has painted Jesus on the sides of buildings in Los Angeles four times.
One of those Jesuses (until it was whitewashed recently by a new property owner) was on the exterior of a liquor store at Vermont Avenue and 111th Street, in a gang-patrolled part of south Los Angeles known by city homicide detectives as "death alley.
Another Jesus, forty feet tall, gazes out over traffic along Wilshire Boulevard in the city's bustling mid-section from the side of the former Otis College of Art and Design
art school alma mater.
111th Street Jesus, 1984.
South Central Los Angeles.
14 x 50 feet.
The paint was applied in patterns similar to a child's color-by-numbers kit, with Twitchell
sometimes suspended from a pulley to reach the highest parts of a wall.
Up close, the images dissolve into rivulets of color that seem to flow around and alongside one another like streams of magnetized water that abut but never mix.
From a distance, the patterns blend and harmonize into startlingly realistic likenesses.
Some of Twitchell's
murals are as tall as eight stories.
They stare out over the city like bright, flat, fully realized emissaries from a realm of giants.
A quality of tremendous stillness surrounds them.
The most effective, including all four murals of Jesus, give the impression of having existed long before the city arose, as if Twitchell
did not paint them but rather scrubbed away some blemish in the air that had obscured them.
This quality was especially evident in the now-vanished Jesus on the side of the death-alley liquor store.
Photographs show a long-haired, bearded Hispanic man clothed in white and red robes opening his
arms against a blank background nearly the width of the building [see Plate 1].
The gesture seems to invite the viewer into mural-land, where the hardships of urban life are dissolved in the quiet exactitude of art.
Kent Twitchell, Old Woman of the Freeway
Old Woman of the Freeway, 1974.
Hollywood Freeway, Los Angeles.
30 x 22 feet.
, seventy-one, has been painting murals in Los Angeles since 1971, when, as an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles
covered the side of a two-story Victorian house in the city's Pico-Union neighborhood with a pale blue image of actor Steve McQueen.
Twitchell is now considered the dean of mural art in Los Angeles, itself widely considered the mural capital of the United States.
images are an iconic, if fragile, part of the city's ever-changing streetscape.
eight-story-tall rendering of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Harbor Freeway Overture, has greeted traffic-jammed travelers to downtown Los Angeles from the side of a high-rise parking structure overlooking Interstate 110 for more than two decades.
Another freeway-adjacent mural, Old Woman of the Freeway [see Plate 3], a striking 1974 image near the Hollywood Freeway of a blue-eyed, gray-haired matriarch clad in a brown bathrobe and a python-like multihued crocheted afghan, was the city's best known mural until a property owner abruptly painted it over in 1986 to make way for a billboard.
Amid public outcry, Twitchell helped to establish the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, dedicated to cataloguing and preserving the city's rich history of mural art.
With the conservancy's encouragement, Twitchell
sued the building owner and was awarded $125,000, though it took him five years to collect the settlement.
Kent Twitchell, Six Los Angeles Artists (detail),
Six Los Angeles Artists (detail), 1979.
20 x 110 feet
It is no accident that Los Angeles's best known muralist has covered the sides of city buildings with images such as Holy Trinity
with the Virgin [see Plate 4],111th Street Jesus, or Seventh Street Altarpiece, or even Six Los Angeles Artists, a 1979 mural on the back wall of a state employment development office in the suburban city of Torrance that uses the likenesses of six of Twitchell's
artist friends to depict Jesus in the company of apostles Peter, James, and John, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene [see Plate 5].
Speaking late last year in his
large, cluttered downtown LA studio, Twitchell
aimed to create in viewers a sense of awe akin to his
own feelings when he
first medieval cathedral while stationed in England as an Air Force illustrator in the 1960s.
"There's something about looking up like that that makes you feel small but not insignificant.
Every person, even an atheist, has a vacuum inside that can only be filled by God.
And that should be captured in a work of art."
Kent Twitchell, Holy Trinity with the Virgin (detail)
Holy Trinity with the Virgin (detail), 1978.
Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles
40 x 56 feet.
The definition of what precisely Twitchell has captured in the more than four decades he
has spent painting giant-sized human figures on the sides of buildings varies depending on who's looking.
For some in the city's arts establishment, the content of his
work matters less than the paternal role he
has played in LA's mural legacy.
"I would consider him the grandfather of murals in LA," says Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy, whose office adjoins Twitchell's studio on the ground floor of a nearly century-old, fourteen-story former furniture warehouse.
Scott Haskins, a California mural conservation expert who has helped to restore murals throughout the United States and Europe, singles out Twitchell for "his techniques and integrity and painting and motivation.
says, "is one of the grandfathers of the highest quality of mural painting possible."
, Joseph said, has managed to sidestep the pitfalls that can trip up artists of faith.
neither avoids nor exploits religious themes.
could have been Thomas Kinkade if he wanted to," Joseph said.
readily identifies himself as a Christian, though he
doesn't currently attend a church. ("I got out of the habit," he
"I don't think not going is a cool thing.") He
also readily admits to having dabbled in Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, "eastern mysticism and out-of-body experiences," marijuana, mescaline, and LSD, until "I remember thinking to myself, 'This is boring.
This is just boring.
I don't understand why most of these people haven't moved on from this.' It took away your ambition.
For a time earlier in his
attended Grace Community Church
, an evangelical megachurch in the San Fernando Valley, which he
praises for its pastor's "emphasis on doctrine.
"Doctrine is very important to me," he
has described his
faith on various occasions, and in varying terms, as a quest to encounter, and to represent in works of art, the unchanging truth of God.
Twitchell was born on August 17, 1942, in Lansing, Michigan.
was raised on what he
describes as a "small family farm, of which there were many" in a rural area southwest of the city.
Twitchell recalls "growing up like on the Lassie TV show, with grandma and grandpa living next door, sort of like The Waltons.
(The Virgin Mary in The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, the forty-foot-tall mural on the side of the former Otis art college building, is modeled on character actress Jan Clayton, who played the mother on Lassie in the 1950s.) Twitchell's father, Bob, was a foreman at a local car factory in addition to farming corn, wheat, oats, and a small herd of Holstein dairy cows.
retains the unboastful, low-key affect of a man raised in the Midwest, though he
is in no way self-effacing or hesitant to speak his
Wiry, diminutive, and crowned with a mane of gray hair swept back from his
resembles the actor and stuntman Richard Farsnworth, who starred in the 1999 David Lynch movie The Straight Story.
blue-gray eyes dart restlessly when he
talks, and he
frequently rubs his
face and beard with his
hands, as if wiping clean the slate of his
mind to make room for more thoughts.
In conversation he
jumps from topic to topic, following trains of association that start with, say, a freeway mural he
painted at the behest of organizers of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and end with how he
second wife, Pandora, a long and colorful story involving gypsies, a Paul Anka record, and using prayer to ward off a hex. (He and Pandora are still married, and have a twenty-two-year-old son, Artie.)
When I met him at his
studio late last year, he
greeted me on the sidewalk wearing jeans, a gray paint-spattered sweatshirt, and black leather shoes.
led me inside, pausing every few steps to point out sketches, newspaper clippings and giant-sized mural studies hanging from the walls, including one panel painted with a ten-foot-wide rendering of Michael Jackson's eyes-a study for a mural put on indefinite hold following Jackson's embroil