Photo by Ester Hernendez
By Dr. Ricardo Romo
There is much we can say about International Women’s History Month. The International Women’s Day website states that this event “is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.” In this essay we will recognize Judy Baca, a muralist and painter noted for her creativity and artistic brilliance, which has earned her a place on the international art scene.
When Judith Baca organized a small team of East Los Angeles gang members to help paint a mural in Hollenbeck Park in the summer of 1970, it may not have occurred to her that she was quietly launching an artistic revolution. The mural portraying her grandmother may well have been the earliest Chicano mural painted in America.
Over the next five years, Los Angeles became the Chicano mural capital of America following the completion of an extraordinary number of murals throughout the city. Hundreds of artists, most of whom called themselves Chicanos, engaged in creating public art, and as a result, the Eastside has never been artistically the same.
Baca grew up in Central Los Angeles and moved to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley as a young child. In elementary school, she only spoke Spanish, but she improved her drawing skills when sent to the corner of the classroom for not speaking English. In a short time, she learned English and eventually earned two degrees from California State University, Northridge.
Baca has now been painting murals for nearly 50 years and described her passion as an effort “to produce artwork that has meaning beyond simple decorative values.” But she also has a higher cause of using “public space to create public voice and consciousness about the presence of people who are often the majority of the population but who may not be represented in any visual way.” As a young artist, Baca gravitated toward large mural undertakings. By 1975 she had completed several large murals measuring 400 feet in length and had directed the execution of more than 150 murals in the Los Angeles Murals project. Her big break came when she founded the Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC) and went to work on The Great Wall.
The Great Wall project began in 1975 when the U.S. Corp of Engineers contracted SPARC to paint the long cement wall of the Tujunga Flood Control Channel. Baca had great ambitions and over the next twenty-five years, with the assistance of 400 volunteers and seasoned artists, SPARC completed more than a half mile or 2,754 feet of murals.
In determining the themes and images of The Great Wall, Baca consulted historians and community leaders. In the initial phase of the mural, artists painted the history of California from the Indigenous period to the 1950s. Some of the panels, such as the depiction of the 1943 “Zoot Suit Riots,” stirred much controversy. In this instance, the mural portrays U.S. servicemen attacking Mexican American “zoot suiters” who were mostly young hipsters who dressed in gangster-style suits. These “zoot suiters” were beaten by the servicemen while the police looked on approvingly.
In explaining what she hopes to accomplish with her murals, Baca acknowledges an effort to reveal and reconcile “diverse peoples’ struggles for their rights and affirm the connections of each community to that place.”
As one of the leading Chicana muralists in the nation, Baca’s expertise has taken her to many cities and countries. But what she valued most was the opportunity to teach young artists and conduct artistic research. Three campuses of the UC System gave her a platform to teach and continue her artistic development. As a Full Professor of Chicano/a Studies and World Arts and Cultures Department since 1994, she has taught and conducted artistic projects at UCLA.
Several years ago we had the opportunity to visit the UCLA/SPARC Cesar Chavez Digital Mural lab in Venice, California. The SPARC offices and studios are located in a former jail building. The building houses excellent labs where students from UCLA learn the newest visual technologies. My wife Harriett, who was with me on this trip, admired the dozens of paintings and photos on the walls which gave the old Venice jail an artistic environment seldom seen in an American studio.
SPARC teachers offer state-of-the-art digital art design classes and utilize that technology to create billboard size murals. The new technology has enabled Baca and muralists working with SPARC to better preserve their mural images. The preservation is needed since the life of outdoor murals is short because they are painted on property that may change ownership, and they are affected by fading from exposure to weather and by vandalization. Art historians appreciate that while the murals may disappear, the images have been preserved.
To see works by Judy Baca, visit the Estampas Chicanas exhibit at the McNay Art Museum (January 17 to May 5).