In this city on wheels, this city of wheels, an image has to be large and vivid and striking to make an impression. For more than three decades, the light, the climate, the speed, the invitation of long blank walls have made Los Angeles one vast plein-air gallery, the mural capital of the world, exterior-decorated by artists like Kent Twitchell, Willie Herron, Glenna Avila, Leo Politi — and Judy Baca.
Baca leads brush-first, blending aesthetics and politics, first as the mother of the city's original community mural project, Neighborhood Pride, and now as founder of the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC. She supports its programs in part with commissions from works like her new murals of Robert F. Kennedy in the school complex set to open next month on the grounds of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
Baca's biggest work splashes along more than half a mile of the Tujunga Wash: the landmark Great Wall of Los Angeles, a fauve-flavored social history of the region begun by Baca and a crew of young people in the 1970s. Like them, that mural is middle-aged now. It is in need of a facelift and is therefore emblematic of hundreds of other artworks that the mural capital of the world has allowed to deteriorate, whether from defacement by taggers or official neglect. Baca has made it her life's mission to paint and rage against the dying of the art form in the city that brought it so remarkably to light.
You lived in Watts as a little girl — do you remember seeing the Watts Towers?
I was pondering, what was the first piece of art I saw besides religious art? The first piece of art I saw was Simon Rodia, building them.
And when did you first create art?
When I went into kindergarten, the school didn't allow kids to speak Spanish. I had an understanding of English but I didn't speak it so well, so my teacher set me up with a little easel and bright shiny tin cans of tempera paint. This wonderful teacher, whose name I can't remember, probably set the course of my life.
Where did you take it from there?
[In Catholic high school] I started taking all the art classes they had. People would send me their notebooks and, with Bic pens, I would do these elaborate drawings of dream boys. I drew naked nuns on the blackboard; I got in trouble for that. It was how I got recognition. I think the art saved me.
I really wanted to go to college and into the arts. My mother said, do something that'll make a difference. You can sue somebody if you're a lawyer. So the question was, how could I be in the arts and have it matter? I became very passionate about working with youth. I started to understand how people were able to transform life with education. I was watching my cousins, my friends, in trouble, going to prison, drug abuse, and I thought, I can do something. I can help.
And you thought teaching would be the way to help.
I came out of a movement of social justice. I started in a teachers program [at Cal State Northridge], and I was incredibly disappointed. I was student teaching at Van Nuys Junior High School and this boy made this amazing, faceted bird drawing. I said, "Julio, this is magnificent." I came back next week and in place of that bird was a little Hallmark dove. I said, "What happened?" He said the teacher said it wasn't right. I looked around the classroom and there were these Hallmark birds the [teacher] had drawn. I said, I can't do this. It's going to ruin me. So I quit.
And when you taught at your old high school, you got fired for what might be called activist teaching.
At that point I lose my job and I think I've lost my mind because I am so in love with doing this work. The [city is hiring] underemployed and overeducated artists. That would be me.
So I join this group of artists, I'm out in East L.A., teaching art, and I walk through a gantlet of adolescent males to get to my classes. Pretty soon, it was, hey, art lady, show us your art. I said I'll show you mine if you show me yours. I started [a] group. On the Hollenbeck band shell, we painted the giant grandmother, "Mi Abuelita." I was painting the image of my grandmother. I was trying to get to the central core of grandmothers within Latino culture. It was there for years before it was destroyed by the rec and parks department by accident.
How do these "accidents" happen?
Stupidity. We're in the most destructive time ever in the history of murals in L.A.
My sense is that people living in what's been called the mural capital of the world don't appreciate them.
That's not true.