No, Kent Twitchell says, he never set out to be the muralist who helped define Los Angeles' quirky, eclectic edge by putting its larger-than-life pop stars, its movie heroes and its just plain hardworking folks on the sides of buildings and freeways everywhere.
He simply showed up one day, fresh out of the Air Force in 1966, and started painting on everything he saw.
Before he knew it, there was a portrait of Steve McQueen covering an entire side of a two-story home near downtown. Then a few years later pop artist Ed Ruscha emerged, six stories tall and gazing intently across the downtown skyline from the side of the federal Job Corps Center.
Nearby, a couple were celebrating their wedding on the side of an old factory building. On the other side of town, on a towering wall overlooking a cemetery, another couple's wedding was being blessed by a rabbi. Meanwhile, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, instruments in hand, were spread out across the top of an eight-story parking structure overlooking a freeway.
"The hippie days were just beginning and everybody was just sort of expressing themselves in visual ways," Twitchell, a modest, unassuming man of 66, said recently as he paused from overseeing installation of some of his works for a larger-than-life exhibition at a downtown gallery. "A lot of people were painting on clothes and vans and window shades and I was just one of them."
Although he may have been "one of many" in a city where anyone with a can of paint can fancy himself a street artist, there was something different about Twitchell's works from the beginning. Highly detailed and vivid in color, they more closely resembled those of the great Renaissance painters he admired.
"Both the scale and the detail are what sets his work apart," says Peter Frank, editor of the arts publication THE Magazine Los Angeles and curator of the Twitchell retrospective at Los Angeles' Look Gallery.
Get Los Angeles's latest local news on crime, entertainment, weather, schools, COVID, cost of living and more. Here's your go-to source for today's LA news.
"What happens is when you see one on a wall, at first you see it from a distance and it's almost like seeing a figure on TV," says Frank. "But as you get closer, the scale changes. Not the person but the scale. These are real people and he keeps them real despite the fact that they have assumed monumental size."
The exhibition, "The King of Pop Meets the King of Cool: Exploring the Lost Works of Kent Twitchell," opened Thursday and continues through April 24. Its centerpieces are a gigantic, never-before-seen painting of Michael Jackson and a new version of the two-story portrait of McQueen.
"That's the first one that I did that I actually signed," he says of the McQueen work that he completed in 1971. (As with all of his paintings, he got the owner's permission before redecorating his building.)
He had been doing the kind of psychedelic paintings that were popular at the time, Twitchell says, when he decided to return to his roots. In the Air Force he had been an illustrator, and as a child he had always drawn people.
"As soon as I had his head done on that house, I knew I was home again," he said.
The Jackson mural, eight stories high, was to have been placed on a Hollywood theater as part of an urban renewal project. But about the time it was completed, the pop star became the target of a child molestation investigation and it was placed in storage.
Also on display are two other murals, as well as several smaller pieces.
Like all street muralists, Twitchell has fought his share of battles to keep his art before the masses.
He redid the McQueen mural for the show, his original having been painted over by mistake years ago. His Ruscha work was erased deliberately in 2006, in violation of state and federal laws, and Twitchell sued and won a $1.1 million settlement.
One of his best-known works, of Los Angeles marathon runners passing Dodger Stadium, has become so tagged by graffiti that it is almost unrecognizable, a fate common to many L.A. murals.
But seemingly driven to create, the small, slightly built, white-haired artist keeps cranking out new works, cleaning up the old ones when he can and then moving on to the next project.
Over the years he's developed a technique in which he sketches out his works, then paints them in sections on what he calls parachute paper, a thin but durable substance. From there he applies them directly to a wall, a method that allowed him to mount a three-story portrait of basketball great Julius Erving, decked out in a chic, double-breasted suit, on a wall in Philadelphia in just one day.
It also allows him to cover his murals with protective coating and to remove them from a wall if necessary, as he did with the "Freeway Lady." The giant portrait of a wise-looking, white-haired woman greeted travelers along the Hollywood Freeway for years until it became scarred by graffiti. Twitchell removed it, and after the show he plans to install it on the wall of a Los Angeles art gallery.
He also keeps busy scouting new locations.
"My dream is to go around to all the major cities and do a mural two or three stories high of the great historic figures of that city," he says.
"Couldn't you see a mural of Mark Twain in St. Louis? We could do it in two months and then, bang, it's off to the next city."