Folk-Art Fantasy For A Courtyard Mural

A GARDEN filled with walls of murals. A midsummer night's dream fountain. Life-size figures, cut out and painted, appear from behind shrubs and foliage. Natural stands of trees, thinned, espaliered or replanted, create a garden that would be unique even in Hollywood. It is a miniphenomenon tucked away within the confines of a 50 ft. by 150 ft. lot surrounding a modest duplex on a quiet street near Sunset Boulevard. The idea for this unusual garden originated with John Waller, a former art dealer with considerable imagination - enough to commission Mexican folk-artist Gonzalo Duran to paint portraits of his pet terriers on an outside chimney. ``Tuffy'' and ``Boston'' were the first to emerge as portraits-on-a-tile. Other portraits of canines followed. Waller himself appeared as a sun-face on the very top of the chimney, set off by a fringe of painted petals.

Waller had purchased the duplex as temporary shelter while searching for the perfect small house. But, enchanted with Duran's serendipity, he had second thoughts. He had already gutted and refurbished the interior; why not continue what he had started - and live right here?

To ensure the project's completion, Waller offered Gonzalo Duran a contract most artists would find hard to resist. No deadlines, free choice of the subjects to be painted, with the added comfort of a steady salary. He felt Duran was the ideal artist to best conceive the fairy tale he envisioned.

Arriving from Durango, Mexico, with his parents as a child, young Gonzalo had brought with him a storehouse of vivid memories: colorful marketplaces, religious ceremonies, and fiestas. When he began to emerge as an artist, these images remained strong influences. But through the years, he has created his own cast of characters: mammoth butterflies and king-sized cats; men in bizarre costumes, many of them caricatures of his own husky persona; lovely ladies with wasp waists and long, thin necks, luminous eyes, wearing full-skirted dresses and fantastic hats. They come to life in many mediums: drawings, easel and mural paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

Choosing ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' as his theme, the artist created Bard's fountain, central to the overall plan of Waller's front patio. Bottom is present, pouring water over Titania's head, who is made of small tesserae with delicately painted features. Puck is a handsome figure, made of bronze rescued from salvage. It is magnificent clutter embedded in colored concrete, stones, shells, and innumerable and varied found objects.

As you walk around the house, past the decorated chimney and enormous flower planters to enter the garden, your eye is captured by the central mural on the back wall. John Waller in blue suit is seen alighting from a balloon, greeting his guests. To the left of the balloon, Will and Ariel Durant float in the atmosphere like leaves torn from a book. Cupid aims his bow at a pretty girl in a billowing red dress.

Although the entire project has an air of being executed spontaneously, each step was carefully considered.

``After every meeting,'' Duran pointed out, ``I started to work, making preliminary drawings and a mock-up, if necessary. Once the drawings were OK'd, I started to paint.''

As the pile of rough sketches grew in number, plans became more elaborate. Before they were finished, a Korean crew of artisans would be hired. Walks were tiled, huge planters for flowers built. A gazebo went up. The work was done over long periods of time. Occasionally it would stop altogether. A few weeks hiatus and enthusiasm was renewed.

Among the most enthusiastic were the passersby, and activity on the lot began to hum like a hive of swarming bees; carpenters, plumbers, skilled laborers filed in to work each morning. Now the neighbors' curiosity was really aroused. They frequently asked questions of Gonzalo, swinging on a ladder, balancing brushes or a pail of concrete, ``What are you doing? Building Disneyland? Building another Watts Towers? Do you have a license?'' Waller realized the time had come to build a wall to ensure privacy.

But Waller is also a people-lover. He wasn't willing to leave them out of his project completely. ``We've got to build them a gate!'' he decided.

It took both Gonzalo and the foreman of the Korean crew to figure out the proper gate. When it was installed, everyone was happy. Its metal grillwork was handsome. And enough large open spaces were left so that neighbors could keep track of the daily progress.

Four years from the day work began, the entire project was, to all intents and purposes, completed.

One day a stranger appeared at the outside gate and introduced himself.

``I just bought the house across the street. I wanted to live where something important is being done. Someday your place is going to be famous.''

That idea had never been part of Waller's plan in building his fantasy. It is conceivable that fame would come naturally. Certainly, Gonzalo Duran had carved a powerful monument to his skill as artist/artisan, with city officials already setting their sites on this folk-art fantasy as an international landmark. John Waller may not remain as anonymous as he had intended.

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