BY ROBERT CORSINI
Most of you who read this newsletter and the pieces I write will know by now that I grew up in Glendale and North East LA. It’s certainly my home turf and I am constantly amazed by the myriad of fascinating things we can learn about where we live, here at the confluence of giant subterranean aquifers beneath our feet, especially in Mt. Washington and Highland Park.
It’s no coincidence that the early Gabrielino-Tongva inhabitants of our hillsides, glens and valleys were drawn to this unique geological intersection, set between the Arroyo Seco and the Los Angeles River. It was a point of sustainability for the original communities that populated the area that have now grown and developed into what we know today as Los Angeles.
When I was growing up in the seventies, the L.A. River was more often than not mocked and ridiculed. That the concrete drainage ditch was a sorry excuse for anything resembling a ‘real’ river that flowed mightily like the Colombia, Colorado or Mississippi. It was a neglected and dispirited waterway, often used as a background for ‘bad’ 1950s science fiction thrillers and student films, such as my very first in 1988, Nowhere Home.
Then one day, somewhere in the eighties it all changed for me when powerful local storms swept across the region, and water channels and streets flooded the normally trickling riverbed. It had turned into a raging monster nearing the top of the concrete channel near Frogtown. I marveled at the scene, standing alongside the river and watching its raging waters passing within feet of bridge crossings. It completely blew my mind. It is indeed a real river!
Over the past twenty years, The LA River Master Plan has charted an ambitious course to reinvent the overlooked waterway. I have watched with great satisfaction the City and State begin to reset the mistakes of their developmental past and the LA River is most certainly one of them, along with the massive transportation bottleneck between the 110 and 5 Freeways, Riverside, San Fernando Drives and Figueroa Street and that’s not even during baseball season. The irony of course is that often times waterways and freeways follow the same course, but are not necessarily pathways of least resistance.
It has been a gargantuan civil engineering feat costing hundreds of millions of dollars, taking years to conceive, design and construct — an integrated public works project that included underground storm water storage, elevated street overpasses, protected bike paths and a traffic roundabout, a fundamental breakthrough moment for a city based on a massive grid of far reaching intersecting lines, followed by endless streams of automobiles. Through much of the 2010s, we witnessed the construction on a daily basis, while driving our son to school in Silver Lake.
As the ‘Confluence Plaza’ took shape, and the path of the roundabout became apparent, the space for a public art piece at the center was being prepared. I hadn’t heard or seen anything about what was being created for this incredibly symbolic and vital space. And then one February day in 2017, they appeared: Faces of Elysian Valley, a collection of nine 8-foot to 12-foot high, two-sided, carved granite sculptures, mounted across a 100-foot diameter traffic circle area with native landscaping and permeable hardscape.
I distinctly recall it taking some time to digest the granite eggs and design scape of the site. Driving the roundabout day after day, I soon came to appreciate the flow, and the varied perspectives this piece offers. Generally speaking, I likewise recall many in the neighborhood who were not as impressed by the site as I was. For me there was something profound about the entire site and the ‘Faces’ bore witness to all of that was, is and going to be.
Local artist team Brian Howe and Freyja Bardell took seven years from their concept to installation. The nine egg-shaped sculptures are the faces of local residents captured in 3-D scans and then water-jet-cut out of granite sourced from a Yosemite-area quarry. There’s a different person represented on both sides of each sculpture, so 18 faces in all. “Faces of Elysian Valley” pays homage to the diversity flowing through the site, a bustling roundabout near the intersection of three neighborhoods: Elysian Valley, Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation in partnership with the Bureau of Engineering, the artists truly dug deep for their inspiration and vision for this piece. Freyja Bardell was quoted in the LA Times at the time of the project’s unveiling, “We wanted to capture an image or time stamp of this diverse community and celebrate or memorialize it,” Bardell says. “We chose to use regular people in the community, inter-generational, people who aren’t necessarily elevated to the status of being a statue, but who are all incredibly significant and important in the community. They’re sort of guardians watching people come in and out of this intersection of freeways, rivers, railways and three or four neighborhoods.”
Co-creator Brian Howe added, “Sustainability was very important from the beginning, so it’s also a storm-water retention roundabout. There are three kinds of bioswales that trap the water, keep it there, help irrigate. Part of the design is also things you don’t even see.”
Soon the pieces truly blended into the new vibe developing in NELA, which included visits from the indomitable tagging crews of the Avenues. I salute the artists for creating something daring, unique and full of meaning that allows for repurposing. But then one day something richly serendipitous came across my consciousness that only the Internet age could have manifested. Somewhere in my worldwide web travels, while researching ‘Mt. Washington’ an image comes up of a carved stone egg of unknown, but certainly ancient, and indigenous origin. The smooth shaped stone has an embedded carving of a face, along with other symbols, in a way not dissimilar to the Faces of Elysian Valley.
The mystery stone of Lake Winnipesaukee is approximately 4 inches long, 2 1/2 inches thick, weighs eighteen ounces, and has a dark-hue to it. Hard as granite, it is about the size and shape of a goose egg. The stone is a type of quartzite, derived from sandstone, or mylonite, a fine-grained rock formed by the transference of rock layers along faults. There are holes bored in both ends of the stone and it was drilled through from end to end with different sized tools, and polished along its surface. It’s a precisely carved object that adds to its unique mystery.
But why did this come up in my search you might be asking? I can tell you it’s not because of the public art piece in Confluence Plaza, but rather due to the rare stone discovered in 1872, embedded in six feet of mud near Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, part of the water shed of Mt. Washington, 60 miles to the north, known to be one of the coldest places in North America.
I believe there are no coincidences. Many theories behind the origin of the stone have been developed over the years — all of them fascinating! First and foremost archeologists determined that nothing like this particular stone has ever been found in North America. Some thought it to be of indigenous origin however, used as a birthstone by midwives to prepare the birth canal for an impending labor. Others surmised it was a ‘thunderstone’ — a rock that fell from the sky during lightning storms. Most compelling was that it was a lodestone used for navigational purposes as a 16th Century predecessor to a compass. And then there are those who connect it to aliens, numerology, planetary shifts or the ‘apocalypse’.
Then early one morning in December of 2019, just before the debut of COVID, a beige Mini Cooper misunderstood the new Riverside Roundabout and careened into the array of sculptures, destroying elements on the ground and toppling and shattering two of the giant egg-like granite sculptures. Chaos had arrived at the confluence! Seriously, what is wrong with people? Perhaps the theories behind the ‘thunderstones’ are right?
According to artist and designer Freyja Bardell, her initial response to the collision was one of ‘shock’, disbelief and an immediate concern for the person who was driving. Then her interest turned more into the mechanics of how it happened and whether or not the vulnerability of the sculptures could have been better protected. For Brian Howe, it was definitely ‘a gut punch.’ In a fortuitous twist, the team’s decision to epoxy the granite elements together, rather than structurally reinforcing them, ended up cracking a couple of eggs, but saving the driver’s life and for that Brian is extremely grateful.
Today, Brian and Freyja continue to develop their public art style incorporating faces of common people into their projects developed out of their Cypress Park studio Greenmeme. They see the mayhem that befell their work as part of a more dynamic, organic piece of public art that responds to the environment around them. In some ways the broken pieces of digitally hewed granite visages feel more like the clutter of ancient ruins, similar to those found around the Roman forum, than the remnants of an errant LA motorist and they are OK with that. Brian originally saw the sculpture as a message sent from the heavens to deliver to humanity, an ambiguous message, and he certainly has accomplished that task.
For three years now the site that once held such shining promise for so many reasons has languished and fallen into a state of entropy. But for the artists who created it, Brian Howe and Freyja Bardell, they have resigned themselves to letting it become whatever it becomes. First they considered a creative approach using the Japanese technique of Kintsugi to re-fuse the broken pieces using fashioned metal structures, but would be unlikely due to the costs that would require. In the end, they like everyone else will be happy with a simple repair and replacement. The good news is that the City’s insurance claim is nearing approval. Just this month I saw city workers on the site cleaning the trash, weed whacking the perimeter and getting ready it seemed, to do something beyond a simple dusting off.
In the meantime, enjoy the Riverside Roundabout and take care watching the road and the nest of giant thunderstones in our midst. They deserve our protection.