MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The history of Los Angeles is rich with Roman Catholic tradition. The city has 103 streets named after Catholic saints, Santa Monica Boulevard, San Vicente Boulevard, Santa Catalina View.
And one LA artist has taken it upon himself to travel every last one of them. He has spent eight years exploring the saints and their namesake streets. He's also painting new portraits of the saints using the faces of contemporary Angelenos. Skye Rohde reports.
SKYE ROHDE: Back at the beginning of his project, J. Michael Walker started making portraits of homeless people living on San Julian Street in a part of downtown L.A. known as Skid Row. Walker marveled at the confluence of story and circumstance. San Julian is the patron saint of wanderers.
Mr. J. MICHAEL WALKER (Artist): Here it is, the street that's named for him is where the wanderers gather and where clinics that served the wanderers are located.
ROHDE: Walker was on Skid Row one day when he came across a woman named Jevona, who had what he called an off-kilter beauty.
Mr. WALKER: She also looked so young and fresh that she seemed to be totally out of place with this trodden down, beaten down place in the middle of Skid Row. I asked her if I could take her photograph, and she looked up and said, I've been waiting for somebody to take a good photograph of me.
ROHDE: Jevona had come to L.A. to become a star. But when she went to have her head shots done, the photographer asked her to undress for him. And every time she tried to pull herself up, something or someone else pushed her back down again, just like Santa Ynez, one of the virgin martyrs killed for standing up for herself when asked to submit. Jevona became Walker's new Santa Ynez.
Mr. WALKER: The themes that animate history are themes that resonate in our lives all the time. Seeing these historical or legendary characters with the faces of people that you could pass on the street any day helps us to see it as something that's relevant to our lives.
(Soundbite of woman talking)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)
ROHDE: In J. Michael Walker's exhibit at the Autry National Center, there is something different every way you look, paintings but also maps and old retablos and hand-colored engravings.
But one black-and-white portrait stands out. The little girl has butterfly wings, the sun cries fat tears above her, good luck in heaven is written in loopy script below. Her left hand rests on her heart, her right hand holds what looks like a valentine. Nine-year-old Stephanie Raygoza is an unofficial saint. She died October 8, 2000 after she was hit by a stray bullet while playing on her scooter outside her house.
Walker was commissioned to create her portrait for her funeral. Stephanie's mother, Norma Raygoza, has mixed emotions about seeing the portrait.
Ms. NORMA RAYGOZA (Stephanie Raygoza's Mother): (Spanish spoken)
ROHDE: When I enter and see her, I can sense sadness in her eyes, Raygoza says. But I also feel happiness because I sense that she's with me.
Saint Stephanie, Santa Monica, who's been adopted by a group of mothers with sons in prison, San Miguel who awaits the souls of the dead. One of the museum guards love that image so much he asked Walker for permission to have it tattooed on his chest before he leaves for Iraq in October.
Walker realizes these saints are part of everyday life for so many Angelenos. They're in our streets, on our walls, in our memories, receiving our hopes and dreams and prayers with open arms.
Mr. WALKER: If you can find the sacred in the world around you rather than in something that's distant and apart from you, then maybe you can be better integrated to the world you live in.
ROHDE: Walker has painted San Ysidro, patron saint of day laborers, as a gardener. He stands with his rake in hand, denim shirt tucked in and sleeves all rolled up. The lines in his face are deep. Walker says when he went one morning to explore San Ysidro Drive in Bel Air, the only people he saw were doing yard work. He stopped to talk to one of them.
Mr. WALKER: I mentioned to him that it occurred to me that he was a San Ysidro. And he kind of chuckled and nodded his head, I guess so. And I asked if he'd be willing to pose for me, and he accented.
ROHDE: It's the portrait of San Ysidro that kids go to again and again when they come to see the exhibit, Walker says. He's strong but humble. He's a saint, but he could be their uncle or their grandfather, too.
This painting, and all of J. Michael Walker's other saint portraits, are collected in his book, "All the Saints of the City of the Angels."
For NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.
SIEGEL: And you can see some of J. Michael Walker's portraits and explore the streets of Los Angeles with an interactive map at our Web site, npr.org.