In the 1980s, pop artist Robbie Conal made a name for himself in Los Angeles with mocking portraits of cultural conservatives like Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and Clarence Thomas, and, along with his minions, spent many nights plastering the city with his works of political protest. Conal's work was subversive to be sure, but for all their guerrilla-art approach, lacked imagination. It was easy to see what Conal was against, but what was he for? How much thought did it take to skewer his favorite political targets by making them look like all hailed from the same weird family?
Not so Kent Twitchell, another artist who has plied his trade anonymously on L.A. buildings and freeway walls for three decades. Twitchell's subversion is that of the true believer. A devout Christian, Twitchell's fervency has gotten him into hot water with the very civil libertarians who usually come down on the side of free expression.
As a student at the Otis Arts Institute in Los Angeles in 1977, Twitchell got permission to paint a mural on the side of the Institute, at the corner of busy Wilshire Blvd and the entrance to MacArthur Park in downtown L.A. The mural included renderings of several actors and the TV characters they portrayed: Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger; Jan Clayton, the single mother of Lassie's owner; and Billy Gray, Bud Anderson on the 1950s hit "Father Knows Best, all in white lab coats with a conspicuous space between them.
"What do you call it?" a Los Angeles Times reporter asked Twitchell, as he concluded an interview with the artist. "The Holy Trinity & The Virgin" Twitchell replied, whereupon, the reporter promptly threw out his notes and began again.
Twitchell's explanation was simple: For far too many Americans, faith had become too difficult to comprehend. Twitchell's homegrown faith was profound but simple, and he had sought to make it relatable.
The Lone Ranger represented God, who no man had ever seen. The mother from Lassie had no husband, was chaste, and epitomized, in Twitchell's mind, Jesus' beloved mother. In the character of Bud Anderson, Twitchell found Christ, the son of the father who knew best. The blank space in between was the Holy Spirit, a presence thought to be with Christians at all times yet whose work remains shrouded in mystery.
When the Times story hit the streets, a media frenzy ensued, and Twitchell was chastised by the head of the institute for injecting his faith into his work. Twitchell offered to paint over the offense, but perhaps fearing he'd be charged with censoring works of art, the director declined, and despite protests from the community, Twitchell's work stood.
The Institute is no longer there, but Twitchell's early masterpiece of faith will be retained by the new owner, and the mural's prominence in the community will soon get a boost when a planned L.A. Metro station opens across the street. "The Los Angeles Unified School District is very proud to own the mural and have been in touch with me numerous times," says Twitchell. "It's nice that the original concept, that of a public 'religious' painting on a government building, can remain true."
That piece is not Twitchell's only act of spiritual subversion. There is also the painting on a union hall in Torrance simply called "Six L.A. Artists" that most bypassers probably think of as a depiction of a couple of union men and women heading home. In reality, it's Twitchell's depiction of Christ and His disciples--easy to miss unless you realize that the guy with the carpenter's gear represents a famous son of a Jewish carpenter.
"Because this is a government building," says Twitchell, "I wanted to paint a "religious" mural. I always adhered to a somewhat minimalist tradition and brought the iconography into the piece with the central figure only. He is the Carpenter and he alone has major symbolism, that of a carpenter's holster with hammer and tape measure. I used the same model for this Jesus as the body of the Jesus at Otis. The Carpenter is flanked by Peter, James, and John. Peter is to the viewer's left and is wearing a pin on his lapel, with a big arrow pointing up to Heaven. James is to the right of the Carpenter, and John to the right of James. Flanking the men at both ends of the mural are two women, the two Marys."
Twitchell refers to these paintings as his "Church/State" series, along with a mural that stands near the 110 freeway ("7th Street Altarpiece" 1983) of a man and a woman with outstretched hands and open palms. Twitchell says the figures are the Christ and his mother showing that they intend no harm. "The woman was painted first," he says, "and she represents the Virgin. The man is Jesus. They are painted in the exact north-south center of downtown L.A. on both sides of the Harbor Freeway beneath 7th Street. I chose the site myself. The names "Harbor" and "Free way" and also the number "7" are loaded with symbolism. Whenever anyone travels through the heart of L.A., they are driving between these two people, almost like a gateway. During the 84 Olympics, these murals were in newspapers, magazines, and on TV all over the world. There was much legitimate fear of terrorism during those Games, and many serious threats had been made--the open hands with palms forward represent peace. Their strength is in their dependence upon Someone beyond mere weapons."
Perhaps his most visible mural stands near the Los Angeles International Airport on the 405 freeway: A group of runners bear the names of local Christian colleges on their T-shirts in a work created to honor the Los Angeles Marathon ("LA Marathon Mural" 1988-90).
On the campus of Biola University, a Christian-run college in L.A., the artist is free from constraints a secular society might impose. There his rendering of Jesus holding a Bible ("The Word" 1990) is a straightforward depiction with only one secret: Christ's hands are the same shade as the Scripture he holds--a not so subtle reminder to the school to not stray from its belief that the Creator became man and walked among men offering salvation.
Twitchell is overseeing a retrospective of his work scheduled for publication next year and holds out hope that his mural of Michael, which he says has been kept from public view by the Jackson camp, can be included.
"I can't extract my art from my faith. I see the world from the perspective of living for Christ. Christ said, 'I am the truth.' In Greek that's the same as saying, 'I am reality.' I attempt to not embarrass God and hope I succeed sometimes."