I am a Los Angeles based artist and self-professed historian. One of my frequent subjects is street lights. Why do these common objects figure so prominently in my work? I could give you the historian’s viewpoint: improved economy due to increased hours in the working day, enhanced safety from the common criminal, attraction to and vitality of urban centers… utility as public execution site... But the simple truth of the matter is: object fetishism. I like the old designs.
I originally became attracted to these utilitarian sculptures when I lived in East Hollywood, near the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting utility yard which is piled high with replacement standards and lanterns. Between that home and that yard sits an installation of an assortment of LA street lights know as Vermonica, by artist Sheila Klein. Living in that neighborhood, the subject of lights kind of beats you over the head. I already knew the significance of Los Angeles street lighting because it’s a(n oft overlooked) subject of pride around here. Los Angeles was the first city in the United States with an entirely electric public lighting system1, and with an abundant collection of over 500 light designs in use, many Angelenos can recognize their neighborhoods by the street light alone. But it was only while working on a series of paintings about the LA River bridges that I began to see these lights as a source of creative interest. The lanterns and standards became obvious features, encapsulating the minutia of design for each individual bridge. I began creating the small ink and metal leaf drawings as a way to fill studio time between paintings. The lights are nuggets of highly designed, functional, public engineering whose representations keep my hands busy while my mind processes the more complicated compositions and demanding sub-texts of my larger pieces.
Over time, I started to think more directly about the lights themselves: the way they kept creeping into the picture while I was working on other subjects, subsequent hunts to find them hidden amongst a sea of cobra-headed modernity and translation of their delicate details into simplified, two dimensional forms. To me, the lights became the angels referred to in the name of my city, standing stoically, quietly observing as the generations pass, and shedding light and beauty on their surroundings. They are testaments to the existence of a time when city planning was a perceivable function of intellectuals who believed in the human need for beauty and a certain amount of order.
My process in creating these mixed media drawings also requires a certain order. Atomized black ink spits, spatters and pools over hand-cut stencils to create the darkest shadows of the drawings. The highlights of my subject are added in silver leaf. Between the ink and the metal, I ignite a granulized propellant which flashes and leaves behind a mid-tone of singed browns, crispy metal and a soft residue of white smoke. Finally, a halo of gold leaf completes the process. The layers of materials and techniques used in making these pieces explicate the most significant qualities of the lights themselves. The stencils are a street lexicon, the silver is decorative, the burning signifies the layers of soot, dirt and imperfections the lights accrue as a result of a life on the streets. And the gold halo represents both the warm glow of the lamp as well as the beatific security offered by its presence.
My petit mixed-media drawings of street lights are a way of honoring the gems in the vast jewel box that is the view of the Los Angeles basin on a night approach into LAX. Rows of elegant light standards continue to line streets which were once respectable boulevards or lovely approaches to significant attractions, long since plowed under and forgotten. Compared to my timeless, sexless architectural paintings, these cultural gems appealed to my girly side; my desire to adorn, accessorize and live in refined light (with a little grease under my finger nails, of course). I paint these detailed sculptures because, in all of their influence, they are humble. At their finest they yield a warm glow which casts magic into the evening air and commands a footprint far more significant than their skinny, tall statures would suggest.
Three of my street light drawings can be viewed in the lobby of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting.
1) Comer, Virginia L. Streetlights. The Urban Details Series. Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 2000.
Teale Hatheway is a Los Angeles based artist known for her mixed media paintings and installations of local architecture, streetlights and ornamental details.