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W&L Art Professor and Students Develop Digital Map of Great Wall of Los Angeles

A new digital annotation technology being developed at Washington and Lee University lets people explore a famed mural, the Great Wall of Los Angeles, in ways impossible even when viewing it in person.

The Great Wall is half a mile long and located in a flood-control channel in California’s San Fernando Valley. A project of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), the mural was created between 1976 and 1983 by 400 youths and dozens of professional artists to depict the roles that African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Jewish Americans played from prehistory to 1960 in the creation of California’s culture. It highlights themes such as immigration, exploitation of people and land, women’s rights, racism, racial inequality and gay rights.

“The mural visualizes stories that nobody was talking about or writing about at the time,” explained Andrea Lepage, associate professor of art at W&L and creator of the project. She has received a summer stipend from the National Endowment of the Humanities to further develop the project, “Mapping Histories, Hearing Voices: A Digital Resource for the Great Wall of Los Angeles.”

“The impulse for the project was to find a technology that would allow us to interact with such an expansive and culturally significant artwork, look really closely at the wall and engage specific details,” Lepage explained. It is difficult for people to get close to the mural since it lies in the flood channel.

Lepage worked closely with Jeff Knudson, senior technology architect in Information Technology Services at W&L, who developed the visual annotation program, called Image Map. It maps out a particular area on a mural image in red, so that when viewers click on it, they can see associated images, documents and audio and video testimonials, including newspaper accounts, historical photographs, artworks and interviews. Lepage has already researched and digitized hundreds of primary sources for the project.

In her application for the NEH grant, Lepage described the project as “facilitating a greater understanding of history by preserving the voices of the individuals who experienced the events depicted on the Great Wall.” As an example, Lepage cited a segment of the mural related to the deportation of Mexican Americans during the Depression. “Zooming in and clicking on one part of the image produces an audio testimonial of a man whose family was deported at that time, so he’s able to talk about it and really bring the art to life,” she noted.

According to Lepage, few such projects emphasize the diversity and multiplicity of voices necessary to tell a story as they apply to the visual arts, allowing side-by-side comparison of the artwork and its sources.

Lepage has already begun to use Image Map in her classroom, with her students helping to improve the technology and make it more user-friendly. “This technology stimulates students to look at an image more closely and for a longer period than they would otherwise,” she noted. “My students spent a semester really engaged in looking very closely at a single painting, and it’s astonishing what they are able to produce with that kind of close observation.”

Students involved in the project include junior Laura Lemon, a journalism and mass communications and art history double major, who used Image Map to analyze a small detail of a painting by Caravaggio; Kendall Knoll, a junior art history major, who hopes to develop an iPad version of the technology to analyze Dutch paintings; senior Keifer Winn, an economics and politics double major with a minor in art history, who has mapped the wall. Junior Lindsay George, an English and art history double major, will travel with Lepage to Los Angeles and Mexico City this summer to continue work on the project.

“Working with Jeff and some of my students on this project has been a really exciting collaborative experience,” said Lepage. “I am amazed at how quickly Jeff works and the really fun collaborative style we have developed. Eventually we’ll get to the point where we can open it up to the rest of the world as open source and, hopefully, some other institution will take it on, develop it and find new ways that the technology can work.”

Lepage has divided the mural into 180 segments, and plans to map the first 1,000 feet during the summer and complete the project during her sabbatical next year.

For further information on the Great Wall of Los Angeles, see the website http://sparcinla.org/.