Our Own Streetlight Serenade
EAST HOLLYWOOD—While the collection in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is more famous, the east side of town has it’s own streetlamp exhibition.
Sheila Klein’s Vermonica stands in a mini-mall parking lot near the corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard anchored by this side of town’s Staples store.
The installation was erected in 1993, a full 15 years before Chris Burden’s Urban Light at LACMA, intended by the artist to be a more inviting formal entrance to the museum compared to that which greeted guests at Wilshire Boulevard.
While much lesser known and therefore lesser appreciated, Vermonica—derived from the streets Vermont and Santa Monica—not only speaks to the history of Los Angeles but was also born out of one of the darker moments in our civic history.
The installation was born out of the ashes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
According to Klein, she long had the idea of creating what she calls an “urban candelabra” made from streetlamps, but could never find the right space for it.
In 1992, she served on a committee for the Barnsdall Art Park and was frequently driving past the location that had burned down in the riots.
“I saw that shopping center had gotten burned out, but had a ‘We will rebuild!’ banner and I thought that would be a good spot to do it,” said Klein.
In her view, the lampposts would serve as a symbol of the city’s rebirth.
The developers, she said, loved the idea and proposed the lampposts be placed in a grassy median in the parking lot.
But there was still one thing keeping Klein’s vision from coming to life. She needed to acquire actual Los Angeles streetlamps for her vision, so she attended a meeting of the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting and made her case.
“I held up this drawing and said, ‘I’m an artist and interested in the sculptural nature of street lightning and I want to make this candelabra and I need your help.’”
According to Klein, “a whole bunch of people stood up” and said they would help me make it happen.
Coincidentally, the city’s street lighting scrapyard was located down the street from the Vermont and Santa Monica intersection.
Following approvals from the city, including the then Los Angeles City Council, Klein selected 25 styles of street lamps that would eventually become Vermonica. The lamps are a sample of the nearly 400 styles of Los Angeles street lamps dating to 1925.
Over two weekends, Klein and a team of volunteers refurbished, rewired and finally installed the lamps.
Surprisingly, Vermonica was only supposed to be a temporary exhibit, but it quickly became popular and won awards, as well as an appearance on the public television travel show “Visiting with Huell Howser.”
Klein half-jokingly suspects another reason for her installation’s longevity is that “it would probably be pretty expensive to take out,” she said.
Since then, Klein has created other large-scale public art projects around the country.
Her local projects include Underground Girl at the Hollywood and Highland Metro Red Line station and Light Overhead in the 10-freeway underpass on Pico Boulevard on the city border between Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
While Klein said she wishes Vermonica was as well known as Urban Light, “It’s no big deal,” she said. Regarding Burden’s piece at LACMA, she said, “we’re all mining the same shaft.”
But, she said, she finds it odd that LACMA has never acknowledged that an installation similar to their landmark also exists elsewhere in Los Angeles.
Klein left Los Angeles in 1995 and now lives on a farm in the state of Washington. Fittingly for an artist who works with light sculptures, she lives outside of a town called Edison.