What is the story behind the paintings at the Historic Broadway station?

The exhibition is located at Historic Broadway station in DTLA. / Photo: LA Metro.

When artist Ralph Gilbert found out that he had been selected to have his art displayed in one of the Metro stations, he felt excitement but also responsibility. He wanted to create something that passengers would not only recognize but could also relate to. He succeeded.   

His work, Performance on the Streets of LA, located in the new Historic Broadway station that recently opened as part of Metro’s Regional Connector Project in DTLA, connects with commuters but also highlights some significant places for the Latino community. 

“I thought of painting about the street performances because they are interesting, but they often go unnoticed… You have LA, a city that is the center of entertainment because of its movies, but that is not all that happens here. There is also a talented group of people on the streets who are part of this city but, are given little credit for what they do,” Gilbert says. 

But how to connect that idea with transit and passengers? 

The artist Ralph Gilbert. / Photo: LA Metro.

The piece is part of Metro Art’s Lightbox Exhibition Program, large-scale paintings that are installed inside 5 x 7-foot light boxes. For this reason, the artist likens the boxes to windows of a train, so that passengers will have the impression of visiting different places during their trips. Five locations were chosen for this project: Pershing Square, Echo Park Lake, Olvera Street, Hollywood Boulevard and Venice Boardwalk. 

“I wanted commuters to see from that window something recognizable about the place, but with people acting and captivating the public with their talent … That’s why it was important to give the characters this sense of movement,” explains Gilbert, 75, who adds that showing diversity in this project was very important to him. 

For this mission, he left his home in Atlanta to do fieldwork in Los Angeles in 2022, the city where he spent his first 30 years. With memories of this great metropolis flitting in his memory, Gilbert visited each of the five chosen locations everyday –even on weekends. He took photos, drew sketches, and walked around. He came back to LA to not only see what had changed or what was representative of each chosen location, but to immerse himself in those worlds for hours in order to capture the essence of the place and its people. 

The first painting of the work is Pershing Square. It is easy to identify because it has its huge, characteristic tower painted on it. In addition, its main characters are Latino buskers performing.   

On the right is Echo Park, represented by the lake. This is a special neighborhood for the artist because it was the first place he lived. “I remember going to the lake a lot when I was a kid. In those days if you went fishing you could catch little blue fish and there were still wooden motorized boats,” says Gilbert. 

The central painting focuses on Olvera Street, a place where Gilbert’s parents took him for walks as a child. The piece shows various elements of Mexican culture, such as the faces of two characters painted as skulls for Día de Muertos. There’s also a woman dancing with traditional clothing, and the man playing the flute. Different performances like these ones celebrate typical weekend Latino culture. 

This is the painting about Olvera Street. / Photo: Mey Lyn Mitteenn.

If in the next painting you see stars, a billboard with the Oscar, street performances, and a man playing drums on buckets in the following frame, you’ll know right away that it’s Hollywood Boulevard. As a curious fact, Gilbert reveals that the gold living statue in the center is himself. “When my wife saw it for the first time, she told me: ‘You look too old to be a street performer.’ So, I had to go back and change it to a younger version of me.” He decided to include himself in the painting because it is something that a lot of artists who have done major public work do. “It’s a tradition that goes back to Raphael in the Renaissance, when he painted himself on the mural he did in the Vatican,” he says. 

Finally, there is the Venice Boardwalk represented by an African American dancer and a central figure, a woman on a skateboard. To represent the community and have diversity, Gilbert believes that ethnicity and gender are equally important.  “It is not very common to see women performing on the street, but if you go to see people skate, there are many women. And they don’t do it so much to have an audience but rather for pure fun”, says the artist. 

Although the selection, painting and display process took time, Gilbert is pleased to have produced something that is now part of LA -a city that he still regards as home. “It was a pleasure to be part of a project like the Regional Connector that will be used by thousands of people and that I have been able to do something that is part of their experience.” 

Public transportation has been no stranger to Gilbert, who years ago used to take the bus to his music class at the University of Southern California (USC). “Even though I’ve been in Atlanta for decades, LA is an important part of my life. When you grow up in one place it stays sort of tattooed into your soul.” 

You can find the Spanish version of this story here.

Categories: Metro Art

2 replies

  1. It is wonderful that Metro commissioned this artwork about street performers. It would be even better, however, if Metro had a program for allowing street performers to perform in Metro stations, like New York and other cities do. I have lobbied for this and Metro did not negotiate; I wish they would.