Kent Twitchell: The man behind the murals
When your job is to paint portraits that stand as tall as eight stories, the work tends to dwarf the artist. And in the case of L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell, legal battles over his outsized murals -- including his most recent lawsuit seeking restitution for the painting over of his six-story portrait of fellow artist Ed Ruscha, which netted Twitchell $1.1 million -- also can steal the spotlight.
You can read our story here on Twitchell’s most recent endeavor -- an exhibition of his “lost” works, including a 100-foot portrait of Michael Jackson -- as well as get an update on some of his murals around town. But if only for the 66-year-old artist's longevity on the L.A. art scene, Culture Monster feels compelled to provide a little more background on the man who paints on walls:
Twitchell, 66, hails from a small-town farm just outside Lansing, Mich.; his ancestors, he says, have been farming since the first wave arrived in the United States in 1630. “Even in Buckinghamshire, England, they were farmers,” he says.
Twitchell joined the Air Force right out of high school, a decision that took him to London in the early 1960s. “I wasn’t sophisticated at all, and London just has so much sculpture, and art -- going to the National Portrait Gallery and into the Tate [Britain], and to the Royal Albert Hall to hear great music, it just blew me away," the artist says. "When I got back to the U.S., it seemed like the farm; it was just lacking.”
Upon returning to the States, Twitchell took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study art at Cal State L.A. “And then the hippie movement started in 1966, and everyone was painting themselves, painting their vans," Twitchell says. "I had a cliché VW van and I painted it; we painted window shades and fences, it was something that we all did. And all of a sudden I decided … I wanted to paint a mural that I would actually design.”
A friend invited Twitchell to try painting something on her family’s house, and Twitchell chose a portrait of his favorite actor, Steve McQueen. “I was home once I did that -- that was realism,” he reminisces. “I was a realist ever since I was a little kid. It felt so authentic; I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t. From then on, I was already formulating other mural ideas.”
Twitchell says the three-point perspective he uses for his figures is inspired by the great cathedrals of England; for his subjects, he likes to use real faces. Twitchell’s “Freeway Lady” mural is actually a portrait of character actress Lillian Bronson (1902-1995), who reminded Twitchell of his grandmother.
As evidence of his commitment to realism, for his planned re-creation of the 1986 mural “The Freeway Lady,” Twitchell has hired crochet expert Peggy Baxter to crochet a real afghan that Twitchell designed to use as a model for the Freeway Lady’s flowing afghan. “She is crocheting a long streamer, 20 feet long by 5 feet wide; I just want it breathtakingly real,” Twitchell says of the version he plans to paint.
Harking back to his roots on the farm, Twitchell would like to paint Chris Cooper as a farmer, or Gary Sinise in a farmer’s bib and overalls, inspired by Sinise’s performance in the play “Of Mice and Men.” He’s also somewhat obsessed with the face of actress Madeleine Stowe, 50. “I’m not interested in women in their 20s and 30s; to me they haven’t developed yet. But when they start getting into their 40s and 50s, that’s beautiful -- you can really make a statement with them,” the artist says.
“That’s sort of my fantasy, wanting to do faces.... Michelangelo and Da Vinci, they all used models for their Madonnas and stuff, people right there in their hometowns. My hometown is L.A., and I can use these people who are known all over the world.”
Top: Kent Twitchell at LOOK Gallery, Los Angeles. Credit: Ann Johansson/For The Times. Bottom: Kent Twitchell's original "Freeway Lady" mural. Credit: Kent Twitchell