In the City of Angels, an Artist Lifts Spirits With Red Cherubs


AFTER freezes and droughts, fires and floods, riots and earthquakes, Los Angelenos are throwing up their hands ... and the corners of their mouths.

``I feel, well, uplifted,'' says Ana Rodriguez, resident of a housing project in a six-square-block area that has seen nine on-street murders in as many months. Looking up at a 9-inch, 5-pound, flaming red angel perched on the overhang that shades her front stoop, she explains: ``Nice things don't usually happen here. It's a good idea. No, it's a great idea. It makes me think of doing something kind.''

The scarlet statuettes appearing atop trees and doorways, on cathedral steps and vendors' carts, over freeway underpasses and window sills throughout Los Angeles are the result of a usually surreptitious visitation from artist Jill D'Agnenica. The angels, she says, represent hope and human potential.

``I want people to stumble upon them unawares and stop for a moment to consider life's larger meaning beyond the everyday,'' she says.

One year after the Los Angeles riots, Ms. D'Agnenica deposited the first of what will eventually be 4,687 molded plaster statues distributed at regular intervals - about 10 per square mile - across the city. More than 1,400 have been placed so far, often in clusters of dozens or even hundreds, and the response has been startling.

``I've never seen anything like it,'' says Lindsui Berman, who saw 20 angels on the steps of an Encino temple last week. ``After all this city has been through, it really made me smile.''

Matt Easton, executive assistant at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions - the nonprofit arts organization that is helping to administer the project - says the project has gotten more positive public response than any in the history of LACE.

Both the city's office of cultural affairs and mayor have praised the idea, which started with D'Agnenica's own money but has since been subsidized by a $4,550 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

``Mayor Riordan had her talk at a dinner for the Congressional Arts Caucus, and she was the hit of the evening,'' recalls Janice Berman, former director of government relations for L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. ``We gave out about 50 angels and got several calls from congressmen later asking if we would send more.''

``I felt the city needed to come together after the divisiveness of the riots,'' says D'Agnenica, from her artist's loft in a former brewery building where she scoops red-dyed plaster into a dozen fiberglass molds. With a master of fine arts degree from Claremont Graduate School, she is a sculptor specializing in installation art - a way of moving the artistic experience outside the confines of museum walls.

``The experience of seeing an angel - and even more important, when word gets out, the act of looking for an angel - will remind each person of their place within the City of Angels,'' she says.

Far from feeling proprietary about her statues, D'Agnenica says she not only is open for people to take them home, she encourages ``adoption.''

With one permanent assistant, and up to three or four volunteers, she loads plaster angels into the back of her white Toyota pickup. Using a local street guide, she drives to various neighborhoods and places the statuettes according to her own whim.

``We get the occasional crank who thinks we are pranksters,'' says assistant Diana Sieradski, recounting isolated encounters with retailers who have just thrown the statues out. ``But overall the response is about 95 percent positive.''

D'Agnenica logs the placement of each angel into a notebook and photographs it. Each is numbered. Once home, she transcribes the information on a large-scale map of the city.

On one recent afternoon, she deposited about 25 of the figurines around the residential projects of Ramona Gardens near downtown Los Angeles.

At first residents watched bemusedly from door stoops and windows. In about 45 minutes, children, teens, and grownups alike joined D'Agnenica, who led them Pied-Piper-like from lawn to lawn.

``You got a lotta customers now,'' said Flora Orosco, watching the procession with her baby.

D'Agnenica hands out red cards reading ``Look for Angels'' on one side with a description of her project on the other.

``I appreciate it,'' said Ms. Orosco after receiving both card and figurine. ``Nobody ever gave me anything.''

``Hey, I'm not a stoner [druggie] anymore,'' said Guilermo Ulloa, a teenage resident near downtown, after picking up one of the plaster figurines and mugging for a group of friends. ``I'm an angel!''

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