Just when we thought the iconic Crenshaw Boulevard was losing its grip to vanilla-flavored strip mall development, in streaks an unlikely savior, the MTA with its selection of artist Willie Middlebrook for the exclusive decoration of the Metroline station at Crenshaw and Exposition.
Middlebrook is a nationally-known artist, the recipient of numerous awards and exhibitions at stellar museums, including LACMA, the Chicago Art Institute, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Studio Museum of Harlem, to cite a few. Middlebrook is also the recipient of two NEA Visual Artist Fellowships, a Getty Trust Visual Artist Fellowship and the Brody Individual Arts Fellowship through the California Community Foundation.
Entitled “The Wanderers,” Willie’s work for the Expo/Crenshaw stop, currently under construction, consists of 24 glass mosaic panels based on the theme of communication between diverse populations. Known for his sensitive portraits or representational imagery based on photographs, Willie’s artwork is planned on two archways framing the station entrance and exit, as well as on 12 benches. The planet earth is the reoccurring theme between panels.
“My goal is to make art that speaks to us about how we relate to each other, life, love and our relationship to the environment,” writes Middlebrook.
The mosaic and color scheme is meant to echo the stained glass panels at the adjacent West Angeles Church of Christ.
“Because the station is very close to the large church, I wanted to do something spiritual but not alienating,” states the artist. “The mosaic archway when passengers enter or leave is like offering a gift, the idea that visitors are always being welcomed, coming and going. And once inside the station I wanted passengers to have an entirely different feeling from the benches.”
The project has been rooted in the community from the beginning. Before the artist was even selected, the MTA conducted a series of workshops in the area, then released a Call for Artists from which the Metro Expo Line artists were chosen through a peer review process including a panel of arts professionals, artists with experience in public art, and community representatives. Middlebrook competed with 200 artists for the important commission. He is delighted to have been selected for this station, having been an active participant in the Crenshaw art scene for decades.
Despite his imposing appearance, the well-spoken Middlebrook couldn’t be more business-like. Growing up in Compton and graduating from Compton Community College, Willie now lives in Inglewood and teaches art at El Camino College, in addition to being a busy professional artist. While a growing reputation has taken him more and more to other big cities, historically, Middlebrook has been deeply involved at the old Leimert Brotman Gallery, at the William Grant Still Art Center, and several other projects with local city-treasure Cecil Fergerson a recent Neighborhood News Featured Artist.
Middlebrook designed the panels over several months with the fabrication studio Perdoma turning his drawings into glass mosaics. Currently in the final stages of fabrication, the panels are scheduled for installation in the next month but will remain under wraps for a special unveiling date tentatively planned in November 2011. Then you’ll see the many profound human images, most anonymous except Willie’s own self-portrait which has been discretely included.
Too often artwork selected for public sites inspires us to grumble “My taxpayer money went to that??!!” Middlebrook’s work is sure to have the opposite effect. We shall think “Of course! Perfect! Finally, art that I get, that’s talented, noteworthy and inspiring!” The Chili Factory, Leimert Park Jazz Festival, classic low riders, art deco May Company building , Paul Williams’ original West Angeles Church, add one more to the list of Crenshaw boulevard icons. Whittier Boulevard ain’t got nothing on us.