When the topic turned to Self Help Graphics, East L.A.'s revered but perennially struggling cultural center, it seemed as if nobody talked about creating art. For years, the talk had been all about survival -- meager budgets, debilitating debt, mass board resignations and Sisyphean drives for new funds.
But there's a feisty, chain-smoking ghost who inhabits the agency's decrepit building on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and who doesn't get bogged down in the bottom line. She's a can-do ghost, and you can almost envision her this week standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the master printer looking over a vibrant new silk screen or huddled with the curator picking pieces to hang on the rich blue walls of the aptly named Otra Vez Gallery, which means Once Again.
She is the late Sister Karen Boccalero, the Franciscan nun who founded Self Help in a garage 35 years ago and who lives on as the guiding light of this remarkable landmark that nurtured some of L.A.'s most successful Chicano artists.
Wrapped in a colorful mosaic, the Self Help building stands as a cultural pillar of the neighborhood, used for exhibitions, concerts, poetry readings, political gatherings, \o7quinceaneras\f7 and even community meetings. It has the gallery, print shop and a gift store on the ground floor, an auditorium upstairs.
Today, the organization is marking the 10th anniversary of her death with an exhibition titled "Flowers From Carmen's Garden," mixing new pieces created by artists in her memory with a selection of silk screens produced at Self Help's renowned print shop during her 25-year tenure.
The tribute starts at 4 p.m. with an outdoor Mass officiated by Father Gregory Boyle. On Sunday, the center will hold its annual print fair, which draws art lovers from near and far.
When I visited Self Help this week, co-curators Christina Ochoa and Alex Alferov were starting to hang the selected pieces, which were leaning against the gallery walls, waiting to give silent testimony to Boccalero's accomplishments.
Ochoa and Alferov are both former Self Help staffers, among the many the agency could no longer afford to pay. But both returned this month as volunteers to help with the tribute. Surrounded by the art she inspired, they seemed to summon her spirit as a reason to carry on.
"I'm hoping this show will bring a lot of people back," said Alferov, who served as exhibition print program director from 1987 to 2000. "We need to remind people this is an enormous vault of treasures."
Every piece seemed to spark a memory in the bearded, Belgrade-born artist. "Look at this one," he urged, scurrying like an animated conductor from one print to another -- "The Pope of Broadway" by Eloy Torres, "Frutas & Verduras" by Frank Romero and "The Dressing Table" by Patssi Valdez.
The work represents "the best example of immigration," said Alferov, whose family left Yugoslavia to escape communism. At Self Help, artists put their own experiences to work in an Anglo environment and created "another language, another way of being expressive."
It was that new expression Boccalero worked to foster at a time when Chicano art was largely unrecognized. Even after the artists she mentored became famous, she remained artistically democratic. At her print shop, the big names got in line next to the nobodys.
"She gave every artist, no matter their proficiency, the same opportunity," Alferov said.
Critics knock Self Help as an outdated product of the Chicano Movement, allegedly stagnated in the art of identity politics. Some younger artists have avoided the place because they chafe at what they consider those aesthetic confines.
But maybe it's the critics who need to open their minds and reconsider their calcified perceptions. Judging from the artwork on display today, the only standard seems to be the variety of styles and themes. Artist Omar Ramirez was one of those young artists who felt Self Help was "not for us." Ideologies aside, he was trained as a painter and muralist, not a silk screener.
But there he was this week, bent over a table at Self Help, signing a fresh set of prints depicting a forbidding urban landscape titled "Luci in the Sky," a piece that suggested its pro-immigrant protest not with slogans but with troubling shadows in a people-less cityscape.
"There's a resurgence in printmaking as an accessible way of getting your work out," said Ramirez, 36. "Not a lot of universities teach that."
Oh, by the way, Ramirez is now one of the newer members of the Self Help board of directors. The place wasn't so forbidding after all. "It took time to get here," he said.
Upstairs in a second-story office, we talked about budgets and the plan to save the organization. Attorney and art collector Armando Duron serves as board president, taking charge in October 2005 as the agency was falling apart.
That summer, Self Help suddenly closed its doors because it couldn't pay its insurance bill. It quickly reopened under community protest, then most of the old board members resigned.