Getting a tour of Los Angeles with J. Michael Walker, you won’t be following a map of the stars’ homes. He probably won’t point out Paris Hilton’s digs or slow down in front of the Playboy Mansion, although it is possible you will pass them along the way. To see the city through this artist’s eyes, you have to be ready to see saints.
Walker’s ongoing project, All the Saints of the City of the Angels, on show at the Autry National Center until September 7, is a search for the soul of Los Angeles through its 103 streets named after saints. The project began in the spring of 2000, when Walker was looking up a street beginning with the letter “S” in the Thomas Guide index and found a huge list of streets that started with “San,” “Saint” and “Santa.” Curious about the accuracy of the names, he decided to do some research to see if the history of those areas reflected the legends of their namesakes.
With very little funding, Walker’s artistic process was really just “an open-ended road trip through the city,” which involved studying the story of each saint, then hopping in his car and driving around to try to find his or her essence. “I didn’t only find convergence between two stories, but the saint’s legend would comment on what was going on there, and bestow greater humanity on the people who inhabit that street,” Walker explains. San Ysidro Drive, which runs through Beverly Hills, is named after a 13th-century Spanish farmer who had to hire out to make money for his family. “When you drive down that street, day laborers and gardeners are the only people you see,” Walker says. “It speaks to the dignity of manual labor and something more than dignity, the sacral nature of working the land. No job is beneath us.”
Walker’s work is a unique fusion of rural Mexican and American art, and All the Saints of the City of the Angels comprises huge, vibrant paintings originally commissioned as prints to decorate L.A. bus shelters.
Walker’s fascination with Mexican art began in 1974, when the artist was invited to Sisoguichi, a region inhabited by the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico, to illustrate the first textbook in their native dialect. He immediately fell in love with the culture, and with a woman, Mimi, whom he has been married to ever since. Walker says that his two worlds are inseparable: “So many elements of 19th-century L.A. history are still relatively present in my experiences in rural Mexico. It’s a situation in which the border doesn’t exist, not just a spatial border but a temporal border.”
The Walkers’ beautiful Mount Washington abode, tucked behind an overgrown layer of bowing fruit trees, is a sort of hidden sanctuary that maintains the humble and the mundane while exuding a sort of ethereality. To get to his studio, a converted garage behind the house, you have to be willing to touch something green, to brush up against large leaves that droop over the walkway, to tiptoe your way through a lush, overgrown garden accentuated by little stone sculptures and outdoor art pieces. In Walker’s L.A., you don’t have to be religious to live among saints. “I think there [is] a way in which true humanity is actually divinity.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon