Levi at work

Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan
Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan

Saturday, a sublime autumn afternoon. Driving homeward on Whitsett, I happened across a mural crew painting a concrete embankment, near Saticoy. You can see it from the 170, a cheerful and unexpected pastoral trapezoid of green and yellow popping from the industrial landscape.  I got out of the car to take a look. Who do I find hand-mixing a bucket of paint, but Levi Ponce, master muralist.

Me: ‘Hey, you’re Levi, aren’t you?

Levi: “Yeah, I am.’

Told him I was an admirer of his work, and was flattered to hear him say he reads this blog.  His hand was covered in paint so he offered his forearm for some kind of man-on-man elbow bump, but I clutched it like a groupie and asked him why I see his murals in Pacoima and Reseda and North Hollywood, but never in Van Nuys.  Ask Nury Martinez, he replied.  When he began the mural project several years ago, it was his intention to start in Pacoima and work his way down Van Nuys Blvd, all the way to Ventura.   The word from Nury’s office is there is no money to pay muralists in her district.

I can think of a great number of things on which we spend public funds in District 6 which could take a back seat to neighborhood beautification.

All civic improvement dies in Van Nuys.   Apparently it’s a commandment from the Old Testament, like the plagues of Egypt.

Working alongside Levi was a very nice guy named Ernie, a studio animator, who founded the Exceptional Minds Studio, a center for autistic young adults to learn multimedia and animation skills. He had some of them working the embankment project.  Councilman Paul Krekorian and the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council put up the money.

‘Paul wants to be the mural guy,’ said Ernie.

The city has tens of millions squirreled away in CRA accounts. It pays a small fortune for landscape designers to make minor decisions about foliage placement few people notice. But in Van Nuys, it won’t pay artists.

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work in the civilized world: You pay the artist for his work.

They did it in Ancient Rome, they did it during the Renaissance, the Restoration of Charles the II, the Spanish Conquest, the Russian Revolution, even the hermit kingdom of North Korea today ‘pays’ its artists, in a manner of speaking. Somehow, even in North Hollywood they manage to pay the artist.  With public funds, no less.

Think of that next time you’re stuck in traffic staring at a dreary tableau of sidewalk banners, mismatched signage and tagging.  It may be a colony we are living in, but it doesn’t have to be.

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