DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Some of the most lifeless pockets of Downtown’s urban fabric suddenly have a spirited pulse.
First came the beach-going family who popped up on May 22 inside the fenced-off plot at Second Street and Broadway. The long-neglected blight zone, slated to be the site of a federal courthouse, is just about the last place anyone would expect to see a happy child digging in the “sand.”
Days later, on the hillside at Fourth and Hill streets, where the now defunct Community Redevelopment Agency once dispatched goats to eat up the overgrowth, a trio of grazing deer were spotted. Amid the sprays of foxtail and stalks of wild fennel, the creatures were the first signs of life on the unattended site in more than a year.
Then there is the Spring Street stump, severed years ago from the rest of its trunk and left to die. Two weeks ago it suddenly “grew” into a full-size tree with a lush canopy of green leaves.
Welcome to the playful imaginations of Calder Greenwood, 32, and his partner, who has not identified himself but goes by the nom d’art Wild Life. The Downtown residents claim credit for the papier-mâché and cardboard creations, the latest of which, a pair of surfers, showed up in the same pit at Second Street and Broadway and in the middle of the Los Angeles River.
The eye patch-bearing and black vest-wearing surfer in the river was modeled after Snake Plissken, the Escape From L.A. protagonist who famously rides a massive earthquake-caused wave through the middle of Los Angeles.
See images of all the works here
The installations have caught the attention of pedestrians and the media, which has rushed to cover each next project. The spotlight was not anticipated, but it has encouraged the pair to make new works, Greenwood said during a Tuesday morning visit to the deer pen. He has returned several times to maintain the deer.
“We didn’t intend to do anything after the sunbathers went up, but we thought if they’re reacting to it, we might as well keep doing it because the turnaround time is fast, the materials cost next to nothing and they’re just fun to make,” he said.
Greenwood, a New York native who has lived in Los Angeles for seven years, said there was also no intention to spotlight urban blight or to make any artistic statements about languishing government property. In the case of Plissken in the L.A. River (which was removed on Wednesday) Greenwood said he was motivated simply by the prospect of realizing a zany idea, even if it also happens to call attention to the neglected site.
With the hillside deer, which stand in the shadow of the California Plaza office towers, Greenwood saw not a blight zone but a slice of nature in the city.
“It’s not cut grass… this is how nature grows, so if anything the deer are right at home here,” he said. “We’re not pointing out that it’s ugly. It’s that this is nature, and up above is everything else.”
No Property Damage
If on the surface Greenwood and Wild Life’s works seem harmless, they could also be interpreted as small crimes, namely trespassing. Even though the sunbathers and the surfer models were promptly removed, authorities have not reached out to Greenwood, who said he’s not hiding.
The pair has been careful not to deface any private or public property, he said. Still, Wild Life’s anonymity will allow him to continue to put up works if authorities come down on Greenwood, Greenwood said.
As long as they continue to respect others’ property, the work is welcomed by Ninth District City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
“I think it’s exciting,” Perry said. “These artistic expressions soften the hard edges of our day to day life. I think it reawakens people.”
When Joe Moller, director of the Downtown Art Walk, noticed the sunbathers while riding his bike past the site, the models caught his attention — at first he thought the faux people were real.
“Initially like everyone else I thought, ‘Wow those people are idiots,’ and then when I realized what it was I thought it was really cool,” Moller said. “I love it.”
Street art, even in the style of public installations that draw attention to abandoned or underused spaces, is not a new phenomenon in Downtown. In the 1980s and early ’90s artist Brett Goldstone did things like activate a steam-powered rail car on an abandoned railroad track along the river, and redirect unknowing gallery and museum-goers to see his public installations on Skid Row. In the mid-1990s, still before street art took off as a pop culture craze, Rebecca Milwood, or “Becca” as she signed her works, gained local acclaim for the playful paintings and cutouts that she affixed to area buildings. Big-name street artists including Shepard Fairey and Banksy have used Downtown as a canvas too.
Greenwood said he didn’t set out to be next in line in the street art world. A digital special effects professional by day, he doesn’t fashion himself a devoted or even budding street artist. For now, he and Wild Life are just having fun.
“My favorite part about this whole thing is in general people are just warm to the idea,” he said. “When they see it, it lightens them up a little bit. They smile because it’s not dark and ominous and aggressively trying to say anything. If anything, I just like the fact that someone’s out there doing it.”
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.