Sister Karen Boccalero, who co-founded Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles in 1971, died June 24, apparently of a heart attack. She was 64. Calendar asked a writer and arts administrator for his thoughts on her life's work--building a showcase and training ground for some of the nation's most important Chicano artists.
Reputations travel like good chisme. In places like Galeria Posada in Sacramento, or Galeria De La Raza and La Raza Graphics in San Francisco, word was spreading that on Brooklyn Avenue in East Los there was a place where artists were doing "it." That's when I, in the late '70s, first heard about Sister Karen Boccalero and Self-Help Graphics.
The role of community art centers is a debate for art historians. For this Chicano from Northern California, it was about making art about one's heritage, one's community, about the complexity of one's identity. Art that was about the humanism of being Latino in the world--an act that was, and still is, a radical position. Radical in a belief that one must address racist concepts operating in systems that range from government to the art world to the marketplace--rather than be silent to and complicit in injustice.
Anyone who knew or worked with Karen quickly saw that she was not about silence or complicity, that daily she challenged racism and the erasure of dignity and respect for the lives of the many who grow up working poor. She did this through Self-Help Graphics and the ethical conduct of her life.
In 1990, I was asked by the California Arts Council to conduct a site visit evaluation of Self-Help Graphics and report on its operations and the impact of a state grant upon the organization. So there I was, sitting in her office with my standard questions regarding board development, fund-raising, marketing--basic arts management-type questions. We began talking about board development and she stopped me. She told me that, yes, she knew that her organization should have bankers, lawyers and deep-pocket types on her board, but for her it was more important that she have the man who runs the panaderia, the local baker, on her board because he's from the neighborhood and would provide the food for the openings. Karen was always pragmatic.
She then stated that when the day arrives that there's a Mexican American head of a downtown high-rise bank, that's when there'll be a banker on her board. I listened and my questions became secondary to her opinions. I was amazed at how quickly I returned to being that Catholic boy in catechism class who was both in awe and scared by the authority of the nun. Even though Sister Karen was not a typical nun, and asked to be called Karen, she was a woman of belief. Lucky for us it was the belief in the transformative power of art.
Karen knew that the power to create was also an act of empowerment. Her life was dedicated to creating a place where the generative power of art was the star. That belief in supporting creativity through artists is a waning belief that many of us arts professionals frequently encounter. Currently, seemingly every major city is building either a new library, museum, concert hall or other large cultural facility, while at the same time artists or art centers grounded in being accessible to exploration are being told there's no money. It's a time of support for cultural edifices, but not artistic inquiries. Self-Help Graphics is all about inquiry, about creating a place for discovery. That purpose is what Karen believed in and lived a life of service to.
Last May, on behalf of Karen and Self-Help Graphics, I met with Congressman Matthew Martinez (D-Monterey Park), whose district includes Self-Help, to inform him of the organization's activities and its recent award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rep. Martinez is a member of a House oversight committee chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a conservative Republican who is determined to eliminate the NEA. In a recent hearing on the agency, Congressman Martinez spoke eloquently about the cultural vitality of Self-Help and the NEA's support of this organization. His support speaks to the power and legacy of Self-Help's mission of making art available to all in our society. A mission that's undervalued.
As an arts advocate, too often I have to speak against this growing attitude: Art that can't make it in the marketplace is art that's not worthy of support. What is frightful about this attitude is the flattening of the meaning of art and many other elements of our lives to simple economics. Sister Karen's life is an inspirational reminder that we must work against the reduction of the arts, the humanities and education to bottom-line measurements, that the work of service is about articulating the humanitarian gains these activities bring to our lives.
The many people who have entered Self-Help's doors and made art are part of a community--not only through our association with Sister Karen, but through the associative act of creating. It's a community of actions that create colors, ideas and images for the everyday aims of compassion and justice, which is also about the everyday life of Sister Karen and Self-Help Graphics.
!Que viva Sister Karen and Self-Help Graphics.