The Southwest Museum in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles was founded in 1907 by one of the wild and fun men of the early Twentieth Century: Charles Lummis. (See more aboutLummis, his home and his adventures in this post.)
For decades the Southwest Museum was home to an ever-growing collection of Native American art that, I’ve been told, was not treated with the care it deserved. Now owned by the Autry Museum of the American West it is open on Saturdays only and only a fraction of the collection remains in the building. The curators at the Autry moved most of the art works to safer conditions.
Entry and parking are free. If you go by Metro Gold Line you will disembark at a remarkable and controversial Metro Station just one block of the Museum.
Back in June I stopped in and here is some of what I saw:
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While he is best-known today as the man who built a stone house by hand in Los Angeles between 1897 and 1910, Charles Lummis had, overall, an amazing life. Someone must have whispered in his ear when he was young: ‘Do great things. Do astonishing things.’ You can read details of his life on Wikipedia, but here are some of the highlights. He dropped out of Harvard–what is it about Harvard drop-outs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Lummis and ‘doing great things’? He loved women–many women–including his 3 wives. He loved giving parties and smoking, too. Instead of taking a train he walked across America, filing news reports along the way with the Los Angeles Times, his new employer.
He headed the Los Angeles Public Library. He was the editor of ‘Out West’ magazine, publishing works by authors such as John Muir. He founded the Southwest Museum and amassed the museum’s enormous collection of Native American artworks which is now owned by the Autry Museum of the American West. He traveled to South America and wrote at length about the role of Spain in the New World. For that effort he was knighted by the King of Spain. And keep in mind that this was all long, long after the pioneer days.
I had some trouble finding the Lummis House — because it is smack-dab beside the 110 Freeway exit 43. It looked like a vacant lot overgrown with trees.
As it turned out, I was at the back of the two city lots that make up the entire property. When he bought the land, it was simply two lots in a neighborhood, Highland Park, that was being developed. His neighbors were building California Craftsman bungalows; he built El-Alisal, using stones he collected from the nearby Arroyo Seco. The house is set up beautifully for entertaining, including a small low stage in the rear courtyard.
The home is only open on Sundays. There is a very informative docent on the site who will tell you a great deal about Lummis, the house and its history.
Back in the late 1980s my sons attended Otis Parsons Art Institute in L.A. and lived near Alvarado Street in an old, poor Mexican neighborhood. In the mornings in their new neighborhood an old man would walk through with a bucket full of freshly made tamales, crying out ‘Tamales for Sale’. It was a episode straight out of another time and another place–still alive in Los Angeles. And for my sons, two young men who had been raised in suburban San Fernando Valley, the tamale man was a surprise, a representative of whole different world, even though less than 10 miles separated them.
I hadn’t thought about the tamale man in years until this morning when I was taking photos of the murals of Highland Park, when I came across an old man sitting outside of a store peeling napoli cactus–no doubt with the intention of selling the cactus, which is very tasty! He and his friends and their grandchildren were seated in front of a very contemporary mural, one that didn’t face right onto the Metro Gold Line tracks, and I loved the contrast of ‘then and now’.
Very ‘now’ is this relatively new and humorous–at least to Angelenos–bright yellow mural that reads “North East LA” The joke, such as it is, is that East LA has a clear image of Latino violence and gangs. I’m sure most people in the neighborhood do not want any violence or problems in their quiet neighborhood, but the artist who did this mural had other ideas.
Just before the Metro Gold Line leaves Marmion Street in Highland Park, an artist has gone all out with a wall mural entitled ‘She Rides the Lion’ with a long row of figures mounted onto the fence facing the Gold Line tracks. The name of the art studio: 2 Tracks Studio!!
Highland Park is two stops further along the Metro Gold line from the station I use, but until today I had never gone there–only gone through it. It’s an old working class Latino neighborhood of mostly small California bungalows. But then the Gold Line came through the heart of Highland Park and the artists in the area apparently decided to provide visual interest to commuters by painting murals on buildings facing the Gold Line. I also wonder if the local artists created all these murals to make up for the fact that the so-called art at the Gold Line station in Highland Park is among the most boring on the whole line. Even the Indiana station has more interesting art.
Highland Park is also becoming a hipper, trendy area among artists. Rents are still lower than other areas, so in addition a strong art influence in the neighborhood there are also new restaurants and coffee houses, in addition to all the old taco joints and dollar stores.
Because I took so many photos I’m going to split this post up into two parts, showing two murals that obviously were created by professionally trained artists and one that was created on the side of a garage by an amateur artist in the neighborhood. There are several murals in the area by amateurs including this butterfly one.
The angels on towering columns at the Southwest Museum Gold Line station are both beautiful and whimsical. And they are not easily visible from within the Gold Line cars. You have to get out on the station platform and look up to see them. (Don’t worry if the train leaves while you are looking at the art; another one will be by in 15 minutes or so.)
Created by artist Teddy Sandoval, he called the figures “Guardians”, rather than angels and said they were to protect the residents of this Highland Park neighborhood, as well as the riders on the Gold Line. The angel’s bodies are tile, the wings aluminum. I wonder if the artist decided to put them high up on columns so they wouldn’t be tagged by graffiti — although he probably wouldn’t admit it if that was part of his decision-making process.
Sandoval also had responsbility for the seating at this station and came up with some odd solutions: the top of a column, a dice, and an ornate cast iron chair. It’s whimsey once again!
Now about the Southwest Museum which gave this station its name. After decades of uneven management, this museum which housed a significant collection of Native American arts and crafts was taken over by the Gene Autry National Museum. (The Autry Museum is located in Griffith Park.) And I say “Thank Goodness” for that. The Autry museum focuses on the American West and it now incorporates the Southwest Museum collection in its exhibitions. Cowboys and Indians are finally getting together and both being honored. The Southwest Museum as a separate entity is rarely, if ever, open. The one time I visited it, decades ago, I remember going up an elevator inside the hill to reach a museum on the top. That was quite cool!
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