Judy Baca: Muralista

In this city on wheels, this city of wheels, an image has to be large and vivid and striking to make an impression. For more than three decades, the light, the climate, the speed, the invitation of long blank walls have made Los Angeles one vast plein-air gallery, the mural capital of the world, exterior-decorated by artists like Kent Twitchell, Willie Herron, Glenna Avila, Leo Politi — and Judy Baca.

Baca leads brush-first, blending aesthetics and politics, first as the mother of the city's original community mural project, Neighborhood Pride, and now as founder of the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC. She supports its programs in part with commissions from works like her new murals of Robert F. Kennedy in the school complex set to open next month on the grounds of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

Baca's biggest work splashes along more than half a mile of the Tujunga Wash: the landmark Great Wall of Los Angeles, a fauve-flavored social history of the region begun by Baca and a crew of young people in the 1970s. Like them, that mural is middle-aged now. It is in need of a facelift and is therefore emblematic of hundreds of other artworks that the mural capital of the world has allowed to deteriorate, whether from defacement by taggers or official neglect. Baca has made it her life's mission to paint and rage against the dying of the art form in the city that brought it so remarkably to light.

You lived in Watts as a little girl — do you remember seeing the Watts Towers?

I was pondering, what was the first piece of art I saw besides religious art? The first piece of art I saw was Simon Rodia, building them.

And when did you first create art?

When I went into kindergarten, the school didn't allow kids to speak Spanish. I had an understanding of English but I didn't speak it so well, so my teacher set me up with a little easel and bright shiny tin cans of tempera paint. This wonderful teacher, whose name I can't remember, probably set the course of my life.

Where did you take it from there?

[In Catholic high school] I started taking all the art classes they had. People would send me their notebooks and, with Bic pens, I would do these elaborate drawings of dream boys. I drew naked nuns on the blackboard; I got in trouble for that. It was how I got recognition. I think the art saved me.

I really wanted to go to college and into the arts. My mother said, do something that'll make a difference. You can sue somebody if you're a lawyer. So the question was, how could I be in the arts and have it matter? I became very passionate about working with youth. I started to understand how people were able to transform life with education. I was watching my cousins, my friends, in trouble, going to prison, drug abuse, and I thought, I can do something. I can help.

And you thought teaching would be the way to help.

I came out of a movement of social justice. I started in a teachers program [at Cal State Northridge], and I was incredibly disappointed. I was student teaching at Van Nuys Junior High School and this boy made this amazing, faceted bird drawing. I said, "Julio, this is magnificent." I came back next week and in place of that bird was a little Hallmark dove. I said, "What happened?" He said the teacher said it wasn't right. I looked around the classroom and there were these Hallmark birds the [teacher] had drawn. I said, I can't do this. It's going to ruin me. So I quit.

And when you taught at your old high school, you got fired for what might be called activist teaching.

At that point I lose my job and I think I've lost my mind because I am so in love with doing this work. The [city is hiring] underemployed and overeducated artists. That would be me.

So I join this group of artists, I'm out in East L.A., teaching art, and I walk through a gantlet of adolescent males to get to my classes. Pretty soon, it was, hey, art lady, show us your art. I said I'll show you mine if you show me yours. I started [a] group. On the Hollenbeck band shell, we painted the giant grandmother, "Mi Abuelita." I was painting the image of my grandmother. I was trying to get to the central core of grandmothers within Latino culture. It was there for years before it was destroyed by the rec and parks department by accident.

How do these "accidents" happen?

Stupidity. We're in the most destructive time ever in the history of murals in L.A.

My sense is that people living in what's been called the mural capital of the world don't appreciate them.

That's not true.

We did 450 pieces [over the years]. In the Neighborhood Pride program, we could hire kids, we could train kids, and [the murals] became this amazing manifestation of the ethnic face of Los Angeles. For the first time you could see who lived in these places that were essentially boxes that people could be dumped in and out of as gentrification occurred — [murals] in Chinese neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, Thai neighborhoods. I watched this amazing city of nations unfold.

People appreciated the murals. [But] as time passed, homeowners began to think, that's a Mexican thing, that's that black art. While we became internationally known, some homeowners' organizations were saying, "We don't want any murals because that means minorities live here."

What happened to those murals?

Some are still [here, and] SPARC is trying to save them. "Women Do Get Weary," by African American Alice Patrick, at 69th and Central. [But] we lost many of them. They weren't maintained. They're painting [out] murals for graffiti prevention. There's graffiti removal material [which allows graffiti to be cleaned off] on all the murals SPARC sponsors, but there's not one dollar allotted for that. All that money to remove graffiti from blank walls but not from a mural.

For the first time we have groups making murals their targets because it doesn't get removed. If you [graffiti] a blank wall, you know it'll be [painted over] in two days. [On] a mural, it will never get touched, and you make a name doing that destruction.

All these graffiti removal contracts — don't have these kids just cleaning up [graffiti on] blank walls. A program to maintain the murals sends a message that they are important in our city.

But since outrages like the destruction of Kent Twitchell's "Freeway Lady" mural, of the old woman with the afghan, hasn't there been a law protecting murals?

They have to give an artist a 90-day notice for removal. It's devastating, the number of losses, because as soon as a mural is tagged, the public wants it removed. I feel like I'm watching the legacy of 35 years of work go down the drain, day by day. My piece on the Harbor Freeway, a woman runner from the Olympics — it's now tagged three-quarters of the way up. Any day now I'm going to be given a notice to clean the mural or they will remove it, and I will have to pay [the costs] myself. They're treating it like it's my vanity project and I have the responsibility individually to maintain it.

Make a distinction between art and graffiti.

This goes back to the very roots of muralism. [It's] the difference between being able to speak in articulate poetry and being able to make a crude remark. Both are expressions, but the difference is the quality of expression. Either we provide the opportunity for quality expression or we simply get crude remarks everywhere. Now, the models for [taggers] are corporate logoism. The billboard becomes the model. You're selling your name.

And the new anti-supergraphics law puts murals on the same footing as those hideous ads?

The city is struggling with the difference between a mural and advertising. How hard is that?

We flourished when we had less intervention from public authority, in the early history of murals. Control increased [and] the advertising people started calling their signage a mural, [like] the Nike ads. The billboard and advertising companies want every square inch of eye space, and our city has not the strength [to stop it]. The only people caught in this moratorium are the artists, because the corporations essentially ignore the law.

So the supergraphic billboard people are using muralists and artists as a kind of human shield?

The perfect way to describe it. It's so disgusting, and I'm so disheartened by it.

What does this say about L.A.?

It's the moment in the city history in which it decides what kind of place it is. It's nothing less than that. If you don't believe in the common spaces and places where we can put public memory, and you sell us everything we don't need in every square inch of eye space, and you allow the corporate world to run rampant with billboards, there is no space for public art. Maybe L.A. is choosing at this moment who the city wants to be. It's already chosen not to be the mural capital [any longer]. We are becoming Tokyo and Hong Kong.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

This interview was edited from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.

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