At these sunset art hikes, you lug the art up Griffith Park

On a recent Sunday afternoon, L.A. gallerist Lauren Powell and about 30 others trekked up a steep, sinuous Griffith Park trail. The group hauled enormous framed paintings 2½ miles to the top of the hill. Nearly everyone was dressed in pastel-colored, tie-dyed shirts or other sunset-hued garb. The procession of artists, curators, collectors and art enthusiasts as it snaked around switchbacks ascending the trail — looked somewhat like an animated paintbrush swirl of pink and cream and tangerine and blue, winding up the hillside.

Several of the canvases — by L.A.-based artist Senon Williams — hung on a handmade, reclaimed wood gantry that the artist had built from discarded furniture he found on the street. It took two participants at any given time, the rack slung over their shoulders, to lug the works to the mountaintop. Other paintings were mounted on sandwich boards that individuals took turns wearing, one painting affixed to each side of the easel-like structure. The works adorned the volunteers’ chests and backs as they huffed and puffed toward the peak.

Art lovers, wearing paintings on their backs, participate in a sunset art hike to the top of a Griffith Park trail.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Arriving in the park’s Berlin Forest, a shady grove of pine trees and picnic tables, the group installed the six works for a temporary, open-air exhibition — or a public “art offering,” as Powell calls it.

But the journey to the summit — a ritualistic art hike — was the ultimate destination.

“I would say this is a pilgrimage,” Powell says, “to bring the gallery outside of the four walls to the public.”

Powell has been leading free, monthly art hikes, open to the public, for about a year and a half. Her Sunset Hiking Club is a way to form community around the fused loves of culture and outdoor exercise. And it feels uniquely L.A., a quest for connection amid the city’s sprawl and an outgrowth of its myriad energetic art scenes.

The hikes always start at Powell’s Hollywood Boulevard gallery, Lauren Powell Projects, before heading up the sidewalks of Thai Town and Franklin Avenue. Hikers then cut through residential neighborhoods to the north, past old Craftsman homes and garage sales underway and gawking joggers to the park. Then they follow the Fern Dell Nature Trail to the East Observatory Trail before reaching the Griffith Observatory and, finally, the adjacent Berlin Forest. The journey takes about an hour, depending on how fast participants hike.

The Hollywood sign at sunset.

The Hollywood sign at sunset.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A group of art goers participate in a sunset art hike to the top of a trail.

Art hikers en route to Griffith Park’s Berlin Forest to install a temporary, outdoor exhibition.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

There’s a decided health component to these art hikes: getting artists, who may spend hours at their desks or hunkered over works in progress, to move their bodies more. Not to mention everyone else.

Providing an antidote to anxiety is another consideration.

“As a human with a lot of social anxiety,” says Powell, who often takes business meetings while on hikes, “the act of being social with strangers in movement really helped me.”

But at their core, the art hikes are about accessibility. Art galleries can be intimidating “transactional spaces,” Powell notes, where some people may be more preoccupied with the crowd or the bar than the art itself. Others may feel unsure how to dress or act in a gallery setting. By bringing artworks outside, into nature, everyone can partake, even if unexpectedly as a passerby.

“It’s important for me to open the door to the art world to others,” Powell says.

Powell, 38, grew up in a blue-collar family, she says, in a suburb of Detroit, and visual art wasn’t a part of her life as a kid. She worked in a digital creative agency and in commercial real estate in New York for about a decade before helping a friend fabricate a sculpture in 2017. That led to independently curating several friends’ shows at galleries and online.

She opened Lauren Powell Projects in 2022 in L.A. with a loan from a client whose art collection she manages. Given that she’s not a trained artist or curator, she sees herself as something of an outsider in the L.A. gallery world. Her gallery shows contemporary painting, sculpture and site-specific installations mostly by emerging and under-represented artists. “I show a lot of queer art, colorful art, and I do a lot of programming in response to shows integrating the art,” she says.

Lauren Powell listens to poetry readings at sunset sitting on the ground amid trees.

Lauren Powell listens to poetry readings at sunset in Griffith Park’s Berlin Forest.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Her art hikes which often feature poetry readings at the summit, with the paintings on view in the background — grew out of this mindset.

“Music is art, dance is art, food is art,” she says, adding that she plans to feature comedy shows, dance and live music on future art hikes as well as plein air painting classes. The next art hike is Dec. 17.

Williams’ paintings are part of a sunset series, he explains, en route to the summit. He calls them his “human paintings” because they employ figurative elements in amorphous forms that might look like a mass to one person or a landscape to another. Some works also include text. This is his second painting procession with Powell — the prior one, in June, also featured sunset works.

“We thought it would be beautiful if my sunset paintings — as if they were living, breathing things — could gaze upon the sunset themselves,” Williams says of the vision for the exhibition.

About halfway to the trailhead, passing hikers stop to photograph the art hikers, now sweaty and winded. With their tie-dyed head scarves and sandwich board rigs, they give off a Burning Man-meets-Sierra Club vibe.

Most of Powell’s group are friends of Williams or the gallery; but about a third, she says, are members of the public who saw the event advertised online. Mixing with random, like-minded people on the trail, chatting with whomever is keeping pace, is part of the beauty of the art hikes, she says.

As if on cue, one group member catches up to us, slightly winded. He’s wearing purple velour Jil Sander pants, a cream blazer and vintage skate loafers with comedy and tragedy masks on them — dressed more for the art than the hike.

“I did not realize it was an actual hike,” says Drew Stafford Harper, a 34-year-old writer. “I thought it was gonna be a hike in our minds, like we were just gonna sort of take a journey together!”

Poems by artist Senon Williams are seen in a printed zine at Griffith Park.

Poems by artist Senon Williams are seen in a printed zine at Griffith Park. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Nia Lee, left, and Beyond, right, listen to poetry readings at sunset.

Nia Lee, left, and Beyond, right, listen to poetry readings at sunset during an event with Lauren Powell Projects at Griffith Park. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Lauren Powell guides a group of art goers through a parking lot.

Gallerist Lauren Powell guides a group of art goers carrying Senon Williams’ paintings.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a ritualistic aspect to these art hikes, Harper says, adding that he grew up in an “intensely evangelical Christian” household. “So any sort of surprise hike to the top of a mountain, holding a large piece of wood, is something that I’m down for. I would have worn different shoes, though!”

Haley Roeser, 29, a culinary artist who moved to L.A. from Vancouver 2½ years ago, said L.A. is a more creatively disjointed city than she’s used to and the art hikes help.

“My experience, in other cities, is a more cohesive art or music scene,” she says, “and it’s nice to actually have something that’s focused on cultivating community.”

At the summit, Powell and Williams install all six paintings on the gantry, some of which hang from leather straps. The canvases, backed by a view of the inky-looking, silhouetted hills at dusk, ripple gently in the breeze.

The now weary hikers settle onto picnic benches or the pine needle-strewn ground for snacks they’ve brought and a series of poetry readings by Williams and others.

As the sun sinks deeper below the horizon, and the colors of the sunset intensify, there’s a point at which the paintings — with their orange, pink and golden hues — color-match the sky behind them nearly perfectly. In that moment, they seem almost to disappear into the background.

Artwork by Senon Williams on a wooden rig at sunset.

Artwork by Senon Williams on view in the Berlin Forest. Poems were read after the hike.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The sun sets over the city during the art hike.

The sun sets over the city during the art hike.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Until — as the city lights come on, animating the sky — it’s time to dismantle them and head back down.

“Every night we get a sunset. And this, to me, is like a free painting in the sky if we choose to look up and appreciate it,” Powell says.

She surveys the scene, as the hikers pack up to descend the mountain.

“And it’s even better when viewing it with a group of art lovers, together.”

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