A Montecito Heights artist has been spending the past seven years in what might seem a fruitless task: painting the Saints of Los Angeles.
Though not “a formal Catholic,” said an Oct. 11 Los Angeles Times story, artist J. Michael Walker “feels a close affinity to Catholic spirituality and culture.” This affinity inspired him to paint the Catholic saints after whom 103 Los Angeles streets have been named. Walker not only visits the streets, but also studies their histories and the lives of their saints.
For instance, when he first visited Santa Clara Street, he found it ran through a derelict industrial district. Walker painted St. Clare, the companion of St. Francis of Assisi, lifting a railroad lantern and standing next to barbed wire and security bars. He then placed this inscription on the painting: “Santa Clara had sought the privilege of absolute poverty, and found it here, on this meager portion of a street.”
San Pablo Street, Walker found, ran to the northeast of downtown Los Angeles and finally turned into a dirt road that climbed a bluff overlooking the city. He pictured this as a place where San Pablo – St. Paul – might preach.
The saints project did not, of course, rise from pure spiritual inspiration. In 2000, the city of Los Angeles awarded Walker a $6,500 grant to paint the pictures of saints, which would hang for two months in bus stops near the saint-named streets. He has received other grants for the project as well.
But Walker’s interest carried him into further research. The street names, he learned, were founded in “mission fantasy” – real estate developers, not Spanish-era rancheros or padres, named the streets after the saints. "I guess you could say [the developers] called upon the saints to bless their enterprise," he told the Times. And Walker reflected: "When you're founding a community, that's one thing. But when you're a real estate developer, and you're trying to use the name of a saint to sell real estate, that may not be the best possible use for someone who's known to help the poor, to have lived a sainted life."
Walker spent several years in rural Mexico, beginning in the 1970s, where he encountered popular Catholic piety and where he met, and married his wife, Mimi. His “affection for that world,” says his web site (http://www.jmichaelwalker.com/id48.htm), led him not only to paint street saints, but also “The Daily Life of the Virgin of Guadalupe.” In these paintings, the Virgin is depicted “as a real Mexican woman of Indian descent, engaged in the myriad daily tasks by which women hold the world together,” says Walker’s web site.
The web site says he found the Virgin in the lives and faces of the women whom he met in his family. “It seemed natural, even obvious, to depict her this way,” he says on the site. “And, indeed, she came to acquire a greater vividness, or reality, as I came to see her in the faces of women everywhere -- in Oaxaca and Puebla, in el D.F. and Los Angeles.”
The original story can be found at California Catholic Daily.