Laton: The little California town that served as a muse


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Reporting from Laton, Calif. -- On a cool Saturday evening, with alfalfa fields rustling in the breeze and acres of walnut groves bursting into bloom, this quiet Central Valley farming town, population 1,200, threw open its doors for a party.

There were refreshments and speeches in the United Methodist church — closed for three years because of a diminished congregation, but now filled to overflowing. Outside, Fresno musician Patrick Contreras cranked up his electric fiddle and beckoned people into the two-block-long main street to cut the ribbon on a welcome sign for the unincorporated township, which had lost its previous sign to vandals.


Then, as if dueling for attention, the wail of Bobby Joe Neely’s one-man blues band drew the crowd to the front steps of the Laton Library. A young boy played air guitar with Neely, who was dressed in his signature red three-piece suit, while others danced in the street. As many as 1,000 people strolled around, before the rain came.

It wasn’t just the music that made this party different from the very few remaining civic events, like the Laton Rodeo Parade, which once a year draws the locals of this economically struggling town onto De Woody Street. The normally blank walls of the buildings were alive with video projections of local couples two-stepping in their Wranglers and ropers, and shots of the nearby walnut groves. Video monitors tucked into the few commercial storefronts played interviews with the citizenry. Throughout, a team of artists and MFA students from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles scurried about with walkie-talkies and video cameras, orchestrating and documenting the night’s events under the close watch of veteran artist and educator Suzanne Lacy.

The March event, “Laton Live! Reunion Reunión,” was part fiesta, part art happening and the culmination of nearly eight months’ work by first-year students in Otis’ public practice MFA program. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Lacy and her graduate students, as well as undergraduate classes at Otis and its high school outreach program, first descended on Laton in August with the intention of creating a town-wide project to combine the aesthetic values of art with the social values of community engagement.
The idea was to highlight the struggles and delights of an emblematic small town while providing what they hoped to be some lasting benefit from the shared encounter.

In only its second year, Otis’ public practice MFA program is at the forefront of a growing area of arts education, described by Lacy as “a field-based practice that combines student learning with hard-core community organizing skills.” Lacy, a native of Tulare, focused her students on rural life in the San Joaquin Valley because its high levels of poverty and pollution make it what she characterizes as “California’s Appalachia.” The area also has a venerable history of public art projects, such as Dorothea Lange’s moving portraits of Dust Bowl migrants and El Teatro Campesino’s contribution to the founding of the United Farm Workers union.

Consuelo Velasco, Lacy’s program manager, who grew up in Laton and had just completed her master’s in public arts at USC on art in rural contexts, provided entrée into the town. “You don’t want to be a parachute artist going into a community to make changes,” said Velasco.

The students embarked on about a dozen discrete projects that came together to form the whole. Boseul Kim, who came from South Korea to attend the Otis program, pursued her interest in graphic design and public art to create the town’s new welcome sign; the Laton High School shop class did the welding. Roberto Del Hoyo, a muralist who grew up in Los Angeles, wanted to dress up the drab downtown — with one streetlight, four commercial businesses, a post office, community center and church — in what he described as an “East L.A-inspired” mural of urban scenes in tropical colors. When residents worried that Laton would be turned into a “clown town,” Lacy guided Del Hoyo to think of the town’s one-story commercial buildings as a series of sculptural forms that could be made into a three-dimensional color field painting.


Faith Purvey, who used to teach art in public high schools, set up in a tent and passed out fliers that read “awesome art workshop” to attract local teens. She wound up with a core group of eight that created “a self-portrait as a structure,” as a way of looking “at inner space as physical space.” Mayra Santillon created a large glowing red heart, while 16-year-old Mario Alfaro painted a diorama of a flaming office tower beneath a bleeding sky. His younger brother, Juan, created cryptic hand-lettered signs reading, “There are two ways to make a town known” and “We want Laton on the map.”

L.A.-based artist Andrea Bowers, who also teaches at Otis, installed her video “Sanctuary” — a meditation on the plight of a single mother living in the United States illegally and forced into sanctuary in a church to elude deportation and being separated from her U.S. citizen son — in Laton’s United Methodist church. She also worked with Lacy to create “FreeStore,” a thrift shop of sorts that was designed to set up a barter economy in the cash-strapped town, enabling community members to earn store credit by volunteering on the many projects and to redeem those dollars for freshly laundered and ironed clothing and small appliances.

Several other artists undertook portraits of the town’s citizens. Though people were initially wary, interest grew steadily, and eventually more than a hundred families asked to be photographed. Otis faculty member Kate Johnson and her students worked on video portraits that chronicled shared memories and the civic dedication of the town’s volunteer firemen.

Though many of the townspeople didn’t really relate what the Otis crew was doing to what they thought of as art, they didn’t seem to mind. Manuel Lopez, owner of the only restaurant in town, said, “Otis came in stimulating the economy in a depressed area. They pulled me through when I thought I would have to close.”

But the benefits were not only economic. “People saw their town in a light that they may not have seen it in before,” said Maria Rosario Jackson of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, who was brought in by Otis to evaluate the project. “There was an element of taking stock of what the place has to offer.”
The town “used to look dead. Now it looks more alive,” said 14-year-old Shawn Matos, who was watching the video portraits at the Neighborhood Activity Center with Cesilia Acevedo, 13. She concurred: “Now I’m happier to live here.”

Purposeful art


The engagement of the arts with a social purpose is something Otis President Samuel Hoi sees as central to the school’s mission. “We’re looking to form mutual learning partnerships, which increase the opportunities for artists and designers to be more broadly engaged in society,” he explained. And Otis is not alone. Although the bulk of graduate and undergraduate art programs train artists to engage in the studio practice of painting and sculpture, public practice art is gaining academic currency.

In 2007, when Otis started its public practice program, Portland State University also added a social practices MFA. Under the leadership of Harrell Fletcher, a former student of Lacy at California College of the Arts, the program has had 40 applicants for six spots, and he says he has been receiving inquiries from colleges around the country that are thinking about adding courses and degree programs. California College of the Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art, USC and Cal State Monterey, among others, already have similar programs.

Although there is some criticism that the art produced is sometimes too utilitarian to meet aesthetic criteria, it’s an argument the artists regard as outmoded.

“This practice goes back to the 1970s, if not earlier,” Lacy says. “We’re seeing a global resurgence now for all sorts of reasons. For one, artists’ interest in political theory has matured beyond an abstraction, and they want to be engaged. There’s also the similarity of the times. Today, it’s the Iraq war versus the Vietnam War, and in America we also have a call to social justice by a charismatic president.”

The legacy of the Laton projects is anyone’s guess. For now, the “FreeStore” remains stocked and open, and artists such as Bowers will edit the video documentation from the “Reunion” event to create new works of art. Some of the oral histories will be published in books for the Laton Library. Purvey may continue her teen arts workshops, while Velasco is dreaming of turning the abandoned Wal-Mart in nearby Hanford into an arts center. She also wants to open an artist-in-residency program in Laton.

The town’s merchants are talking about starting a chamber of commerce, and the trustee of the United Methodist church, inspired by the industry of the Otis students, has already mustered enough volunteer labor to paint the church and perform repairs. He hopes that will plant the seed of a new congregation.
But whatever happens, at least for one night, the residents of Laton got to see themselves through the eyes of a dedicated group of outsiders, and those outsiders got to see the effect of their work on their adopted town.


-- Susan Emerling

Photos, from top to bottom: Downtown Laton; credit: Jeremy Rall. Otis student Shatto Light’s portraits of Laton residents; credit: Susan Emerling. Martin Gonzales at work in the San Joaquin Valley; credit Raul Vega. Laton farmer Evelia Garcia; credit: Raul Vega. Laton residents watch videos on the side of a building; credit: Candida Ayala.