​​​​​​​​​For Kent Twitchell, art has always been about Los Angeles: the buildings, the freeways, the climate, the brilliant light. And especially the people.

Growing up on his family's farm in Michigan, moving to L.A. was all Twitchell thought of.

For this acclaimed painter and California State University, Los Angeles alumnus, the city has lived up to its promise, allowing him to realize his creative dreams over the nearly half-century he's spent there since first arriving at the age of 23.

In particular, it was as a student in Cal State LA's Department of Art that Twitchell transformed into the artist he is today, practicing what was then referred to as "street art."

"It was when I went to Cal State LA that everything exploded for me," says Twitchell, who graduated in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in art. In 2016, the university awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

"The art department [at Cal State LA] was so open; they were exceptional at being out-of-the-box," he says. "They treated each student as individuals."

Now 75, Twitchell continues to use the city as his literal canvas; to date, he has created more than 20 murals on buildings and freeway walls. Fifteen of his super-sized, highly realistic works are still on display, having weathered years and even decades.

The murals are now part of the Los Angeles cityscape. Many locals even consider them landmarks. Twitchell's work has been collected by the Smithsonian, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

 "I just absolutely loved it – you could almost feel the vibes with certain places," he recalls of those early days and weeks in Southern California.

"There are certain people that just get L.A. I was one of them."

 

​Finding a Safe Place

After working as an illustrator in the U.S. Air Force for five years, Twitchell finally made the move to Los Angeles in 1966.

"One of the things I particularly liked about L.A. is that it was, and still is, a very forgiving place for artists," he says. "Artists in L.A. could fall on their faces a dozen times, but the one time they do something worthwhile, they get a standing ovation.

"It is a safe place for artists and creative people."

Though skilled in illustration, Twitchell knew he could do more as an artist if he had more training. So he enrolled in East Los Angeles College, receiving his associate degree in fine art in 1968.

From there he transferred to Cal State LA and one day found himself talking about chalk portraits with Rebecca Yoon, a fellow art student.

It was a conversation that would lead to Twitchell's first mural.

Yoon's parents had agreed to allow Twitchell to paint a star on their house in the Pico-Union area of L.A. When they came home from vacation, they found a 20-by-15-foot image of actor Steve McQueen in myriad shades of blue on the side of their home.

Within days the Los Angeles Times had featured the mural; national media coverage soon followed.

"All I wanted to do was paint something that I wanted to paint," says Twitchell. "I was a folk artist that just liked to do things that gave me satisfaction, and what I wanted to do then was paint Steve McQueen. So I did."


 


 

'A Gold Mine' of Teaching

The McQueen portrait changed everything. Commissions flowed in, many more than Twitchell could take on, especially as a full-time junior at Cal State LA.

His teachers knew, though, how rare such exposure was for an artist and wanted to ensure he could take advantage of the opportunity without sacrificing his education.

"My professors were assuring me and encouraging me to go out into the streets and paint," says Twitchell.

Many no longer required him to attend classes, instead opting to give him a grade for the murals he was completing across the city. For his part, Twitchell often tapped into the expertise of the faculty, continuing to learn on the job, as it were.

"The instructors at Cal State LA were, without exception, a gold mine. I could pick their brains as much as I wanted; they would respond to every question and every experiment I wanted to talk to them about," he remembers.

One faculty member in particular, though, stood out: Roy Walden, now retired and a professor emeritus of Cal State LA. The early sketches of the Steve McQueen mural were completed in Walden's class, under his mentorship.

"There is just something about higher education that forces you to do better than you would on your own," Twitchell notes. "Roy Walden was one of those people who made you be better."

As a senior, Twitchell painted "Strother Martin Monument." The piece, which features the character actor with a colorful, handmade afghan scarf, even earned him a passing grade in a crocheting class thanks to the intricate work required to paint the scarf.


Art Appreciation at 50 MPH

Where most of us look at buildings and see little more than walls and windows, Twitchell might "hear" an edifice talking to him.

"The building itself is the element that dictates what I draw from my archive of images I want to do," he explains. "The building tells me."

The American Hotel in L.A.'s downtown Arts District, for example, had to be the site of Twitchell's current project, a second mural of the artist Ed Ruscha. When complete, the painting will depict Ruscha seated, hands intertwined and elbows appearing to rest on the roof of the building next to the hotel.

There is a particular clarity and a consistency to Twitchell's work over the decades; he considers himself a minimalist, favoring simple but still detailed forms for his "public portraits," as he calls them.

"It can be appreciated at 55 miles per hour, at a glance," he explains. "There is purposefully not a lot of stuff going on that wouldn't allow you to know what it is upon first glance."

"In studying art history," continues Twitchell, "my favorite works of art were those where the artist was not trying to be cynical, tear people down, or hold a mirror up to our faults. I liked the artists that were trying to inspire and trying to uplift, the way Norman Rockwell did."

 

Painting the Town

As an early practitioner of what's now called public art, Twitchell's work wasn't always appreciated by the art world or collectors. In fact, it wasn't until about 20 years ago that he began feeling accepted.

"In the early days, there wasn't that love of what we were doing from the established art world," he says.

"We weren't just painting, but we were painting in public. It was a threat to their philosophy of art because I didn't have a philosophy of art," he chuckles. "I was only doing what felt good for me."

A devoted advocate of public art, Twitchell now works, too, to restore, preserve and document murals in Los Angeles and remains profoundly grateful for the start he got at the CSU.

"Cal State LA provided an environment where you felt encouraged and that you could take a chance. It was ideal for an artist; it was the ideal environment for me."

 

To see more of Kent Twitchell's murals and other work, visit his site