L.A. River gates serve as showcase for artist and metalworker

Michael Amescua with drawings for the Elysian Valley gate/Tony Cella

By Tony Cella

The art of Michael Amescua  is included in the collections at UCLA and have been displayed in galleries from Cuba  to the Rincon Indian Reservation near San Diego. But the work of the 65-year-old artist can also be seen outside the pristine confines of gallery spaces. A walk or bike ride down the pathways along Los Angeles River reveal impressive gates that reflect Amescua’s skills as an artist and metalworker.

One of his gates was recently installed along an entrance to Los Angeles River path near Riverside Drive in Elysian Valley. The new Elysian Valley gate joins another Amescua gateway – Guardians of the River Gate – that rises off Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village. Amescua, an Occidental College grad who works out of a studio in Pasadena, has also created gateways for the Audubon Center at Debs Park.

The steel cutter draws inspiration for the river gates from cave paintings in pre-historic Europe. The wildlife and plants of the L.A. River – Egrets, ducks, turtles, butterflies and reeds – also influence and are represented in the gates. “It’s the river. You can’t put a Cadillac up there,” said Amescua, who walks along the Frogtown portion of the river in spurts, going two to three times per month, then taking a break.

After drawing the designs for the gates, the images are chalked on to steel to facilitate the back-and-forth revisions that often arise out of public commissions. While creating the gate in Elysian Valley, for example, officials asked Amescua to turn a solid mountain into an outline because it blocked the view.

With public art, the sculptor’s pieces also have to comply with the municipal code. Changing the shape of the mountain weakened the gate’s structure. To meet strength requirements, the crew reinforced the image with a screen. He said the rules also banned holes with a diameter of four inches or more below the height of three feet to prevent small children from trapping their heads in the gate. Laws also prevent the use of oil-based paint because of environmental concerns.

“Public art is a business,” he said. “It keeps me and my crew fed.”

Tony Cella is a freelance reporter who has covered crime and grime in Los Angeles, New York City and the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Click here to contact Cella with questions, comments or concerns.

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