Judith F. Baca steps close enough to feel the massive mural she calls "Triumph of the Hearts," a 10-by-30-foot canvas rendered in colors as vivid as her red shoes and matching shirt. The tips of her fingers delicately rub the surface of the canvas, which is being treated for mold damage.
"Touch it," invites Baca, L.A.'s pioneering Latina muralist, relishing the sheer sensuality of her large-scale medium. "Feel the stiffness of this section. It's hard to imagine it's living fiber."
The damaged canvas feels dry and rough, compared to the smooth, supple texture of another panel adjacent to it. The "very cool thing" about organic materials, explains Baca, is that "they have memory and they'll go back to the way they were woven."
The panels are part of Baca's resilient, epic mural project, "World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear."
The work, now eight panels in all, was conceived at the end of the Cold War by this activist painter who got her start in East L.A., grooming gangsters and taggers as her comrades in art. She produced the first four sections, then took the movable mural on the road, gathering new panels from artists in other countries who added their perceptions of peace.
The project, set up temporarily in an old aircraft hangar, has become a Baca saga. It appeared at a festival of the midnight sun north of Helsinki. It was viewed by 150,000 people in Moscow's Gorky Park during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was blown down by gale winds in Monterey, Calif., a site ironically chosen as a safe haven for a quarreling trio of muralists from the Middle East.
And it almost landed its creator in jail on the eve of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1991, Baca arrived in the capital for the Smithsonian show with a group of her art students, only to discover that the work had been stored on a damp floor like carpet, one panel atop the other. So she and her young helpers instantly started lifting and hanging the sections to avoid damage.
When the gallery's staff told the group to vamoose at closing time, Baca refused. As she recounts the confrontation now with a chuckle, her loyal students arrayed themselves between her and the security guards who threatened to arrest her.
"Go ahead," Baca shot back. "It'll be on the front page of the paper tomorrow."
The guards backed down.
Baca likes to call herself a "cultural attack dog," but she is also a cultural earth mother. In her year-after-year nurturing of the "World Wall," she has exhibited the mix of unflinching advocacy, wily politics and artistic devotion that marks her 30-year career, geared increasingly toward elevating her barrio art to a global stage.
"Muralism is the only art form that was so identified with communities of color [in the United States] that it came to be considered lower-class," says the bespectacled Baca. "But in reality, muralism is a very noble art form because it talks about civic space as an amenity to our lives. We require civic spaces to come together, and we should be inspired by those spaces to become better citizens."
Baca, who turns 55 next month, has been at the heart of the mural movement in Los Angeles since 1974, when she was put in charge of the city's first mural program. Two years later, she co-founded SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, a nonprofit group designed to create, catalog and conserve public art projects, large and small. Its mission: dot the landscape with tangible monuments to previously invisible communities.
Baca remains artistic director of the Venice-based agency, which has an annual budget of $750,000 and hundreds of works to its credit. SPARC has inventoried more than 1,000 city murals, assigning priorities for repairs and creating a database with artist name, location and date of each work. The agency has also amassed one of the world's largest collections of mural photographs, with 30,000 slides.
But Baca and SPARC are probably best known for "The Great Wall of Los Angeles," a panoramic painting on the concrete walls of the Tujunga Wash, a drainage canal in the San Fernando Valley. Completed during five summers between 1974 and 1984, the half-mile-long work is billed as the world's longest mural, depicting the history of California's ethnic groups from the state's indigenous origins to the 1950s.
Baca calls it "the largest monument to interracial harmony in America."
SPARC has recently started to restore the work, damaged by time and the elements. And it plans to extend the project into the new millennium, with new images for the missing decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. One idea submitted in response to the agency's request for public input: an Aztec warrior wearing a flowing headdress and wielding a leaf blower.