LOS ANGELES — Hovering somewhere between diorama, motion picture, and installation art, the proto-cinematic panorama is a form that has all but receded into the backdrop of history. But, as flashy for-profit Virtual Reality (for instance, The VOID) burgeons, a select few artists and scholars maintain a fierce commitment to this early handmade, immersive experience. Among them is Sara Velas, whose Los Angeles Velaslavasay Panorama keeps one of cinema’s precursors quietly alive in one of the film capitals of the world.
Named after Velas’s parents’ surnames as well as her heritage (Velas from her father, Asay from her mother, and “slav” for her Slavic heritage), the Velaslavasay can be hard to classify. At its most elemental, it is a space dedicated to preserving and promoting the panorama as a historic media-art form. More expansively, it serves as a portal to both history and the otherworldly writ-large.
Velas first opened the Panorama in 2001 after renting out what was once the Polynesian-themed Chu-Chu Chinese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. Described alternately as a “ruin of Tiki Chinese roadside funk” and a “cobbled-together fantasy shack” on a 2001 episode of Visiting…with Huell Howser, the round building’s likeness to a panorama rotunda attracted Velas, then 24 years old. There, she painted the 60-foot long, 360-degree Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes, a hypothetical portrayal of a mid-19th-century, pre-megalopolis LA Basin. Velas charged visitors a $2 suggested donation and began to generate a fan base of citizens and celebrities alike.
“The fact that [a panorama] is something you can only experience in person is very special,” Velas says. “It’s just not the same thing to see photos.” She was first drawn to the form as an undergraduate art student at Washington University, noting that panoramas “made the process of going to see a painting more theatrical.”
In 2004, Velas was forced to search for a new home for the Velaslavasay in order to make way for a new real estate development. Aided by city officials, what she found was the Union Theater in Los Angeles’s West Adams district. Built as a cinema in 1910, the building was designed by architect Frank L. Stiff, who also designed the city’s storied Black Cat bar. Like so many movie houses in Los Angeles, the space had since become a storefront church — but only after being used as the headquarters for the Tile Layers Union Local #18 from 1952 to the mid-1990s. Today, according to Velas, the actual panorama occupies what was once the union’s largest office. Velas received $25,000 for facade refurbishment from the city, which she used to restore its neon marquee.
Velaslavasay co-curator and Head of Enrichment & Engineering Ruby Carlson first stumbled upon the Panorama in 2008, after a friend’s mother suggested she check out “the weird science fiction museum.” At that time, the panorama on view, also painted by Velas, was the eerie, echoing Arctic landscape The Effulgence of The North. Carlson recalls being struck by the “special, intimate, mysterious, hidden sentiment of the place” and instantly thinking I want to spend as much time here as possible. She offered her services as a volunteer the same day. “[The Panorama] feels like a place that LA has forgotten — there’s not many places in LA that feel like that,” Carlson says.
In 2013, Carlson devised an event series called the XYZ Club in response to financial burdens on the Panorama, which is funded through a combination of grants, private donations, admission and membership, special events, and rentals. The XYZ Club hosted monthly salon-style events, welcoming “investigators” to share a topic of special interest to them. Among the presenters were artist and musician Lun*nah Menoh, who performed “Certification of your dirty collar,” altering visitors’ shirts and expanding on her fascination with dirty collars. Her textile and sewing machine-centric band, Les Sewing Sisters, would make their world debut at the Panorama in 2015.
Over the years, the Panorama has instigated and/or hosted countless projects, from its Border Peepshow to cranky shows, film clubs, and seances to a glass armonica lecture and workshop featuring no less than two of the rare instruments. Wonder abounds.
“[The Velaslavasay] has a spirit of its own — similar to when, as a writer, you’re writing characters [and] they make decisions for you and you’ve lost all control,” Carlson says. “It’s definitely a character.”
Last June, the Velaslavasay opened its first new panorama in 10 years, and its third ever: the Shengjing Panorama. Created over the course of a six-year international collaboration, the work was painted by Chinese master panorama painters Zhou Fuxian, Li Wu, and Yan Yang. It is the artists’ only panoramic work created outside of China.
Sitting amid the Shengjing Panorama prompts viewers to situate themselves in an industrial eastern city in the early 20th century — a city that had a surprising amount in common with Los Angeles of that era, not least a significant relationship to the railroad. Here, painting and miniatures merge together nearly seamlessly: “It’s almost like watching magic,” says Velas. “You know there’s 2D and 3D, but when you’re looking and blend them together, that’s what feels special. You know the magician didn’t actually make the card disappear, but where did it go?”
Shengjing Panorama times and other event listings can be found on the Velaslavasay Panorama website.