Richard Nixon, a president understood by few and held in distaste by many, has become the subject of Whittier’s first piece of public art.
Gio Alonso, along with his partner Leeba Lessin, owners of Auntie’s Bakery on Greenleaf, have made the great effort to immortalize President Richard Nixon through the medium of a public mural.
Alonso chose the subject of the mural knowing his vision would be criticized by most. He even acknowledged his own negative feelings towards Nixon at the start of his project. “The first question I asked myself was,” Alonso said, “‘Am I comfortable with recording Nixon through mural, knowing that he was involved in Watergate?’”
However, the idea of commemorating Nixon stuck with Alonso, despite the inherit controversy the piece would bring. In addition to paying homage to one of Whittier’s favored sons, Alonso addresses the duality of Nixon’s personality. “He was a leader, an intellectual and someone to look up to.” Alonso said, speaking towards Nixon’s dissonant character.
Nixon’s great achievements in environmentalism, the women’s rights movement and international relations, amongst the many successes of his career, are often marred by the shadow of Watergate. The incident swallows all positivity associated with his presidency like a tar pit, and most people are content to not look below the surface.
However, Gio Alonso is not one of those people. “No one should be defined by their worst actions,” Alonso said. “Not even a president.” Alonso hopes that the people who will disagree with his subject matter will pay attention to Nixon’s whole body of works and not just focus their gaze on Watergate.
As stated earlier, the Nixon mural is not the only project which Alonso and Lessin have accomplished in Whittier. Their Auntie’s Bakery and Bailey’s Juicery, as well as the Nixon mural, are all part of Alonso and Lessin’s vision for transforming Whittier into a city of innovation. “That’s where I want to see Whittier in the next 5 to 10 years.” Alonso said. “A place that embraces art and innovation and creative minds. For the people.”
For Alonso, the future cannot be reached without proper acknowledgment of the past. “Improvement comes with forward thinking,” Alonso said. “But the most forward thinking ideas can’t be executed without preserving history. Part of keeping things local is preserving history.”
In addition to their expansion into Whittier’s Uptown businesses, Lessin and Alonso wanted to commemorate Whittier’s storied history in a public art exhibit, the first of its kind in Whittier’s history, and they found no better candidate for this project than Richard Nixon. “Nixon was the first piece ... of public art that was brought up to the committee.” Alonso explained. “It was so important to have something represent Whittier that would be the first piece of public art brought up to the city council.”
After receiving the go ahead, they commissioned an artist they worked with in the past, Cosmin Lucaciu, to paint the mural. Lucaciu, born in Romania, has been a SoCal resident since he was five years old and graduated from Cal-State Fullerton in 2010 with a Bachelors in Fine Arts. Lucaciu’s artistic style is, by his own admission, hard to pinpoint. “I can’t really say I have a definition for my art,” Lucaciu explained. “I would consider myself a portrait artist but I don’t want to be limited to only that. I wish I could call myself a muralist, but ... this is the first mural I have done in many years.”
“He’s brilliant,” Alonso said about Lucaciu. “The reason I chose Cosmin is because I wanted someone that could depict Nixon in a respected manner. History has written [Nixon] out as a joke. So I wanted a serious artist that could convey that he’s not.” Like Alonso, Lucaciu was determined to come into the project with a serious attitude. “The last thing I wanted,” Lucaciu said, “was another cartoon caricature of Nixon that we often see.”
And when looking at the mural, the last word one would use to describe it is “caricature.” The piece is even more impressive when one considers Lucaciu’s history with the art world. “I guess I was always in an art scene,” Lucaciu stated. “But I never really felt like I was a part of it ... I actually stepped away from the art scene for a few years after school and I’m slowly getting back into it.” If ‘getting back into it’ for Lucaciu means painting a presidential mural, his fans have a reason to anticipate his return to the scene fully. For now, his fans remain content with the artwork displayed on his Instagram, instagram.com/cosminart, and his website cosminart.com.
New fans of Lucaciu’s art can find the Nixon mural located at 12924 Bailey Street on the exterior wall of Bailey’s Juicery, opening in three or four weeks. The piece is humbling; Lucaciu successfully captured Nixon’s powerful personality in his work. Lucaciu’s signature style, a shading using a net of interwoven squiggles, brings unique fluidity to the piece. Nixon’s forceful point and unwavering stare focus on something ethereal; a perfect representation of a man whose eyes were always on the horizon. There is a similar man reflected in Gio Alonso.
Alonso and Lessin work to simultaneously build towards the future glories of Whittier while paying modest respect to those who come from Whittier’s past. Even more, they strive towards not just a New Whittier but a better one: full of art and creativity, and most importantly, hope. And it is not a bad thing to pray that their goals for the town are accomplished someday soon.