Molding a New Life

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JUAN CARLOS MUÑOZ USED TO CREATE his art at 2 in the morning, when he would sneak out of his house in East Los Angeles to tag railroad overpasses with spray paint. Now he does his work from 9 to 5 in a pristine, white-walled studio in Venice, Calif. It's a long way from graffiti to the classical female form Munoz, 23, casts in bronze these days, but he sees the connection. "Yeah, it's the same feeling," he says. "You do something, then you want to do it better and better."

His employer, preeminent American sculptor Robert Graham, won't have it any other way. Graham's studio became a bridge between the glitter of art and entertainment—Graham is married to actress Anjelica Huston—and the grit of the inner city when the sculptor hired Munoz and six other Latino men as apprentices in a project to aid L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Early last year, Graham, 54, agreed to make a series of sculptures whose sale would benefit the museum. Then came the first Rodney King trial. Stunned by the rioting that followed the verdict, Graham rethought his plans. He decided to reach out to the barrios of Los Angeles to find assistants. His friend actor Edward James Olmos introduced him to Steven Valdivia, then director of the Community Youth Gang Services, a county-wide gang-prevention agency, who in turn put him in touch with a pool of artistically talented young men. Graham took on the seven, who range in age from 18 to 36.

The early going was rough. Graham rejected nearly half of his apprentices' first attempts at making 11-inch bronze reductions of his famed nude, Source Figure, a 40-inch sculpture that stands atop a 10-foot column on L.A.'s Bunker Hill. "They had to understand that this wasn't an object, that it had to have magic and power whether they made it a hundred times or a thousand times," says Graham.

"Yeah, it was really hard in the beginning," Muñoz says. "It wasn't coming out." But Muñoz was impressed with Graham's patience. "He just knew we were going to get it. Somehow he knew." To date, the apprentices have turned out more than 450 sculptures that are sold for $250 each.

Graham has a natural affinity with L.A.'s Latino community. Born in Mexico to parents of native Indian and European descent, Graham spent his boyhood in Mexico City. His father died when he was 7, and five years later, Graham and his mother moved to San Jose, Calif. Graham went to art school in the 1960s and, rejecting the Pop movement flourishing at the time, concentrated on figurative sculpture. By the late 1970s, his work was landing in the countiy's premier art museums and commanding six-figure prices.

Graham's artistic success won him entrée into L.A.'s high-profile art and film circles. He had been squiring the young, the blonde and the beautiful when an art dealer friend suggested he try someone more his age. Though Graham had known Huston for several years, they began dating three years ago and were married last May.

For her part, Huston, 41, is so inspired by Graham's effort that she hopes to hire someone through the Community Youth Gang Services to work as a production assistant on her films. "I consider myself definitely a privileged person," she says, "and if I can't share a little of that, I really think one has no excuse when it comes to moments like the L.A. riots."

Meanwhile, Graham and his apprentices can't keep up with the demand for the sculptures. Aside from those sold, close to 500 more are on order. But for the acolytes of Robert Graham there is a bigger payoff. "I saw it as another job," says Munoz. "Then I found out it wasn't. It's like this project, the statue, became a part of us."

MARILYN ACHIRON
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles

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