Art Mortimer | Murals and More

By Bonnie Gangelhoff
From Covina and Crescent City to Alhambra and Lompoc, and in dozens of other small towns across California, people know of Art Mortimer. He’s the consummate muralist who slips into town and transforms drab stucco walls into eye-popping murals.

Since 1971, the Southern California-based artist has created more than 100 murals across the Golden State. “One of the reasons I like murals,” Mortimer says, “is that for two months you become part of the community.” In many cases, he explains, local officials commission the artwork to revitalize crumbling downtown areas that once thrived with mom-and-pop businesses.

With more than 20 murals in the Los Angeles area, Mortimer, who is also a plein-air painter, is considered one of the originators of the modern-day mural movement in this sprawling metropolis, which is often referred to as the mural capital of the world. He once sat on the board of the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy and is familiar with the estimated 1,500 murals that adorn storefronts, businesses, and government buildings in the region. As a muralist he carries on a tradition that dates back to the Great Depression, when the Works Progress Administration employed artists to create murals in state and municipal buildings. Some still survive today.

Mortimer’s murals range from a 300-foot-long painting along a freeway off-ramp that depicts the history of Long Beach to a 40-foot mural in Crescent City commemorating the freakish series of tsunamis that severely damaged the Northern California town in 1964. With each new commission, Mortimer researches the town’s history, rummages through libraries and old newspaper files, and talks to the locals.

“A lot of artists can create beautiful artwork, but Art takes it a step further and becomes completely committed to the community,” says Heather Green, cultural supervisor for the Long Beach parks, recreation, and marine department. “He is engaged with the people and their history. His heart is in the job.”

One day recently Mortimer offered to show this writer a sample of his handiwork, a mural in Alhambra, a town about eight miles east of downtown Los Angeles. As traffic crept along Interstate 5, the artist had plenty of time to chat about his murals, the history of the area, and also point out places where he has set up his easel to paint en plein air. As a sign for Dodgers Stadium comes into view, he explains that the area was once a village called Chavez Ravine before it was leveled in the 1950s to make way for baseball.

As he talks, it’s clear that Mortimer relishes sharing information about the city’s special places. And his plein-air work shows that he also likes to paint them—from the Santa Monica Pier teeming with tourists to lonely boxcars sitting in deserted rail yards.

Mortimer’s Alhambra mural is typical of many of his projects, he says. The city wanted to pay tribute to its history and commissioned him to paint a mural honoring James DeBarthShorb, a 19th-century engineer who designed and installed the first water system in the area, allowing farms to flourish and houses to be built in Alhambra and nearby San Marino and South Pasadena.

Every day for two months Mortimer drove from his home in West Los Angeles to Alhambra to work on the project. He finished the mural in 2003 and hasn’t been back until now. And yet, the 105-foot-long mural looks as if it was just completed. No chipped paint. No faded colors. Even Mortimer seems a bit surprised at its condition. But, he explains, he uses several processes to ensure the longevity of his murals. When he’s done painting, he seals them with an impermeable acrylic varnish that has an ultraviolet screen to protect it from the intense California sun.

The vibrant stucco wall shows a montage of different scenes, including a portrait of Shorb and lush farmlands. As Mortimer studies the mural, he explains the story behind each image as if he were the town historian—a recitation one suspects he could repeat in Manteca, Banning, Bishop, or any of the towns where he has painted murals.

When asked why he enjoys painting murals, the artist offers several reasons, including documenting and preserving the history of Southern California. “The murals enrich people by making the past part of their daily lives,” Mortimer explains. He also notes that since he doesn’t have children, he feels that with his murals he is contributing something to future generations. “The murals are my children. I raise them up and send them out. And then they are on their own,” he says.

The son of a physics and math teacher, Mortimer grew up in a rural area in northern San Diego County. He didn’t have much interest in art as a youngster, so when it came time for college, he followed in his father’s footsteps and declared physics as his major. But his hopes of becoming a scientist were soon dashed when he received a D in calculus.

Not sure what he wanted to study, he was thumbing through a course catalog one day and decided to just choose courses that sounded interesting. Art sounded interesting. After g

raduation, he moved to New York City and worked for a brief stint as a paste-up and layout artist. But he missed California, and in 1966 he moved back to Los Angeles, where he landed a job in advertising.

Mortimer vividly recalls the first of several turning points in his career; it was when a friend told him about an artist in the San Bernardino Mountains who was making a living selling his paintings. “And a light went off in my head—that it was actually possible to make a living as a fine artist,” says Mortimer. He started to dedicate more time to his fine art, initially painting high-contrast figurative works that straddled the line between abstraction and realism.

It was the early 1970s and he was living in a bungalow on the Santa Monica beach. He noticed that artists in the area were creating art on the outside of buildings instead of on canvas. “They weren’t like Diego Rivera murals, with a social message,” Mortimer recalls. “But they were sophisticated and intriguing, and I thought, ‘That’s cool. I could do something like that.’”

Soon after, he painted a portrait of his girlfriend on the side of his house. “I didn’t know anything about the art business back then, but the mural was a way to get people to see my art,” he says.

He continued doing commercial work and his fine art on the side. He made enough money to get by, and when mural jobs came along he took them, too, even though they didn’t pay much at the time. In 1987, his mother passed away, which Mortimer describes as another turning point in his career. “I asked myself, ‘What is it I want to do with my life?’ I wanted to be a fine artist.”

Mortimer began focusing on fine art. And he started gathering lists of contacts for mural opportunities, gradually landing more lucrative and interesting projects. He also reconnected with artist Donald Hildreth, an old friend and neighbor from the Santa Monica beach. Hildreth had retired from his engineering career and was painting full time. The two friends began setting up their portable easels around Los Angeles.

“With plein-air painting, you are looking at the real world and not a sketch or photograph,” says Mortimer. “It helps you to see the world in two dimensions and to learn about color, what to include and leave out, and the arrangement of lights and darks. If you don’t have a pleasing arrangement of lights and darks, you will never have a good painting.” Mortimer says he has learned more about the fundamentals of art from 15 years of plein-air painting than from any college course.

As this story was going to press, Mortimer was hard at work on his tenth mural in Long Beach. It’s for the new Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, and the artist is covering the entire structure with palm trees and island scenes. Mortimer enjoys the ironic notion that a building housing island art, and painted to look like an island, actually sits on a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection. The building is already a showstopper.

“The idea with murals is to make people stop, think, and look at the world in a different way. They might say, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on with that building? It looks like an island in the South Pacific,’” says the artist. “It gives them pause.”

While he didn’t set out to be a muralist or plein-air painter, Mortimer says his dual art careers suit him well. They also share several aspects that are key to his quality of life and creativity. “I like being outside all day,” he says. “And with both plein-air painting and murals, you are always stepping out into the unknown.”


Tirage Fine Art, Pasadena, CA;
Schomburg Gallery, Santa Monica, CA;
Featured in April 2009