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Picture brightens for Latino artists

Times Staff Writer

ARMANDO DURON rushes out of court one day last week after dispatching another divorce case in his lucrative family law practice. The silver-haired lawyer and art collector is running late for a noon appointment, but not at some chic downtown restaurant. He’s heading to East Los Angeles, where he spends his spare time trying to rescue the chronically struggling community arts collective Self Help Graphics.

The agency on Cesar Chavez Avenue, considered the heart of the Chicano art scene, was close to closing its doors three years ago when Duron decided to volunteer to help turn it around. He had been coming here since his college days in the mid-'70s, later offering legal services pro bono to the organization rooted in the Chicano movement and cultural activism of the 1960s. Maybe, he thought while considering coming back, Self Help had simply outlived its era and it was time to move on, as many artists already had.

“I thought very much about whether it was worth saving and whether or not it was an anachronism,” says Duron, now the agency’s board president, during lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. “Within a few months, I knew it could be done and it should be done.”

Today, a renewed artistic vigor has taken hold at Self Help, according to artists and supporters. The agency has a busy schedule of gallery exhibitions and new print projects in its renowned silk-screen shop run for the past 16 tears by master printer Jose Alpuche.

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At the same, it’s becoming increasingly self-sufficient, says Duron, raising more of its own revenue from sales and donations. Plus, the once leaky roof of its landmark building, formerly a symbol of its decline, survived the recent downpours without a single leak.

“There’s this excitement going on at Self Help and there are a lot of new projects coming to fruition,” says artist Yolanda Gonzalez, who is curating a new print series called “Maestras,” featuring 10 female artists. “There’s this spirit of revival and all the artists are very excited.”

Self Help was founded in a garage by the late Sister Karen Boccalero, a beloved figure who sought to foster Chicano artists at a time when they were shut out of mainstream galleries and museums. Almost every major Chicano artist since then has come through Self Help, including now established names such as Gronk, Patssi Valdez and Frank Romero, who just completed a new print as part of a series he’s currently curating called “Veteranos” featuring early Chicano artists.

But as the arts world opened new opportunities beyond the barrio and a younger generation sought to distance itself from ethnically identified art, the agency fell on hard times and came close to insolvency. Self Help would have to adapt to survive, says Duron. The first step was weaning itself off government grants and corporate sponsorships. After making repeated pitches to old sponsors, Duron decided to forge ahead “assuming we would not get one penny from anybody.”

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Last year, the agency brought in $231,000, two-thirds of its annual budget, from donations, rentals and revenue from sales events, such as its annual print sale and Day of the Dead celebration. The amounts are still half the $700,000 operating budget of four years ago, but for Self Help, the cash flow meant a new lease on life.

The second part of the survival strategy: diversify.

Duron says Self Help has expanded its artistic range with bold projects that were once handled less openly under the administration of Boccalero, a Catholic nun who died in 1997. In its atelier, or workshop, Self Help recently completed a print series by 10 gay artists titled “Homombre LA,” a play on the Spanish word hombre. It was curated by painter and illustrator Miguel Angel Reyes, a Mexican immigrant who was commissioned for the mural project “Amistades” (Friendships) displayed during subway construction at the corner of Hollywood and Argyle.

Also on the print shop schedule is a national Latina lesbian atelier and a silk-screen series based on original photography by five artists, including celebrated Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, whose startling work is now featured at a Getty Center exhibition. Iturbide plans to revisit the cholas of East L.A., the homegirls who were the subject of her contribution to “A Day in the Life of America,” a 1986 book. Also set to participate is Tony Gleaton, an African American photographer known for his work about the black community in Mexico.

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Reaching out to other cultures is also a way for Self Help to stay relevant. One of the recently completed prints from the “Maestras” program is a stark portrait of an elderly couple by Carol Es, who describes herself as “a native Los Angelena born in 1968 to a middle class Jewish mother and working-class Mennonite father.”

When I visited the print shop this week, curator Gonzalez was working with an artist visiting from Chicago, Brazilian-born Magda Dejose, who is also participating in her “Maestras” series. The two women met 15 years ago when both were working in Japan. “This is a place where the community comes, and I don’t see that in other studios,” says Dejose. “It’s not just for the artists, and that’s unique.”

I was later given a brief tour of Self Help’s latest exhibition, “Somos Medicina” (We Are Medicine) by Mujeres de Maiz, which opened last Saturday to strong attendance at Self Help’s Galeria Otra Vez. My guides were Duron and artist-volunteer Margaret Garcia, whose ties to Self Help also go back more than a quarter century.

Garcia points out one painting by Yreina Cervantes, an artist who was teaching there when Garcia first started dropping by in 1983. At the time, Garcia had just returned to her native L.A. after spending three years in Chicago, and she recalls the special feeling that still draws her to Self Help.

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“It was like coming home to a home-cooked meal,” says Garcia. “I said, ‘This is my home. This is my community. This where I feel I belong.’ ”

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com

The Annual Print Exhibition & Fair, featuring new works by dozens of artists, including etching, woodblock, linocuts and one of a kind monoprints. Sunday, June 24, 12 to 5 p.m, at Self Help Graphics & Art, 3802 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., L.A. Information, (323) 881-6444.

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