Julie Gigante, Patron Saint of the 110, and My First Love

The star of Kent Twitchell’s 1994 mural of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra may have just retired, but the role her eight-story tall portrait plays in the lives of Angelenos is eternal

You know who she is—the forest green dress, the curly hair, and the hint of a smile. Eight-stories tall. 

The so-called Patron Saint of the 110, she’s located on the leftmost panel of the 1994 Kent Twitchell mural, Harbor Freeway Overture, which features members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The woman on the left—her arched brow, her gaze, her bow—is violinist Julie Gigante, who just retired at the end of 2022 after a 37-year career with the orchestra. 

Gigante’s absence leaves an undeniable gap in the orchestra where she remains a beloved figure, Ben Cadwallader, LACO’s executive director since 2020, tells LAMag. “There’s no replacing her,” he adds.

Mollie Goldberg, of Echo Park but born in Los Feliz, recalls how her family’s frequent travels when she was young meant the long drive from LAX to the East Side and a glimpse of Gigante. Today, “seeing her brings me back to my childhood and knowing that when I saw her, it meant we were close to home…when I saw her, it gave me the clue that we were almost there,” she says. “I love her!”

“I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t there, watching over the freeway,” says Jenni Mischel, who was born in Agoura Hills and now lives in Hollywood. “With all the changes to downtown L.A. over the years, she’s been the one constant.”

Perhaps more than any of the other members of the orchestra depicted in the mural, Gigante’s presence deeply reverberates throughout the city. If I post a picture of the mural to my Instagram stories, scores of friends, high school classmates, and acquaintances from years past respond: “Queen!” “I love her!” “Mommmmmm!”

“Harbor Freeway Overture” by Kent Twitchell (1994) (image courtesy Sean Rouse)

Seemingly every Angeleno has a connection to this image. I’ll tell you mine.

I was 5 years old in 1994, and—I flush a bit to tell you this—desperately in love with Gigante. In that last decade before the millennium, my family’s dented Volvo station wagon crisscrossed the city under her watchful gaze, from claustrophobic Santa Monica to vibrant downtown and further afield. I made eye contact with Gigante’s larger-than-life image every time we drove past, and I wished the car would slow down so I could really look. Little kid love is something special: deep, mad, painful, ecstatic. I felt it all.

When you are young and in love—as I was, many times over, with pop stars, actors, friends—the person matters less than the feeling. An object of affection can have the unfortunate effect of being flattened and an image in a mural is a convenient place to project love. The woman over the freeway was always right where I left her, always smiling, always watching over. For children, life is beyond control, and you live in someone else’s grasp. How lucky, then, to have a love that asked nothing of you.

My love for the image was exactly that: flat. It only worked because there was no one to speak to in real life, no reason to face my hazy feelings, no one to tell me I was not her type. That the image is of a living, breathing human makes me blush now. And when I meekly reach out to Gigante via LACO, I admit my childhood crush and she gamely agrees to speak with me.

For the very-much-living Gigante, the image—and our connections to it—are somewhat thorny.

Gigante began her music career as a five-year-old in Alexandria, Virginia with violin lessons. Her musician mother encouraged the young Gigante’s love of music and dedication to her craft, and eventually, Gigante enrolled in the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester. Gigante auditioned for the LACO in April of 1985 and soon moved to L.A. to join its ranks after stints in the Rochester Philharmonic and as assistant concertmaster of the Phoenix Symphony. She spent almost four decades playing in the orchestra and became a fixture of L.A.’s studios, recording over 2,000 movie scores. It was during a marketing push for the LACO that she posed for a photograph, originally for a brochure. Soon, there were rumblings of a mural in progress—something that would showcase the orchestra downtown. 

“Everyone always asks me, ‘why do you have that look on your face?’” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to go home. I was tired and someone made an off-color comment, and that’s when that picture was snapped. It wasn’t intentional.” 

And then one day, as Gigante was driving on the 110, she looked up. The mural was installed in pieces from the top down, so Gigante first recognized herself by her hairline and eyes only. “Oh my god,” she thought. “It was quite a moment, because I was fairly shocked. That’s how it came about. Not like what most people think.”

Once the mural was fully unveiled, it quickly left an impression on Los Angeles. And because it featured just a few of the ensemble, it cast a slightly uncomfortable air in the LACO. There was suddenly increased attention on the orchestra but on Gigante, too. “People had all kinds of reactions, and I was just trying not to give it too much thought,” she says.

The attention means comments. “People think I’m witchy, bitchy, sexy, angry, scary, and then nice things, of course, too,” she says. “But that’s what art does. It fosters different feelings and interpretations.”

I stammer something to Gigante about my childhood crush—on her image, I clarify. She’s generous and kind, and I ask her what it’s like to hear the personal connections people have formed to her. But she explains another layer of distance. Not only is it her image and not her personhood, “it’s a piece of art. It’s Kent Twitchell’s version [of me],” she says. “It’s not really about me. I take myself out of it and realize it’s about what his work evokes in people.” In fact, Gigante says, she wishes a bit more attention were paid to Twitchell instead of her—it’s the complex fact of artists who paint portraiture: They’re completely out of sight.

“It’s not really about me. I take myself out of it and realize it’s about what his work evokes in people.”

So much of L.A. is about image-making. People move to the city hoping to land on screen or on billboards. In L.A., we live and die by our time snaking through traffic or catching a break on a quiet day where you can really fly. The billboards, intersections, and freeway exits marking our paths—Angelyne, Bijan, Kobe, so many more—shape so much of our experiences, or at least they did for me. They gave me a shorthand for marking time and a language for the experience of being a rare born-and-raised Angeleno. Gigante’s image gave me another language, one that would take years before I dared utter it: I ached like my friends, but my aches included curved nails, braided hair, and cherry chapstick.

The images catapulted at our eyeballs at every turn offer a landing spot for our projections and very little opportunity to reconcile the picture with reality. Had I not had the backing of a major Los Angeles publication, it’s unlikely I ever would have spoken to the real Gigante. I wouldn’t have found out that she spent the last six years becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist and that her new work is somewhat of a calling. I wouldn’t have found out that the mural is complex for her, that while she thinks of it with a “sort of fond amusement,” she generally avoids driving by it, or that the LACO will always be a part of her, she says—and the mural, too.

The human Gigante has had the experience that so many Los Angeles transplants dream of: becoming an icon. People seek even moments of fame and cling to relevance, but she got 30 years that she didn’t ask for. The orchestra will always be a cherished part of her life, she says, but performance has been traded for sitting across from someone in a room, connecting on a person-to-person level, close enough that you can hear each other breathing. But even after leaving LACO, she is in many ways its most beloved image. As Cadwallader points out, since Gigante’s retirement, there are no longer any current members of the Orchestra depicted in the mural. 

The Angelenos I spoke to for this piece all echoed the same thought: that they hope the mural stays up for decades to come, even as it telegraphs a picture of an increasingly distant past. (The extra-formal clothing is even a relic now, as the LACO mostly tends toward a more modern attire and has left behind gendered requirements for dresses and skirts, Cadwallader says, adding that there’s an effort underway to add lighting to the mural and increase preservation work.) For those of us driving past it, it’s worth keeping—an integral part of Los Angeles’s landscape.

When I’m in L.A. visiting my family, I spend a lot of time crossing from my parent’s home on the West Side to my sister’s place, farther east. As I approach the mural, my heart does a little flip. I look for her, waiting for her smile to come into focus. It’s the oldest trick in the book: As a full-grown adult, she looks smaller to me now. In that transformation, she is more human and less like the idea of a person. It’s a welcome change. 

I have, mercifully, moved on from that first crush, and found a heart-fluttering love of my own with someone I can feel beside me, whose human totality I can spend a lifetime growing to understand. The fact that my husband, N., is also from L.A. adds for me a special sweetness, and even as we’ve swapped freeways for highways and endless summer for seasons, L.A. thrums through us. It’s where we had first kisses and first heartbreaks and where we fell in love with each other. It’s where we careened down freeways, ocean to mountain, and back.  

Driving past, N. and I turn on K-Earth 101 and sing along to Stevie Wonder, or, more accurately, the music we listened to as teens, which is now, inconceivably, played on our beloved oldies station. We merge onto the 110. We look up at the woman on the leftmost panel, and at each other, too.

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