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UCLA Campus Report: An Art Treasure Discovered on Campus, More

This week’s post includes the re-discovery of an art treasure on campus, new digital means of studying ancient Egypt, a study that IDs L.A. as the least affordable rental market in the country and research that shows that PTSD may manifest even if the sufferer doesn’t remember their original trauma.

campbell sculpture
campbell sculpture

An occasional report from around campus that recognizes that UCLA is a school with a world-class reputation for research and innovation and whose people make real impact on the real world:

This week’s post includes the re-discovery of an art treasure on campus, new digital means of studying ancient Egypt, a study that IDs L.A. as the least affordable rental market in the country and research that shows that PTSD may manifest even if the sufferer doesn’t remember their original trauma.

Mural in student lounge rediscovered as campus treasure

A painting by acclaimed artist Terry Schoonhoven is one of his last remaining murals

Hidden away in the history department student lounge on the sixth floor of Bunche Hall is one of UCLA’s greatest treasures, but not many people know it. On the far side of the room, a mural covers the wall from corner to corner, from floor to ceiling — an apocalyptic scene from some future century.

Enigmatically entitled "S.P.Q.R." (initials that refer to the ancient "Senate and People of Rome"), the mural depicts the UCLA research library in ruins, presumably after a big earthquake wipes out Los Angeles and the language of the region mysteriously reverts to Latin. It is one of the last remaining works of the acclaimed muralist Terry Schoonhoven and the LA Fine Arts Squad, the internationally renowned street art group he helped found.

The painting is one of the few murals associated with the LA Fine Arts Squad that has lasted over the years because it has been protected indoors.

"The fact is that none of their other murals are still extant — or barely visible — because they are out in the Southern California sunlight and have faded or been destroyed," said UCLA emeritus history professor Thomas Hines, a member of the departmental committee that commissioned Schoonhoven, a UCLA graduate, in 1975 to paint the mural.

"The thing that makes this [mural] so important is that it’s not exposed to the elements — it’s still there," said Hines, who’s penned several books on modern art and architecture in California. "And, therefore, it is of all their work, the mural you can still see."

Because of the painting’s excellent condition, the viewer can glimpse an amusing detail: On the floor of the rooftop of a nearby building lies a crumpled concert program of "Ancient American Music" featuring the work of Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan and John Cage.

Schoonhoven and the LA Fine Arts Squad were responsible for a number of murals that once freckled the streets of Los Angeles in brilliant colors. Their works focused on apocalyptic topics that placed Los Angeles in shocking climates and scenarios. Their 1970 mural "Venice in the Snow" presented the vibrant, sun-soaked Venice Boardwalk covered in snow. "Isle of California," perhaps their most well-known piece, features a shattered fragment of a freeway overpass hanging precariously off the side of a mountain. One Schoonhoven painting on canvas, "Los Angeles Under Water," is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But their murals, along with many others crafted over two decades, have now faded along with the memory of the acclaimed art troupe’s legacy. But Hines refuses to let their achievements be forgotten.

"We need some record so that everything isn’t obliterated or torn down with each generation," said Hines. "The Fine Arts Squad was a part of a cultural layering, and they were very important in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles, and, with Schoonhoven, into the ’80s. If everything were intact, you’d write a story of their work, with ["S.P.Q.R."] being one example. But that’s not the case — [this is] the only one left."

In the past few years, Hines realized that UCLA students and faculty had lost sight of the significance of the Bunche Hall mural, so when the history department decided it wanted to renovate the student lounge in the spring of 2013, he wanted to make sure the mural was treated with the respect it deserved.

Hines immediately went to David Myers, chair of the Department of History, to have a conversation about the mural’s unique place in Los Angeles art history.

"Professor Hines helped me understand a little better the artistic end and the historical dimensions of [the mural]," Myers said. "And what I didn’t really appreciate as a landmark, I came to understand as exactly such. Then I came to understand who Terry [Schoonhoven] was and who the Fine Arts Squad was and why this was an important piece of public art that we have a particular mission not only not to be indifferent to, but also to really protect and be proud of."

The mural, "Isle of California," is one of Schoonhoven's most famous works.

Over the years the mural had suffered some wear and tear as students, unaware of its importance, backed chairs and tables into it. Hines and Myers decided that it was time for the mural to undergo a restoration. They called upon Amy Green, a Mid-City art conservator, to take a look at it.

"Tom Hines gave me some interesting inside information about the history of the mural," Green said. "He wanted me to know that it’s significant because a lot of people thought that it was something some disgruntled students might have done in their spare time. [But] it’s an actual work of art that was painted by a recognized artist with a point of view and a recognizable style."

Green consulted a mural conservator to determine the most appropriate, least invasive method to remove surface dirt.

"It’s hard to put into words why art is important — it’s something I struggle with all the time," Green said. "But in terms of conserving and preserving [art] — our material culture is all we have to offer insight to the future generations, and it tells our history as well as anything."

Now the mural sits as vibrant as ever behind red velvet stanchions. On display is an introductory piece written by Hines detailing the painting’s place in the history of L.A. art.

"[The mural] has an interesting mix of allusions to the past and the future, and I think, in a certain sense, that’s what we are concerned about in the history department today," Myers said. "We’re passionately concerned about understanding the past but with the ultimate goal of better understanding the future. So it’s an interesting reflection both of the fragility of life, [and] the mission of the historian."

UCLA professor develops digital resources for study of ancient Egypt

Willeke Wendrich first developed an interest in ancient Egyptian archaeology as a 20-year-old undergraduate student. Now an esteemed faculty member in UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, she’s made a career out of her lifelong passion and has managed to intertwine her fascination with the power of multimedia with her research on an ancient civilization.

Currently, she is spearheading several digital humanities projects centered on Egypt, teaching a number of courses and seminars, directing large-scale archaeological excavations, and lending her expertise to numerous committees and executive boards. Helping her achieve her research goals have been the consultants and technologists of UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE).

Wendrich hails from a small island north of the Netherlands, but her research has taken her to places far and wide. After receiving an M.A. in the history of religion from the University of Amsterdam, she became an assistant professor for Leiden University in Cairo, Egypt, and eventually earned her Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian archaeology. After receiving her degree, she came to UCLA as an assistant professor and dove headfirst into a multitude of digital humanities projects.

As a doctoral student, she had already become hooked on hypermedia. She spent countless hours integrating a one-hour video into her dissertation on the social context of basketry in ancient Egypt. Also early in her career, Wendrich designed and programmed her own databases to organize dense archaeological data. In 1993, she began co-directing a large archaeological excavation in a remote area of southern Egypt and singlehandedly created a multifunctional database.

"I developed a quite complex database system that could handle both the archaeological context information as well as information about finds," recalled Wendrich, who currently serves as director of the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities.

When she came to UCLA in 2000, she quickly realized that she needed to find sufficient research funding to attract and support well-qualified students. "Financial support is always limited," Wendrich said. "So I thought, ‘I need to create a big project for which I get a big grant that has a lot of jobs for graduate students.’"

One day, while scanning the pages of the Lexikon der Ägyptologie, an idea for such a project popped into her head. Realizing the need for an online encyclopedia for archaeologists, Wendrich applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to launch the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

For more than three decades, the lexicon had served as the primary reference work in Egyptology. However, it is mostly written in German and French. Furthermore it wasn’t available online. After initially being turned down by the NEH, Wendrich succeeded after trying again, this time with the support of staff members, who held her hand through the entire grant proposal process.

Pulled in to brainstorm ideas about how the encyclopedia could be set up were staff from IDRE, the UCLA Library and the Center for Digital Humanities. "When the grant came in, Chris Patterson (web developer with the Office of Information Technology) really took the project on and did an amazing job developing the functionality for the encyclopedia," explained Wendrich, who worked on the encyclopedia with Jacco Dieleman, an assocaite professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Wendrich eventually received a second grant to further develop the encyclopedia, which is now available online to the public completely free of charge. Users can rapidly search through thousands of texts and images, give immediate feedback about their experience on the site and find links to related Web-based content. "The encyclopedia is written by the top Egyptologists worldwide," Wendrich said. "It’s slowly growing because we are in the process of developing an online presentation system and also creating content.

The development of the encyclopedia inspired another innovative digital research platform under Wendrich, known as Ancient Egyptian Architecture Online, which enables people to access expertly reviewed architectural plans of ancient Egyptian buildings. Because many different plans exist for the same buildings, scholars were naturally confused. This resource "makes all these things very explicit," Wendrich said. "It compares all of the different available plans and figures out which plans, or what aspects of certain plans, are the most accurate."

Wendrich is also immersed in The Digital Karnak project, which enables users to virtually explore one of the world’s most expansive temple complexes in Egypt. Wendrich, along with UCLA Architecture and Urban Design professor Diane Favro and postdoctoral student Elaine Sullivan, developed a comprehensive website that details Karnak’s prolific political, religious and architectural history. Wendrich was first inspired to create the website because she wanted to show her students how the complex had changed over 2,000 years, reflecting changes in the region’s leadership.

When students visit the Digital Karnak website, they can use a time slider to see what features in the complex were added or destroyed in each pharaoh’s period of rule. For a truly 3-D experience, users can load the Karnak Virtual Reality model onto Google Earth.

UCLA study identifies L.A. as most unaffordable rental market in the nation

Arecent study by three researchers from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that Los Angeles is now the most unaffordable rental market in the country based on their analysis of key factors, including what portion of renters’ income regularly goes to pay rent.

While researchers found that this affordability crisis has deep roots in the city’s history, the disparity between renters and owners reflects an economic divide that has widened over the past decades.  

"Our studies show a severe housing burden among poor renters has existed since 1970," said Paul Ong, professor of urban planning, social welfare and Asian American studies. He co-wrote the study with Silvia Jimenez, assistant director at the Center for the Study of Inequality at UCLA, and Rosalie Ray, research assistant at the center, which is part of the Luskin School of Public Affairs. The study was published by the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.

"During periods of increasing inequality, the burden has grown even more severe," Ong said. "Vacancy rates have risen only slightly — even dipping at times when the housing burden has increased. And renters are paying more for the same quality housing, suggesting that neither market forces nor changing housing quality fully explain the increasing rents."

And while L.A. has in the past vied with New York and San Francisco for the title of the most unaffordable rental market in the nation, Los Angeles has a lower median income than either New York or San Francisco. But there’s only a small difference among these cities in median rents, the researchers said. Los Angeles is also the metro area with the largest share of renters vs. homeowners: While U.S. rentership has fluctuated around 35 percent, Los Angeles is at 52 percent.

Altogether, the data show that the solution to this long-term crisis is to address its root causes — low incomes and high rents — by increasing both renter earnings and affordable housing. Los Angeles’ affordable housing trust fund is chronically underfunded, the researchers point out, particularly since the dissolution of the California Redevelopment Authority and the reduction in federal funding.

The highest rent burden in the country

In both the U.S. and Los Angeles, the median income of homeowners is more than twice that of renters. In the U.S., that large gap is a new phenomenon, but in Los Angeles, owners have made twice as much as renters off and on since 1980.

But perhaps the most alarming gap in Los Angeles is the disparity between rent and renter incomes, researchers said. This rent burden is generally expressed as the percentage of a renter’s income devoted to paying rent.

As of 2013, Los Angeles had the highest median rent burden in the nation — at 47 percent. That is, on average, renters in L.A. are paying 47 percent of their income for rent. The share of renters experiencing moderate (30 to 50 percent of income) and severe (50-plus percent of income) rent burden in Los Angeles has consistently outpaced the nation. Not only was a larger share of renters burdened, but the size of their burden was also greater, researchers found.

Of particular concern, researchers noted, are renters in the lowest quintile, or bottom 20 percent, of the income distribution. In 1970, 54 percent of these low-income Los Angeles renters shouldered a severe rent burden (devoting half or more of their income to housing), and 85 percent of them bore a moderate rent burden (paying 30 to 50 percent of their income). Although national figures are less drastic, 46 percent of the lowest quintile renters were nonetheless severely burdened, and more than half were moderately burdened.

Researchers found two major trends in rent burdens over the last 40 years, and both have played out more strongly in Los Angeles than in the nation as a whole. First, burdens among the bottom quintile have gone from bad to worse.

Second, rent burden has now been expanded to the middle class. Most renters in these middle-income quintiles still pay less than half their income in rent. However, 50 percent of mid-range renters in Los Angeles experience some sort of burden, compared to a third of U.S. middle-class renters overall.

Low incomes, high rents

Los Angeles’ burden is not caused just by the usual suspects: tight rental markets or higher quality rental product. Instead, the researchers said, the problem appears to be twofold. Los Angeles has a lower median household income than comparable cities such as New York or San Francisco, but only a small difference in median rents.

At the same time, Los Angeles has relatively fewer publicly subsidized units and weaker rent control. This is particularly true in comparison to New York. The Los Angeles section 8 voucher program wait-list has been closed for almost a decade. Affordable housing production and preservation also slowed with the decline in state and federal funding.

PTSD can develop even without memory of the trauma, psychologists report

Adults can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder even if they have no explicit memory of an early childhood trauma, according to research by UCLA psychologists.

The study, which will be published Aug. 15 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, found that among the many forms of memory, only some may be critical for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. The research suggests that explicit memory — which can be voluntarily recalled from prior experience and articulated — may not be a requirement for PTSD, but that other, more primitive forms of learning may be required.

At least six previous reports have found that some people who have experienced terrible life events that resulted in brain damage developed syndromes similar to PTSD even though they had no recollection of the events themselves.

The UCLA study was designed to answer a basic question: If traumatic early-life memories are lost, what persists of the experiences? The research team was led by Andrew Poulos, who was a UCLA postdoctoral scholar when the research was conducted. Poulos is currently on the faculty at the University at Albany.

In the laboratory, the researchers exposed rats that were 17 days old — the equivalent of just younger than 2 human years — to a single session of unpredictable stress (electric shocks to the feet that produced mild discomfort). At 80 days — roughly equal to young-adult age in humans — the scientists tested the animals for their memory of the event and measured their fear response.

"We found that the rodents, which failed to remember the environment in which they were traumatized, showed a persistent increase in anxiety-related behavior and increased learning of new fear situations," Poulos said. "These heightened levels of fear and anxiety corresponded with drastic changes in the daily rhythms of the circulating hormone corticosterone."

Rats tend to stand still when they experience fear. When they recall a frightening memory, they freeze; and the stronger the memory, the more they freeze.

"We saw no freezing in the rats when they were placed in the traumatic context again," said Michael Fanselow, a UCLA professor of psychology and the study’s senior author. "If these memories are formed in adulthood, they never forget them."

The rats were placed in an elevated wooden maze made up of two long rectangles that cross in the middle, a few feet off the floor. One rectangle has side walls; the other does not. Normally, rats explore both arms, but when they were anxious, they stayed in the arm protected by side walls, Fanselow said.

The rats also showed a disturbed rhythm for corticosterone, the body’s main stress hormone, as well as an increase in the number of receptors for corticosterone (the equivalent of cortisol in humans). In the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in learning fear, levels of a receptor for corticosterone were increased.

"We saw specific, long-lasting, probably permanent, changes in the amygdala," Fanselow said.

The findings indicate that not remembering a traumatic event does not preclude a person or animal from experiencing some of the negative consequences of trauma, such as anxiety and heightened fear.