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HEARTS of the CITY

A Picture of Sharing

Painting: George Yepes teaches youths the art of murals; their works brighten many walls.

March 26, 1997|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Artist George Yepes has turned dozens of abandoned buildings and bare walls into what he calls muralistic masterpieces. He also turns inner-city students into mural makers.

Through his Academia de Artes Yepes, the East Los Angeles painter teaches young students the art of mural making step by step, funding the program in part with money he earns selling his popular paintings such as "La Pistola el Corazon," which was on a Los Lobos album cover.

Unable to afford art classes while growing up in East Los Angeles, Yepes promised himself that if he ever made it as an artist, he would provide aspiring art students with an opportunity to learn. Thus, the academy was born.

"It's harder to teach than it is to paint," said Yepes, 41, whose works have been showcased around the world. "But I wanted to create an academy for kids that offered an opportunity that they might not otherwise have."

Since his efforts began five years ago, Yepes has taught nearly 140 students. Together, they have produced more than 30 public murals around Los Angeles, including the 150-foot "Book of Dreams" in downtown Los Angeles and the "Lady of the Eastside," visible from the Hollywood Freeway at 4th Street.

"La Pieta," a mural of the Virgin Mary cradling a gang member with a bullet wound, hangs at St. Lucy's Church in East Los Angeles. When a gang member from the neighborhood is shot, a shrine of candles is erected in front of the mural.

Yepes funds the public projects by selling his paintings, which bring thousands of dollars. He asks school districts whose students take part in his program to help pay for supplies. Sometimes they do; sometimes they can't afford to.

"George's gift to the community is his art," said Nancy Robles, a volunteer with the academy. "He does this without any structural funding because he feels a responsibility to give something back."

As part of a joint project with NASA and Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Yepes' students created a mural depicting Mars and the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which began its mission last November. Yepes paid for the mural and later solicited funds so the students could go to Florida to unveil it; it hangs at the Kennedy Space Center visitors entrance.

Last month, Yepes and his students embarked on yet another Mars mural, which will be displayed at JPL during its Planet Fest in July.

For five years, the academy's headquarters had been at Salesian High School in East Los Angeles. But last fall, it lost its free space when the school turned the art studio into a wrestling room. Since then, Yepes has been forced to change the format of his program.

He has given his top seven artists the title of master painter and he drives them to Lennox and El Monte on alternating Saturdays, where they teach other youngsters how to paint murals.

Yepes is still looking for a new space to house his art students, but in the meantime he has created a virtual academy using the Internet. Students involved in the Mars mural project are also learning math, science, art and technology through an educational partnership with UCLA, Hughes Electronics and the Lennox School District.

Master painters, who range in age from 12 to 16, teach 40 younger students from the Moffett and Worthington elementary schools in Lennox how to draw Mars' bumpy surface--which they have already studied online.

Gabriel Estrada, one of the original academy members, shares his passion for art with young students in the cafeteria at the Moffett school. He breaks down the mural into several sections and has each child draw a portion.

"It reminds me so much of when we first started," recalls Estrada, a junior at Bloomington High School in Rialto. "We learned a lot."

Danny Gonzalez and his brothers, Octavio and Abel, are also among Yepes' master painters. Yepes shows the students how to measure their drawings. Remembering what it was like to be a child, he also lets each take a turn at snapping a chalk measuring tape on the paper.

Yepes then sits back and observes. And he dreams of finding financing and space so the academy--which has in the past been supported by actors Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage and Cage's wife, Patricia Arquette, all of whom have purchased several paintings--can operate full-time.

Watching his students teach other students is proof that his program has paid off.

"What I have taught them about painting will stay with them for life," said Yepes. "Now they are being given the opportunity to take that knowledge and affect 83 more students."

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The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on the Academia de Artes Yepes, a program that provides art students with an opportunity to learn the art of mural making. The organization is seeking a space to house its academy and donations to buy supplies. For more information, call (213) 526-9194.

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