A Very Punny Mystery (Resolved)

Feb 3, 2010

The mural at 103 S. Fair Oaks Avenue in 1974

It was one of those uniquely Pasadena landmarks when I was growing up. For most of my childhood, it simply read: “said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork.” Located on the side of an 1880s-era brick building on Fair Oaks known as the Hotel Carver, it was an odd bit of dada graffiti. Everyone in town knew about it, but no one seemed to know how it got there.

The sentence became a quotable line in my family, since we would pass it every day on the way to school. It was funny, but it seemed to have been missing something. Eventually, someone — I don’t remember who — told me that the full sentence had once read, “’My people are the people of the dessert,’” said T.E. Lawrence picking up his fork.” Evidently, the 1987 Whittier earthquake had damaged the wall where the quote stood, cutting the sentence short and leaving the already enigmatic words even more mystifying.

Truncated or complete, there was something delightful about the painted letters. As a kid, I did not fully get the pun about dessert/desert, but I would giggle to myself about what the people of the dessert might look like. (Strange ice cream monsters came to mind.) It was ironic then, that the quote was finally painted over and covered by an ad for a Nestlé diet drink in 1995. People of the dessert indeed. Preservationists, who had come to view the quote as part of Pasadena’s heritage, mourned the loss.

But who painted the darn thing? This was the greatest mystery. Fifteen years on, I hit the internet to try to find out. The Wikipedia entry for “Old Town Pasadena,” as well as a 1978 article by L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith, mentioned a Paul Waszink in connection with the quote, and Smith hinted that Waszink had later moved from Pasadena to the Bay Area.

With these clues, I Googled Waszink’s name and found a “P.H. Waszink – Construction Consultant” in Mill Valley. I then searched Paul Waszink on Facebook, and finding that the same website for Waszink Construction listed on his page, I took a chance and wrote to him. Sure enough, Lawrence’s creator had been found. What follows is my interview with him.

Born in the Netherlands, Paul Waszink emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1955, eventually settling in Claremont. Waszink attended Chaffey College, Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, where he earned an M.A. in Sculpture and Perceptual Psychology. He lived in Pasadena and Sierra Madre from 1971 to 1975, a period he recalls fondly as “pre-Financial Hub, pre-Yuppification Retail Frenzy.”

As it turns out, the quote was no Banksy-style piece of guerilla art, but was part of the Inner City Mural Program, commissioned by the Cultural Arts Section of Los Angeles and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. An effort by the city to “stimulate greater community awareness of, and support for, the fine arts” and to “showcase the work of community artists,” the mural program took place between 1973 and 1974. Waszink was one of 20 artists selected to participate (others included Kent Twitchell, whose Freeway Lady mural overlooking the 101 gained much acclaim).

Waszink currently divides his time between Mill Valley and Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife, Libby Chaney, an artist.

Artist Paul Waszink.

To begin with, am I the first person who’s tracked you down to ask about this?

Sorry to say, you are not the first to “track me down” regarding the mural. The Pasadena Historical Society and Kevin Cloud Brechner (who occupied that 3rd floor room of the Hotel Carver for ten years after I left) got to me earlier.

How and when did the idea for the quote come about? Was it inspired by an actual piece of writing?

The idea of converting that sentence into a building mural occurred to me when I decided to enter the mural competition [in 1973]. The sentence had “arrived” a couple of years earlier, complete — as numerous word combinations did and still do. Examples of other word pieces commissioned and painted on buildings or walls:

Another layer of said/meant (painted at a slight slope on a private wall in Beverly Hills)

The whether broke.

… I could still make a cottage industry out of doing more such word pieces: for example, late last week a word combination struck me, and out of that for old times’ sake I could see making a sentence like:

Ja, night fission…” said Werner von Braun, putting the glasses back on.

Have you always been pun-prone?

Pun-prone? A medical condition I have been saddled with all my life. So, yes, on occasion; also pun-standing, pun-walking and pun-hearing, pun-seeing. Punditry: never.

What was your association with the Hotel Carver?

I had my studio (central bay on the ground floor; no windows but sixteen feet of clear height!) and living space in the building between 1973 and 1975, at which point I moved north to San Francisco. I couldn’t see all the way across the park south of the Hotel Green due to the smog, and it demoralized me. Harold Tivey shared part of my studio space for a time, and James Turrell, among others, came by to see the work going on in there. I had a third-floor room on the inside face of the wall on which the mural was painted, at the back of the hotel, and commuted to my studio using the fire escape.

What were you doing for a living at the time?

I was earning a living in several ways: construction and design work, from 1964 on; teaching art; experimental playground equipment design and construction; writing, mainly through the Junior Arts Center in Barnsdall Park; and some commissioned work as an artist.

Did you get approval for the mural from the owner of the building?

Duane Waddell, the owner of the Hotel Carver property at that point and the operator of a terrific regional theater on the ground floor, was amenable to my proposal to place the permanent mural on the building of my choice: his. The split-second it took to look up at the high north wall of the Hotel Carver to read the mural when going southbound on Fair Oaks seemed like the split second during which the sentence had arrived, for me – with double-take – and this seemed like a good match.

What were initial reactions to the piece like?

I recall some bemused mystification; the ever-communicative and satisfying, “Huh?”; and some arguments about history: “Did he really say that?”

The wall remains, but the mural is gone.

So there you have it. A mystery resolved. Lawrence and his fork are long gone, but they live on in collective Pasadena memory. Waszink’s mural still serves as a sort of Masonic handshake between longtime residents, though sometimes the words get confused. I mentioned the mural to a fellow native the other day, and he still remembered it from his childhood — “oh yeah, the one about D.H. Lawrence and the desert.” (I didn’t bother to correct him.)

16 Responses for “A Very Punny Mystery (Resolved)”

  1. Kat says:

    I am so glad you did this story! I loved that mural! …Although I think I was a little slow on the uptake and it took me a while to get the dessert/desert pun too. I remember when the top part of it was destroyed — then when the whole thing was painted over…tragedy. I’m so happy now to know who painted it and why. And the story about the artist commuting to his studio via the fire escape is fantastic. Thanks for doing the research and this interview.

  2. Petrea says:

    So glad you found him. Nice interview.

  3. Pat O'Rourke says:

    Your dad and my husband, Loren Lind, grew up together in Hawaii. Nick told us about your stories and I am copying them for us to read. Looking forward to it. Will give you feedback when we’re finished.

  4. Maureen says:

    I remember that quote when I was at Art Center and when the earthquake took it down. It was very sad and too bad that it was not replaced. A pun that has stuck to the roof of my brain for many years.

  5. Jacqueline says:

    I like mysterious artsy quotes, they tickle the mind. Too bad this one disappeared (Pasadena did get another fork though- the wooden amusing thing between roads a bit south of Pasadena.) We should have more quotes like these, scattered in the cities. Not so long ago, mysterious quotes were seen posted in the wagons of the London underground trains. It would give one sitting there something to meditate about while traveling through the tunnels.

  6. Joe says:

    As a Pasadena/Altadena resident for 37 years, your research here has filled a cankering-tooth type knowledge gap. Thank you for filling it. My recollection of downtown Pasadena in the early 70s was that it was deteriorating and it needed something, anything. I viewed the mural/quote at the time as nothing more than a bit of oddball cover up. However, the quaintness of it, the happy thought of dessert people, the beautiful revitalized Pasadena downtown area made the mural’s memory truly a dessert memory.

  7. Duane Waddell says:

    Oh Boy…..out of the past….I often wonder what happen to all those dedicated young artists who lived and worked in the “Building” over 35 years ago. Kevin Breckner and Helga de Kansky are the only ones Ive kept in touch with. She had a dance studio in the old ballroom on the third floor. It was no surprise that Paul’ s work of art created attention. Jack Smith with the LA times did a piece on It. He asked me what it meant. I replied “Its self explanatory” .

  8. Matt Hormann says:

    Hey Duane, thanks for sharing. I ran across Jack Smith’s pieces in trying to track down Paul Waszink. It sounds like it was quite a different Old Town back then from the one we know today. Now, the next mystery–the Club Onyx.

  9. Elisabeth says:

    This is wonderful to know. I hope someday the mural is restored. I always loved it.

  10. Jan Strutt Hart says:

    A gem! Would love to see it restored. Who says puns are the lowest form of humour??!!

  11. Good article. Somewhere I have the catalog published by the Inner City Murals Program (of LA County) created by County Arts Specialist and ceramist, the late Lukman Glasgow, who oversaw the project. I always assumed the statement by T.E. Lawrence was to be read as irony.

  12. Jim Lester says:

    That wall was classic, and if Nestle Corporation won’t restore it, fudge ’em if they can’t take a joke. (I’m assuming their ad is still there, as I haven’t passed that way in a number of years).

    Possible spoiler:
    Jacqueline says:
    March 26, 2010 at 11:04 am
    I like mysterious artsy quotes, they tickle the mind. Too bad this one disappeared (Pasadena did get another fork though- the wooden amusing thing between roads a bit south of Pasadena.)

    J – are you by any chance referring to the tree?

  13. david herman says:

    I lived in Pasadena from ’77 thru ’88 and the mural always gave me a smile. Thanks for the background information on it and if there are ever any plans to restore it I’d be happy to chip in.

  14. Cdt Sm says:

    actually, it always looked to me like the quote had been bricked over, not painted. There were always new, unpainted bricks over the old, painted bricks of the bottom line. Obviously the new brick was a repair from the earthquake damage.

  15. Cdt Sm says:

    great article, thanks for finally clearing this up!

  16. SallyMJ says:

    Thank you! I’ve been wondering about this ever since I moved to the Pasadena area. I thought perhaps it was from the 1940s, and that the part of the mural with the actual product had been knocked down. I was heartbroken when the earthquake knocked it down – but thrilled today to learn the real secret. Thanks again.



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