Sister Karen Boccalero, Latino Art Advocate, Dies


Sister Karen Boccalero, the Franciscan nun who founded Self-Help Graphics in an East Los Angeles garage and turned it into a showcase and training ground for some of the nation’s most important Latino artists, died Tuesday. She was 64.

A silk-screen artist and painter, Boccalero and a group of Chicano artists founded the center and gallery in 1971. The center provided teaching jobs, studio space and early public exhibitions for such artists as Gronk, Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez and others.

Officials at Self-Help Graphics said Boccalero suffered an apparent heart attack Tuesday night at her East Los Angeles home on a hillside overlooking the gallery. She died later at a local hospital.


“She put the arts scene in East Los Angeles on the map,” said Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum. “She helped to cultivate Chicano art.”

Boccalero, director of Self-Help until her death, was a hard-working and canny administrator who kept the center going for 26 years even as other organizations disbanded with cuts in arts funding in the 1990s.

Born in Globe, Ariz., Boccalero moved to East Los Angeles as an adolescent. She later attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Feliz in the 1960s and studied under renowned artist Corita Kent.

She studied at the Tyler School of Art Abroad in Rome--where she was honored with several one-woman shows--and earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Temple University in 1971.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Boccalero started working with other artists in a garage behind the home where she lived with other nuns. An old printing press became the start of Self-Help Graphics.

“She was willing to put aside her art and focus on building the organization,” said Tomas Benitez, Boccalero’s assistant at Self-Help. “She recognized that there was a wealth of local talent and cultural richness and that it needed to be nurtured.” Under Boccalero’s direction, Self-Help became a vibrant and popular community center. Its Day of the Dead celebrations became a local tradition. Young people were attracted to its many classes.


In 1995, Colburn and the Laguna Art Museum purchased the entire collection of limited-edition silk-screen prints created by Self-Help’s “Atelier” program for master printers. The Times described it as “riotously colorful, dazzling imagery that expressed an array of cultural influences, from pop art, to politics to pre-Columbian iconography.”

The artists and curators who worked with Boccalero remember her as a straight-talking chain-smoker whose often gruff manner concealed a deep generosity and concern for the people around her.

“She was not your typical nun,” said artist Frank Romero. “She was a very tough lady. She had to be. To her credit, she managed to keep Self-Help alive over these 20-some-odd years.

“She’s the heart and soul of the place,” Romero added. “We don’t know what’s going to happen without her.”

Funeral services for Boccalero will be held Saturday at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in City Terrace at 11:30 a.m. A celebration of Boccalero’s life is planned for Sunday at 1 p.m. at Self-Help Graphics at 3802 Cesar Chavez Ave.