Originally published February 26, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
Hidden away in a remote corner of Pierce College in Woodland Hills is a trippy little secluded park filled with odd life size sculptures depicting scenes from the Old West. These sculptures are simultaneously delightful and slightly creepy – the kind of thing that often has young children clutching parents legs and sobbing their eyes out. Created by self-taught artist John Ehn, this surreal collection was originally started to drum up business for the motel he owned in Burbank called Old Trapper’s Lodge. John had purchased the motel in 1941, but by 1951 he realized that he wanted more publicity for his business. Legend has it that he hired the sculptor Claude Bell, who later created the Cabazon Dinosaurs, to make a piece for the Lodge’s front yard. After watching Bell for awhile, a lightbulb apparently went off over Ehn’s head and he realized, “Hey, I can do this!”
So starting in 1951 at the age of 54, John Ehn created sculpture after sculpture all representing characters out of the Old West. He recreated tall tales, such as the battle between Peg Leg Smith and a Native American named Big Bear and fashioned his own tongue-in-cheek graveyard called Boothill. His statue entitled Kidnap has a screaming, scantily clad white woman being forcefully carried away by yet another Native American, this one with rippling chest muscles. The base of this piece is covered with angry, contorted faces, many baring their teeth. John worked for the next 30 years, until his death in 1981, filling the front yard, the motel grounds and his home and office with his bizarre pieces of folk art.
After John’s death, his large family, which included 20 grandchildren, held onto the motel property for a few years. Eventually they were forced to sell the land in the mid-80s for the soon to be built Burbank airport. The family distributed many of John’s smaller pieces amongst themselves, but they were offered to set up the larger ones in Alvin Cleveland Park, located in the far, rear corner of Pierce College. Tucked away, behind pine trees and overgrown bushes, they can barely be seen from El Rancho Drive, where the agricultural students have a working cattle and horse farm. Parting the low hanging pines to view Boothill Cemetery while inhaling the rural perfume of horse manure may finally put you in an Old West state of mind.
Old Trapper’s Lodge: located at Pierce College on El Rancho Drive, near DeSoto, next to the Equestrian Center, Woodland Hills, CA 91371