‘Portraits of Hope’ Comes to Downtown L.A.

April 24, 2019
Photo by Felix Massey

Brothers Bernie and Ed Massey have dropped a whole lot of color on the Los Angeles Convention Center. Their gigantic splash of geometric shapes currently decorates an otherwise gray swath in downtown Los Angeles.

“It adds a ‘wow factor’ to the L.A. skyline,” Doane Liu, executive director of the City of Los Angeles Department of Convention & Tourism Development, told the Journal.

Painted by local residents, the brothers’ massive mural and additional sections adorn various pathways. It’s the latest grand-scale initiative of the brothers’ nonprofit, Portraits of Hope (POH), which highlights social issues and relies on collaboration to create public art. Featuring bright abstract images, “Shaping LA” spans vast stretches of previously bland concrete downtown, transforming a gray cityscape into a vibrant vista.

“This is the largest civic and public art initiative in the country and the curved wall at the L.A. Convention Center notably stands out because of its size and continuous curve that is recognizable to anyone who has visited downtown L.A.,” Ed, a painter, sculptor and writer told the Journal. “The four football fields-long curved wall for the Shaping LA project is comprised of more than 250 geometric shapes. The symbolism of the geometric shapes motif is connected to young people shaping the future.”

The panels are at the most visible section of the L.A. Convention Center — in front of L.A. traffic near the Staples Center and multiple freeway interchanges — Bernie Massey added. “They are seen by millions of people every day right at the entrance to downtown.” 

While the images appear simplistic, they are nonetheless copyrighted. “We are really protective of our visuals because they are our signature,” Bernie said.

When the Masseys conceived of the idea, they wanted to give local children a chance to explore both civic issues and team collaboration. This is their latest in a long list of public art projects they have created to engage students and others in civic issues. “There’s nothing better than working with your brother to help achieve these goals,” Ed said.

Native Angelenos, the brothers often collaborate with Jewish organizations, colleagues and friends. They define themselves as secular Jews but their Jewish background has “greatly influenced our commitment to social issues,” Bernie said. 

Their brightly-colored panels have appeared around the world. One of their projects included recruiting 11,000 people to stand atop 156 lifeguard towers spanning 31 continuous miles of the Southern California coastline in 2010. Last year, at MacArthur Park Lake, they floated 3,000 vinyl spheres. They also decorated 5,400 Manhattan taxis in 2007, as well as a plane, a blimp and, now, a convention center.

“Portraits of Hope is a way to shrink our world. We are all connected and we need to remember that. Our projects are a visual symbol of what can be done when we all cooperate.” — Bernie Massey

Their POH signature installations represent more than happy optics.  “Portraits of Hope is a way to shrink our world,” Bernie said. “We are all connected and we need to remember that. Our projects are a visual symbol of what can be done when we all cooperate.”

Their nonprofit relies on both monetary donations and volunteers to create each installation and send a message of optimism to sites as varied as local animal shelters, senior facilities and elementary schools to a sports arena in Osaka, Japan, and a Mexico City hospital. “We want to keep adding color across the globe,” Bernie said. “And by doing so, we work with kids everywhere.”

Since 1998, the brothers have collaborated on more than 25 large-scale installations and many smaller ones worldwide. Participants of all ages, corporate sponsors, foundations and volunteers have joined group painting sessions at rehabilitative centers, the Braille Institute, Special Olympics, scouts, universities, after-school programs and schools. Some 100,000 people have helped bring these color panels to life.

“Grades two-to-12 are really our sweet spot,” Bernie said. “In every project, more than 60 percent of our participants are schoolkids.”

Every POH project also incorporates educational sessions to explore relevant themes. Bernie facilitates a public educational component for each project. Young participants are invited to explore their views on social issues impacting their lives, including the environment, pluralism and other topics tied to each installation. “The educational programming we do in schools makes the world relevant,” Bernie said.

POH’s origin dates back to Ed reading the first of his two children’s books, “Milton” and “Jedlo: Defender of the Deep,” at a hospital. That led him to imagine ways to more actively engage young audiences. The idea emerged to create an experience for young people to take part in something beyond hospital walls.

Accessibility is a priority. “We never turn anyone away,” Bernie said. “I love the collaborative experience. We work with every demographic, culture, religion, geographic region, wealth or lack thereof.”

POH provides a wide array of what could be called inclusive paintbrushes. “I take pride that Portraits of Hope has always devised special painting methods to ensure that any child or person interested in participating in the program can have an opportunity to do so regardless of physical or medical challenges,” Ed said. “We have devised tripod stands for persons seated, baseball bat and hockey stick paint brushes for children who can’t bend down, shoe-brushes for kids who are unable to paint with their hands, fruit-flavor mouth brushes for people who have little or no mobility in their limbs, and textured methods for people who are blind or visually impaired. So many different populations are part of these tremendous public endeavors.”

After installations are dismantled, the artwork takes on new purpose. POH donates 80 percent of its pieces to beautify social service institutions at home and abroad. Charities usually auction off the remainder.

“It’s all about teamwork and collaboration,” Bernie said. “We are following a family tradition. Our mom started as a social worker and instilled values of caring about your fellow man and woman.”

The L.A. Convention Center project also helps “remind people we’re here,” Liu said. “I love how [the brothers’] projects can surprise people and make them feel great. We have so many people drive by every day and not think about the convention center. It reinforces the creative spirit and welcoming attitude of our city.”

Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist and the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.” 

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