L.A. Now

Shades of gray in Eastside art institution's move

Inside the old mosaic-covered building housing Self Help Graphics & Art, the packing has begun — of the angels and the devils, of the colorful skulls, of the masked lucha libre wrestlers.

Thousands of prints collected over four decades are headed to a new home, as the East Los Angeles art center known for shaping the city's most successful Chicano artists — Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez, Gronk — prepares to leave its longtime home at East Cesar Chavez and North Gage avenues.

It will relocate just three miles away in Boyle Heights, to a former sea-urchin packing plant (painted black and white to resemble an ocean liner.) But for the many locals who grew up with the center's workshops, exhibitions and elaborate Day of the Dead event, the move is still bittersweet.

"This is a place that has kept our youth together," said Vanessa Medina, 24, who has been going to the center since she was a child and was among the volunteers on a recent afternoon meticulously packing up the art. "When we pass by it, we know what it means, and now things will be different."

Though the nonprofit moved out of necessity, because of the cost of rent, the move to a new location will give the center a fresh start, said Executive Director Evonne Gallardo. It will be across the Los Angeles River from downtown on 1st Street, where local artists are trying to create an arts district. Already, a gallery, a theater and a bookstore are part of the mix.

"We are who we serve, and it's been proven that the community will follow us wherever we go," Gallardo said.

Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun, founded Self Help Graphics in the early 1970s out of an East Los Angeles garage. In 1978, the organization that had become known for producing silk-screen and intaglio prints highlighting cultural, political and social justice issues moved to the 1920s-era building on Cesar Chavez.

It didn't have to pay rent, because Boccalero's order owned the property. But in 2008, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles sold the building, and those rent-free days ended abruptly. Self Help Graphics didn't think it made sense to spend as much as it now had to in order to stay in the building, especially since the center's space had been roughly cut in half, to about 8,000 square feet.

At the new location, Gallardo said, the rent will be "significantly less" and the savings will go toward expanding programs. The center will find ways to partner with local youth, particularly at the Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, a high school across the street, she said.

The Gold Line runs just outside the new building, which should make it easier for people to visit. And with downtown so close, there might be opportunities to link with new artists, Gallardo said.

As for the old building, its future is unclear.

The Los Angeles Conservancy is working to preserve it by having it placed on the California Register of Historical Resources. A state commission is expected to make a decision in May.

Like other artists who got their start at Self Help Graphics, Ofelia Esparza said it won't be easy seeing the building vacant, devoid of its art.

The 79-year-old, who lives two blocks away, has been going to the center since 1979. There, she mastered the art of making altars out of tissue-paper flowers, photographs and candles. She remembers the building from before the center's arrival, when it was home to a Catholic youth organization hosting dances and Catechism classes.

"This place is such a treasure to the community," Esparza said. "But I also think that at the new building, the center's narrative will continue to grow."

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