One Woman Is on a Mission to Find All of L.A. County's Hidden Civic Art
Located down a quiet, dead-end street in the city of Commerce, there's a juvenile hall that holds something beautiful. Just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, the Dorothy Kirby Juvenile Center's exterior gives no hint of what lies within its institutional surroundings.
Inside, a guard sits behind thick glass in the lobby waiting room, buzzing in visitors. But beyond a large steel door and a cinder-block hallway with sickly fluorescent lights waits Cheryl Jackson, a genial African-American woman, the center's assistant director. On this sunny December day, she takes on the unlikely role of architectural tour guide.
Passing through a door at the end of the corridor, Jackson enters a sun-filled interior courtyard surrounded by low-slung housing blocks and administrative buildings. Their clean, simple lines recalled prominent midcentury SoCal architects such as John Lautner, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
"The aesthetics couldn't be more beautiful," Jackson beams.
The facility gives the impression of a boarding school or college campus more than a place of incarceration. This is exactly what architect Samuel E. Lunden had in mind when he designed the complex — originally the Las Palmas School for Girls — in 1960. "Supervisor John Anson Ford told me he wanted something nice for the girls," Lunden told the L.A. Times in 1988. "'Make it pleasant, not like a jail,' he said, and that's what we did." Lunden felt it was one of his best projects.
In the center of the courtyard sits the chapel, an odd, pyramidlike structure that slopes back from a flat, trapezoidal façade, which is set back from the concrete shell. The lower third of the façade is composed of triangular tiles, while the upper portion is made of stained glass. Jackson says the chapel is important for the rehabilitation of the 100 or so boys and girls who stay there. "They volunteer to come to services," she says. "They want to be here." It is simple and stark, something akin to a Brutalist A-frame. Inside the intimate space, low pews flank a central aisle, and space-age triangular lamps hang from the ceiling. Turn around, and the stained glass breaks the streaming sunlight into dazzling geometric blocks of color.
"It's very tranquil and very peaceful," says Dwain Miller, a Catholic lay minister who has held services at the chapel for two decades. The interfaith chapel is used as a place of worship for many religions — Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim and Jewish — depending on the needs of residents. "It's very conducive to their healing. The kids will ask, 'Where is God, why isn't God answering my prayers?' and I tell them, 'He's here, guys. You just have to open up and let him in. He's not going anywhere.'"
Center director Michael Varela says they are really fortunate to have the chapel at the center of Kirby. "It could be used as an auditorium, but we don't use it for anything else but religious service," he says. "That would take away that sacred feeling."
This hidden sacred space tucked away in an anonymous government complex could have been forgotten if it hadn't recently been rediscovered by an incredibly ambitious L.A. County project that has turned our region's myriad cities into one huge treasure hunt.
Launched in 2015, an intrepid team of researchers, registrars and art sleuths embarked upon the uninspiringly titled Civic Art Baseline Inventory. But the scope of the project is exciting, as the team tirelessly searches the county's unassuming institutions and public spaces, spreading out over hundreds of L.A. County sites in 88 municipalities across 4,000 square miles, looking for inspiring art that has been commissioned or donated over the 166-year history of Los Angeles.
Significantly, this is the first large-scale survey of the county's art collection ever attempted. Before the inventory began, it was hard to determine exactly what the county had in its collection. "Unfortunately, we don't have a secret warehouse of art," jokes Clare Haggarty, the civic art collections manager, who oversees the entire project. Now they have compiled a list of 900 sites most likely to have art from the total list of thousands of county facilities. "Art is less likely to be in water towers or restrooms," Haggarty says.
The artwork includes recent commissions by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; some has been donated over the years, and some of it was funded by individual county departments such as the public library, the fire department or health services.
So far, the project has rediscovered art deco masterpieces, colorful murals and experimental sculptures, and the researchers have revisited recent pieces — by artists such as Shepard Fairey, Alison Saar and Sandow Birk — to check on their physical condition. Some of their findings are documented on the County Art Commission's blog, which turns the entire county into one massive art exhibition, open for the public to experience.
"When I saw that chapel, I was just blown away," says Bridget Campos, who for the past 18 months has been traveling to hundreds of facilities cataloging the county's art collection. "It's a beautiful piece of midcentury modern architecture and stained glass. We didn't even know it was there."
Campos is a field registrar, and she is the sole person tasked with scouring hospitals, courthouses, public parks and fire stations in search of undiscovered masterpieces, both highbrow and low, reflecting the diversity of L.A.'s rich cultural heritage. The county currently has nearly 300 confirmed artworks in its civic art collection; however, in the past year and a half, Campos has already logged more than 1,500 works.
"Even as a kid, I always knew that I wanted to work in a museum, but I didn't know how to get there," Campos says. "I saw a documentary about the Smithsonian Collection and how 80 percent of it, the public never sees. I was like, 'Oh my God, I want to do that!'"
Campos' explorations have taken her all over the county, including to one particularly unexpected locale: the coroner's office in Lincoln Heights. As part of every site visit Campos makes, she must thoroughly search each facility, looking for public artworks that she knows are there, as well as hidden or forgotten pieces.
At the coroner's office, Campos says she was aware of Pentimento — a exterior wall lined with 300 blue, handblown glass bells by Erin Shie Palmer, which provides a meditative chorus when the wind blows — but did not know what else to expect. Campos traversed the coroner's marble halls — past visitors grieving recently deceased loved ones, past medical examiners and police officers — looking for any previously unknown works. This took her to the basement where the cadaver dog is kept; to the autopsy room; and to the humorously morbid gift shop, Skeletons in the Closet. "I grew up in California, so I had to learn to ask about basements," she says of her search techniques. "We don't have basements!"
Then she stumbled on an amazing find. In a waiting room, she found an original poster celebrating East L.A. street life, signed by artist Vidal Herrera, something of a local celebrity. A former investigator for the coroner's office, Herrera has taken up more artistic pursuits since retiring, such as making couches out of repurposed caskets. "I wanted to illustrate our cultura, or popular culture, the flavor and colorfulness of our everyday life and what makes us distinctly Chicanos," Herrera once wrote of the piece.
Campos studied art history, and after receiving her M.A. in textile collections management from Cal State Long Beach went to work as a registrar for the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, taking on a basket rehousing project. Although she grew up in Orange County, in Huntington Beach, Campos had an early connection to L.A. through family, so the county inventory project seemed like a perfect fit for her. "The history of L.A. is really interesting to me. I kind of grew up with it, so combining an art collection with the history of L.A. was exciting," she says. "I go into places that most people can't, and touch things that most people can't."