The weekend on the L.A. River, in brief: kayaking in the Sepulveda Basin, cigarette breaks and joints on the bike path in Elysian Valley.
At the sixth annual Frogtown Artwalk, held along a dimly stretch of warehouses and mixed-use buildings on Blake Avenue along the river, the waterway's future as a public resource came into focus, both as a haven for environmentalists and fitness freaks and a scenic reprieve for the urban adventurer.
Since the 1950s, when the construction of the Glendale and Golden State Freeways drained the neighborhood of commercial vitality and closed it off from Los Feliz and Echo Park, what's officially called Elysian Valley has felt like something of an island, or at least, disconnected from the rhythm of Los Angeles. Hemmed in on all sides, certain images stand out — the corner store in the middle of the block, a shuttered seafood outlet built into an abandoned gas station, the palm tree growing out of the river. Few drivers cross town through these streets.
But Frogtown may get its Korean fusion yet. Because there's a natural dirt bottom here instead of concrete, Frogtown is considered by the Friends of the L.A. River to be ground zero for revitalization. Sandspits and woods have sprouted from the center, turning the river into a major flyover for migrating herons, egrets and kingfishers, and a destination for bikers eager to zoom down a clean, scenic, two-and-a-half mile path.
It's a civic-minded ecological awareness that might compromise the neighborhood's provincial eccentricity.
Patricia Perez sits on the board of the Elysian Valley Arts Collective. As she's done for the past six years, her living room becomes a gallery for the artwalk. On Saturday, she hosted a juried competition for paintings and illustrations produced by local high schoolers.
“We're not the Brewery,” she said. “We're the strange people they all talk about.”
The Frogtown Artwalk feels like a block party or street fair, something small and local, far from a tour of MFA studios, or a drunken mess downtown. Except for NOMAD Gallery, an in-your-face screenprinting studio known to host lucha libre matches, and reMADE Studios, which showed gently evocative wood and steel furniture from local designers, all the galleries were local businesses that had transformed for the night. One architecture firm hung the bright, sky-blue paintings of Mary-Austin Klein on a corkboard.
Most of the artists here aren't conceptually rigorous fine artists. They're craftsmen and artisans, and on Saturday they gamely chatted with attendees about their work. I saw masses clutching Solo cups in a motorcycle repair lot, and curious families walking through furniture design studios. Housewives sold lemonade on their front porch, talking about their penchant for jewelry design.
I found former CBS global correspondent Bill Lagattuta clutching a Bud Light outside his studio. Lagatutta left 48 Hours five years ago to focus on painting and sculpture. This is his second year in the art walk, but he's still a journalist.
He's gotten some attention for Made in Frogtown, a blog he created to promote this year's walk. It's naked boosterism for the artists who work here, as he interviews and seductively photographs them in their studios. “When you put up a sign that says 'artists' colony,' that's when things change,” he says.
Lagattuta hemmed and hawed when asked if his website is, in fact, that kind of sign.
“We're kind of cut off here,” he said. “Honestly, I just thought the people here are creative, and deserve recognition.”
Like Lagattuta's art — a portrait of a man dreaming of cupcakes, or a faded, metallic quilt of arrows — the blog is simple and uncomplicated. He's equally interested in the artistic process and the finished work, and best when he's telling stories, like his photo essay about Will Barboa and Pete Mora, two taggers who were guilt-tripped into painting a mural on the back wall of an embroidery factory. The factory is next to Lagattuta's studio, and on Saturday, Barboa and Mora were jamming in its parking lot, rapping over a karaoke arrangement of “No Woman, No Cry” in total darkness. (Sample lyric: “The earth started crying / No it didn't, shut the fuck up!”)
Lagattuta winced, or maybe smiled. “I tried to get them to buy some cheap lights at Home Depot,” he said. “But that's Frogtown. It's more real.”
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