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Artists Credit Graphics Center for Inspiration

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Painter Yolanda Gonzalez was only 18 and fresh out of high school when she first went to Self-Help Graphics, a community-based East Los Angeles arts center that has become a powerhouse in furthering the careers of Chicano artists.

Nine years later, Gonzalez--who took painting and monotype courses at Self-Help with more established Chicano artists--has had her own shows and was included with many of the big names in Latino art in a recent AIDS-theme exhibition.

“I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of Self-Help Graphics; they’ve really helped me discover my talents,” said Gonzalez. “Essentially they’re the ones who started me off, and a lot of great things are happening with me now.”

Gonzalez has not left Self-Help Graphics. In her latest project, she created the silk print “Mi Indio” as part of “Arts of Mexico: Its North American Variant,” an exhibition of 20 serigraphs to be shown Oct. 12-24 at Self-Help’s Galeria Otra Vez. The show is part of the Artes de Mexico Festival being held throughout Los Angeles in conjunction with the long-awaited “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries” exhibition, which opens Oct. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Many of the more than 170 artists who have gone through the art center’s most prestigious program--its 9-year-old silk-screen atelier (workshop)--give the center similar credit.

One of them is Leo Limon, an artist who can now be considered to have “made it” after shows at respected galleries, including Williams/Lamb in Long Beach and, most recently, Robert Berman’s B-1 in Santa Monica.

“I’ve been with Self-Help for nine years now,” said Limon, who still produces his work at the center, in one of the eight art studios housed in the Brooklyn Avenue building. “I’m able to see more and learn more here. The first few years were shaky, but in the last five years I’ve really been doing things, and I’ve been able to focus more on the galleries. Now Sister Karen (Boccalero, the center’s director) likes to have me do a print, because she knows my prints will sell--they really move now.”

Or consider Dolores Guerrero-Cruz, a successful graphic artist who recently returned to painting and who, after getting exposure through Self-Help, has been included in a number of exhibitions, including last year’s “Image and Identity” show at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery.

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“Working at Self-Help really encouraged me to get back into the fine-art field, and because of the exhibition program (more than 20 traveling shows are produced annually), I was given the exposure to really get into that fine-art world,” said Guerrero-Cruz.

Gonzalez, Limon and Guerrero-Cruz are among the 20 Chicanos selected for this year’s atelier.

Boccalero, who founded Self-Help Graphics in 1971, said the “North American Variant” show was planned to demonstrate that Chicano art is “an important extension . . . of any retrospective of Mexican work.” The exhibition, she said, will help point out differences in imagery, content, style and color combination between Mexican and Chicano work, as well as show the diversity and range within Chicano art.

The themes tackled by the 20 artists vary, although some have chosen to directly address the theme set out by LACMA’s “Splendors” exhibition. Among those are San Francisco-based artist Ester Hernandez, who did a portrait of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. In Hernandez’s colorful print, Kahlo wears a watermelon hat (watermelon was Kahlo’s favorite fruit and is a symbol for the fertility of life, Hernandez said) and has watermelon plant leaves and a watermelon flower seemingly growing out of her body.

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“This is part of my ongoing homage to women, particularly Mexican, Chicana and Native American women,” Hernandez said of her silk-screen print, which she titled, “If This is Death--I Like It.” “I did this one for Frida because she’s such an influence in my life.”

“After her death, she’s still around, she’s flowering; it’s like her spirit is taking another form in death. I think she’d like it,” Hernandez said, explaining the print’s humorous title. “So I’m acknowledging her and (saying) that her contribution and legacy live on.”

The artists interviewed for this story acknowledged that the legacy of Mexican art is a strong influence on their own work, but all were able to point out differences that make the show’s “North American Variant” title particularly apt.

“I think the difference is just in how we incorporate other images--whether low-riders or televisions and computers--that they wouldn’t use. Even the fact that we incorporate Mexican imagery sort of differentiates us because, as I understand it, they go more for universal imagery rather than their own,” said Hernandez. “We’re different because we’re playing with biculturalism . . . there’s a lot of innovation going on here.”

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Artist Michael Amescua, who also maintains a studio at Self-Help Graphics, said Chicanos rely more on their own instincts. “Most of the Mexican artists are influenced by European art--their schools have a very European-based curriculum--whereas Chicanos, it’s like we’ve just come up with our own aesthetic,” he said.

One characteristic, which nearly all of the artists stressed, is the degree to which Chicano artists create from their heart.

“The Chicano art is just more intense; The soul is more revealed in the art and the artists delve a little deeper,” said Gonzalez.

Said Boccalero: “The Chicano reality is both Mexican and American, and a combination of the two, and other influences. The Chicanos are really painting about what they know, something that comes from their guts.”

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Artists are selected for the atelier by a committee composed of working artists and Self-Help Graphics staff members. They then go through orientation meetings to learn about technical processes before beginning individual work on their images.

The artists meet as a group biweekly to share ideas. After creating stencils, they spend a week in the print shop with master printer Oscar Duardo, laying down each color used on the print. The final step is to sign and date the batch of 60 or so perfect prints that come out of the crop of 80 sheets of handmade paper.


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