Monuments and Cultural Heroes: Kent Twitchell Talks about His Murals

Kent Twitchell has celebrated many major LA and world events with his looming murals: runners for the Marathon, Loretta Claiborne and Rafer Johnson for the Special Olympics, Nelson Mandela to commemorate the Berlin Wall’s dismantling. But not everyone cares for his behemoth celebrations of conventional American life. They’re neither subtle nor complex, these towering figures of local heroes and TV icons, painted realistically. They’re quick-reads, like billboards—designed to be glimpsed and not studied. 

On a Thursday afternoon, I make my way through Downtown’s always-in-progress construction and workday rush to Kent Twitchell’s studio. He told me to find it by the massive “Blue Jeans” sign advertising the store below.  Above the crowds and trash and blue jeans store, his studio is austere—large and white and silent. I want to ask him, how does he hope his works affect the city? Why the large familiar faces?

The obviousness, the naiveté, he says, is the point of his murals, the reason they’re successful. He wanted to paint the people and experiences in his life he found meaningful, and hoped others would find them meaningful as well. “It wasn’t fashionable to be doing realism in the late sixties, early seventies,” he says. “They thought you were painting puppies and kittens.” But if the art world found him unfashionable, many standard, hard-working Angelinos found him relatable.

“I grew up on a farm,” Twitchell recalls.  “In the forties and fifties it was very, very small farms all over. Like The Waltons, my grandmother lived with us until she died. I just wanted to honor her. I wanted to do something that was really naïve.” He painted “Freeway Lady” in 1974, overlooking the 101. It’s an image of his grandmother looking kind but imposing, carrying a blanket she crocheted for Twitchell. He hoped others would connect with the image, and they did. “It was on the covers, in the front pages of newspapers. People loved it,” he says. Part of the appeal might come from the comfort the image offers its viewers, just as the grandmother offers the crochet blanket. But although it’s designed to resonate with every viewer, it takes white Midwesterners as the norm. His paintings of celebrities—like Steve McQueen, Ruby Dee and Dr. J—tap into the same naiveté. “I call them ‘Monuments to American Cultural Heroes,’” he says.

“Freeway Lady” is naïve precisely because Twitchell is giving viewers an image whose meaning they already know, without further comment or complexity. 

While Warhol invested the mundane with new significance—soup cans, Brillo boxes—Twitchell merely capitalizes on the meanings already built into an image. “Freeway Lady” is naïve precisely because Twitchell is giving viewers an image whose meaning they already know, without further comment or complexity. Viewers connect with the image not because of any significance Twitchell has given it, but because of the associations they already have with an image of a grandmother. And this image is sorely in need of comment, of a new presentation, as it is almost dismissible in its familiarity. Warhol knew we had seen Marilyn’s image so many times it was emptied of meaning. Twitchell’s “Freeway Lady” does not acknowledge that we may have seen so many images of kind, blanket-bearing grandmothers that there is little left to think about.

Twitchell’s naiveté conflates the sacred and the celebrated, blending the two meanings of icon until they are indistinguishable. From 1977 to 1978 he painted a mural on a county building called “The Holy Trinity with the Virgin.” For the figure of God, he chose the Lone Ranger. “Who else but the Lone Ranger?” he asks.  He remembers years listening to the Lone Ranger’s voice on the radio, and the confusing moment when he first saw him, played by Clayton Moore, on a brand new TV.  The wonder he felt for his childhood icon seemed to make him a natural choice for the figure of God.  In painting the Lone Ranger, Twitchell hoped to paint not only his own childhood icon but someone many American children grew up idolizing. 

If a new generation of Angelinos hasn’t grown up with the Lone Ranger, many of them have grown up seeing Twitchell’s murals as they go to school or take the freeway downtown. Of the “Holy Trinity with the Virgin,” painted on what is now an elementary school, Twitchell says, “The principal of the school loves the mural. She was a little girl when I was painting it.” Twitchell’s large murals, as public art, not only represent a familiar cultural identity, they create it.

Twitchell favors the monumentality of mural art because he hopes to create with it the same sense of wonder he felt for the Lone Ranger. When Twitchell was in the Air Force, stationed in London, he befriended a young Ivy Leaguer from his battalion.  Twitchell describes him, saying,  “He was so smart and so cultured, and he was sort of a nerd. Nobody liked him, but I was a young guy, and I just took to him.” They’d drive around in Twitchell’s new Volkswagen on weekends, and the friend would explain to Twitchell everything they saw.  One weekend they drove to the Salisbury Cathedral.  “In the British Isles, there’s always this tumultuous weather going on, with dramatic clouds, which I loved,” Twitchell says. “You look up at the spires and clouds are rushing by. You feel close to God.”  The experience of a cathedral is the same experience Twitchell hopes to evoke with his murals. “I wanted my works to have that monumentality,” he says. “I wanted people to have to look up in their faces like a child looking at their parent.” This response of wonder that people feel towards parents or religious icons Twitchell relates uncritically to celebrities.  In this way, his murals create a sense of shared cultural identity because they reaffirm traditional values and celebrate the already celebrated.

Twitchell hopes to lift up not only people’s minds, but LA’s architecture as well.  This doesn’t mean, he tells me emphatically, that every building should have a mural on it. He likes to paint on plain buildings, on the backs of movie theaters for example. “You want a building that needs you,” he says.  “Some buildings don’t need you.  Don’t force yourself on the world.”

Kelly McBride wishes she lived in the mountains with large dogs.