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Robert Vargas Paints the Faces of Downtown LA

The mural artist reveals his passion for his neighborhood, painting live portraits and the importance of community

by Julie Wolfson in Culture on 28 May 2014

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Large almond-shaped eyes peek out from the corner of 9th and Flower in downtown Los Angeles. The big, black and white painting—dotted with a glamorous beaded headpiece—watches over the busy intersection near FIDM. The painter Robert Vargas created this elegant detail of a woman’s face in a matter of hours, with a model he found by chance working in the WaterMarke Tower where the new Faith & Flower restaurant designed by AvroKO has recently opened. Once inside the restaurant, a hallway of expressionistic portraits portrays several notable downtown visionaries from the Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman José Huizar to 213 Nightlife Founder Cedd Moses and a self-portrait of the artist; another female face watches over the bar.

For an artist known for massive murals and live-painting portraits on the sidewalk during Art Walk, Vargas' restaurant project connects his desire to create artworks in a variety of locations that depict his passion for improvisation, portraiture and community. A project that began with a commission to create framed expressionists portraits led to the larger pieces in the bar and facing the street and eventually a large section of the side of the building.

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Vargas feels as at home in the lush and elegant new restaurant serving unctuous oxtail angliotti with bone marrow butter and steak tartare with konbu seaweed as he does walking the street near his home and studio on Spring Street—an area of town once known for its grit, but now better known for its public art. Recently we spoke with the artist, and he shared his thoughts on collaborating with the restauranteurs of Faith & Flower, the residents of downtown and the importance of community.

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How did your involvement with the new restaurant Faith & Flower come about?

Really by a chance meeting with David Bernahl. A few months ago, I got a message from him to come in and take a look at the restaurant. His idea initially was to do the 31 portraits that hang in the corridor. They are specific people who are contributing to the fabric of the community and are passionate about downtown. As he gave me a tour of the restaurant I looked at the bar area. There was this wall that I thought was just so perfect for a piece that I thought it could be a main focal point. He allowed me to go with my idea to paint an ode to the women downtown—past and present—who are contributing to its success. It overlooks the bar and gives the room a little bit of a Gatsby feel.

You also did work a new piece that was installed into the window at Faith & Flower. Who was your model for that piece?

Literally 10 minutes before I started the piece, these eyes were peering at me from the lobby of the WaterMarke Tower. I just went in and introduced myself and asked her to model. That painting echoes the mural inside. The restaurant is such a beautiful space and I think the art gives it a certain authenticity.

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Your mural at 6th and Spring Street has become a touchstone for that part of downtown to help bring together the neighborhood. What was your inspiration while painting the giant female face?

Spring Street is the Nile of downtown LA—it's where the old financial district, the hub for the new loft-dwellers and a direct route to Skid Row intersect. Then it is ground zero for the Art Walk and Gallery Row. I named her Our Lady of Downtown LA. As downtown changes and evolves and experiences this renaissance, Our Lady of DTLA rises from the ground painted in values of black and white as a nod to the historic architecture. She welcomes people into the neighborhood.

Why do you make a point to still find time to do live paintings at Art Walk, even though you are busy with so many commissions and projects?

I have been a part of the Art Walk since the very beginning. It is the open house for downtown. As a resident, I think it is important to maintain a certain visibility there. I like the accessibility of being out there and sharing my creative process with people. I turn that space into my studio. Everyone is invited to participate and be a part of it. I am literally painting the faces of Los Angeles.

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I am there working and willing volunteers model for me. I picked them based on intuition, rhythm, a feature, a mutual curiosity.
How do you pick your models? During Art Walk, what inspires you from the crowd of people?

It’s not commerce-driven—that’s what makes it honest. I am there working and willing volunteers model for me. I picked them based on intuition, rhythm, a feature, a mutual curiosity. I draw the homeless guy who through the process feels beautiful. I paint the working class and turn them into heroes.

You painted a musician at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. How did that piece help get the moratorium on public murals overturned?

Speaking to José Huizar he said that mural was instrumental in getting the ball rolling again for the mural ordinance that recently passed. There was a moratorium on murals for the last decade. The artistic murals were getting put into the same box as the commercial ones. My mural helped kickstart things as far as getting that conversation again, which led to the overturning of the mural ordinance. That day I put out a press release saying that anyone who wanted to participate could meet me in Little Tokyo. We walked across the 1st Street Bridge. It was kind of a homecoming for me because I was born and raised there. A crowd was waiting for me once I arrived, but I had no idea what I was going to paint. It occurred to pull a mariachi from the plaza there. I found one that had the features that would translate well and paid him for the day. It took me three hours to create it.

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What are your goals with your work? What do you hope it will all add up to?

A celebration of Los Angeles. Making art accessible, making it free. Public art is such a unique platform because I am able to reach thousands of people. Also with the invention of social media, people comment on these images from around the world. It’s also marking where we are at this place in time in Los Angeles’s history. I believe we are in the current creative golden age of Los Angeles. I am happy to contribute to that.

Vargas’ new pieces are on view at Faith & Flower restaurant. Currently he is designing a collection for Neff headwear and next will embark on a series of murals from a four-story one on Spring Street to a six-story one at The WaterMarke Tower. Then Vargas will tackle a 14-story mural, which will be the largest on the West Coast.

Photos by Julie Wolfson

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