“This river was here before the city was.” Los Angeles arts activist Spike Dolomite reminds us of this fact before embarking on an excited rundown of all the arts and restoration work being done on the Los Angeles River, a waterway that had been reduced to an oversized concrete viaduct in several stretches. Will the ambitious plans work?
They already are working. Bike paths now in place are a high-profile product of the city’s efforts to bring its citizens back to the banks of the L.A. River, a waterway with a forgotten history, a waterway that has drawn humans to it for hundreds of years. The Los Angeles City Council is currently working on a plan to make the entire length of the river within city limits usable. The arts community is active in the efforts, with musicians performing riverside, artists painting en plein air, dancers dancing, and a troupe known as the L.A. Mudpeople stripping nearly naked, donning large, square papier-mache heads, and walking through the river ogling the modern civilization around them.
Painters working on location along the Los Angeles River.
“I want artists to be in on the very start of this so they can document it,” says Dolomite. “I got involved when I heard about a group of senior citizens painting down there. I have lived in L.A. a long time and I didn’t know there was an active river there. It was nothing more than a dump for a long time. Now there is a strong movement and some serious money going toward the move to make it natural and wild again. I’ve seen photos of people kayaking in it, and it looks natural—but if you look up, L.A. skyscrapers!”
“L.A. River Morning II,” by Andrew Dickson, pastel, 24 x 18 in.
L.A. artist Andrew Dickson has painted the forsaken river many times. He used to live mere blocks from the Los Angeles River, and the painter found great beauty in its monolithic concrete structure. “It is such a contrast to the dense population of L.A.; a quiet, open space filled with light reflecting off concrete,” says Dickson. “It’s really inspiring. There’s a lot of wildlife along it, too, even here in Long Beach. On several occasions, I have seen it turn into a full-blown river, but for the most part it is a very small amount of water moving.”
The restoration of the L.A. River could be the equivalent of New York City’s High Line park—a joy for the residents, a boon for tourism, and the “upcycling” of an always present but largely forgotten city feature. Dolomite is certainly doing her part to keep the artistic community engaged. Her LinkedIn page, L.A. River Group for Artists, acts as a clearinghouse for events along the waterway. “In my capacity as an arts activist, I post everything I hear about,” she says. “I try to help people gather to paint, sketch on the river, make music, whatever. Now I’m at the point where I am urging people not to wait for me to schedule something, but to start something themselves. I want artists to capture it all.”