LOS ANGELES—Saints have been sighted in the past month on the streets of Los Angeles, and J. Michael Walker is the man who has brought them there.
Though originally from Arkansas, the 26-year Los Angeles resident has been commemorating the saints who have streets named for them in his adopted city.
Walker moved to Los Angeles because his “cultural interest is centered in Mexico,” and as a result, he felt when he moved that “it would be more relevant to come to L.A. than to New York.”
But while his art has often focused on religious paintings, he explained that the idea for his project began in a very unlikely place.
“It had a very prosaic beginning,” he said. “I was flipping through the Thomas guide [a map of Los Angeles Streets], and I was struck by how many streets were named after saints.”
The names were “given for a reason,” he decided, and set out to explore “the connection between the streets with saints’ names, and our lives.”
What he found were myriad reasons for the naming of the streets. Realtors attempted to lure Midwestern real estate buyers with Saint Louis Street. Simple piety on the part of a couple of elderly ladies led to the name of Santa Clara Street. A “renaissance” of Mexican culture and traditions in the late 1800s named many others.
Msgr. Francis Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the streets are named as they are because “Los Angeles was a Hispanic town founded in 1781.”
“The [Spanish] tendency was to name cities and other places after saints of the day,” said Msgr. Weber, who is based in a suburb of Los Angeles on San Fernando Road, a major thoroughfare in the area.
With 78 streets named for saints in Los Angeles, Walker had quite a task ahead of him.
Armed with $6,500 in “seed money” from the city's Cultural Affairs Department, Walker researched the origins of the street names and decided to rent bus-stop shelters to display his art.
“Most of [the $6,500] went to renting the bus shelters,” he said, noting that the rest of the needed money came from “people on [his] e-mail list.” And soon, with hours of “painstaking research and drawing,” his project, called Todos Los Santos de Los Angeles (All the Saints of Los Angeles), began to take shape.
And despite the “obvious theological context,” Walker explained that “I did not approach the Archdiocese [for money] because I wanted people to see this not as Catholic with a ‘big C,’ but as catholic with a ‘small c’—encompassing everyone.”
His plan seems to have worked.
His posters have had a special relevance for a most eclectic group of people. Not only did one person like one bus-stop poster so much that he broke the glass that covered it and stole it, but several of the models for Walker's posters were people who had stories that were like secular counterparts to the saints he was painting.
For instance, he said, the women who appear in the poster of Santa Monica Boulevard are members of a support group for women whose children are imprisoned. St. Monica prayed for her wayward son and eventually brought about his conversion—he is now St. Augustine.
Even more incredible was the story of the young woman who was his model for Santa Ynez (Saint Agnes).
Walker said he told her the story of Saint Agnes, the beautiful Roman maiden who resisted the repeated sexual advances of lecherous men. When promises and bribes failed to shake her resolve, the men took her to a “house of shame,” where God protected her by encircling her with a great glowing light.
The young woman then told the artist that she had been through something very similar. While looking for a job as a fashion model, she found a photographer who agreed to help her, but “only if she would pose for other [pornographic] photos first.”
During the “explicit” photo shoot, Walker recounted that “she began to weep, and so the photographer tore up the film.” Like Saint Agnes, he says, she was “protected from shame.”
Walker found that his art seemed to have an almost supernatural relevance when he went to San Julian Street on Los Angeles’ “skid row.”
“San Julian is the patron of wanderers and those who give refuge to wanderers,” Walker said. He went on to explain that on that street he discovered a group called LAMP, a nondenominational group which serves the mentally ill homeless of the area.
“LAMP calls them guests,” he recalled.
In addition to the fact that on the street named for the patron of wanderers and their helpers there was a homeless shelter, Walker was happily surprised when many of the “guests” at the LAMP facility allowed him to sketch them for his poster of San Julian. “The homeless people invited me to incorporate their portraits into the poster,” Walker recalled.
And in addition to the “guests” and the artist, the relevance of the street's name had quite an impact on LAMP's founder, Molly Lowry.
“[Walker] came to our drop-in center on San Julian Street,” said Lowry, “where we support the homeless mentally ill.”
When Walker told her the story of San Julian, “I was floored,” Molly said. It was then that she understood why “it [had always] seemed that there was something right about the location.”
Noting that several of those who were being helped at the shelter were featured in Walker's poster of San Julian, Lowry added that “[the ‘guests’] flocked to him; they thought it was great. ... It emphasized the need for faith.”
She called the project's effects a “supernatural, spiritual thing that we cannot control.”
To date, Walker has sketched and displayed 21 of the 78 saints for whom streets are named, and his project was displayed through December at the Avenue 50 studio in the Highland Park region of Los Angeles.
If he can raise the money, he hopes to continue the project this year as well.
The impact of the project, Walker said, makes these saints relevant today.
Throughout this project he said he has been “happening on people who are living the legends of these saints.”
Walker is not alone in seeing this relevance; Msgr. Francis Weber also sees modern significance in the lives of the saints, and their continuing place in the community.
Said Msgr. Weber, “People need to know the heritage.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles