Postgraduate Lives: John Collings, University of East London student

John Collings, 69, is writing his PhD thesis on murals and frescos in Los Angeles, at the University of East London
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The Independent Online

I've got a girlfriend out in Los Angeles so I visit there quite regularly. LA calls itself the mural capital of the world. They're everywhere along freeways and on downtown buildings, but I realised that not much had been written about their development.

I'm looking at murals and frescos during the period 1900-1950. The first mural in a public building in LA was a small canvas done around 1918 at a hotel. Then in the Great Depression, the federal government under Roosevelt launched its New Deal, which employed artists to paint murals at schools, courts, post offices and so on. Many artists were living in poverty so it gave them a job; it was also a cultural thing because a lot of people had never seen art before.

Many American artists were influenced by Mexican fresco painters like Diego Rivera. He was hired to do a huge mural in the Rockefeller Centre in New York, in which he included a portrait of Lenin. The architect spotted it and reported back to Rockefeller, one of the biggest capitalists in America. When Rivera was asked to remove it, he refused, so they paid him and got guys in to destroy it. It was a fresco, and when they took it down the plaster came off the wall. Rivera went back to Mexico and painted the same mural.

Another Mexican artist was David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 1932 he got an art college job in LA and, along with his students, did a mural about workers' rights. There was uproar and the college built a wall in front of it. He then did an anti-American mural on a prominent building that was whitewashed; soon after he was deported. Ironically enough, the Getty Foundation is now trying to restore two of Siqeuiros's murals.

I'm ending in 1950 because this was when the McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities accused many LA muralists of communist leanings. A lot of muralists were employed by Hollywood studios and they got blacklisted and lost their jobs.

I have identified 181 artists who painted murals during the period. The murals are all figurative, with one exception: an abstract in a former department store that is now a private law university.

I managed to wangle my way in to see it, although there was heavy security. The abstract is like a large 3D with pieces of timber and I was a bit taken with it - it's my favourite.

I'm writing the PhD for my own interest and I've discovered fascinating people, like a cowboy muralist who went off to work at ranches, but I'd also like to write a book. I've been given the name of a publisher who might be interested, so we'll just have to wait and see.