Picture looks bleak for mural adorning former JCC

The mural was meant to be a collaboration: A public arts agency led the bid for its creation, the surrounding community approved its design and Chicago artist John Pitman Weber stayed in the homes of local residents while he and a team of volunteers painted it during the summer of 1993.

But the sprawling artwork adorning the former site of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (VCJCC) in Sherman Oaks may soon be painted over by the building’s new tenants, who say its content conflicts with their mission.

Depicting the epic struggle of slaves marching toward freedom memorialized in the Passover haggadah, the boldly hued mural that has brightened Burbank Boulevard for the past 15 years could be whitewashed as soon as October.

“It’s a really beautiful mural,” said Aaron Paley, president and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Community Arts Resources (CAR), who grew up attending classes and programs at VCJCC. “It has become a landmark in that neighborhood. It would be a shame to lose it.”

VCJCC left its home of almost 50 years in early July for new quarters in Van Nuys, when the old site was purchased by The Help Group, a nonprofit learning center for children with special needs. Officials with The Help Group on July 16 sent Weber the 90-day notice required by law before they can legally remove the mural from the property.

“Unfortunately, the mural is not consistent with our mission and our plans for the building,” spokesperson John Farrimond said in a written statement. “And as such, we have notified the artist that these plans do not include the use of his mural.”

The move has sparked outrage from VCJCC members and public arts advocates, who claim the artwork’s destruction would flout the spirit of unity in which it was created.

The mural’s imagery was meant to appeal not only to the institution but also to the larger community, said Lester Paley, longtime VCJCC board member and past president and also Aaron Paley’s father.

“It’s a nonsectarian mural on the theme of freedom,” said Lester Paley, 82, who first contacted Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) about putting a mural on the building’s front wall in the early 1990s. “It has been seen by people all over Los Angeles. It doesn’t make any sense why children who are autistic or developmentally disabled shouldn’t be able to see it.”

Designed in 1992 the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain the work features scenes of oppression, survival and unity under the statement: “Our history moves from slavery toward freedom.” There are colorful panels referencing the 10 plagues and the exodus from Egypt; portraits of slain civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and a medley of meaningful words and phrases, such as “let all who hunger,” “abolish child slavery” and ” tikvah,” the Hebrew word for “hope.”

“I think this mural is the most important thing I’ve done in my career,” said Weber, who has created public artworks in New York City, Chicago, London and other cities around the world. “It’s my best mural. It treats the scenes in a very universalizing way.”

SPARC chose Weber to head the project from among hundreds of applicants. The artist worked closely with VCJCC and had his designs vetted at public meetings, said Judith Baca, SPARC founder and artistic director. She said the site’s mural, which was paid for with public funds from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, is a prominent stop on citywide mural tours her organization runs.

“While it is a story that is specifically a Jewish story, it is also a universal story,” said Baca, a muralist whose works appear across Los Angeles. “I am a Latina; the story of immigration relates to all of us.”

VCJCC members began to fear for the mural’s preservation when the Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., which owned the Sherman Oaks property, sold the site to The Help Group in early July, CAR’s Paley said. The center’s last day in the building was July 6. Now, their almost 50-year legacy at the iconic structure is embodied in one 85-by-16-foot cement stucco wall.

“We’re very happy that the community center has found a new home,” Paley said. “But in the meantime, we’re still hoping to safeguard this community treasure.”

The Help Group, which has operated from the building next door for more than 40 years, bought the VCJCC property to expand its programs for autistic children, Farrimond said in a statement. He added in an e-mail that officials do not plan to raze the site but are “preparing it” for its new use.

“The Help Group appreciates the value of art in the community and recognizes the disappointment that the artist and some members of our community may be experiencing,” the statement said.

Farrimond added that The Help Group doesn’t wish to offend its longtime neighbors.

“There is no disrespect intended by our decision,” he said. “It is a decision that is based on our mission to serve a greater number of children affected by autism and their families.”

However, opponents say they don’t understand how a historical mural would hinder The Help Group’s services.

“I’m dumbfounded,” Weber said. “I think the mission of supporting and aiding autistic children is wonderful. But I don’t see how the mural can possibly be in contradiction with a desire to support and educate children.”

The artist said he has even offered to paint out the religious symbols officials might think are “specifically sectarian.”

As the clock ticks down on the artist’s 90-day notice, which ends on Oct. 18, Baca said SPARC is working with the Jewish community to find a way to either relocate or reproduce the mural.

One possibility involves using strong glues to lift the paint from its original surface and apply it to another. But Weber would need another 85-foot wall to put the sweeping mural back up. Baca said the process could mean spending $100,000 to move a piece that cost only $50,000 to create.

“We don’t have the funds to do that,” she said.

A more likely option might be taking photographs of the mural to make a digital printout that could be fitted to a smaller surface. Lester Paley said VCJCC’s new site on Friar Street has a 25-foot wall that might be a good candidate.

“If we transferred it over to that wall, it would be reduced to one-third of the original size,” Paley said. “It wouldn’t be as effective, but at least it would be seen by Victory Boulevard.”

For Weber, who has seen his public murals painted over before, the situation reflects larger issues of change and preservation.

“I don’t think it’s just a question of who lives next to Burbank Boulevard,” he said. “I think it’s part of a bigger question: What do we value from our past?”