For 12 years, travelers on the 101 Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles encountered a 30-foot tall old woman with an afghan floating off into black space with a full moon, no matter what time of day. Then suddenly, after dependably counting on her presence, she disappeared into the ether. In 1986, this is what happened to Kent Twitchell’s mural known as “Freeway Lady,” originally painted in 1974 via an inner city mural program in Los Angeles.
Michigan-born Twitchell first got into art in his teen years when his uncle taught him how to paint lettering for signs, which has a twinge of irony considering a sign company is the source of destruction of the original “Freeway Lady.” When she was illegally swapped for ad space, the company started receiving hundreds of calls, but not from people trying to buy advertising. Instead, multitudes of people were inquiring- and articles were written- about what in the world happened to their woman of the freeway.
“The city was up in arms about what happened to her,” Twitchell said.
Though “Freeway Lady” was inspired by his grandmother and great grandmother, he chose character actress Lillian Bronson for his model. To date he has painted more than 30 public murals, mostly in California, as well as Cleveland, Philadelphia and Mexico City. The majority of his mural subjects have posed for him themselves, enabling him to read their real emotional ranges.
Despite the towering stature of his mostly portraiture work, Twitchell refers to himself foremost as a folk artist. He is also a poetry lover, and reveals “Freeway Lady” is encoded with more than just the stunning image of an old woman.
“I’ve always liked the way poets could load the sentence with converging imagery or concepts, it almost overwhelms us, it’s very intense, and I wanted to do that,” Twitchell said.
A Christian, Twitchell is in part informed by a biblical perspective, and “Freeway Lady” is flecked with glints of duality of existence.
“A granny square afghan to many of us is very comforting, but then her afghan almost becomes serpentine, which is not a comforting thing…but then the expression in her eyes is pure unbridled love of a grandmother, [yet the] Moon is alien; a cold thing not far from her face…The real world is the garden of Eden,” Twitchell said. “This is fallen world, of beauty and terror. Those elements are sprinkled in, and you see them in a second driving by.”
Though going into legal battle is the last thing Twitchell wanted to do, in this case he said, unlike other instances of street vandalism against his murals, he had no choice as his art was demolished illegally by a company.
This was the first of two court cases, in fact. The second lawsuit was for the 2006 whitewashing (without permission) of his “Ed Ruscha Monument,” a 70-foot tall rendering of pop artist Ed Ruscha located on a YWCA-owned building, in violation of the Federal Visual Rights Act and the California Art Preservation.
In 1992, Twitchell won $125,000 in the “Freeway Lady” lawsuit and in 2008 he received a $1.1 million settlement for the Ruscha mural case. According to Twitchell’s Wikipedia page, this amount is potentially the largest public arts settlement in history invoking those specific acts. The legal outcomes of these cases resoundingly helped to reinforce the value and place of art within culture, however enigmatic the subjective nature of art may be.
Both murals have been approved for restoration in alternate locations. “Freeway Lady” can be viewed again, in the same dimensions, on the side of a building at L.A. Valley College. When Twitchell’s Ruscha mural–slated to be looking down on the L.A. Arts District–is complete, he is thinking of calling it “The Return of Ed Ruscha.”