At around 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, I was perched on a low guardrail on the side of Vine Street looking out over Hollywood at the Capitol Records Building. The entire weight of my upper body was leaning forward against a massive bougainvillea bush that hangs, somewhat magically, in the shape of a heart over the side of the 101 freeway.
I was with Corinne Carrey, the local artist responsible for the heart-shaped vegetation. We were each wielding a large pair of hedge clippers (mine even had extendable arms for extra reach). We used the clippers to whack at the prickly branches at the top-center of the bougainvillea.
Our goal was simple: Trim and deepen the crack of the giant heart’s top until it was more clearly defined and dipped lower, like the neckline of a hipster’s tee. I was sweating. Pruning a giant bougainvillea is actually pretty tough shit. Just getting the thorny vines in the grips of the clippers is challenging.
Carrey and I are both in our early 30s. We each have professional lives and day jobs. As we leaned in to the thorny bush, I couldn’t stop laughing.
While we slashed at bougainvillea branches, another woman stood back and wielded her own tools. A photographer, Laurie Freitag, took pictures with her camera and her cellphone, my camera and my phone, and Corinne’s phone. (Pics or it didn’t happen!)
Freitag became interested in Carrey’s heart about a year ago when she noticed it as she drove down the 101. As she puts it, the flowery heart “came out” and spoke to her across the highway. “Hey! Do something more,” it said. To Freitag, it was a sign. She needed to make some changes.
Freitag sees signs everywhere. Things speak to her. But the highway heart was different. Its message stuck with her. She started taking photos of it in her free time. Her friends thought she was crazy and that she was becoming too obsessed with what she coined “The Hollywood Heart.” Freitag even plans to self-publish a coffee table book called the Hollywood Heart Project, which will feature artists’ photos and renderings of the bougainvillea.
Freitag was curious about the mystery of the heart’s origins. Who made this thing? Was it naturally occurring? She invented stories about the person who trimmed it into its shape, conjuring up mental images of a sweet old gardener (“perhaps he’d suffered some sort of tragedy?”) who took the time to shape the bush into a heart to cheer up the gridlocked masses. But how did he do it? You’d have to stop traffic to trim the bottom of this 18-wheeler–sized heart.
Freitag investigated like a sleuth. (“I used to work for the news,” she explained.) She called Caltrans and the city of Los Angeles. A local reporter even wrote a story about her search. But the mystery remained unsolved.
Until last December. That's when Carrey came across Freitag’s website after a Google search and reached out to her via email. The two met for coffee. “It was so exciting,” Freitag says.
Carrey answered all of Freitag’s questions. The bougainvillea heart exists because of Carrey’s eye and effort. The bottom half of the heart — the “V” that drips down the side of the retaining wall — is naturally occurring. The top part used to run wild. Carrey saw the “V” of the bush as she drove by it three years ago and thought to herself, “That looks like the bottom of a heart.”
Carrey was just visiting the first time she saw the heart (she lived in Bali at the time). A year later, she moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles permanently. The perfect “V” bougainvillea bush was still there.
“In such a creative city, how is it that nobody has trimmed the top of that bush into the shape of a heart yet?” she thought. She borrowed her parent’s hedge clippers and went out into the night with a friend. Since then she has been back to trim it four times.
At first, nobody noticed Carrey’s heart. It was her very big little secret. Of course, her friends and family knew. And sometimes, when she was taking an Uber home to Los Feliz from Hollywood, she would confess to the driver, “That’s my heart. I did that.” They usually didn’t believe her.
Carrey was conflicted about whether to come out as the heart’s creator. For one thing, the bougainvillea is owned by the state, so trimming it isn't exactly a legal activity. A Caltrans spokesperson was short with me over the phone when I asked if they purposefully trimmed the bottom of the bush to maintain the perfect V. “We do not support anyone’s guerrilla art on state property,” he said gruffly.
Carrey’s misgivings about attention run deeper than issues of legality. She has watched people come to Los Angeles and seek discovery. As a native, she is wary of the attention that discovery and fame bring. She also has a distaste for what she sees as the overcommercialization and monetization of contemporary art. Her bougainvillea heart was always meant to be a free gift to passersby. It was meant for people like Laurie Freitag.
I’m glad Carrey has come around to accepting recognition for her street art. She deserves it. How many millions of people had driven by that same bougainvillea and ignored it or didn’t notice it at all? Carrey saw its potential. She also took the time to physically shape it.
After my guerrilla hedge-trimming expedition, my forearms looked as if they had encountered an army of angry cats. The Hollywood Heart’s thorns had left their mark. As the three of us chatted at the bar of the 101 Coffee Shop on Tuesday night, I was struck by the bond between Carrey and Freitag. These two women are from different generations, backgrounds and parts of the city. A giant bougainvillea brought them together. As the scratches on my arms fade, this is the memory from my hedge-trimming adventure that sticks.
Trimming a bush into the shape of a heart may seem like an odd or even frivolous exercise, but in a city where freeways too often divide and isolate, Carrey’s quiet act of beautification has turned the 101 into a soul connector.