raise awareness and change our relationship to consumption and waste.”

For a look at the work of another trash-collecting artist, check out this post about Barry Rosenthal.

Inspiration: Queen Califia’s Magic Circle


Several years back, I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles and dragged her, kicking and screaming a bit, onto I-5 South to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a very hot Saturday in June. We were headed to Kit Carson Park in Escondido, about a half hour north of San Diego. When we got there, LA freeway aggravation gave way to joy. We had arrived at the amazing Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, a gorgeous mosaic sculpture garden created by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle that is rich with magic and myth. The garden takes its name from a fictional warrior queen.

The entrance to the garden is a maze with walls covered in black, white and mirrored mosaic tiles. The mirrors reflect the colors of the sculptures and the greenery and the blue southern California sky. A 400-foot snake wall surrounds the courtyard, which contains a powerful, magnificent Queen Califia and eight totem-like figures covered with symbols, creatures, and animals that played important roles in the mythologies of the indigenous peoples that are part of California’s history.

The sculptures are covered with hand-cut glass, ceramic, and stone mosaic tiles. Queen Califia herself is embellished with hand-cut mirrored glass. The movement of light, wind, color and reflection continually transforms the garden.

This is a place for people of all ages. The works are playful, and children are welcome to explore and climb on the sculptures. Underneath the Queen, a deep blue, starry mosaic sky covers an area lined with benches, a place to meditate and dwell in the beauty and myths that have been brought to life here.

If you find yourself in southern California, don’t miss it. It’s well worth the bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the meantime, scroll through these and have a look:

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Inspiration: Watts Towers

IMG_0184 2Although I’ve visited LA many times, it took me years to make it to the amazing Watts Towers. When I finally did, I was awed. The towers and the whole compound (17 interconnected structures) were built over a period of 33 years (1921-1954) by an Italian immigrant named Simon (aka Sam) Rodia…in his spare time! As related to me by a tour guide, he suffered multiple losses, first his brother and then his daughter, became a reclusive alcoholic, and was finally abandoned by his family. He reemerged after some years, bought a narrow lot in Watts, and began to build (singlehandedly) this remarkable place.



IMG_0185 2

Rodia used scrap steel pipes, which he bent to shape by using the nearby railroad tracks as a vise. He covered them with wire mesh and mortar into which he embedded broken glass bottles, cracked tile, broken dishes, seashells, you name it. He worked in a nearby pottery factory and brought home damaged pieces to add to his work, and the neighborhood kids contributed by bringing him the junk they collected.




IMG_0182 2The ladder-like structures on the outside of the towers allowed him to climb with all his materials and tools, and he just kept adding rungs as he built higher and higher. The tallest towers are over 99 feet.



When I came back, I showed pictures of the towers to some of the teens I worked with in foster care. Rodia’s story of loss and recovery really spoke to them. They were greatly inspired by his work, and began to experiment with embedding found and collected objects into their clay pieces, enhancing the autobiographical aspect of their own work. One of my teen clients used heart imagery in all of her work and was particularly fond of working with clay. Seeing all the heart images incorporated into the tower structures, she felt a deep connection with Rodia, and the exposure to his work helped her to reach for more depth in her own work.

IMG_0183 2


watts 2

This is a good example of how incorporating exposure to the work of relevant artists can really deepen the art therapy experience. I have been able to arrange a few gallery and museum visits with clients, but photos and books can also do the trick.

You can find more info, photos, and videos here.

Inspiration: Judith Scott

If you’re within striking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, check out “Judith Scott — Bound and Unbound,” thru March 29th. Pure amazingness! Scott, a highly recognized fiber artist, produced a lot of original and fascinating work and has a compelling story. And her story and her art prompt so many interesting questions and thoughts.

IMG_3777Diagnosed in infancy with Down’s Syndrome, deaf and mute, Scott was diagnosed as profoundly retarded and institutionalized until age 44, when she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area under the guardianship of Joyce, her twin sister. Joyce enrolled Judith in a studio art program at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. Scott spent seventeen years there (she died in 2005), working six days a week, and created a highly regarded and widely collected body of fiber artworks.

IMG_3773The Creative Growth Art Center, founded in 1974, serves an extended community of mentally, developmentally, and physically disabled adult artists.  The Center provides a studio environment focused on artistic production rather than on defined therapeutic goals. According to Tom di Maria, the director at the center, “our philosophy is to nurture the creative process, not direct, control, or teach in a conventional way. We are very hands off, and give everyone lots of time, and Judith benefited from that. But after she began her first sculpture, she essentially worked independently and without guidance.”

IMG_3674Scott arrived at Creative Growth in 1987 and produced a series of drawings in various mediums, samples of which are included in the show. The looping, repetitive forms, with mixed colors and occasional collage added, seem a precursor to her intricate and and mysterious sculptures.

Once Scott was introduced to fiber, she had found her medium. Her earlier, totem-like works were bundled sticks wrapped with yarn and torn fabric.



IMG_3670Scott’s process typically involved wrapping a found object armature with yarn, rope, thread, fabric and other fibers until the work had transfomed into what she considered a finished piece. She worked on a single piece at a time, sometimes for weeks or months, and when she had finished, she pushed it away and started in on something new.

IMG_3697The armatures are sometimes partially visible, such as in these pieces, one built around blue plastic forms and another incorporating a rubber hose.



Some of the works seem to reveal elements in a deliberate manner, as in this monochromatic work with loops of purple rubber hose peeking out.


And sometimes what’s inside is a complete mystery.

IMG_3795This work  was constructed from paper towels which Scott collected when she found that she had run out of materials.


The details — the colors, textures, wrapping, weaving, knotting — are varied and intricate.




The sculptural forms are graceful, striking, complex, rich in color, movement, and expression. They prompt many associations for the viewer.


IMG_3802And they prompt so many questions about the artist, her process, and the nature of creativity itself. Oh, sweet mystery of life! What is inside her beautiful, mysterious, package-like sculptures, and what was in Scott’s mind? Is her work an expression of an internal narrative? What informed her creative visions and decisions? Was her process purely intuitive? Was there intention and deliberation involved? What part does cognition play in creative process? Did Scott know she was creating an artwork? We will never know. And how many other people with mental disabilities, invisible to society, long written off as incapable of functioning, are also amazing artists? Wonderful, powerful food for thought.

Good advice

Here’s some wisdom from artist Chuck Close:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

Close was successful in the contemporary art world by the 1970’s, painting huge portraits in a photo-realistic style. In 1988, he suffered the sudden rupture of a spinal artery, which left him confined to a wheelchair, partially paralyzed with limited use of his limbs. Despite this, he continued to paint with a brush taped to his wrist. He went on painting enormous portraits, but in a more abstract style. An interesting fact: Close suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, an impairment in the ability to recognize or differentiate between human faces. Close has said that he feels his portraits are a way to help him recognize the important people in his life.

Big Self-portrait, 1967-1968

Self-portrait, 2004-2005

Chuck Close at work


Inspiration: Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe



Toys represent a microcosm of man’s world and dreams. They exhibit fantasy, imagination, humor and love. They are an invaluable record and expression of man’s ingenious unsophisticated imagination. -Alexander Girard

I traveled recently in New Mexico, where there is an abundance of inspiration both indoors and out. In Santa Fe, I visited the Museum of International Folk Art. It houses designer Alexander Girard’s collection of toys, nativities, and miniatures and encompasses more than 100,000 works from 100 cultures worldwide.

There is a ton of material available about the importance of play for child development. In fact, research has shown that children’s learning mainly happens through play. SInce children learn mainly through doing, toys are important hands-on materials for learning and development.




But visiting this enormous collection, the toy story for me was not only about children, but about the artists who produced these spectacular works. The imagination, scope of self-expression, enormous variety of materials, and level of skill that is evident in the works is dizzying.




The nature of play might change throughout the life span, but this vast collection of work demonstrates that play is important throughout our lives. The imagination and creativity of these artists was passed down to the next generation through the toys they were given to play with. And as the children grew, the elders passed on techniques and skills so that creativity was cultivated in future generations.



Inspiration: Sol LeWitt at Mass MoCA

If you’ve never been to the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, MA, known as Mass MoCA, put it on your to-do list. It’s a large complex of twenty-six 19th-century factory buildings which opened in 1990 to exhibit large works of contemporary art and provide performance spaces. The entire complex is so magnificent that it’s well worth visiting just to see the buildings, with their brick facades and interiors, courtyards, passageways, bridges, and elevated walkways. On a bright day, the sun pours through long windows and paints the floors with light. Even the restrooms, which preserve the original architectural elements and fixtures, are amazing.

There’s a fantastic show at Mass MoCA right now. Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective opened in 2008, many years in the planning. One hundred and five of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, spanning the artist’s career, grace nearly an acre of walls that have been installed, per LeWitt’s own specifications, over three stories of Building #7, which was fully restored for the show.

Two very Renaissance things about these majestic works:

  • They are frescoes!
  • LeWitt plans them out very methodically and meticulously. But he leaves the actual execution to apprentices. A team of sixty-five artists and art students drafted and painted for six months according to his diagrams and instructions.

This show is a real treat. It pulses with color and energy. Exhilarating, grand, and fun. The process by which the works were conceived and brought to life is fascinating and thought-provoking. LeWitt’s work is rooted in basic geometry, and the materials are simple: pencils, colored inks, crayons, brushes. He provided detailed instructions to his apprentices, so the works can be reproduced anywhere. But LeWitt knew that there will always be subtle differences in each reproduction. There are some great videos of the six-month creation process. The interplay between the works, the building, and the light is gorgeous. Take a look below. If you respond the way I did and you’re within striking distance, try and make some plans to get there. Good news: the show will run for 25 years (yes, that’s TWENTY-FIVE), until 2033. So you have plenty of time.

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As a result of this show, I have a new item on my bucket list: a chapel that’s part of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings series called the Cappella delle Brunate in Piedmont, Italy. It’s quite a bit further afield than Mass MoCA. But it’s on the list…