One might be tempted to call it a homecoming, this trip deep down memory lane, but Wayne Alaniz Healy never really left East L.A., not in body or in spirit. Even in his short stints away -- college, travels -- that familiar sense of place always hovered in the background.
Perhaps that’s why viewing his work -- a collection of more than 50 paintings, serigraphs, etchings and lithographs that make up his four-decade-spanning show “East L.A.: The Way I Remember It” at East Los Angeles College -- feels more like paging through an unusually large-format family album; the body of work tells us as much about people as it does about place and how time alters it.
“Neighborhood has always sort of been a backdrop,” says Healy, who also has utilized all manner of found backdrops -- apartment building walls, worn fences -- as canvases within neighborhoods themselves to tell his stories. He is probably best known for a series of iconic murals, a trail of history laced along walls of civic buildings, nursery schools and garages around the city, county and beyond. As one of the founding members of East Los StreetScapers, one of the original public art collectives to come out of East L.A., Healy, 61, is considered one of the fathers of the Los Angeles mural movement of the 1970s.
It was during one of his brief times away -- working on his master’s degree in engineering at the University of Cincinnati -- that Los Angeles shimmered up in stark relief. “I saw a headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer: ‘Riots in East L.A.’ and it freaked me out!” That was Aug. 29, 1970, when journalist Ruben Salazar was killed during the Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles. The violence in the street became an inexorable call for change.
“I had to get back home. It took maybe two years: I had to finish my degree, I had to take care of my family. That event, that spontaneous combustion just changed everything for me,” says Healy. “We were painting on everything -- telling stories -- garage doors, corner grocery stores. The theme outweighed the aesthetics. Most of them broke every rule in the book. But it was the theme that counted.” The ideas and motivation behind the work were pride and solidarity. “Some of them out there are big garish statements. People weren’t afraid to put something up. So what if the arm was crooked, or something was out of place. That took second place to the theme of unity.”
This East Los Angeles of the ‘40s and ‘50s and into the ‘60s -- with its fedoras and rounded fenders, rural-meets-city feel and the interplay of L.A. diversity -- comes alive again in Healy’s work. His own background -- of Mexican and Irish ancestry -- also reflects that East L.A. mix of the era. “I went to Garfield High, which, back then, was a pretty good soup of people. It was mostly Mexican, Japanese and a lot of Armenians. But since the dominant culture was Mexican, it meant you had these Japanese cats in pressed khakis and Sir Guy shirts.”
Healy’s smaller pieces -- the paintings and serigraphs, etc. -- reveal tiny intimacies, the passing moment stilled. Amid the flow, the eye settles in on fine details -- a woman’s hand restringing a guitar (“Bolero Familiar,” 2002), the crush of a well-landed boxing punch (“The Night They Jumped in Chato,” 2003). “It’s the body language between two individuals. I like to create interesting-looking situations so that you think that you can make up your own stories. So you can feel like you walked in on something and think, ‘This is really juicy gossip!’ ”
Healy’s work reflects life both grand-scale and as interludes of quiet meditation: the Aztec warriors, a grandmother watching a wrestling match on television causing great ruckus, street corner music, the blur of city traffic moving northbound/southbound. These vivid fantasies and realities are most often rendered with simple tools -- discarded mustard squeeze bottles and big old brushes: “The idea really has always been to show a universal theme, but one that happens to be in the cultural dress of the atmosphere that I grew up in. It’s not these secret handshakes. You should be able to access it no matter where you’re coming from.”
Perhaps that’s most important because of the way art came to him -- its presence was ambient, it was part of the “atmosphere” of his life.
“It was not a vocational goal,” says Healy, who worked as an aerospace engineer for 23 years to support his family until 1991, when his children were grown. “I knew of nobody who made a living as an artist.”
That didn’t mean he didn’t brush against it -- there was an uncle who sketched during family visits, guiding his nephew’s hand, and a painter grandfather, Adolfo Alaniz, whom Healy never knew.
“My mother gave me a picture of a mural he did for Aimee Semple McPherson inside the Angelus Temple -- people with their hands up pointing toward a cross,” he says. “I didn’t know him. All I know is that he enjoyed the fruit of the vintner. So as well as that he passed on the art genes.”
It’s an inheritance. And in many ways that’s exactly what public art is -- a gift -- these murals, sculptures, mosaics: a legacy -- those details of the day-to-day that tend to just be taken for granted, fade, particularly as the world changes swiftly around you.
“The mural was a mirror on the community,” says Healy, “You should walk by a mural and look at it and go, ‘Damn! I look good!’ ”
Which is why he’s irked by a new generation’s acknowledgment of them -- tagging. “Here’s some squirt with a little spray can -- and they know the protection laws -- they know if they tag a mural that it won’t get painted over.” Healy, who now makes his living doing public art, big city projects still through East Los StreetScapers, finds it angering. “I don’t know what’s up with this generation that feels the need -- that’s out-and-out defacement. I mean I’ve seen some graffiti that’s just outstanding. But put ‘astounding work’ on my mural and it’s ‘trash.’ ”
But it goes two ways: Not too long ago, three of Healy’s long-standing murals in Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights were restored after a vigorous community push. He heard them loud and clear: “They weren’t saying, ‘We want Wayne Healy’s mural.’ They were saying, ‘We want our mural back!’ ”
‘East L.A.: The Way I Remember It’
Where: Vincent Price Art Gallery, East L.A. College, 1301 Cesar Chavez Ave., Monterey Park
Ends: Aug. 2
Contact: (323) 265-8841