When he was a kid, Hector Barrios used to vandalize walls. Then, he says, he realized he had "a passion for art" and a talent he "could incorporate onto paper instead." Alex Diaz has been in a wheelchair since he was shot in the head 13 years ago. He didn't think of himself as an artist, but, he offers, "I always had a lot I wanted to say."
Both men, former gang members in their 30s, have found new ways to express themselves through Homeboy Industries' Exit Wounds Project, a workshop and art collaboration led by painter Nancy Baker Cahill. Participants learn to tell stories — about who they are and the world around them — by creating collages from original drawings, photographs, images and items such as X-rays, prayer cards and letters.
About a dozen Exit Wounds pieces will be featured in an exhibition and sale March 19 to April 16 at the Hi-Lite project and studio space downtown. Proceeds will benefit L.A.-based Homeboy, which offers job training and other services to those seeking alternatives to gang life. The program, which began last fall, was proposed by Baker Cahill and embraced by Homeboy because, says curriculum coordinator Rolando Cruz, "art's a great way to help people learn about themselves."
Exit Wounds also allows Baker Cahill and project participants to expand on an idea developed in her series "Bullet Blossoms" in which she shoots holes in gouache paintings of poppy stems and then paints petals around the openings as a way to "suggest hope can coexist with trauma." She takes the illustration-board collages to a gun range and, based on the artists' instructions, fires into them and later adds flowers. (One woman, the mother of a baby boy, wanted a butterfly because, Baker Cahill says, "for her, transformation is a big theme.")
Indeed, she says, Exit Wounds is not just about the art but about the dreams and struggles of the artists. "You need to look beneath the surface. There's a lot of meaning in all the layers."