In the early 1970s, a Franciscan nun turned an East Los Angeles garage into a thriving cultural center that gave rise to some of the city’s most successful Latino artists. Self Help Graphics & Art later moved into a 1920s-era building on Cesar Chavez Avenue that would become distinctive for its mosaic-covered facade.
Artists such as Gronk, Frank Romero and Barbara Carrasco exhibited their work and taught at the center. Sister Karen Boccalero, its founder, became a patron of the East L.A. art scene.
But more than 10 years after Boccalero died, her Franciscan order and the Los Angeles Archdiocese have sold the Self Help property to a private investment firm. The arts center may have until the end of the year to move from the site it has occupied since 1978.
“It’s a huge loss for the community,” said Patssi Valdez, a prominent artist of 30 years whose first exhibitions took place at Self Help Graphics & Art. “I’m hoping there will be something in the future that can replace it or compare to it.”
Sister Carol Snyder said it became untenable to support a venture that did not make money. The center’s budget plunged from $708,000 six years ago to $231,000 last year, relying mostly on sales from its renowned print shop after failing to secure government grants and corporate sponsorships.
Earlier this year, the Order of the Sisters of St. Francis, based in Redwood City, Calif., transferred the deed to the 15,000-square-foot building to the archdiocese and asked that it be sold.
“All these years, they’ve been rent free,” Snyder said. “They’ve never been profitable, and they were no longer able to get grants. We were losing money and we had to loan them money periodically.”
Snyder said Self Help had “functioned extremely well” while Boccalero was alive, but had gone downhill ever since. She said some proceeds from the sale would fund art scholarships in the community in honor of Boccalero.
“We don’t feel like we’re abandoning East L.A.,” she said.
But Armando Duron, the art center’s board president, said he has been fielding calls from concerned artists and community members. He said the Sisters of St. Francis’ lawyer first informed him about the sale July 3 -- a day after escrow had closed.
“I told him I was very shocked and disappointed to hear they sold without telling us,” Duron said. “I terminated the conversation by telling him, ‘May God be with you.’ ”
He disputed Snyder’s assertion that the order had worked with Self Help for three years to acquire grants to buy the property, which was appraised two years ago at $1.5 million. He said the order’s assistance consisted of one letter of support.
“To characterize it like they’ve been helping us for three years is absolutely misleading,” Duron said. “I hope she goes to confession about it.”
Snyder said she didn’t know whether Self Help was told the property was about to be sold, but that the writing was on the wall. “I don’t think this should be a surprise,” she said. “If they didn’t buy the place, we would have to sell it.”
Snyder said the new owner, who did not return phone calls from The Times, had agreed to let Self Help stay in the building an extra six months rent-free.
As the director for Self Help Graphics, Boccalero kept the center going for 26 years even as other community organizations disbanded because of cuts in arts funding.
Born in Arizona, Boccalero moved to East L.A. when she was a young girl. She attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Feliz in the 1960s and studied under renowned artist Corita Kent.
Boccalero went on to study in Rome and earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Temple University in 1971. After returning to Los Angeles, she 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’s the heart and soul of the place,” artist Frank Romero said after her death in 1997. “We don’t know what’s going to happen without her.”
Snyder said that after Boccalero died, the nun’s order, which had seen its numbers drop, was unable to find a replacement for her on the art center board.
“You have to have a real interest in art to work there, and Karen had that,” Snyder said. “We had no others gifted that way.”
As its financial troubles mounted, Self Help was forced in 2005 to temporarily close its doors, sparking an uproar among Latino artists and community activists. Snyder said her order was not told until after it happened.
The former executive director resigned. New leaders, including Duron, were brought in to rescue the center, popular for its annual Day of the Dead celebrations. The arts collective also hosted theater groups, concerts, poetry readings and workshops for children.
Artist Patssi Valdez said Self Help was the only place where young Latino artists could flourish in the 1980s. But she said she thought the center had outlived its time when it briefly shut down.
She changed her mind when young, aspiring artists told her how Self Help had enriched their learning. “It gave me a whole new perspective on the center,” Valdez said.
“That’s where true avant-garde existed,” said Gronk, the first L.A. artist invited to produce a project in the center’s silk-screen shop. “Not in a museum or a gallery, but in a place that was trying to make a difference in the community, a place that brought people together.”
Several artists and collectors said they were confident Self Help’s mission would continue.
“The building is just a building,” said actor Cheech Marin, whose expansive Chicano art collection is rooted in part in work initiated at Self Help. “The idea and the organization is more important. It is essential to the soul of the community, and I think it will survive.”
But Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes East Los Angeles, said that church officials should have been more upfront about the sale of the property. Molina said she hoped that the church did not sell the building to help pay for settlements in the priest sex abuse scandal.
“I hope this is not that we are paying the price again as a community,” she said.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that the settlements had nothing to do with the sale.
The nun’s order “approached us to help facilitate the sale of the building,” he said. “They transferred the deed, so it would be sold on their behalf. That’s as far as it went.”