LOS ANGELES — “There’s only one of these. It’s a Bronze Top and it was on Lankershim originally. It’s really a beautiful thing,” said artist Sheila Klein, gazing up at one of the lamp posts that make up her public artwork “Vermonica.” She continued gleefully describing other lighting styles in the project, like cobra heads and acorns. “For me, I really love them all. It’s kind of like saying, ‘which kid do you like the best?’”
I met Klein last month outside the Bureau of Street Lighting office in East Hollywood to witness the installation of the second iteration of “Vermonica.” The work was originally installed in 1993, along a median in the middle of a strip mall parking lot at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, hence the portmanteau Vermonica. Klein arranged the 25 different lampposts (all ranging from 1925 to 1993) in a dramatic sequence like a candelabra, with smaller ones at the ends, growing to a crescendo of taller, more ornate models in the center. She wanted to represent a selection of the some 250 different kinds of light poles then in use in Los Angeles, from the singular and iconic, to the widely seen and representative.
“The whole idea was to look at the sculptural presence of street lighting but also to consider sort of the stewardship of what street lighting does and to consider what people do to take care of the city,” she recalled.
She had originally conceived of the piece for Baldwin Hills — a neighborhood in the South Los Angeles region through which she’d drive on route from her home to her studio in Inglewood — but switched to the site in East Hollywood in the wake of the 1992 LA Uprising. Driving up Vermont, she passed a burned-down shopping center. A sign out front vowing to rebuild it had the developer’s phone number, so she called him.
“We talked about politics and we somehow got into it and we were like in total opposition,” Klein recalled, “but he liked me and he liked the project and he said, ‘I’m going to give you three grand.’”
Another $6,000 came from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), and with volunteer labor and poles donated by the Bureau of Street Lighting, “Vermonica” was born. It was a monumental public artwork that could easily blend into the fabric of the city and be mistaken for urban infrastructure (which it essentially still was). You could view it from afar, unobstructed, but also walk or drive right up to it and experience it on a physical level.
Although the work was only intended to last for a year, it stood for 24, until November 2017. Klein recalled, “It was November 21, and I get this email that says, ‘hey, I’m a fan of your work. I just drove by Vermonica and it’s not there.’ and I’m like, ‘what? Are you sure?’ and she’s like, ‘I’m positive,’ and she snapped a picture and sent it to me and I was verklempt.”
Klein, who had moved to Washington State in 1995, put out a query on Facebook, and found out that the owner of the shopping center had decided to redevelop the parking lot and had asked that the work be removed. It was quietly reinstalled a couple blocks away, in front of the entrance to the Bureau of Street Lighting, albeit without her knowledge, approval, or guidance.
“When I saw the pictures I was horrified,” she said. “My piece was just a pile of stuff, cool stuff, but it’s just a pile of stuff … This configuration is nothing like what I did.”
In a statement on the website of Esotouric, an organization that leads historic tours of Los Angeles and promotes historic preservation, she wrote, “This is not my piece and it is no longer Vermonica.”
Esotouric’s founders, Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, were equally dismayed and vowed to advocate for Klein. “I felt punched in the gut when it disappeared,” Cooper told Hyperallergic. “It interplays with the sky, and it couldn’t do that in the new location.”
Meetings with the city and the DCA led nowhere, they recall. “Even though they told people they’d take care of it, nothing happened with the city,” said Cooper. “They would be happy to write a check and make it go away, but she didn’t want that.”
One of the problems was that the work fell into a legal gray area. It was physically located on private property, and was made with materials donated from the city, but was considered Klein’s intellectual property.
After years of stalemate and negotiations — including the release of a tranche of emails revealing that the city planned to repurpose the poles for a public park installation on Virgil Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard called, “VIRMonica” — the Bureau of Street Lighting got involved and quickly set in motion the reinstallation of “Vermonica,” which was announced this past January.
Klein came down to Los Angeles last month to supervise the reinstallation. Workers didn’t have to move the poles very far — they were just going down Santa Monica Boulevard, a few hundred feet west from the bureau’s entrance to right outside the “bone yard,” where extra poles are stored. As with the original installation, it’s able to be experienced by car, zooming down Santa Monica, or by foot, since Klein was insistent that it be centered on Lyman Place, a small alley across from the bone yard. A tentative opening is scheduled for next month, but a public celebration may need to be postponed until the coronavirus is under control.
Its future is also no longer in question, since the city has acquired the work for its public art collection (Klein did not receive payment for it). “I’m really delighted, honestly, because now it’s protected. It’s owned by the city and hopefully it will not ever be destroyed,” Klein said.
If you hadn’t heard of “Vermonica,” but think it looks familiar, it may be because it bears a resemblance to another work composed of lamp posts, Chris Burden’s iconic 2008 work “Urban Light,” installed outside Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on Wilshire Boulevard. Despite the similarities in the works, neither Burden (who passed away in 2015) nor LACMA has publicly acknowledged Klein’s earlier piece.
“For me, that was the worst,” she said. “Look, I’ve said this many times. We’re all mining the same shaft … but in my case, they just kind of wrote me out of the script, ‘looks like we don’t need to pay attention to her,’ you know?”
Although dismayed by the lack of recognition, Klein says when she finally did see “Urban Light,” she didn’t see a problem with the similarities between them. “It didn’t bother me because it was so different, it was so regimented and so monolithic. I was really proud of my piece. That’s all I’ll say. I thought, ‘girl, you’re good.’”
Despite the disappointments and trials of the past few years, Klein is ultimately upbeat about the resolution, happy that audiences will once again be introduced to one of her most-beloved works amidst a long career of public art, from Metro stations, to airports and pedestrian bridges.
“I guess you could say that the silver lining about this whole last three years is that it’s really thrown me back into the light,” she beamed. “All the young people who didn’t know this story, now they know it, and the city knows it. So, I think that part is really beautiful.”