In 1939 a 31-year-old Pasadena artist named Helen Lundeberg, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, finished a massive mural in Inglewood. The History of Transportation depicted interlocking scenes of Californians moving through time, from native Tongvas to World War II–era migrants from the Midwest. The mural was cast into a concrete wall at Redondo Boulevard and Florence Avenue, near a park and a streetcar line, where it stayed for 60 years, surviving the streetcars but not the onslaught of graffiti and car collisions. In 2001, barely recognizable and almost forgotten, The History of Transportation was boarded up. Two years later, it was removed and placed in storage.
On Saturday, after four years and a million-dollar restoration, the mural will be rededicated. A significant signpost for Southern California art history, at 240 feet long and 8 feet high, The History of Transportation has been called the largest New Deal–era public-art work ever commissioned. And it was created by a woman artist. Lundeberg was known for her postsurrealist paintings and graceful abstract “architectural compositions” in luscious California greens, blues and browns. Married to the better-known artist and teacher Lorser Feitelson, she was often dismissed or disregarded by the art establishment, just as her largest and most ambitious work was. When the mural was tagged, boarded up and then removed, few people in Southern California noticed.
But the few who did were working to restore it. The city of Inglewood gathered grants from the state and the Getty Foundation. Public meetings were held to choose a relocation site. Planners ultimately settled on a new park across the street from Inglewood High School and City Hall to make the mural more visible and accessible.
Conservators at the Sculpture Conservation Studio in West Los Angeles were assigned to clean up the mural’s 60 panels, one by one. It was a slow, intensely manual process because some were so caked with layers of graffiti that Lundeberg’s mosaic designs were almost invisible. Two panels destroyed in car accidents had to be re-created. “It was a WPA project, yet there was no documentation at all,” said Andrea Morse, the lead conservator. “We called Washington, we called the Getty, [to see] if any archives had any pictures of it, and no one did.”
Morse eventually found Lundeberg’s original drawings for the mural at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery, which for 20 years managed Lundeberg’s estate. (It’s now at Louis Stern Fine Arts, where a Lundeberg show continues through August 25.) Conservators re-created the destroyed panels — 9 and 24 — with colored grout, not with the original petrachrome material, ensuring continuity in the mural’s narrative design but making the “new” panels distinguishable to the viewer.
The History of Transportation tells its story from right to left, starting with native families walking on foot and ending with passengers in 1930s dress boarding a DC-3 aircraft, with citizens in constant motion — herding cattle, pushing carts, carrying suitcases — along the way. It’s an homage to L.A.’s truest “industry” heritage — aviation — and, more abstractly, to the idea that L.A. is the nation’s frontier for progress and dynamism.
The mural also represents a renewed sense of identity for Inglewood, which can’t seem to shake its reputation as a hotbed of gang violence. The reality is that Inglewood was once the “cultural center” of the South Bay, home to swanky department stores and car dealerships, said Diane Sambrano of the Historical Society of Centinela Valley. In many ways, that New Deal vibe still lingers over the city. There’s something classic and old-school optimistic about some aspects of Inglewood, from its residents to its cleanly manicured streets.
At its new location, The History of Transportation sits directly under the LAX flight path. Planes soar overhead, from behind the mural, as if springing from Lundeberg’s vision. On Saturday, docents from the historical society will appear in 1930s period dress, hoping to emphasize the mural’s ties to the history of Inglewood and the region that spawned the aerospace industry. The mural, like its artist and its community, is worth celebrating.
THE HISTORY OF TRANSPORTATION | Dedication, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2 p.m. | Grevillea Art Park, Manchester Blvd. and Grevillea Ave. | Inglewood | (310) 412-8750 | www.cityofinglewood.org
INFINITE DISTANCE: ARCHITECTURAL COMPOSITIONS | Helen Lundeberg | Louis Stern Fine Arts | 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | (310) 276-7740 | www.louissternfinearts.com | Through August 25
For more Lundeberg images, see www.laweekly.com.