photo by Kelly Lane

A mural serves as public art. But for artist Francisco Letelier, the “Guardian” mural he’s painting on the south wall of the American Red Cross Santa Monica Bay chapter at Broadway and 11th Street couldn’t be more personal.

“I’ve always admired what the Red Cross does,” he says, “because when my father was imprisoned after the coup in Chile, the International Red Cross was the first agency to see the prisoners, bring us information about their condition and act as intermediary with the military to convey food and clothing to them. No one else could get to them.”

Francisco’s father Orlando Letelier served as Chile’s ambassador to the U.S. under Salvador Allende’s Socialist government. When Augusto Pinochet’s military coup ousted Allende in 1973, Orlando was the first of many Allende supporters imprisoned, tortured and later placed into concentration camps. In 1974, he was released thanks to international diplomatic pressure but was exiled from Chile. Working with a number of Washington, D.C. policy institutes, he was an outspoken critic of the Pinochet regime.

In 1976, he was assassinated in D.C. by car bomb, alongside his co-worker, Ronni Moffett. While long suspected to be Pinochet’s handiwork, it was only in 2015 that the U.S. declassified documents with conclusive evidence that Pinochet ordered the assassination.

In the year following his father’s killing, Francisco Letelier says, “The Chilean exile community and others who knew what was going on in Chile got together and painted a commemorative mural in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park in the Chilean fashion, which meant that it was participatory and collective, with fine artists and members of the community joining in.

“Muralist groups were called brigades in Chile. They created cultural solidarity because murals were big signifiers during the Allende years, and walls were covered with the dreams and aspirations of the people.”

A highly regarded Venice-based muralist and artist, Letelier was approached by Beautify Earth, a non-profit organization whose mission, says West Coast director Heather Rabun is, “To paint the world in color. If we can paint an ugly wall with art, we believe it will inspire the community to take ownership and pride, and elevate the surrounding area. We noticed that the Red Cross building could use a little love.”

Letelier had previously offered to support the group when it originated as Beautify Lincoln to improve the look of Lincoln Boulevard. They developed a roster of artists and engaged community members to paint the walls of small businesses. “I loved that they were young people working together painting on the streets, because that’s how I started, with a volunteer brigade.”

With his strong connections to the Red Cross, Letelier was happy to take on this mural project.

He remembers growing up in Maryland, about a mile from the famed Clara Barton House, the founder of the American Red Cross. “It was a vehicle for me to understand the rich Civil War history of D.C. and Maryland. I remember when I was a kid that an old field hospital had been discovered in a bridge, and a lot of Red Cross items were found in it. So I’ve always had this thing about Clara Barton and those who help people caught in the tides of history and natural disasters.”

When he creates a mural, Letelier dives into the history of a site. He met with Julie Thomas, executive director of the Santa Monica chapter and Anna Lisa Debois, an octogenarian volunteer archivist who has kept meticulous records of its history. He learned that the Santa Monica Women’s Bay Club established this chapter, and was the catalyst that helped create Santa Monica’s police and fire departments as well. “All those articles about the Red Cross form a history of what Santa Monica is today,” he says.

But rather than depict a single definitive incident, says Letelier, “this mural of a benevolent, metaphoric figure of a woman celebrates history, but honors the role of women in The Red Cross.”

“The Red Cross is steadfast and always there for people in times of need. That’s what this Guardian figure represents.”

The female figure’s hair is inspired by artist Gustav Klimt’s paintings (think the recent movie, “The Woman in Gold”).

“The template of shifting quadrants he uses allows me to create patterning in which I can cover a lot of ground thematically. So I can incorporate references to Pre-Columbian art, to European folk art, representing the many communities that the Red Cross serves.”

On either side of the woman, Letelier depicts people on scaffolding. “It’s kind of an art historical reference from mural history, like Diego Rivera and Fernand Leger’s work. I’m depicting people feeding others, caring for others, helping someone climb up, and so on. Scaffolding is a metaphor for people working together.”

A classic example of people working together, while Beautify Earth continues to source matching funds to cover the costs of supplies and the hydraulic lift, Letelier has created an Indiegogo campaign seeking $5,500 to make up for his time and income loss while on the project. He’s about 60 percent funded as of this writing.

There’s still about a week or so to go before Letelier finishes the mural. To help support The Guardian Mural Project, visit

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.