He’s the go-to guy for L.A.’s drive-by murals
By LYNELL GEORGEOCT. 31, 2004
12 AM TIMES STAFF WRITER
With rooftop amber lights flashing, Nathan Zakheim swerves his big, all-about-business white van to the side of the road, ready to offer some roadside assistance. Not to attend to some mundane mechanical malfunction, mind you — a cracked radiator or blown-out tire. Rather, Zakheim has paused to offer some troubleshooting advice of a different sort.
As trucks, cars and SUVs hurtle southeast along the 101 near the Main Street overpass downtown, kicking up shattered Big Gulp cups and wire hangers in their wake, Zakheim trudges purposefully alongside on foot, in thick-soled shoes, crunching through the gravel and glass of the shoulder, in a long, tan smock that looks more like a lab coat. He makes his way — carefully — behind a hastily run chain-link fence, toward a jungle gym of scaffolding that abuts a wall that rises into a freeway offramp.
Perched up high are half a dozen workers, outfitted with powerful hoses with a needle spray blasting a wall painted with frolicking, three-story-sized children, jumping, turning handstands. Those painted youngsters at play are part of a mural titled “L.A. Freeway Kids” by Glenna Boltuch-Avila that tens of thousands of Angelenos half-see every day on their way to work, dinner, the ballgame or the mall.
It’s one of the many such shoulder-hugging, death-defying stops Zakheim makes in the course of a day. This project is one of nine that Zakheim is overseeing as part of a citywide project to refurbish 12 faded, vandalized, sun- or soot-damaged murals around the L.A. Basin’s web of traffic-clogged freeways.
The work itself slows traffic as commuters linger to take in the roadside scene: Kids and adults tiptoeing on scaffolds; images forgotten emerging; others disappearing, like magic — gone, poof. Zakheim surveys the progress, shouts out questions over the roar of oncoming traffic. The work is both meticulous and back-straining. Also a bit unnerving as motorists wanting to get a better look begin to physically list toward the crew, then overcorrect, not a moment too soon.
Zakheim clearly relishes the work — and all the fancy accouterments that go with it: There’s the eccentric painter’s smock he’s now donning, emblazoned with the company name in red, as well as the detachable caution lights that sit at the top of his van. Inside his work crew’s vehicle — a spectacularly graffiti-bombed panel truck tagged in tones of violet, blues and reds — a treasure trove of tools of the trade are stowed: hard hats; scaffolding poles; wood planks; safety garments in neon shades.
His crew has been at this site for months: Removing the background, cleaning away layers of dirt and, of course, the graffiti. Out comes a black-handled pocketknife. He starts scraping away at a yellowish dimple on the paint surface that is flaky and flyaway as phyllo dough: “See this? This is the old anti-graffiti coating that damages the actual mural. We’re trying to get rid of that. We’re trying to get this all off. Have the artist touch it up, then protect it.” (With Zakheim’s process, the graffiti slides off with water).
The crew might get up to 10 workers today. Some days, depending on the deadline and workload, he’ll have as many as 20. “I’m always looking for volunteers. My son is going to one of the magnet schools and he’d bring one or two. And then they’d bring more. All of a sudden all of these people! They just keep osmosising!”
“Not just that,” adds volunteer Maurice Duncan, who has been working on the project for a good part of a year. “You just learn a lot. And really, he’s just like a second dad.”
Decades of dedication
For half of his 60 years, Zakheim has been in the mural-restoring business. His company, Nathan Zakheim Associates, provides a range of consulting and fine-art restoration work. At any given time he might be touching up a delicate 70-year-old fresco while at the same time recovering the vibrant details of some long-forgotten mural hidden under a spiky web of retaliatory gang tags along a stretch of transition road.
His offices are a few stories above La Brea, atop a busy frame workshop and showroom. Right now, the studio, bathed in that bright, white, optimistic L.A. light, is a busy crush of color and activity — crammed with expensive paintings, plastic tchotchkes, a plush-toy cobra and a bank of computers stowed in an upstairs loft-space. Around the big worktable about half a dozen of his crew, including sons Kuvalesaya and Kirtiraja, two of his seven children, begin prepping for the day. They’ve just pushed away from breakfast — salad, coffee, hard-crust bread — and descend on waiting projects. As Zakheim chats on a cellphone with a client, another leaves word on the landline’s answering machine: “Hello … the person I work for has a Lichtenstein and it has become detached. Is that the kind of work that you might do?”
Dodging traffic, wielding a sledgehammer — it wasn’t exactly the life that Zakheim expected or intended. Even though he grew up on an apple farm in Sebastopol in Northern California, the son of two artists, Zakheim wasn’t so interested in following in family footsteps. He studied classical music intent on composing. “At one time I played 15 instruments. But really, my avocation was folk music.” But he lost much of his hearing while sitting too close to speakers one evening at a Chambers Brothers concert.
It wasn’t until 1966, when he and his brother, Matthew, undertook the task of moving an old mural painted by their father — artist and activist Bernard Zakheim — at USC that Zakheim first considered art restoration as a career. Later, a few successes under his belt, he suddenly was an expert. “People would call my father, who worked with the WPA [Works Progress Administration], and say: ‘Do you know anything about mural conservation?’ He’d say: ‘No. I don’t. But my son does.’ Who could get better word-of-mouth than that?”
And so he stays busy — juggling his fine-arts consultation and interior art restoration; coordinating the mural artists with restoration crews. “We’re like archeologists,” is the way Zakheim describes his relationship with art. “We come in, brush it off and clean it up, piece it back together. Then it’s up to the artist to come in and retouch their own work. We’d never do that. We’re collaborators.
“It’s like when you find an old vase, if there are pieces missing, you still display it. So people have a sense of what it looked like. A sense of its beauty.”
Around the clock
Today on the road, there is no respite: “Zakheim Associates. Tuesday Edition,” he bellows into the cellphone mouthpiece with his customary impishness. He quickly becomes all business keeping various projects on track — retouching, cleaning, removing.
“Some nights we’ve got people working from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. The ‘L.A. Marathon Mural’ [at the 405 and Manchester Boulevard] we took down in a 12-hour, all-night session. It is something called the strappo method, where the paint can actually be peeled away from the wall, [by] resaturating the pigment and making it stronger.” It is a delicate and time-consuming process, says Zakheim, who developed this method in 1986. “Not a lot of people do it because it is so difficult and expensive.”
He checks in on the Main Street bridge crew, voicing concern about foamy ooze trickling out of a wall pipe near one of the mural children’s upturned legs. “That could cause some real problems.” About a quarter of a mile down the 101, under the Alameda overpass, Zakheim pulls up alongside a turquoise-and-white VW bus parked along the broad shoulder, its hutch open, revealing plastic scrub brushes, sponges, paint brushes, pails.
“Ah, it’s the artist, Will Herron,” says Zakheim. “He seldom sees the light of day.” It was Herron who painted this mural 20 years ago that Zakheim and crew are now restoring. “A musician,” he whispers. “They don’t like daylight.”
Herron paces the shoulder in his red Converse high tops, up at the wall’s highest corner, spraying water, rubbing at the cement. He stops, fists at his hips, and studies his mural, “Struggles of the World,” his brow — just beneath the crimson zigzag dyed in his black hair — is knitted with worry.
“It’s like they have a sixth sense. They never let me finish!” Taggers got to Heron’s mural — yet again — just after he finished his touch-up and just before Zakheim’s crew was able to apply the protective coating. “Know what?” says Zakheim, leaning in, lowering his voice to a whisper: “I think they’re tapping your cellphone,” mock seriously, stroking his manicured silver beard. Heron raises an eyebrow behind smoked shades. “Two steps forward, three steps back.”
Zakheim, back behind the wheel, maneuvers the freeway like a little boy with a Matchbox car; gliding down one offramp, zigging up some ice-plant hidden backstreet, then snakes up a hidden onramp. “I used to get lost for two hours downtown. Circling. Crying. Calling my son.” He makes a quick call to his crew to inform him of Herron’s progress. “He’s finishing it today. We need to spray it with B-72 right away. It got tagged again.”
No sooner has he hit “end” that the phone chimes again. But now Zakheim is having a little fun, chatting in accented English by way of Bombay to a telemarketer. “You know with all this outsourcing to India? They’re all trying to sell you a mortgage. They call all the time. Used to annoy me. Well, now I just play along with them. It’s entertaining.”
It varies a day that can feel endless — a loop of off- and onramps, four-levels and transition roads. Some nights, his crew will work until 3 a.m., lifting a mural off the wall much like it was simply a bubble-gum prize decal.
Zakheim recalls a recent late-night event: “We were out on the 110 working on ‘7th Street Altarpiece’ and we just set up griddles and some microwaves. We were making veggie burgers. A cookout along the freeway. After awhile all the Caltrans guys and LAPD and safety people started to come by. ‘So we just came by to see how you’re doing with all of that.’ After a beat, ‘So when you eating?’ ”
In his three decades in the business, despite the hazardous conditions, Zakheim is proud to say, there’ve been no injuries. “Well, no deaths. That I know of.”
“I lay out the rules,” Zakheim declares. “The first thing: No substance abuse. You have to come to work cold sober. You have to have had a good night’s rest. I teach them how to talk to one another while moving objects. I keep all the equipment in tiptop shape.”
Back on the freeway, Zakheim gets on the 405 until it spools into the 90. He coasts down to Playa Vista, where he keeps another studio. This one is where the cockpit of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose was built. Inside, Kuvalesaya and Kirtiraja and friends are working on one of L.A.’s most high-profile murals, painted by one of the region’s most iconic muralists, Kent Twitchell. His “L.A. Marathon Mural” looks eerily disorienting in this setting, dismantled and residing indoors, the runners separated into huge, jagged jigsaw pieces.
Though he’s surrounded by it, lives it, breathes it, Zakheim vigorously maintains that he hasn’t quite drifted back into the family fold, into art. “The solutions we come up with are creative,” Zakheim says, “not in an artistic sense, but in a mechanical sense. I’m the rhythm guitar player. I play backup.”
This process that Zakheim has developed, he says, will not just make a work of art stronger but will make it last for innumerable lifetimes. “That’s why I tell people now: ‘Be careful what you paint, because it can be around now for a long, long time to embarrass you.’ ”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The art of restoration
A citywide $1.7-million project to repair and restore 13 pieces of roadside art (12 murals and one sculpture) — is in full swing. Guided by three local conservators — Nathan Zakheim, Donna Williams and the Sculpture Conservation Studio — the project, now in its second year, is a first-time collaboration involving the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the city of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department, the California Arts Council, and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
Here are the locations and statuses of the projects:
“Hitting the Wall”: Harbor Freeway (110) at 4th Street, by Judith Baca.
“Eye on ’84″: 110 at the 3rd Street onramp, by Alonzo Davis.
“I Know Who I Am”: Glendale Freeway (2) at Glendale Boulevard, by Ruben Brucelyn.
“Underwater Fantasy”: San Diego Freeway (405) at the Nordhoff Avenue underpass, by Michelle Obregon.
“The Runners”: Hollywood Freeway (101) southbound at Western Avenue at bus turnout, by the students of Otis College of Art & Design.
“Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo”: 101 at Broadway, John Wehrle.
“7th Street Altarpiece”: Formerly on the 110 at 7th Street by Kent Twitchell.
“L.A. Marathon Mural”: Formerly on the 405 at Manchester, Kent Twitchell.
“L.A. Freeway Kids”: 101 at Los Angeles Street, by Glenna Boltuch-Avila.
“Struggles of the World”: 101 at Alameda Street, by Willie Herron.
“Reach Out”: Santa Monica Freeway (10) at La Brea Avenue underpass, by Alonzo Davis.
“Cityscape”: 110 and Wilshire Boulevard, by Terry Schoonhoven
“Drive-by Art”: 170 Freeway at Sherman Way, by Lars Hawkes (completed)