Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

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As you head north on San Pablo Avenue from El Cerrito and cross into Richmond, the first thing you see is an enormous “Richmond” painted on the freeway overpass. If you then look to the right, you see a mural depicting a street scene of the storefronts that were there before the freeway was built, but inhabited by the indigenous people that originally settled in the area. It was one of the first things I saw when I first moved to Richmond in 2006. Then there was another one, this time in Pinole, a town just to the north of Richmond. It was a different subject matter, but a similar style. It made me look closely at the artist credit, who turned out to be the same person: John Wehrle. It turns out, John and his wife, Susan, live two doors down from me. When I first met him, and found out that he was the artist, it was one of those “that’s you?” moments. Another connection that I had to John, obliquely, is that the mural he painted for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles on the side of Interstate 5, I would drive by at least a couple times a month when I lived in Southern California.

John Wehrle was born in San Antonio, Texas and spent his formative years all over the state. He received his B.Aa from Texas Tech in 1964 and his MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Pratt Institute in 1969. In 1966, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the US Army and was chosen to be the leader of the first combat artist team to be sent to cover the war in Vietnam.Following graduate school, John headed West where he taught printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in Oakland.

Currently John lives and works in Richmond, CA.

Ray Welter (RW): How did you get started in art? Did you start with murals?

John Wehrle (JW) : No, I was teaching at CCAC and decided I wanted to do art instead of teach art. I ended up going to Montana and built a log cabin to work. Met a lady and ended up back here and got hired under the CETA program [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] at the DeYoung in ’74. And so the first two murals I did were on the outside wall of the DeYoung Museum. I was getting a salary and the museum had material money. They actually wanted to do murals with the Mission muralists and the Mission muralists wanted to stay in the Mission, they didn’t want to come to the museum.  That was kind of how I got started, and I had actually done a swing through LA, so I had seen some of the work that the LA Fine Arts bought and done. So that was sort of in my mind when I came back and I was hired. So I asked for money to do a mural and they gave it to me! So I did two murals there. So that was how I started. It was kind of a modern day WPA program.

RW: So you started right with murals. Is that a normal thing for muralists? I would think that muralists would start with traditional painting or drawing.

JW: Well I was actually teaching printmaking and I was doing more photography and film. It was actually being in Montana that got me back into painting because I couldn’t get a darkroom to work (laughs). There was no running water, it was 30 below, so it wasn’t working very well (laughs). So Bonnie, whose grandfather homesteaded the land, had gone off and left a bunch of acrylics that her kids were using. So,  in the middle of the winter, snowed in, it was like “Wow, this is really cool!” But there was a feeling that painting was dead, so that was what kind of led me into it. But you know, in a way, I didn’t even think of it as murals, it was just like wall painting.

RW: Do you introduce any kind of politics into your work?

JW: I don’t come from a political stance, other than in a larger sense. You know, I’m not Latino, I’m not a minority, I don’t have that axe to grind. But I really like the idea that you can say whatever you want to say without having to go through a curator.

RW: Was it different working then than now?

JW: There was a certain freedom. If you could get someone to give you a wall, you could do whatever you wanted to do. There was a lot more recognition in those days even though they still haven’t ended up in the museum (laughs). They’re a little too big to get in there. The 70’s were a time of experimentation. When I was painting the one at the DeYoung, Sue, the curator there, was leading some Russians around, and motioned for me to come over because they wanted to ask me some questions. So “Russian, Russian, Russian, Chuck Close, Russian, Russian.” She translated “They want to know if your work is influenced by Chuck Close.” So I thought, “Yeah sure, why not?” So murals became kind of a convenient label because lots of people were doing a lot of large scale work on walls.

RW: I read a lot of historical context in your work. Since you don’t have a political motivation behind your work, where do you get your ideas?

JW: Well the one at the DeYoung, with the animals on the freeway, was really a reaction to coming back to an urban setting from a rural setting. So it’s the migration of animals across an abandoned freeway, so it’s more of a future painting than a history painting, or an alternate reality painting. Basically, there’s a narrative to a lot of them, or I construct a narrative in my head.

The one in Venice was based on the idea that following periods of great social change, there’s tendency to fall back on the known. So I was working with the myth of the fall of Icarus, and using the astronaut as the modern day Icarus, set in LA in an abandoned drive in. It’s a pretty complex source, like writing a novel or making a film. They’re not political in the overt sense, but they’re trying to capture a zeitgeist. With a lot of the stuff I’ve done in Richmond, it’s kind of evolved. People want to see the history, but I try to put it in a narrative that is interesting to me. My politics tend to veer towards the left and anarchy (laughs), but I try to make my statements original and meaningful to me.

RW: Tell me about your process. Do you have assistants? How do you set up the piece?

JW: It depends. I actually like to do as much of it as I can solo, but I do hire people to work for me. The more collaborative pieces I’ve done, I’ve worked with other artists where one of us comes up with the idea, and bounce ideas off one another. But generally, it’s my job and I hire somebody to help me. These days, I use a grid system with chalk lines. There was a period where I was doing projection, but that becomes pretty problematic because you’re out at 3 in the morning. Things are pretty planned out. I start out with a scale drawing as I think site-specific – I figure out where the piece is going to be, what kind of subject, etc.

RW: So you have the dimension of what you are going to be working with already?

JW: Yeah. Only occasionally have I strayed from that.

RW: How did you get the commission for the 1984 Olympic mural?

JW:  I had done a couple of murals in LA, and Alonzo Davis, an African American artist, ran a gallery called the Brockman Gallery, which was the first serious African American gallery in LA. When the Olympics were being organized, the LA Times was going to fund the entire arts program to go along with it. Alonzo figure if he asked for $25,000 to paint a mural they’d laugh, but if he asked for $250,000 to do 10 murals along the way to the Olympic venues, it might happen. And that’s what happened. So he put the program together. He picked the artists. All of the artists, except for me, were working and living in LA. So they were trying to fill out the program, and one of my murals in Venice was pretty well known at the time. I don’t remember if they went to the gallery that was representing me at the time or directly to me, but they contacted me and wanted me to do a mural for the Olympics. I was living here by still showing work in LA at the time, but I was made a default Angeleno for the time being. It was a really wonderful time because it was all these artists pursuing their own goals on different corners. I still think of everybody I worked with as a friend.

RW: How do you see the future of mural art?

JW: There have been several articles about the death of murals in LA, which is a result of them getting tagged repeatedly. It didn’t use to be an issue. With the Olympic murals, it wasn’t until the mid 90’s when they were first tagged. It was up for 10 years before anything happened. Murals have sort of morphed into public art on one level, and I think of what I do now more as public art than murals these days. Then you get into different materials. Like I’ve done ceramic tile works, and that mitigates the problem (of graffiti). 

Probably, if I continue to do work outdoors, in some place where I thought that that would be an issue, tile would be the way I would go. I would look at it as more of a public art piece still thinking in the same terms of content or narrative that I do, but with materials that would withstand the abuse more easily. 

Whether digital printing is the future, I don’t know.  When I first started, I went and talked to the billboard companies and saw how they did it. These guys were union painters, mostly in the shop. But in the 70’s, there were these big billboards in San Francisco that they couldn’t take down, so you’d be driving through the city and you’d look up and see these guys painting these billboards. It was wonderful. And as technology progressed, you sort of feel like the last of the blacksmiths. And in a way, the mural movement arose both from that and in opposition to it.

An artist is not trying to sell you anything. Here’s an image that’s just trying to show you something, and that’s really where I came from with a more personal statement as an artist. The hard part as an artist is: Where are you going to get the money to do your own digital billboards?

In a way I think in a sense we are all prisoners of our time and our education. At my age, if someone gave me a digital billboard and said you can do anything you want, ehh, well, I could maybe do something!

Interview by Ray Welter 

Source -

"Levi Ponce is an artist from the San Fernando Valley.  He has a Bachelor's Degree in Art (concentrating in animation) from California State University, Northridge.  His murals are community projects that bring together artists, business owners, and local youth.  Together they transform defaced city walls into works of art that neighborhoods take pride in having on their streets.  On canvas his work has been exhibited at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum, private galleries, and California State University, Northridge.  For public art Levi has been featured on the front page of The Daily News, Fox 11's Good Day LA, CNN, Univision 34, Vans Art, KPFK 90.7FM, La Opinion, KCET, Agencia Efe, and various other publications, websites and blogs.  Currently, Levi works as a painter and animator."



Photo: © Ian Robertson-Salt, 2013


Click here for our video interview with Levi!


Kelly “Risk” Graval


 In a career spanning 30 years, RISK has impacted the evolution of graffiti as an art form in Los Angeles and worldwide. RISK gained major notoriety for his unique style and pushed the limits of graffiti further than any writer in L.A. had before: He was one of the first writers in Southern California to paint freight trains, and he pioneered writing on “heavens,” or freeway overpasses. At the peak of his career he took graffiti from the streets and into the gallery with the launch of the Third rail series of art shows, and later parlayed the name into the first authentic line of graffiti inspired clothing.


Before he’d ever heard of graffiti, RISK was unconsciously writing it. As a kid, he filled sketchbook after sketchbook with images, not just of people and things but of letters too. He even had spray paint in his hand before ever applying it to a wall, using it to paint BMX bikes. “Even back then I think I was addicted to spray paint,” he recalls. “I just loved painting with it.”


 In 1983, his family moved to Los Angeles, and 16-year-old RISK enrolled at University High School on the city’s west side. Risk made the high school his personal canvas, tagging his name everywhere during the day and returning at night to do pieces. He turned some of his buddies onto graffiti and started a crew, Prime Crime Artists, with them. In 1985, RISK was painting in mid-city when RIVAL approached him and asked if he wanted to start a crew. Just like that, West Coast Artists (WCA) was born. One night, RISK and fellow writers WISK, MEC and SER were sitting on an overpass above the Pasadena Freeway just north of downtown L.A. when RISK decided to hit one of the signs hanging over the freeway. To get to the sign, he had to shimmy across a piece of wood supported by two cables. His friends, scared for his life, begged him to come back to the overpass. RISK didn’t listen, and managed to get his name up. The other writers were in awe, and they took the idea and ran with it.


The next phase of RISK’s career came out of the Hollywood lifestyle he was living. He partied with rock stars, and he found himself being asked by some of them to get involved in Hollywood projects. His first was a photo shoot for Hot Rod magazine, and after the issue hit newsstands, he started getting more recognition as an artist outside the graffiti world. RISK continued to work on movie and music video sets, including the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and videos for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Bad Religion and Michael Jackson.


In 1988, RISK went to New York and painted subway cars, making him the first L.A. writer to have his work run, and probably the last (in 1989, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority mandated that all subway cars be free of graffiti before they ran). The following year, RISK and SLICK were invited to travel to the U.K. to represent the U.S. at the Bridlington Street Art Competition. They won the competition and took home a silver cup and silver spray can as trophies.


Back in L.A., RISK was determined to keep pushing the boundaries of graffiti, and he and fellow WCA writers embarked on a series of tours: “Bum Rush,” an all-out bombing effort in the San Francisco Bay area; “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a quest on which they hit everything from Elvis Presley’s limo to private planes; and “Hitting Metal,” a tour aimed at vehicles, street signs, heavens and any other metal objects they could find.


Meanwhile, RISK had started putting his graffiti on canvases. Along with DANTE and SLICK, he created Third Rail, a series of gallery shows. Knowing that many of the people at the shows couldn’t afford his canvases, RISK started making T-shirts to sell. RISK turned Third Rail into a successful clothing brand, with RISK winning designer of the year awards and sponsoring celebrities like Kid Rock. While other clothing companies tried to co-opt graffiti images to present themselves as streetwear, Third rail prospered from its authenticity.


Today, Risk is still involved with graffiti, surrounding himself with writers and supporting them in their art. WCA evolved into other crews, first CBS and then AWR and MSK, and both are proud to have him as a member. “I’m probably one of the only writers who’ve come full-circle with generations,” RISK says, “to see what I started go where it went and then be a part of it.”


Timeline of “RISK”




o Kelly Graval begins writing “SURF” at his school and throughout his neighborhood.




o Kelly Graval begins writing “RISK” and launches his graffiti career.


o RISK paints illegal murals around the City of Los Angeles.


o RISK travels to New York to explore the ancestory of graffiti.




o Risk breaks into University High School and paints murals throughout the halls, one consisting of a wave traveling from upstairs to downstairs.


o RISK creates “Locker Rockers”, a series of painted school lockers.




o RISK wins National Scholastics Art Award, receives scholarship to Pasadena Art Center.




o RISK paints mural which is featured on cover of January 1986 issue of Hot Rod Magazine.




o RISK is featured in “Spray Can Art” book, his first graffiti publication. o RISK is featured artist in each issue of “Ghetto Art Magazine”, which later became “Can Control Magazine”.




o RISK travels to New York and paints last series of running “bombed” subway trains.


o RISK is the first “West Coast” based graffiti artist to be part of the New York Graffiti scene.


o RISK launches legendary “Bum Rush Tour” where he and fellow writers put Los Angeles on the graffiti map. o RISK paints 4th Annual MTV Music Awards set.




o After photos from the “Bum Rush Tour” appear in the historical “International Graffiti Times”, RISK. Along with fellow artist, “Slick” are chosen to represent the United States and compete in the World Graffiti contest held in England. RISK and Slick win 1st place in the competition.


o RISK paints MTV Comedy at the Improv set.




      o RISK attends U.S.C. School of Fine Arts.




o RISK paints mural at the University of Southern California. The Daily Trojan features the mural in their newspaper and later U.S.C. makes poster of mural, which is distributed to high schools across the United States.




o RISK launches “Third Rail Clothing”, the clothing industries first “street art” clothing company, which he operated for nearly 15 years.




o RISK is featured artist in “Fat Cap Magazine”, Oslo, Norway edition.


o RISK is featured artist in the “Los Angeles Reader”.


o Participates in “Gallery X” show and in “Word From The Underground: Art Is A Crime” show in Los Angeles, California.


o RISK is featured in a group show with Sandow Birk, Robbie Conal, and Coax.


o The Los Angeles Times features RISK and Robbie Conal in an article.




o RISK is featured artist in “12 once Prophet” magazine, as well as numerous graffiti magazines.




o RISK is cast for a graffiti movie “Walls of Fame”, he is the only Los Angeles graffiti artist to be characterized in movie with New York TATS crew members, “Vucan”, “Bio”, and “Lase”.




o RISK works on several murals around Los Angeles.


o RISK is hired as the one of the set designers and artist for Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make me Feel” music video.




o RISK continues to work in the entertainment industry painting for various movies, commercials, music videos and magazines including clients such as Budweiser, Playboy, MTV, Warner Bros. and many others.


1998 – 2003


o RISK operates “Third Rail Clothing”, managing the operation, design, distribution and marketing of the high successful clothing brand.


O RISK spends time travelling abroad painting and studying graffiti in various regions around the world, including Germany, Switzerland, Japan, China, Korea and others,




o RISK is featured in “Enamelized”, graffiti art book. 2005


o RISK is most prevalent artist in the book, “The History of Los Angeles Graffiti”.




o RISK sells “Third Rail Clothing” and decides to focus his ambitions toward gallery and studio work.




 o RISK travels to Barcelona Spain, as a featured artist in the “Seventh Letter” exhibit held at the “Bread and Butter Show”.


 O RISK is featured artist in the ”Letters First Barcelona Spain” book published as retrospective.


O RISK participates in “Hooray for Humans” show with fellow artists Shepard Fairey, Joe King, along with many others.


O RISK is special guest artist for the Los Angeles “Red Bull’s West Coast Graffiti Party”


O RISK is featured in “Los Angeles Graffiti” book.


O RISK is featured in “Graffiti L.A. Street Styles and Art” book.


O RISK travels to the Philippines and Hong Kong to paint for “Tribal” exhibition, which is featured in the “Beyond the Four” DVD.




o RISK debuts “Twenty-six”, his first Los Angeles Solo exhibit at Track 16 Gallery at the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, California.


O RISK participates in the “IRONLAK Paint Live” exhibit at the Mid City Gallery in Los Angeles.


O RISK paints live at “King’s Destroy” DVD release at 33Third, a Los Angeles based paint store.


O RISK travels to Korea for the “Seventh Letter” Korea Tour for the R-16 World Urban Street Competition, where he is featured artist painting in an exhibition at the Olympic Arena in South Korea.


O RISK attends Art Basel Miami and paints mural with various “Seventh Letter” artists including.


o RISK travels to Barcelona, Spain and paints various murals around the city.




o RISK paints “live” in Downtown San Diego at the “Gaslamp Artist Showcase”.


o RISK participates in “Sinless Design Art and Lifestyle” exhibit, a group show in Long Beach, California.


o RISK is featured artist for an interview in “Rime Magazine” and appears as an App in iTunes.


o RISK is featured artist in the March issue of “Juxtapoz Magazine” in a 14 page retrospective on the artist and his solo show.

Here at MCLA, we are often asked who the mysterious woman from Kent Twitchell’s 7th Street Altarpiece mural is, and why she was chosen by Kent. Lita Albuquerque is a painter, sculptor, environmental and installation artists, who resides in Los Angeles. Her career began in the early 1970’s, and she’s been making art ever since. In addition to being an artist, she’s also an educator; working as at the Fine Art Graduate Program at Art Center College of Design, for last 22 years. Left: Lita Albuquerque, photo © Ian Robertson-Salt, 2012 Right: "Spine of the Earth, 2012" installation, 

IRW: Hello, here we are today at Oscar Magallanes’s studio. He is one of our up and coming artists in Los Angeles and we’ve been observing him not only in the artworks that he has been exhibiting in different galleries in Los Angeles but also the murals that he has painted in Los Angeles. Hi Oscar, how are you?


OM: Hello. Good, how are you doing?


IRW: Good, could you tell us your name and whether you are from L.A. – a little bit about your background.


OM: Sure, Yeah. My name is Oscar Magallanes and I was actually born and raised – well I was born in Duarte, not far from L.A. - and raised in Azusa. So I actually grew up in a Azusa neighborhood out there in the barrio and for the past about fifteen or sixteen years I think I have been living in Pomona. For the past three years, almost three years, I’ve had my studio in Lincoln Heights but I’ve been exhibiting my work in Los Angeles for – pretty much since about 2003, because I was included in one of the “Day of the Dead” shows at Self-Help Graphics. So from that came my inclusion in “Trece,” where I got to meet a lot of the L.A. artists. So that was really my introduction into the L.A. art world and I haven’t really stopped showing in L.A. since then.


IRW: How did you find yourself in the art world? How did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?


OM: I think, I didn’t really have a choice. For as long as I can remember, when people asked me what I wanted to do or what I was going to be when I grew up, I would always tell them I was going to be a famous artist and I think that’s – I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing you know, but I just knew that I was going to be doing my artwork. I just never really had a doubt that that’s what I was going to do. Life doesn’t always come out the way you think, you know, as far as the path you take but it’s important to continue moving forward towards your goals. So I always thought that’s what I was going to do and here I am.


IRW: Did you formally study art or…?


OM: No, I’m self-taught. I actually studied design – graphic design. Just a little even at that but I did graphic design work for about fifteen or sixteen years. I still do a little bit of it but for the most part for past three years I’ve just been living off my art.


IRW: Your artwork is so like a perfectionist. Every detail in your artwork is incredibly concise.


OM: Yeah, it comes from the years of design. Wanting to make sure that everything is perfect but it’s interesting. I would see a lot of my friends and fellow artists who would spend ten to fifteen hours a day painting and I would think I’m never going to catch up with these guys. You know, but I would spend ten to fifteen hours on the computer sometimes and doing this design work and you know doing these sketches for logos and things and that’s when I said, ‘wait a minute. This is what I’ve perfected.’ I’ve gotten these skills and I’ve merged that with my fine art and that hands to the style that I’m known for.


IRW: Where do you draw your inspiration from? How did you get inspired to do what you do? I know that you said you knew from the beginning that you wanted to be an artist but was it somewhere/something in particular? An artist? Your parents? A friend? A piece of art that you saw?


OM: It honestly came from me being able to claim art as it being mine. I would say I was kind of the middle child of society. I came from a really bad poor neighborhood but my father worked very hard to put me into private school. So then in the private school I was this poor Mexican, you know, where I was always picked on. I was always looked down upon and so when these kids played sports I would never get picked or you know I was just kind of ostracized. So when I was sitting there on my own I would draw. After a while I became fairly good at it and that was the way I was able to claim some kind of dignity; to say, ‘this is what I do. This is what I do well.’ You know, while they were all playing little league or doing something like that, I had to go mow lawns and do things of that sort so the family could just get by and make ends meet. So yeah, it was rough but from that came a different way of seeing society where you can see through the cracks and you could see what was being taught in the history books wasn’t necessarily what…


IRW: What happened.


OM: That didn’t fit with my reality. So, even though it was tough it made me tougher because I was able to understand a lot of different things then that from came a lot of passion that I would put into my artwork. So it was a long road but…


IRW: It actually made you very creative and I think that’s a wonderful thing about our experiences in life. That whatever has happened to us in our childhood had affected us for the future and who we become.  By talking to different artists in L.A., there is so much creativity that comes from issues like what you’re describing, particularly in our Latino community.  Many of us had to deal with issues that we don’t easily disclose to others. It’s wonderful that you were able to express what you felt in school in a creative/healing manner. Here we are, in your studio, experiencing your great art, which takes me to your murals. Before we go into that, can you describe yourself in five words? If you were to define yourself, how would you in five words?


OM: in five words…


IRW: yeah haha. I know its difficult.


OM: I think I can encompass it in probably two. I would just say I’m a Chicano artist. The only other thing that’s important besides that is being a father.


IRW: Oh you’re a dad? Wonderful.


OM: Yes, this is my daughter right here.


IRW: Aww, how old is she?


OM: Well, she’s thirteen now, but there she was I think three years old when – from the photo that I took this from.


IRW: How old is she?


OM: She’s thirteen now. I was young when she was born.


IRW: You were a baby. Haha.


OM: I was twenty-one.


IRW: Wow, how wonderful.


OM: Yeah, I am actually glad because I can’t imagine trying to keep up with…


IRW: oh yeah the connection is so wonderful.


OM: yeah and there isn’t a big generation gap.


IRW: yeah that’s pretty wonderful, the closeness. So, what has been the best response you’ve seen to your artwork when you are showing your artwork?


OM: Oh wow. Honestly, there is a few experiences where I’ve had people moved to tears and I was really surprised. You know, this is just what I do so – I don’t have that outside lens sometimes. That filter that other people see the artwork through. I’ve had some people- because it is political, some people get upset but there has been a few people that have said it’s so absolutely beautiful and they’ve cried. I did this large map of the Middle East and I called it the Trillion Dollar Landscape but it was done shortly after 9/11 and after we went into Iraq. There was a lot of sentiment and a lot of people from our communities end up knowing someone who has gone into the military, not necessarily because that’s what they wanted but there are very few opportunities at times so that’s- the military is one of them. A viewer, a mother whose son was in Iraq, who just said “thank you” and she was moved to tears just from seeing that. It was very simple. It was just a map of the middle east but the idea was that often times we are very uneducated and we’ll go in and bomb in these places that we really know very little about. Where we send our brothers and sisters and children off to die and we don’t fully understand why.


IRW: Well this is not necessarily part of what we are doing here but today is September 11th.


OM: Right, right.


IRW: and I suffered two September 11th  I had to leave my country in 1973 because the 9/11 coup d’état. That’s the reason why I am here and then the second one that you know about. Today has been a very difficult day for me dealing with everybody remembering what happened here on 9/11 and here I am, I had my own 9/11 that changed my perspective, my life, and my whole family, my whole community, many of my friends were killed, many of my friends disappeared. Many of my friends are in exile all over the world and that day, 9/11/73, our lives as we knew them ceased to exist. So, I understand. If today someone were to show me a Chilean flag I probably would be crying. So that map, I totally understand what that woman felt, you know?



OM: Right. It’s really sad that the U.S. is involved in a lot of these things yeah that’s – what happened in Chile on September 11th, a lot of people are just not aware of it and the U.S. involvement in it.


IRW: Right, exactly. Absolutely. It was because of politics and because I grew up very politically involved why I had to leave my country (Chile). This takes me to public art and to the murals you have painted. We can’t separate who we are and how we are affected by and what’s happening in our world to what you convey on a mural. So talk to me a little bit about the mural that you did, “El Movimiento”. And you painted another one?


OM: the only mural I have right now standing is the “El Movimiento” which is a one hundred foot long mural that was done for the L.A. County Arts Commission and when they came to me – the way the LA County Arts Commission works is they separate one percent of any county project for art and they had so many left over from a project – no I believe they had some money left over from something else and at the end of the year. So they were going to put in a parking lot next to the Florence Library and from there, there was that one percent where they wanted to do a mural. So it was very very last minute. From when they called me up to let me know about the opportunity to when it had to be done, it was I want to say a month, which is pretty crazy because there is a big process.


IRW: From the time that the process began until you ended?


OM: Yeah, but then it got extended a little bit into the year so they were able to get an extension.


IRW: For one hundred feet long?


OM: For one hundred feet long and I had three days to paint it. So yeah, it was pretty crazy. The mural itself was in homage to a lot of different things. There was a lot of murals in my neighborhood when I was growing up which unfortunately are no longer there and they had a lot of the Chicano-Latino-Mexicano motifs and they were very colorful. So that was the first artwork that I ever saw and I didn’t set foot into a museum or gallery until I was fifteen years old. I had to get kicked out of school and admitted into the Herbert Rymen Program and they’re the ones who actually took me to the museums. So that was really the first art that I saw. So in this mural I knew that it was going into an [African-American] and Latino community, a lot more Latino now because the demographics have changed a lot in the past ten years but I did want to pay homage to that in so many different ways. There’s a lot to it. It’s a little more abstract. Its still got the graphic feel to it but its based on the celestial movements and using that as a metaphor for the movement of the day amongst people because the area where it is, it’s a pretty major hub where there is, I want to say, within two city blocks, there are eleven bus stops and then there’s the blue line that stops just on the other side of the street. So it’s a very busy neighborhood where people commute to and from work. So I wanted to have that mural be a nice kind of greeting in the morning and then something to welcome them home at night also. So it’s got the blues going into the warm colors of day and then going back into the cold colors.


IRW: well its really beautiful. So it was a good experience for you?


OM: Oh yeah it was great.


IRW: you have like in your plans – in your future plans to create another mural?


OM: Yes, definitely and I want to actually work a lot with not just murals but public art. So moving into more permanent – I did a little bit of it in this where I put the metal sculptures in it but I want to do larger things.


IRW: oh that’s right because yours is 3D. You have that round part where the movement is.


OM: Yeah I have the two arches with the poems.


IRW: Right, right. That’s wonderful. Do you have a future project that you’re working on now?


OM: Not yet. The way that it works – once you get some it a little difficult to get another one immediately or at least not in the same district.


IRW: you need to wait at least a year, as I understand it, to be able to apply again for a public project…


OM: Yeah its funny the way that works. So I’m working on – I’m probably doing a couple private ones. Private larger murals but we’ll see. That’s the life of an artist. You seek out project but yeah I would love to do some larger – something with a larger budget so I could incorporate some of the metal work and different things of that sort.


IRW: So who would you say are your mentors? The people that guided you not necessarily in the arts but they had kind of mentored you.


OM: There were a few people. As I mentioned when I was fifteen I got kicked out of school, I was a bad kid back then but, you know - I couldn’t get into an art class, you know, the classes seemed remedial. It was just funny so I started rebelling, just doing bad things but luckily when I was – well first of all actually, my parents helped me a lot.


IRW: they supported you as an artist because as you know, many parents don’t...


OM: well they didn’t really support me as an artist until I sold a piece. But that’s just because the way they were raised is very different than - they were both from Mexico and they couldn’t understand what I was doing with art. But what happened was once I got kicked out I met Nancy Moore and Nancy Moore was the Assistant Superintendent of the district and she kind of took me under her wing and got me back into school and introduced me to an art teacher and got me an art class. From there I got admitted to the Rymen Program and so the Rymen Program was really when I first had somebody tell me ‘you could be an artist.’ To that point I figured I would just paint and do whatever, but they were saying, ‘no you can make a living off it.’ And they actually brought people in, professional artists and one of the ones that sticks out the most is Kent Twitchell. He came in when I was fifteen because he was friends with Lamonte Westmoreland – he was actually on the mural, the “Marathon Runners.” Great, great artist. So he was there at Rymen for a very long time so he was my first painting teacher. So he brought in a lot of artist and I remember seeing the work that Kent Twitchell was – I mean I had already seen it coming to L.A.


IRW: You were fifteen at that time?


OM: I was fifteen so then there were a lot of artists who came in and I didn’t even know who they were but I knew Kent Twitchell’s work from coming around L.A. and plus the classes were held at Otis. So his mural was outside which I hear they want to get rid of. But anyways that’s whole different story.


IRW: it is a different story but you’re so right. Yes.


OM: But him coming in and saying, ‘if you want to do it, you can do it.’ So his story was very inspirational and I mean there’s a million different things but really, Nancy Moore and then seeing these artists and then really Rymen, what they did, Marshall Ayers who was the founding Executive-Director of Rymen. So they were really the ones who helped a lot and my family who took the time to drive me all the way out every weekend to take classes for a year and a half. There had been a lot of different people along the way and Self-Help Graphics helped a lot also. A lot of different people were involved. Chaz Bojorquez who was always very open in any advice when I was still trying to figure out what I was doing as far as my style and things of that sort.


IRW: that’s something so wonderful to the younger generation you know many of you look at him as a mentor and he’s so supportive.


OM: Yeah and the unfortunate thing is I’ve seen a lot of the older cats who don’t serve as mentors you know so there is this disconnect and then they don’t understand why. You know Chaz stays relevant because he is always out there and he is always doing something and he is always talking to people. He doesn’t close himself off so he is always accessible.


IRW: Yeah he moves forward constantly, which makes him always contemporary.


OM: He moves through different worlds very easily which is very nice. He knows how to not hit people over the head with things. Somebody told me that once. That’s something that a lot of people can learn from it and I’ve definitely learned from it is if you have a message don’t turn people off by being so – which is another problem in our neighborhood, you know, in our community often times we’re so passionate about things we just turn people off to it which is contrary to what we’re trying to do. We need to have a dialogue and I want to use my art to be a vehicle for that message.


IRW: absolutely and that’s so important that we should be united. To connect with each other, to help each other, to have a dialogue even though we may not agree but by the end of the day by talking to each other - you know I never try to convince people of my beliefs but I’m willing and wanting to listen to people and you never know. We might come to an agreement in the middle.


OM: Right and to me it isn’t even about trying to get someone to agree. I just want them to acknowledge that my world is just as valid as their world. They could live often times in a place that’s more afluent, a place that’s nicer and they don’t need to acknowledge a lot of the problems that exist in our community but through my art I want to be able to be present and be at the table to say, ‘this is going on.’ And after there is an acceptance of what’s going on then we can talk about right and wrong. There first has to be this acknowledgment of something that often is just swept under the table or not looked at and I think so many issues that come with it.


IRW: Absolutely, so when you are producing your artwork – you pretty much had answered my next question. What are you trying to convey with your art? And you just were saying that. How important it is that you say what you see happening around in your community and how important that is that you deliver that message – that you use your artworks as the means to educate people who otherwise would not know. You know, I see the artworks, like your artworks, for example, this one right here, it’s like a book. There’s a whole narrative here that I can read and we can elaborate on it. So, for example, this particular piece, could you talk to us a little bit about this artwork behind us?


OM: Yeah, this piece was done for the Chinese American Museum for the “Dreams Deferred” show that they did. That show opened in conjunction with the vote of the Dream Act and it was really nice that the Chinese American Museum – that the curator there, Steve Wong – that he had the foresight to do that because immigration isn’t an issue of just one community of Latinos or Mexicanos even though its often billed as that. You know, the Asian Pacific Islanders whose community is strongly affected by everything that has to do – anything that has to do with immigration. So it was nice that he got a lot of younger artists together to deal with that subject of immigration. So even though it was focused around the Dream Act, I wanted to take a broader – I wanted to focus on it in a little bit broader scope where I wanted to deal with the causes of immigration that often were U.S. foreign policies or European and a lot of the multinational corporations who kind of dictate a lot of the foreign policies. So that’s what this is. At the same time I don’t like to just be pessimistic about something. I want it to be just as reality and at the same time show the struggle that goes on which to me is the beautiful thing. Finding the beauty of the human spirit whenever there is some kind of oppression or challenge that the human spirit often rises to face that challenge and so I wanted to put some of the heroes that I see over the past five hundred years - you know, that represent kind of some of the struggles from like the Native Americans, indigenous people to slavery and African Americans and you know Latinos and campesinos and also then going to the foreign trade – you know, NAFTA, and all those issues with the Zapatistas rebelling against the free trade agreements. At the same time, just the idea that we have – that we could learn a lot from these past struggles. And so the piece is called “With Law Like These, Who Needs Criminal.”


IRW: Wow. Thank you so much.


OM: You’re Welcome.


IRW: This is really a great piece. Thank you so much Oscar.


OM: Thank you.




IRW: Hello my name is Isabel Rojas-Williams and I am the Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Today, I would like to introduce you to somebody that everyone in our city knows, Judy Baca. Judy is the founder of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) in 1976. We all know about what Judy has done with SPARC and the murals that they have created and her contributions to the arts and culture of the city, but many of us don’t know how all this began. How did she become the person that we know today? So we are going to ask her to tell us a little bit about her beginnings and how did she get inspired to create this organization, that this month, October, 2012, is going to be 35 years old. So Judy please tell us about yourself. We would like to know, when you were a young woman and you were a kid, when you were going to high school, I know that you created murals in 1970. I know that you went to Cal State Northridge for your Bachelors and your MA, and I know what you became, but I want to know about those times when you were a kid dreaming about what, how, and why. So could you please tell us a little about that.


JB: So where should we start, at the beginning? Maybe, we should start at the very beginning. I was born in a place now known as Watts   85th and Central to be exact. My mother was a single parent and we lived in a small house, a duplex. At the time, it was right after the war, 1946, Watts was actually filled with Turnip fields and chicken farms and a kind of vibrant African American Latino community. You could walk down to the corner and you could pick the chicken being sold there and they would ring the neck right then and there and then you would cook it. Or you could, as my cousins did with me when I was very small, small enough to fly between the hands of two of my bigger cousins, run through the turnip fields and steal turnips. Heaven knows what for because they tasted so terrible. I was always very disappointed when we went to steal turnips and they turned out to be when we ate them to so hot that they burned your mouth. I was raised with my grandmother, Francisca, who took care of me when my mother worked at the Good Year tire factory, and I lived with my grandmother and my aunt Rita, who, was and still is, a wonderful ranchera singer.


 IRW: Did they speak Spanish to you?


JB: Oh yeah, it was a Spanish speaking house. Of course I went through the brutal transition of English in the schools and English only and the disallowance of Spanish speaking in the L.A. city schools. It was also coupled by my mother’s later marriage to an Italian when I was seven, who basically didn’t want us speaking Spanish in the house either because he thought we were talking about him. So I was raised with my grandmother, my tia Rita and my tia Delia, both named for flowers. My grandfather named them for flowers. Ortencia, Delia, and Margarita. My grandmother was in charge of me and she was a very wonderful, very spiritual, very indigenous woman who practiced healing in our house. Some of my earliest memories have to do with people coming to see her. Our house was so small that I would have to stand outside or put a chair outside for somebody to wait for her so that she could do what seemed to be prayers and make herbs for them and help them with healing.


IRW: So she was like a curandera?


JB: Yes, she was a healer. I think at that point she started training me when I was very small, because I would run between the people and I would listen and then when they would leave she would say ‘well what do you think is wrong with Mrs. Garcia?’ I would say, ‘Oh her husband doesn’t love her anymore, he has a new girlfriend.’


IRW: Haha, were you making it up?


JB: No, it was just what I heard. I would pick up the little pieces of information I’d pull together and she would say, ‘you’re right.’ As I think back about this I think she was training me to see and to hear people. And my aunt Delia was perhaps the biggest lesson of all because she was educationally handicapped. She never matured beyond a five year old and so she was the body and I was the brain. I would say to my aunt Delia, ‘lift  me up so I can get the candy on the top shelf.’ So I had a big friend who was my age. My aunt Delia and I had a very close relationship all of her life. She just passed recently but she taught me about compassion and she really taught me about understanding people’s differences being in the condition that she was in. People say that she was in that condition because in the barrio where my mother was born, and where she was born, the first of them being born here and not on the other side in Mexico, a doctor delivered her with forecepts and damaged her brain.


IRW: What part of Mexico?


JB: We were originally from Chihuahua, near Hidalgo del Parral but My mother was born at the base of the Purgatory River, facing Kansas, in the bitter cold  of Colorado. My mother was born in a place where Mexicans could live They were very discriminated against in Colorado.. My grandparents came up on the Santa Fe Trail in about 1918. So we were among the first giant wave of Mexican migrants, into the United States. There was a massive migration of Mexican people at that time because of the Mexican Revolution in progress. My grandfather was running away from the war in Chihuahua and Pancho Villa because he owned a store and traveled to the north where he would buy supplies and was robbed over and over again. When he left on the train to get more supplies after being robbed in the store and on his ranch, he told my grandmother, ‘if they come again give them everything.’ They never really said what side robbed them. It could have been the federal troops. It could have been the Villa troops but probably both. So at one point they were robbed simultaneously. My grandfather was on the train when I was robbed and was left in his long underwear on the side of the train and he placed the money in the diaper of the little baby sitting next to him, and pretending to be the husband of the woman that was with him so they wouldn’t take her away. And my grandmother was robbed at the ranch and she put the money into one of those lavanderia pots. So the joke was that they came with dirty money. So they left with one box and they came north and followed the Santa Fe Trail and went to Juarez where we had family. When they got to Juarez, the war was there too so they passed and went all the way to Colorado and then in Colorado, that’s where they began to build a life. My mother was born there, educated in segregated schools, in a place called Barrio Nuevo. It’s actually a very interesting little place alongside the Arkansas River. That’s one of the reasons I did the piece inside of the Denver Airport. The piece is called La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, which is about that story of their migration. my formative years were formed by these critical three characters that formed the foundations of my life. I remember the trolley cars growing up in this region and going off on the trolley cars to go shopping iat the downtown  Central Market. The trolley would take us  to the top of Bunker Hill and then going down Angels Flight, we would get our groceries and go back up Angels Flight because that’s where you could catch the trolley car. Angels Flight was not purposeless. It was actually a really good way to get up the hill. That’s when I saw Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers.


IRW: Because you lived right there right?


JB: Yeah I lived there, and the trolley car would go by and I remember seeing him.


IRW: So that was like the first piece of public art you saw?


JB: Yes, I was amazed by it. There was a lot of religious art. I spent a lot of time in church.


IRW: I imagine with your three aunties taking you to church every Sunday.


JB: Hahaha, oh my god it was not only Sunday but I think we went during the week and I remember learning to meditate with my grandmother because I think its actually a practice that has kept me sane. I would hold the rosary and I’d sit there on the pew with her. As an infant I learned to be silent. Under the guise of prayer I basically really meditated. Calmed myself. I remember actually calming myself to the rhythm of her breathing and kind of learning to relax in that space. Those are really the formative things I remember. I remember my mother coming home from the factory and smelling like rubber. It being in her hair and her clothes because it was a tire factory, it was really horrible.


IRW:  So when you were a child and your mother married the Italian husband you moved to Pacoima?


JB: We moved to Pacoima.


IRW: And how old were you then?


JB: I entered school in Pacoima at seven.


IRW: So at this point and when you saw the Watts Towers being built did it occur to you or did you think about who you wanted to become. Did you say to yourself “I don’t want to live in this place, I don’t want to stay outside of my house to wait for my grandmother to do her healing sessions. I want to have my own space and I want to create monumental art.” At what point did that cross your mind? Were you in grammar school? How did that happen?


JB: Well I never had any sense that we were poor. I didn’t think of us as being poor. I remember for Sunday dinners, it didn’t really matter that five extra people would show up because I lived in this rich family with so many first cousins and I still today enjoy the fact that I had so many cousins. My aunt Rita came to have eight children and my uncle Jess had nine and my uncle Mundo had four and now they have children and so there are quite a large number of Bacas.


IRW: This is great to me too because I go back to those days when we were having difficult times and to me those are the times that I miss the most. Those are the times that are most enriching in my life, when I learned so much through the contact with my family, my siblings and sitting at a big table all together, enjoying a Sunday meal, and we would eat whatever was available. In those days none of us were professionals and never thought that we would be because of the economical situation. That’s why I say I always go back and think about what did mark me and what did make you?


JB: Well I think what happened to me was when I entered the school I had a big trauma. One was that I was away from my grandmother, who was really my mother. You know, she was the one who took care of me everyday. And my mother’s marriage created this distance. We moved away from South Central, which is so far away, in the valley. I entered into a school and it was English speaking and the house turned to English only.

IRW: And the schools in those days, in Pacoima, was it like a white neighborhood?


JB: No, it was always mixed. Pacoima actually turned out in my research on the Great Wall, I was later to learn that the reason Pacoima was like it was, which was African American and Latino primarily, was because it was designated as an area for workers in the aircraft industry. My father was a Lockheed aircraft worker. So my mother and father used the GI Bill and they bought a little house in Pacoima. In those days actually, in Pacoima, you could buy with a $500 down on the GI Bill. Imagine such a thing. We had a big backyard with remnants of vineyards in it. I entered school and I was really lost, in both the English and then being separated from my grandmother, the sense of this new father and this new home. It was difficult for me, it was a very difficult transition and I had a very smart teacher in Kindergarten who set about putting me into painting. I didn’t participate. I was really silent. I didn’t speak English that well so she set up an easel for me and shiny tin cans with paint. I remember them as clear as day and I would paint painting after painting and I would be really happy doing that while they were doing there other reading lessons and other things, but I was a smart kid. I was always a smart kid in school. By third grade I was speaking English pretty well and became more articulate but I always had a discipline problem. I mean I never quite conformed. I think its still today the same thing. I pretty much don’t like being pushed around. I don’t like authority. In that I guess I’m sort of in suspended adolescence. Which also, is probably what made me not a very good wife when I got married at nineteen. But I did everything in a traditional way. I was very Catholic and I went through Haddon Elementary School. I later had the great pleasure of going back and through the Neighborhood Pride Mural Program, bringing in East Los Streetscapers . We sponsored them to do a fabulous piece on Burton Hall, who was the principal who let me go into the school. The way I got into school at that time was, I remember my mom bringing me in and setting me up on the counter and the principal is saying, ‘does she speak English?’ And my mother said, ‘Yes, she does very well.’ And I thought, ‘oh no,’ because I didn’t speak English that well but I did know how to recite a poem. And I knew how to do some prayers in English and Spanish. So I sat on the top of this counter and I said ‘Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,’ and I recited the Humpty Dumpty poem.. And that’s how I got into school. And then this teacher who I had this chance to speak to many years later who really used the arts as a method of orienting me and seeing that I really did well at the painting and I got a lot of accolades from the painting so it started that positive reinforcement of painting. Later, by the time I got into high school, I went through elementary school in the public school and by the time I got to high school it was more fraught. There were struggles between the Latinos and the African Americans and there was a lot of gang warfare going on at the time and a lot of difficulties between the racial groups, which I think had a great amount of influence in my formulation of the Great Wall. The Great Wall is only three miles from where I grew up, so I lived and breathed in that community and I went to Northridge University. That’s really was my neighborhood for most of my childhood. By the time I got into high school my mother really thought the only way I was going to survive the pachucas of Pacoima Junior High who periodically would call me out was to send me to Catholic School.  I had my licks. I had my difficulties as I was growing up and then I went into Catholic school and that was even more difficult for me because it was more controlled. But I’m very grateful for the sisters of St Joseph who became really god teachers and really made me fall in love with learning things and did not try to do route learning. I was clearly a creative kid and what I needed was to be coached and cajoled into discovery and they were smart enough to do that. So they just fed me lots of books and I started reading everything.


IRW: and more religious art?


JB: Yes, I started doing more religious art. I would go every year to Vallermo and do a retreat with the Dominicans and I would make these giant banners, which were tie tied banners, which were the earliest work I did as public art. My first real public art was Simon Rodia and the Catholic Church. In high school I started to be known as the artist. How I came to be known as an artist was that people used to carry around these blue binders that were covered with cloth, they were three-ring binders, and that was everybody’s school materials and if you were lucky you got a little pencil holder to put in your three-ring binder. They would get really dirty and junky and not look nice after a while my friends would say, ‘draw me something.’ So I used to draw these really gorgeous dreamboats and there were all these really handsome men on the face of my girlfriends three-ring binders. For the boys I would do the same. I would switch them around and make beautiful girls so everyone would go around with these dreamboats on the face their three-ring binders so I sort of became known for that and also for my sardonic cartoons. I got in big trouble once for, on the blackboard before the nuns came in, doing this drawing of these naked nuns with their veils flying. I don’t know what possessed me to do that. I would just draw these crazy things on the board. I really came very close to be thrown out. And then at some point I ended up becoming Vice President of the class and people began to sort of appreciate my humor. It was always a little bit sardonic and a little bit tough. You know, I was struggling with my home situation and working; I started to work very young. I worked from the time I was fourteen so that I had the capacity to really determine my own life. I think one of the things that is really kind of a hallmark for me is a real need for independence; a real need for me to see my own way. To, in other words, make the determinations for myself. I wasn’t really a momma’s girl or a daddy’s girl. I was my own girl from a very young age.


IRW: and then you went to high school there and then when you went to Cal State Northridge for your Bachelor. Was this the time - the 60s -  when you discovered your political inclinations or when you became more involved with the Chicano world, because at the time was that explosive political era where we were all involved in the politics. Did that influence you in the sense that you wanted to do public art to tell the masses of what was happening in your world or in the city?


JB: No, not really. When I went to Northridge I knew that I wanted to be in the arts so I became an art major. And my mother said, ‘well, if you’re going to be an art major, why are you going to do that? You’re going to be the first of us educated. Why would you choose the arts?’


IRW: you’re not going to make any money right?


JB: yeah, you’re not going to make any money. My mother was actually kind of an activist herself because she was a pioneer character. ortencia was a pretty amazing character, you know, she was and still is at 89 years old. In La Junta when the men came back from the war, the Mexican boys came back on a truck and they were all grouped together as they came back into town. They stopped at this bar, and this was a town where it would say, ‘Mexicans and dogs not allowed.’ Right? My mom sat in the back of the bus and in the balcony in the local movie theater . The schools were segregated as well. My mom tells stories of how they were taken out of the schools and their heads were dipped in kerosene because they thought all Mexicans had lice. My mother had this beautiful hair. They used to collect rainwater for her hair at home and then to have them do that, it was just horrendous. I mean, they were very beautiful young women and it was totally humiliating for them. At a certain point she went to work for the District Attorney in this town. And because the boys were all at war; her brothers were all gone, and there was a family of six, apparently nine children all together, only six of them lived.


IRW: Are you an only child?


JB: There were three of us, and my mother had two other children with her Italian husband, but only me, from the first one. Anyway, so what happened is the men came through on this truck and they stopped at this bar where they were not allowed to go. In the bar, there was a young man whose name was Whitey. El Blanco they called him and he had a piece of shrapnel in his head and they put a plate in his head and because he was in this bar, as my uncles told this story, one of the “crackers”, they called them crackers; the right wing white people, were so annoyed that the Mexican boys had come into the bar that he got up and took a bottle and hit Whitey over the head and he killed him on the spot. So the very first day home after they had been all over the world, was the remembrance and the reminder that you might have been free in the rest of the world but you’re back home boys, and its Colorado. There’s a certain brutality to Colorado. People don’t talk about it like they talk about Texas but Colorado was something. So my mother reported this incident to the federal authorities at some point. The people from the Federal Government came through to find out what was happening on the GI Bill. They had some reports of abuse and they were just not giving the GI Bill to the Mexican Veterans and so my mother left town after she did this. At the age of eighteen she came out here on a train with her friend Lucy Royball, related to the Royballs, they were best friends. They set up a little apartment and became Harvey girls in Los Angeles. So my mom actually made this trip here because of her activism. So when I went into school and I wanted to be an artist, she said, ‘why don’t you become a lawyer? You could sue somebody.’ That seemed to her like the model that she saw as a really useful model. I said, ‘I really want to be in the arts.’ And I knew it was compulsatory for me. I really needed to make art and really I thought sculpture was my focus and I really loved making sculptures but it was expensive. I was paying for my own schooling and I was working nearly full time at the same time as going to the University. Then I fell in love and I wanted to get married. So I was saving money and I basically, at a certain point, quit school. Just quit. I said, ‘I’m going to get married. What’s the point?’ So I went to go work in the factory, my father’s factory Lockheed and I became an illustrator. The illustration was really useful to me and it’s still useful to this day. So I was drawing airplane parts and learning how to do isometric drawings and architectural renderings and including G-jobs, which were jobs that had to do with making somebody’s portrait for a birthday card from the higher ups at Lockheed Aircraft. It was about a year before I got married, that I realized that I really didn’t want to work in the factory, so I went back to school. When I went back to school, I went back with my husband. I had the support I needed to be in school with another person that was going to school. He had just come back from the Bay of Pigs as a Marine. So there we were, both of us, in school and they blew up the administration building. I watched from Prairie Street as the building went up in flames and I was increasingly alarmed by the war in Vietnam. My friends were all getting shipped away and coming back a mess. Particularly the Mexican boys from the neighborhood, or most of the kids from my neighborhood in Pacoima were taken first. The tempo in the country, it was 1964-1969, it was a moment within American history, when it was impossible for you to be a young person and not to question everything.


IRW: I think that happened to all of us worldwide; it happened to me too. Whether in France, Chicago, Mexico or South America, the politics affected us for the rest of our days.


JB: Where were you at the time?


IRW: Chile.


JB: You were in Chile. Well of course there was such an amazing movement there. I have to say something real interesting about when I first developed the first mural program. My model was the Chilean mural brigade. I wanted to start a Chilean mural brigade.


IRW: The Ramona Parra Brigade marked all of us and it was an amazing time.


JB: I just thought you know, because I had started working on the east side and, well I have to get there first, ok. What happened was, in 1969, I joined a protest outside of the administration building at Northridge, and I had checked out these cameras, because I was a student in the arts. I had these two and a quarter cameras and you had to pay for them if you broke them. So I was outside of the administration building in a giant protest against the war in Vietnam, and I believe for ethnic studies, we were basically advocating ethnic studies. My husband was an Anglo man and he was German from a huge Catholic family with twelve brothers and sisters. He didn’t know what to make about all this stuff but I was becoming increasingly engaged in what was happening to the Latino community, what was happening to the African American community. Particularly, how I saw disparate treatment of people who were minorities and in terms of who was being recruited for war. So, standing outside of the administration building, somebody alongside of me heaved a trashcan through the window and when the window broke, inside were hundreds and hundreds of what I thought looked like hornets, but they were cops in black and white helmets. They came pouring out. As they came pouring out they were grabbing people and beating them. I had these two cameras that I was holding on to and all I remember was thinking, ‘no not the cameras! How will I pay for them?’ I was more worried about the cameras than my own life. In youth you worry about things like that. And I jumped into these bushes and they grabbed somebody alongside me and beat him really badly. I think in that skirmish they even knocked somebody’s eye out, I remember that whole horrible. At any rate, I didn’t get killed but I got arrested and they took the cameras from me.


IRW: but they didn’t break the cameras?


JB: They didn’t break. I did get them back. That was my biggest concern. What it amounted to was I sat on the grass for hours with my hands tied behind my back with plastic cuffs because they didn’t have enough to put us all in jail. So I became an activist.


IRW: that was your baptism, right?

JB: that was my baptism. Watching the treatment by the police and the craziness of it all. The advocacy of what students began to say we were listening across the country and I became very engaged in what became Chicano Power and Chicano issues. That was about 1969 when I stepped out of the University. There I was, a painter trained in minimalist painting, trained in abstractionism. I knew a tremendous amount of color theory. I received a D in painting for doing a figurative work. I walked out of the University completely educated to do nothing. I thought, ‘how am I going to take what I know; what am I going to do with this?’ What was real clear to me was that I had this epiphany. I have told this story very often because it was one of those epiphany moments. My family had a big party because I graduated from the University. Sort of like a baptism or a wedding or something. It was in my apartment on Prairie Street in the student housing. Francisca was there, and she basically said to me, because she never spoke English, she said, ‘what is it that you do mija?’ So I was very proud of this portfolio. I just graduated right. It was my portfolio. I passed! So I put it in her lap and I started to thumb through the portfolio for her and for the very first time I saw it through her eyes. And she was just looking at it, you know, no judgment but everything in her world had meaning and everything in her world had a place. Everything she did, from what she grew alongside of the water fountain, to what she planted for shade or what she planted for scent or the way she made it easy for me to climb a tree so I wouldn’t kill myself because she knew I was going to climb it. She created the boards so I could climb up the pepper tree. The way she would figure out how to tie my hair up so; being kind of a little tribal character, she would let me run wild and she would tie my hair up so I wouldn’t get tangled up in the bushes. She had it figured out and when she saw this she said, ‘what is it for?’ And so I think I spent about twenty years trying to figure that out. What’s it for? What I knew, was that I really wanted to do something with the work and I thought of automatically was that I could teach and that I could deal with the situations I had seen for so many of my peers in terms of the struggles that I had in the neighborhoods where interracial warfare. Then I thought I would be an art teacher and so I began to pursue getting my secondary teaching credential. I still have a particular love of working with high school kids. I just think they’re funny and they’re fun and particularly when I was really close in age I think I was very good at working with them but I very quickly learned that the way the arts were being taught and the way educators were thinking about how to work in the Latino community, that it was very far from any truth I knew. So I quit. It was really over a teacher. My master teacher at Danas Junior High who I saw really destroy the drawing of a young boy named Julio who was like fourteen and who was drawing this amazing bird. I would go there once a week to do my master teaching and the lesson was, we were going to do these birds and Julio did this drawing of this amazing faceted bird. You know, all its parts moved and you could see that this bird could not only fly but it could have eaten a city or something. It was an amazing bird and I loved his bird. I was so knocked out by this kid’s drawing and from one week to the next I came back and the bird was gone. I said, ‘what happened to your bird?’ And he had replaced it with a hallmark image, of one of these doves. And I realized that the teacher had put up models in the classroom of ‘how many birds are there?’ on a wire. And she had drawn these hallmark renditions of birds. And of course, the teacher made that mark. So then in Julio’s mind his bird was suddenly wrong and the teacher’s was right and it shifted. You know about the  inintolerance of youth? i could not forgive those of authority who made mistakes. You just want to chop off their heads. Off with their heads! Probably this teacher wasn’t a great teacher but it precipitatd me quitting grad school. I left student teaching and I went marching back in to see sister Louisa Bernstein. Now sister Louisa Bernstein was Mexican and Jewish. Her father was Jewish and her mother Mexican. She was a Catholic Nun and she was my mentor in my High School. When I said, ‘well, I quit.’ She said, ‘What?!’ She and I are still friends. I just said, ‘I cant study under people who are stupid and don’t know what they’re doing.’ And she said, ‘you can’t quit.’ I said, ‘why not?’ She said, ‘because you’re just going to keep quitting every time. So you have to finish.’ I said, ‘well I can’t go back to her because now she hates me because I quit.’ She said, ‘Ok I have an idea. You can do you master teaching here.’ So I went back to the High School where I taught and I became a teacher there and I had the best teachers. Within a year I was the head of the art department and within two years, we went from just a few art students to almost eight hundred art students. The department became the most powerful and most wonderful department. I started teaching this thing called Allied Arts for 9th graders and it was a really inspired set of teaching. It was really about having the arts be about the exemplification of the highest moments of the human senses. So in other words listening to voice and speech and poetry is really about your own voice and sound and sculpture was about touch and dance was about movement of your body. So I was teaching how to write music, how to write poetry, how to do visual arts and that became for me an exciting practice that has always followed me in terms of being able to work interdisciplinary. Also, it really coupled with scholarship. Beginning to say, ‘we don’t have to be artists who only work with one side of our brain, when there is two sides of our brains and we can actually be thinkers as well.’ So my students were doing collaborations and drawing the human figure. Each of them taking a part and blowing it up ten times the normal size and dropping it out of two story buildings. We were doing things like painting the first mural I ever painted in 1969, on the ceiling of our class room called ‘Alice through the looking glass.’ We just turned the whole ceiling into an OP-art kind of experience. We were using some of the techniques of the times, psychedelic imagery and it was a magnificent experience. And of course all good things like that must be stopped. It was just too free and too wonderful. I was marching up into the mountains with the kids teaching them to write poetry on a mountaintop. The diocese sent in a monsignor who was from the Navy to “clean up the permissiveness of the school”. This is when the war in Vietnam is going on and I’m taking my kids to marches against the war. The sisters are going with us. And the new principal decides that he’s not going to continue my contract and people protested. I questioned him using money from the arts for the new football field and I got fired. Then what follows is that the nuns get fired and the whole school is broken up and we become the American Civil Liberties Case. It was called the Alemany Eighteen. That was my first great experience personally of injustice and it was really like, ‘wow, you can be right and still get killed. I mean everything you love can be destroyed.’ And my sister was in the school. My sister-in-laws were in the school because Tom’s brothers and sisters, my husband’s brothers and sisters were in the school. The school went from 1200 students to about 800 or less than half of them because people would pull their kids out of school. It was a very big deal when they fired us all and I thought my life was over. It was one of the firsts of a pattern in my life. As it turns out, I thought my life was over, and over and over again. my mother always said, ‘God closes a door and then he opens a window’. I don’t know who’s opening and closing those doors and windows, but somebody is. In hindsight I think I could have been very happy doing that for a long time because I was really having a good time and I loved the kids. I loved the work I was doing and there was a real community. So it had all the parts: community, collaboration, and the arts. So when it ended, I ended up being an over educated under employed person and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act began. And there was a possibility of a job, I saw advertised. My mother called me and at this time she is the director of the Pacoima office of the Department of Employment because now she has risen up in the state and she’s become a Director of Employment Offices. Her specialty is placing Spanish-speaking people. So she found this job and said, ‘you should apply for this.’ And it was teaching in the parks; teaching the arts in the parks. And again I had an amazing gift of a moment. The Department of Recreation and Parks had positions for twenty artists from all different disciplines to work in the parks of the city and to teach in the arts. I got the job. Hundreds had applied and of course they sent me to East L.A.. I began teaching in Hollenbeck Park, Wabash Recreation Center, State Street. I was teaching in some of the toughest parts of the city and I was teaching, not really what mattered, I was teaching macramé to senior citizens. I was teaching pre-school children.


IRW: Oh so nothing to do with painting?


JB: Nothing to do with painting and nothing to do with adolescents. So I would walk through a gauntlet of young men who were gang members and neighborhood guys hanging out to go teach elementary school children and pre-school children who would eat my materials. I didn’t even know how to deal with them. I would give them materials and they would eat them. I didn’t know how to work with little kids. I was just so unhappy teaching babies because they would all cry and I would say, ‘what do I do when they cry, you know?’ I was used to tough adolescents. 


IRW: At this point you were already divorced right?


JB: No I was still married then. I was married and then on my way to being divorced. I was divorced by about twenty-four. So I did it all young you know, it was nineteen to twenty-four. At that point, Tom and I were really going into - I was becoming more of an activist and it was really difficult to be married to a German man at that point, in the middle of the movement.


IRW: Yeah, I imagine. So there you are in the middle of East Los Angeles the political explosion that is happening in the city and what happened to you at Northridge. I remember specifically the mural that you created in those days. How did that happen because you weren’t teaching art. Was it part of just wanting to go and create a mural out of the blue?


JB: Yeah, kind of what happened was I was working at one park called Evergreen Park and I was teaching little kids, like third graders and fourth graders from the Talpa School across the street. I remember opening the cabinets and these rats would jump out, you know, it was this old building and not really well maintained. The kids would start chasing the rats. They hadn’t built a new facility in the east side in I don’t know fifty years. And of course there was discriminatory behavior in the parks and I was watching all of that at the park level and I would walk through this gauntlet of young men and their was a group of young guys sitting and playing dominoes as I was going into the art class. They would say, ‘hey art lady! Lets see your art!’ I said, ‘Ok, you want to see it. I mean if you’re not kidding I’ll bring you something and you can see some of my stuff, but you got to show me some of yours.’ They said, ‘Ok.’ So pretty soon I started coming a little early and hanging out there with these guys and I started to see their drawings. A lot of them were doing tattoo work. That was before graff art so mostly they were doing gang markings in the neighborhood. They were mostly from Evergreen Gang. There were quite a number of young men but unfortunately a lot of them died. One of the closest ones that I had to me was a young man named Fernando and he and I became friends and we worked together for years. He was an amazing artist and also a leader. He could see what I was doing. He understood my work and he understood what I was thinking about. I said, ‘why don’t you come with me to the next school? I mean, go to the next park and help me with the next class?’ He started helping me out in the class. I had a couple of them helping me. Pretty soon I had gang members helping me with my elementary classes. They were in rehab. The Baca Rehab, which has been a method of my production for years. He said, ‘I can’t go over there.’ I said, ‘what?’ He couldn’t go four blocks out of neighborhood. I said, ‘you mean you really live like this? You can’t go from here to there?’ He said, ‘Yeah I can’t go over there.’ I said, ‘what happens?’ He said, ‘oh I’ll be shot.’ And of course that’s finally what happened to him in the future, after he was out of the gangs and everything, twelve years later. Anyway, I said, ‘what if we painted something together? Lets paint something together.’ And the places were filled with graffiti and it was like a lot of gang marking roll call stuff. I have a lot of those early photographs and you see it and there’s really nothing aesthetic about it but in some cases people started marking, where they would paint one name per step and so you would get this calligraphy going up the hill. They started to make marking White Fence, which had a particular way of making the W and F and the cerca blanco (?). So I started having these relationships in these parks with these young men. I think actually being a young woman my age was helpful in doing it. I wasn’t a challenge to them. I was just an artist coming in and out. They saw the work I was doing for the kids and then they became supportive of that. Finally, in the summer of about 1971 or 1970, I cant remember, I painted the first mural for Alemany in ‘69 and I think it was the summer of ‘70 that I formed the first group called Las Vistas Nuevas. We had kids from four different gangs from the neighborhoods I was teaching in and they made a treaty to work together. We painted our first site, which was across the street from Estrada Courts before Estrada Courts was painted. It was just about to begin and I met those guys and I gave them paint. El Gato (Charles “Cat” Felix) was there because what happened was there was a painter in the city yard, and we didn’t have real paint. We had these big five-gallon vats of toner in which you would add colorants. This stuff didn’t last very long. You could put pink into a big vat of white and it was never very bright. That’s what we painted with. So I started handing out paint to Estrada Courts and that’s what they painted with. I was going to do a piece there and I was all set to go and I had a design for it. It was a really wonderful design and the day I was going to do it, the men didn’t show up with the scaffolding because women were not really supported. We were really marginal. I mean they were not going to support – in some ways they would support lighter works that were not as conceptual because the work I was doing was very powerful. People would say, ‘oh you paint like a man.’ If you wanted to paint flowers and dolls - yes. And that’s what went up with some of the early work. The drawing I did was of a woman stopping the progression of men toward gangs and she was the leader. She was holding a male son and she was basically stopping his progression toward becoming a gang member.. I still have this drawing, its quite interesting. When I saw it again recently, I was sort of amazed by it. I thought, ‘wow that was pretty good thinking for that time.’ So Las Vistas Nuevas painted Costello Recreation Center (four pieces) that were boarded up windows that went that kids had broken and there were twenty kids in my team. The Casa Maravilla gave me the first money.  I talked to Special Programs for Economically Disadvantaged Youth and I went to them and I said, ‘look you should let me work in the arts with these kids.’ They said, ‘that’s not work! We can only clean toilets and cut lawns.’ I said, ‘come out and ill show you that it’s work! And then will you give me the positions?’ Then I went to Casa Maravilla and when they saw what I was doing with the boys they said, ‘ok you can have – we can give you twenty positions. We can give you fifty!’ I said, ‘I cant do fifty I can only do twenty.’ And I couldn’t get supplies or equipment. They would give me all the kids in the world but I had nothing to work with. They had kids everywhere. It was federal money that came down after the riots and what they wanted to do was stop them from being in another riot. So they hired plumbers without plumbing equipment and they hired landscapers without landscaping equipment. So I got the first twenty in the arts in the city. First summer programs ever and I wrote that program and it became a regular program and it then became the practice within the city of L.A. for them to hire kids in programs that included the arts but it was a hard sell to begin with. So as I was painting “Mi Abuelita,” which was the second piece in Hollenbeck Park, I was still teaching my stupid classes in macramé for the blind.  I don’t even think I know how to do it anymore. I was doing it I remember because the older women in my class couldn’t see so I had to do really big knots. Everyone was doing craft work in those days. But I was meeting at the same time with the twenty artists that had been hired on this program through Rec and Parks and they had a great deal of influence on me. I mean they were from everywhere. There were puppeteers, there were improvisational theater people, there were musicians and what was happening was that we would meet and we knew that we were an anathema to the Rec. and Parks Department. It was a theater director running the program and he was an amazing kind of guy. I never met anybody like him, me being from Pacoima. To meet these people from everywhere, it was really an amazing thing. I started taking improvisational theater, which really helped me a lot with the work I did with the kids. It helped me with team building and I still incorporate a lot of those techniques.


IRW: So you were painting “Mi Abuelita”…


JB: Oh when I was painting “Mi Abuelita” this amazing thing happened. So I would have to paint after I did my classes in the morning and in the afternoons I would be out there on my unpaided job. We had to have guards  setup because rival people from four different neighborhoods were there and we didn’t know that somebody wouldn’t just come along and shoot us. So we had a system of whistles and we would send somebody to the top of the hill above the bandshell and they would whistle and tell us if it was a narcotics guy because they were always coming and shaking down the kids. I would say, ‘if anybody is holding please dump it!’ but I could never be sure because some of them were really heavy drug users. I had one guy Pepe who was a heroin addict. There was no way he was going to stop being a heroin addict and he was a good painter. So when he would get loaded sometimes I would just tie him to the scaffold with his belt. I mean we just dealt with what was there. We dealt with it. And Mr Salas a city painter would bring all the paint. Someone donated a metal scaffold they got form a garbage dump and I remember it had maggots in it. We had to wash it down because it had been in the garbage. So I’m hanging out on the scaffolding and I get a whistle that says ‘Cops!’ You know, a whistle for cops. So here come the cops again. I don’t even turn around and look back because the cops were always bothering us. I said, ‘cops are coming everybody! If any of you have anything you’re not supposed to be having you better go dump it or get out of here right now or you’re going to get arrested.’ Because I know I cant stop them so I’m waiting to see if anybody is going to clear and everybody is hanging and these two men walk up to me and one of them – I said, ‘oh my god you’re my boss.’ He was a man named Sy… Greben. He had come from the Kennedy Administration and been appointed head of the Department of Rec. and Parks. He was this brilliant guy. Later his daughter became the founder of the Armory. He had this idea about urban wildernesses and I had seen him at one of the big Rec. and Parks meetings but you know he was way off on the stage, and suddenly there he was down below me. He said, ‘do you work for me?’ I said, ‘yeah I think you’re my boss. I am really sorry I...’ You know, I was apologizing because I was painting one of their parks. And he said, ‘no, no, no I saw an article in the paper…’ because we were starting to make the paper. ‘Gang Members Put Down Knives for Brushes,’ and all that kind of stuff. He said, ‘am I paying you to do this?’ I said, ‘no, no, you’re not I am really sorry this is my own time. I’m not spending any of your money. Its none of your stuff.’ I was trying to explain myself, I mean I was really worried I was going to get fired and I needed a job. By that point I think I pretty much had left my husband and I was living on a dime. He said, ‘no, no, I want to know how to bottle what you do. I want to see you and I want you to keep doing this.’ I said, ‘really? Can I stop teaching my macramé class?’ that’s how I became the director of East L.A. murals. That day, that was it. The other thing that was so cool about him, was he never made me report to all those stupid meetings or wear Rec. and Parks clothes or anything like that. He basically said, ‘you can report to work at three o’clock in the afternoon. You just have to give us journals and reports.’ So I would do journal reports about the activities in the different parks and I started to do East Los Angeles, one after the other, at requests from the neighborhoods. So the mural lady – art lady – ‘Hey art lady!’ – they would call the mayors office and the art lady would be sent to Wabash Recreation Center to work with White Fence because I had just finished working with Varrio Nuevo and they were like competitors and it was like they wanted to have the same possibility. So I went from one park to the other and that’s how I did the early East L.A. murals. In 1974 I went before the City Council for the first time and argued for an East L.A. mural program first because I was not thinking big enough. And they voted me down. I went in and I wanted to do a mural brigade and I wanted it to be in the East side. I wanted to follow the dictates of the Chilean brigades because I thought, ‘wow we could really cover some footage if we actually worked in teams and choreographed it.’ I had been reading everything about it and I was thinking, ‘oh this is the way to go.’ That’s also when I was painting “Mi Abuelita” I learned about “Los Tres Grandes” for the first time. I didn’t have my Masters yet but I had tons of Art history and I had never seen one of the Mexican muralists. Somebody handed me a book of Siquieros and I went, ‘oh my god! Where is this and how do I see it?’ and then I went immediately to Mexico on an extended trip, as soon as I had a break.


IRW: That’s when you went and studied with Siqueiros?


JB: yes. Then I started really looking at the work of Los Tres Grandes. I went to study at the Taller Siqueiros in 1977.


IRW: So to go back, you were creating all these programs of murals in East Los Angeles and so this is 1974 and then 1976 comes.


JB: Well it was 1974 when I got thrown out and the City Council said, ‘No!’ and I talked to a very wise African American leader who was a deputy for one woman on the City Council, Pat Russell, and he said, ‘Judy, you think too small. Why do you think these guys from the Valley are going to give money to East L.A. They don’t care about East L.A.’ I said, ‘what about the gangs? And these kids? Etc.’ He said, ‘you don’t get it. They’re not going to vote to help them.’ ‘Really?’ – I said. It was another one of those big ah-hah moments. ‘You mean there’s no justice?’ Always, the big surprise is, ‘you mean its not just?!’ He said, ‘you need to write a city wide program.’ I went back to the council and the day that I was in the council, I wrote a program for the whole City of Los Angeles; for all fifteen council districts to hire youth at each of the sites to work with artists. Stipends for artists, paint, equipment all included. I wanted ten sets of scaffolding, two trucks, you know, thousands and thousands of dollars worth of paint. When I went before the council, I was so naive I didn’t even know they were voting when they voted and somebody started shaking my hand and said, ‘congratulations you just got it!’ It was a dream come-true. You know how much money it was? It was only $180,000, which was like to me, millions, but it was 1974 so it was a lot of money. So we bought ten thousand dollars worth of paint. We moved the whole operation into the old Olympic swim stadium in Exposition Park . I brought the kids I worked with from East LA.and South Central. Later Judithe Hernandez came and worked with me.. She wasn’t hired on the project right away; she came in later but Christina Schlesinger who was a co-founder of SPARC, who had been on one of my murals in 1973. Bernardo Muñoz who was with me on one of my very first murals came in. Arnold Ramirez who was out at the Great Wall was on that production. Artists could get a commission with Stipend, scaffolding, paint and ten youth hired as a crew.  All they had to do was have an idea and a place to paint with the support of their community and a group of kids they wanted to hire. That was it. It was Los Angeles Muralism at its height. 400 works were done during that program without permits or ordinances.


IRW: Beautiful times and that’s what I wanted to leave with. I wanted to say thank you to you Judy for showing us that side of you that many people don’t know. SPARC is turning 35 this year and you have done great contributions to the arts and the culture of the City. I just wanted to show a little bit of the Judy that I know because I’m an art historian and I have researched you as I have many other muralists and artists in the city. So thank you and happy 35th year anniversary! And happy birthday, I know your birthday is coming up.


JB: yes thank you, it is Thursday.

Judy Baca went on to create a city wide program “when in 1976 she founded SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which sponsors public art projects with the aim of fostering cross-cultural connections and promoting civic dialogue. It was through SPARC that she worked on The Great Wall of Los Angeles — a traditional mural started in 1974 and completed over the span of five summers. Created with the help of 400 youth painters, artists, oral historians, scholars and hundreds of community members, it offers a visual storytelling of California’s ethnic history."[1]



Name: Michael Massenburg


City of origin: I have lived in L.A. most of my life. I was born in San Diego. I’m a Navy brat; my dad was in the service. We moved to Long Beach and then we settled in Los Angeles and we have been in Los Angeles the rest of the time. I went to school here. I went to California State University, Long Beach and Otis Art Institute. Just pretty much an Angelino true and true.


Did you study with Charles White? No, that’s interesting because the time I was just starting college was about the time that I was greatly influenced by him and by a lot of his friends that I am friends with now. I always studied his work in calendars, books, and going to see his shows. So he had a great impact on my life.


How did you find yourself in the arts? Oh wow. It’s been an interesting journey. I did it  in a roundabout way because it wasn’t a straight line. I was always into the arts but I didn’t know anything about how to make a living at it. As I went to school I did take some art classes and later on while I was at Cal State Long Beach, I was taking art classes but I became a business major. At that time I wasn’t sure if I would be doing art because I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any kind of relationship with artists at that point in time. So I got involved doing business with my dad. After that chapter closed I decided I was really interested in art, but how was I going to do it? I went to Watts Towers Arts Center and was introduced to John Outterbridge. So that was the beginning of going through this art journey: Watts Towers Arts Center.


Where do you draw your inspiration? There are so many different inspirations, but when I think about artistic inspiration, I mentioned John Outterbridge. Noah Purifoy, whom I didn’t meet until much later, but I was impacted by his work with objects even though I’m primarily drawn to painting.  I’m interested in other art forms too, so being around the Towers you had that element of object and symmetry. Then later, I was also influenced by Romare Bearden to do collage works. I studied his work and the combination of Realism through the narrative works of Bearden, inspired by Charles White’s works, and the spontaneity and the mixed media and the colorizations of Beards work; I was kind of impacted by both, so it gave me a hybrid way of higher power communication. Pretty much everyone from that era; Betye Saar, John Riddle, David Hammonds. I got a chance to study and meet with them during the 60s, and I was a kid during that time so I was too young to be a part of it but later I was old enough to appreciate it.


Certainly. You mentioned the 60’s and as you know, during the late 60s and 70s there was this huge explosion of mural art in the city. So here we are in the heart of the city, The Pico House at Olvera Street, the birth site of Los Angeles, and also the place where Siqueiros painted the first mural in 1932.

Yes I have seen it, covered, but I have seen it.


Well it is going to be unveiled October 9th of this year. That’s why it’s so important to us that we are interviewing you, because we know that you have suffered a little bit of what he suffered, when his mural was whitewashed; same as what happened to your last mural. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Well first off, I have seen some of Siqueiros’s work and it has impacted me as far as doing mural work. In regards to the piece I did years ago for Century Avenue Jazz, right near 42nd Street, I was commissioned by the KFC manager for the history of jazz and they also had a festival at the time. I always loved history, especially history of Los Angeles. I love to illustrate stuff like that. So I did a little bit of the personalities who were very influential, like some of the teachers who taught summer school like Forest Tabscott, Dexter Gordon, and so many others. Also, people who are not being recognized like Carl Wright. It was one of those things where I just wanted to illustrate and create so that people could see who they are, and some of these people are still here. That was done in I think 2000 and then a few years ago it was graffiti’d. Then eventually the management decided to white it out without even contacting me, even though they had my information so I couldn’t understand why they did that. So what’s happening now is one of the key people who helped get me the commission; he’s doing an investigation but because of the mural ordinance, everything’s on hold.


What was the most memorable response to your work?  Oh wow there has been so many great experiences. One of the great things about when I’m in the process of creating paintings on the streets or murals, people come by and stop to talk to you. That’s really, to me, the jewel of it. They offer to donate money on the spot or they bring you something to eat or just the conversation or talking about who’s in the mural that they know or talking about “we’re going to protect this because this is ours.” It’s great to get recognition through newspapers, magazines, critics, and the commissions are great but when you connect with the people that live with these pieces everyday, I think that’s really what the heart and beauty of it is.


Who were some of your mentors? John Outterbridge, as I mentioned earlier, Cecil Furguson, former curator at the L.A. County Arts Museum. And artist William Pajaud. Those are the main ones that I have communicated with on a daily basis or weekly basis. I like to work with Judy Baca and everyone one over there at SPARC. There’s just so many. Even now as far as some of my artist

friends  that are closer to my age like Richard Wyatt, I have had the chance to work with him a lot. Charles Dixon who does sculptures and my friend who just passed away, Willie Middlebrook. We did a lot of stuff together.


What are you current/future projects? Right now I’m currently exhibiting at the California African American Museum in an exhibit called “Shared Threads.” It’s six artists all together and I have a large installation. One was a twelve-foot painting I did. I’m used to doing large stuff with murals but this is the first time I have done a large piece for an exhibition. Recently designed the artwork for a metro line, Farmdale Station that opened up this year.


Oh I’m so glad you got that commission. That’s fantastic, and so did Willie Middlebrook.

Thank You! Yes, he’s at Crenshaw and I’m at Farmdale so we’re still like side-by-side friends.


Which of your murals is your favorite? Why?

It’s hard, there are so many of them. One of the first I did, it was actually out of town. After I had done a few small things, the biggest one was for American Jazz in Kent City, the history of Jazz, called Jazz Era that was in 1995-96. That was my first time doing that. So that was great. I did a mural in LA for Greenwater School, on Manchester near Vermont. Another one getting a lot of positive feedback is “Visions,” at Leimert Park; it’s a little history of Leimert Park.


What themes/messages do you convey through your work?

It is one of those things where I was growing up; I felt those stereotypes and separations, as far as communities and stuff. I wanted to use art as a tool to break down those barriers because when you see an artwork, and it speaks to you, you got it. As opposed to seeing the news, you turn it on; you turn it off. To me it’s sort of like, I remember years ago, Chuck D. from Public Enemy had said his music was like seeing him. I wanted my work to do that. No matter who is looking at it, no matter what kind of background, working people, academia, different country, I want a sense of what it is I am trying to convey, what kind of storyline I’m trying to convey. Sometimes it’s political; sometimes it’s social; sometimes it’s personal.



Name: Glenna Avila


City of origin: I grew up here in L.A. I was born and raised here. Ever since I can remember I have loved art.


How did you find yourself in painting murals? When I was in graduate school I was going through an internal turmoil about how an artist can live in this world and why artists create art and who is it for and all these questions about where does the art work end up after you create it. Then I met this wonderful friend in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, named Angelique Acavedo and she actually had a job painting murals and teaching kids how to paint murals at a local elementary school in Albuquerque. One day I tagged along with her and I saw what she was doing at the school and a light bulb went off. It answered all my questions about what is the purpose of art. Why as artists do we choose to engage in it? Where does the art end up? Is it a commodity? Do only wealthy people have access to it? And here were these kids in this run down school in downtown Albuquerque learning how to paint and beautifying their school and doing these remarkable murals on the walls of the school. For me, a light bulb went off and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. So when I came back to L.A. after being in New Mexico I came back and I applied for a job as an art instructor with The Citywide Mural Program and Judy Baca. At that point I didn’t really know about her work but I saw that there was this job teaching art and creating murals and I thought, how perfect. I ended up working with Judy for a very short period of time in the late 70s because she was in the process of founding SPARC. So we were working for the City of Los Angeles, it was the Recreation and Parks Department initially. I had been there a few months and then SPARC was created and so Judy shifted over to SPARC and there I was, left with, running the Citywide Murals Program an coordinating thirty murals a years, two in each City Council district. And we had a whole plan, we had a whole chart of locations and artists and we just continued the work.


Those were the wonderful times when muralists didn’t have to deal with the mural ordinance and the issues we have today, right?

 That’s right. Basically, if you got permission from the building owner or if it was a government building and you had permission from the agency that owned the building, you could paint a mural there. We were able to hire youth from that neighborhood, organize meetings, talk to the community about what kind of images they wanted, and make it so that their murals were reflective of the different neighborhoods that we were in.


So you would say that draw your inspiration from what you learned in New Mexico, from this artist that you met and what a wonderful place. It’s so magical there.

Definitely. What’s great there is the blend of cultures. When I was at UCLA as an undergraduate I majored in Art but I minored in Native American Studies. So being in New Mexico was perfect because there were so many great images and art works and architecture that were created by Native Americans that I was able to access and be inspired by.


That’s Great. So you can very legitimately say that you were one of the muralists that helped to make this city the mural capital of the world because you were painting at a time when so many murals were being painted.

It was continuing the work that Judy had envisioned and set up and it was a chance to get to know all of the artists and work closely with them, design and imagine projects together working with a variety of communities which I love.


So at that time you met, I imagine, a lot of the artists that are very well known today. Who did you work with?

Well, tons of great artists. The East Los Streetscapers; David Botello and Wayne Healey had just finished there mural in Lincoln Heights, on the bank building. One of the first projects I got to do was with John Valadez and he was very young in his career and he showed up and we became great friends and we did quite a few different projects together. One summer, we had John Valadez and Carlos Almaraz working with High School students in Highland Park and I’ll never forget that summer (1979). It was an amazing experience. We had about twenty-four High School students and John and Carlos would have these very animated discussions/arguments in the middle of Figueroa, all about art and it was just a great experience.  Eloy Torrez, I worked with him. Margaret Garcia did her first mural with her us when she was a young artist, which was in the late 1970s. So many great artists.


What was the most memorable response to your work? I imagine it probably had to do with the L.A. Freeway Kidsbecause it’s such an amazing landmark.

Painting as part of the Olympic Arts Festival, that was a huge honor and really an exciting time because the Olympics were coming to L.A. and ten artists were selected to paint murals on the freeways. So that was great. The amount of attention the Olympics received with not only local press, but international press, was significant. We had lots of interviews and photo shoots. I remember an interview on the freeway with a Japanese film crew and then there was a German film crew and then people were just walking down the freeway. I remember some people were walking down the freeway and I told them, ‘don’t do that! You shouldn’t be walking on the freeway!’ I remember painting on the three stories of the scaffolding on that mural and there was this guy up at the top and he was trying to signal me and so many people are trying to talk to you and you cant really hear anything because of the traffic. I didn’t know what he wanted but he ended up writing a letter, tying to a rock on a string and then lowering down to me on the scaffolding. So I opened it and it turned out that he was the owner or manager of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and he wanted to know if I would come and paint a mural on the Cecil Hotel, which is this very tall fifteen-story hotel. Huge walls. I did go by the site and check it out but it was huge and I was too busy so I didn’t end up doing that project.


When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing?

My major full; overly full-time job is Director of the CalArts Community Arts Partnership and that’s a program where we provide tuition free arts training to K-12 students throughout L.A. County. We have fifty-five different programs in sixty diverse neighborhoods throughout L.A. and that keeps me very busy. I get a lot of pleasure out of being a catalyst for young artists.


Who were some of your mentors?

I had a great mentor at UCLA named Lee Mullican. He was a wonderful painter, artist, and friend. I think he was really inspirational to me and then lots of different artists throughout the times. I was more influenced by contemporary artists than the past. My background and training was more about pushing the medium of artwork and muralism forward and I wasn’t so much interested in referring to the past. It’s a challenge to create things that haven’t been created before and I’m not saying that I have done that. I’m saying that it’s something that I strive for and it does challenge me.    


What are you current/future projects?

I am thinking about some new projects but I’m not doing any right now. I’m waiting to hear what’s going to happen with the L.A. Freeway Kids, and the re-emergence of that. I have lots of ideas for new projects but I keep very busy so it’s sometimes hard to squeeze in additional projects but maybe soon.


Which of your murals is your favorite? Why?

 I don’t know. I’m not a person who believes in picking favorites or choosing the “best.” What I really like is when that project involves students and when the students can learn all the processes and how to do it and find their voice and create something that is theirs. I think if I had to pick a favorite, and it’s not because the artwork is the best but because the process was so interesting is, I got to do two murals in a probation camp with incarcerated boys. This was Camp Rockey in San Dimas and working with those boys and getting them to express themselves was a transformative experience; they had the best ideas. They had the most forward thinking way of visualizing what they wanted to put on the wall. I was just amazed by what they did. We didn’t have very much source material because they’re incarcerated and we started the process in a classroom, so I brought in books on murals but the only books that were there were American History books. So they were looking at photographs of Mt. Rushmore and looking at the different presidents that were carved in Mt. Rushmore, and they were saying, ‘why don’t we do a mural, but instead of these presidents, we pick our heroes.’ So they picked Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, really important figures to them. So we changed Mt. Rushmore in the mural. Another mural that I did was at the Phoenix House. It’s a school and residential facility for young people who have drug and alcohol problems and I was there for a period of some months. We painted the whole entire courtyard area, which is this huge courtyard and the walls were fifteen to twenty feet high. We covered every single one of the four walls. The students wanted to do an underwater oceanography theme. It became this whole environment because once you’re in the middle of it you’re surrounded by these whales and fish and underwater subjects. That was really fun and also, I find it very therapeutic for the students. We would have hours and hours of just being out there painting. Painting can be very relaxing and also, inspiring and energizing. It can be a group activity or it can be a group that has very solitary elements to it where you’re engulfed in your own painting.


What themes/messages do you convey through your work?

 I think as I get older it’s getting easier and easier to be more forthcoming about certain issues and certain political things that I think are important to express through art. I’m always thinking about those kinds of things, but when I did the L.A. Freeway Kids it was more about celebrating youth and the kind of activities that youth are engaged in as they relate to athletics and the Olympics. I think if you did find a theme in my work it would be about young people finding their voice. Especially as it is more and more difficult to find quality arts training in the public schools. There still are great art teachers and great music programs but it seems the arts are always under attack and there are fewer and fewer opportunities in the arts. That’s why programs like the one we are doing: the CAP program is so important because we can provide youth with quality arts training, after-school, and in-school, on the weekends, and in the summers. CAP stands for the CalArts Community Arts Partnership and is a partnership between CalArts and 45 public schools, community-based organizations, and social service agencies. In this program, CAP is able to involve up to 10,000 young people annually in the visual, performing, media, and literary arts.



Name: Noni Olabisi


City of origin: Actually I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and we left St. Louis . . . uh, my mom died when I was about four years old. My father married a woman with five kids, and we were all stair-steps. So it was me, my sister, and my brother—three of us—and so we left St. Louis where my mom passed, to move . . . we stayed about five years in some part of Arkansas, then we moved here to California. So I consider myself really a native of California because I've been here most of my life; for at least fifty, about fifty years, yeah.


How did you find yourself in the arts? You know what, that was a weird situation because  . . . I have an actress friend who actually got a call for muralists. Now here it is, it comes to her house, and she comes over to my house and says "fill this out." And I said, "fill it out?" I say "I ain't never did no mural before in my life! You know, I don't know what to do. I never won nothing." She says "So what, fill it out." So I filled it out and my package that I sent in was nothing but portraits. And I had the opportunity to work with Nancy Cox on a SPARC mural. And I did very little, but I still had a sense of, 'oh my god', you know, this is something I could really dig. So anyway, I sent in my package and, lo and behold, I got a call saying, "you won." Oh my god! I was just . . . I was crying, I was so excited, and I was scared at the same time, 'cause I had never done a mural before. So I called up Judy [Baca] and said to her, "what do I do?" she said, "Here are some numbers, you can call them." So one of the numbers was Richard Wyatt. I called him up and said, "How do I paint a mural?" He said, “well first of all you always want to make sure your scale . . . well your small sketch scale, equals the same size of your wall, cause if there's any part off you're going to be off.” And then he said, “number it from letters at the top and numbers at the side, either way.” And that was it and I was trying to ask him more and he just clicked and hung up in my face and I was just scared. So one of my first murals that I ever painted was the Freedom Won't Wait, in 1992. Which was a phenomenal experience. Can I share a little bit about it?


Yes of course, that's what we're here for. We want to know the story. The Freedom Won't Wait mural was interesting because at that time Lindsey, Haley, and Alma Lopez were working for Judy Baca at SPARC [Social and Public Art Resource Center]. They were assigned to me and I couldn't come up with a sketch because I am not familiar with painting murals. So I couldn't come up with sketch and they pulled me to the side, they said "Hey look here sister, you holding up my check, you got to come up with your design," because everything is a deadline. So I still couldn't think of anything, and the first time I came up with a sketch I had nothing but faces. When I took the sketch to Judy, Judy said, "I'm so tired of African-Americans, Black folks, doing head shots. She said, “tell a story.” And so, that gave me an idea, because I don’t know nothing about murals. She said, “Richard Wyatt is already doing faces, so you tell a story.” How the story came about was, because in 1992, it was the uprising; the beating of Rodney King, and I worked at a barbershop that was across from the wall that the mural was painted on. When I first asked, one of first criteria of painting a mural is you have to find your own wall. So I asked my boss if I could paint a mural on his wall, and he said, “no I don’t like stuff on my wall.” But when the uprising of '92 happened, they were burning down every building that wasn’t black. Then he said, “you can paint a mural on my wall.” Hahaha he was ready then. Anyway, so we’re in the barbershop and I’m cutting hair and one of my coworkers came to me (because everyone is watching the first verdict on the T.V.: the beating of Rodney King). When they said not guilty of the police officers beating Rodney King, across the board, the shop became very chaotic. When the shop got all chaotic one of my coworkers came to me and he said, “Do you know what that means Noni? That means open season on black people.” I thought, oh my god, there it is and it was like something burst inside and the story started to birth itself. So it was just phenomenal how murals are birthed. You know you think it’s something that you’re doing but it’s actually an interplay of everybody around you and the spirit inside of you. And I have to say this: I wanted the wall to scream. I wanted the wall to scream because, there was an incident that happened where it was a patron, now I didn’t see the beginning and I don’t know why she had a knife, but she had a knife in her hand and she was surrounded by nine police officers, and they drop kicked her right in front of that wall. They laser tied her and dropped her like a hog, like you would tie a hog. Dropped her right on that cement and when I saw that, then I said I wanted that wall to scream, with everything that was going on, I wanted that wall to scream. A lot of times how I get my images, because I’m a little chicken, rather than be accused of creating chaos, what I would do is I would get images from different events that were happening around the world like in South Africa there was the apartheid, so you saw all the faces screaming, and then back in the early 60’s, you have the civil rights movement. So what I wanted to do was incorporate what was already said and done, but tell it in a story that was my way and then adlib some things and then put in the emotions that were going on in the community. Like there were some patrons saying, “no justice no peace.” So I wanted to put that in there. Also, the murals become a community where I’m listening to what they’re saying, what they’re going through, and one of my friends said, “its not freedom cant wait,” because that’s what I originally wanted to name it, but its, “freedom wont wait.” So I used it. So I listen to what the people say and then I incorporate it. It kind of reminds me of Diego Rivera, which is one of my favorites, because he says he listens to what the people say. He draws what he sees.


Where do you draw your inspiration?I have just been fascinated by art. As a kid, growing up, and going to Horace Mann Junior High School, I remember one of my teachers who said to me - I used to think I was cheated out of art, because they didn’t teach me - They would tell me, “here you take this big sheet of paper, and they would give everybody else the little sheet of paper.” They said, “you do what you want to do,” and I never could understand that. But as I got older I realized they saw something in me.


Describe yourself in 5 words: Haha, um in five words. I would say… it would be egotistical of me to say highly favored, but I really believe that there is something greater inside of me that wants to show me something and teach me something. So, describe myself… [an] "instrument of the most high".


What was the most memorable response to your work? You talked earlier about the mural that you created about the riots. How did people react to that? The peoples response to it was like a relief, because what’s on the mural was things they would like to say, and don’t say it, so it becomes one voice. The mural is not even mine, because it took me something like ten years later before I actually saw the mural because I really felt like I was possessed. And then I realized when I looked at it, I said you know what, I know I didn’t do this alone. 

When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing? Well, you know what, I got baptized October 9th of last year 2011. It has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life, besides taking a personal training and development course for five years, to discover that a lot of the way I was thinking, a lot of the ways I was speaking, came from the development outside of me. Now, it’s time to discover the well of information that is inside of me, without the outside influence. To have my voice. What I’m finding is that, oh my god, if I had known this, because I’m reading the bible, and I’m not reading the bible from the stand point of the pastor or the people in the congregation or even outside influences, I’m reading it for myself, and when you read it for yourself, there is a greater understanding, at least for me. And so now what I’m attuning myself to, and putting my ears and eyesight to, is turning my eyes inwardly and my ears inwardly so I can hear what the spirit is trying to tell me. Not trying to tell me, but is telling me, but am I going to be patient enough to listen? So what’s happening to me right now is a lot of meditation, a lot of alone time, and reading spiritual books, and just paying attention. And I’m starting to love people, because I think that the biggest game that has been played on us is the race game. That’s the biggest trick that’s been played on man, because when you really look into people’s eyes, you see the oneness. In the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “loving somebody for the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.” Its beautiful to have your own thoughts, because I’ve been taken by a lot of other thoughts, but to have your own thoughts is one of the greatest gifts you can have before you leave this Earth.


Who were some of your mentors?I read mostly books, and I looked at the images or go to the museums, so my mentors were from the books. I loved Rembrandt, because I like how he captured the realism of people, but I wanted to do black people in the same essence that he did his people. I would say mentors for me were people like Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and there’s a panther guy and I cant seem to think of his name. He was the cartoonist for the panther newspaper. Emory Douglas! I loved him, because he boldly expressed what he was feeling, what he was seeing, and he took the heart of the people in mind when he created his work. That really influenced me a lot, because I felt like by him telling the truth; the way he was telling truth, he put his life on the line for the people. You know that old saying, “serving the people with body, mind, soul and spirit,” and he embodies that. Then I have, like I said, I love the Los Tres Grandes. That’s Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. I had the opportunity to go to Mexico City, and inside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, oh my god; they could have locked me up in there. It’s so beautiful. The work still looks like it’s freshly painted. In fact I tell people I got married in Mexico, and I got married to the art, because I vowed to be truthful in my deliverance. What that truthfulness is, is what I’m starting to get now from the spirituality. I can’t wait to see what comes through.


So what are we going to see next? What are your future projects? Are you working on anything? Well actually I am. I’m working on a series about my baptism, because it was phenomenal. Willie Middlebrook documented it, and I’m telling you, he did a beautiful job and I want to do some things in regards to the baptism and how it felt for me personally. Outside of everybody else’s chatter and talking, I want to talk about how it felt for me. I want to render my relationship with the most high.


Which of your murals is your favorite? Why? Well, I love all of them, because they tell a story and they’re the stepping-stones to my development of where I am today. The Panther mural I love dearly. I love it so much because when I was growing up, they put their lives on the line for me, when I was chicken. I always tell people I had a yellow streak going down my back. It was my first encounter with people that didn’t mind protecting the community, with the law books in their hand, and at the time, you know it was the right to bear arms, but they didn’t have any bullets in the guns. I just thought that they meant so much to me. So that’s the dearest to my heart, the closest to my heart, because I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the panthers when I was rendering that mural. So that’s one of my favorite, and then one of my next favorite, because they kind of run side by side, is the one that Raul Gonzalez and I did. ‘Resurrection’, at Dawson High School, which is torn down now, because they wanted to build a gym. So I’m glad that Willie Middlebrook, once again, documented it. Its one of my favorites because it was, you know I don’t want to leave Alma out either, because the reason why the collaboration with the Latino artists was to show the cultural similarities, and when you show the cultural similarities, then you show . . .


We are all equal. Exactly!


We are all equal. We are closer and we are family. Yes. Yes, and that’s what we wanted to do to bridge the two communities together.


So the messages that you try to convey in your murals, as you said earlier, are to express the humanity of the people in the community, the concerns of the community, the politics of the community, the spirituality of the community, and in a way, what you have been doing is embracing all of us. It was so important to me and to all of us at the Mural Conservancy to interview you, because we feel that you have what we need. We need to be family, we need to embrace each other, we need to embrace the younger generation and you’re doing that so well.  We are so grateful that you do what you do. We are looking forward to what’s coming next. Thank you! 


Name:  Carlos Callejo


City of origin: I was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1951.


How did you find yourself in the arts?  People often ask whether you were born as an artist, or did you learn to be an artist, that kind of thing. I think for me, it was an innate feature of my personality; of my being. When I was in High School, there were these learning disabilities that are now diagnosed, like A.D.D. Well, I’m pretty sure I had A.D.D. or one of those. I had a different way of learning, and one of them was very visual. As I was growing up, I had a speech impediment that I used to be ashamed of and my self-esteem went down. I was not very articulate. So I used to overcompensate by drawing and reflecting or representing my thoughts through visuals. I have always been an artist. I was one of those kids who would day dream a lot. My grades weren’t up to par. I used to doodle a lot. So, those things, early on, were attributes of artistic expression.


How did you get involved in the Estrada Courts murals? I was teaching silk screening workshops to youngsters right out of college. I went to Cal State L.A. from 1969-72. In 1972 I broke my leg, so I never went back. I was working with a gentleman from Estrada Courts, who was very instrumental. His name was Smiley (Ismael Cazares). The main people that were kind of heading this, besides Charles ‘Cat’ Felix, were Oscar Eagle, Ismael, Whitey, and there was one other guy whose name I cannot remember. 


How many murals have you painted? Throughout my life, over one hundred. I have more murals than any other muralist in Los Angeles that you could name off the top of your head. I have twice as many as anyone you could pick off the top of your head, and I can prove it.


Describe yourself in 5 words:  Compassionate, Artistic, Passionate, Emotional, and Practical.


What was the most memorable response to your work? Oh, there is just so many of them. I really wouldn’t be able to pin one down. My art is not for ego feeding purposes, even though sometimes it helps, but I think my art serves a higher purpose for making some positive changes towards the new generation, towards my community, towards my family. I think the best responses I get are what it does to some youth. I wish there was a way to measure some of the success’s of some of the past works I have been involved in, because I have been involved in some projects that I could consider some of the participants miracle cases. They go on and it completely changes their lives towards a positive end where it was negative before. Those are the moments that really make me proud now; that I was able to change some youth’s life. They’re more rewarding. Two or three, off the top of my head, that to this day they still contact me to kind of thank me. At the time I didn’t know that I was making that much of an impact, but over time their persistence in communicating with me and still giving me thank you’s; I’m really proud of those moments.


When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing? I like cooking. I like to cook for people. It’s kind of an artistic trait too.


Who were some of your mentors? Once I started coming right out of high school, and actually during high school, I was being exposed to your Tres Grandes; Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera. I was growing up with a lot of other artists. I started being influenced by other artists. Some of them would be considered my peers, so in some ways we were feeding off each other. The Streetscapers, David Botello, Wayne Healey, Judy Baca, Willie Herrón; we were sort of learning off of each other. Some of them may be more my maestros, but no I think they were more my peers because we were learning off of each other.


What are you current/future projects? I have a lot of them in the pot. Recently, I haven’t been too lucky. This past year, I have made the finalists for two public art commissions, and both of them I didn’t get. I got the thanks but no thanks letter. Its been a little slow, but Willie Herrón and I will be cleaning and restoring two murals at Estrada Courts.


Which of your murals is your favorite? Why?  I don’t think I have a favorite, because they all tend to manifest a little bit differently. I tend to be proud that I use different styles. Even though, right now, especially in L.A., I haven’t had the opportunity to practice some of my styles, because the money is not available, but I wish I would get a commission where I could actually showcase some of my capabilities. It’s almost like being typecast, where people familiarize themselves with a certain style or a certain color palette, so they expect that from you. In a way, to me, that’s boring, you know? I want new challenges. I want new opportunities to really show my capabilities. Getting back to the original question, I would have to say that the El Paso County Courthouse Mural is probably my favorite or the one that I am most proud of. The budget I had for that particular project allowed me the luxury of really being picky. If I didn’t like something, I could completely whitewash it and start over again. Today, you can’t really do that because it’s not practical. I was able to really experiment on certain things. Its one where you have two dilemmas: what’s more important- the historical data that you’re trying to portray or your esthetics. Obviously, when you’re doing a historical piece you have to include a lot of things. I literally did so many sketches that half of the imagery never even got included in the mural, because I had to make it work. Sometimes, you even fall in love with the imagery that you’re doing at the time, but if you’re trying to force it into the overall composition, but sometimes you may fall in love with it but if it just doesn’t fit, its like trying to put a hand in a glove that’s not your size. So you kind of have to bite your tongue and put it away and maybe use it in some other opportunity. But, when you have a project like that, you have the luxury and time, because that was a $150,000 commission, so I was able to use my discretion of what works best. You can actually, take a virtual tour of the mural and see the whole piece and it tells who it represents, what landmark, what event, what key person, and it explains the whole thing. You can see this mural at


What themes/messages do you convey through your work? Early on, my messages and themes that I was utilizing were more for personal self-expression, not necessarily reflecting what was going on around me. One of my very first paintings that I did, basically related how I was dealing with the whole thought or idea about how the United States kind of indoctrinates a Chicano kid growing up in East L.A. The painting was about a young man, wrapped up in the Mexican flag, from his waist down, and had a lot of iconic symbolism that represents the Mexican culture. This kid was real frustrated, trying to maneuver his way out of it, and on top, you see a history book of the Americas and a television with eyes and arms, sort of controlling his brain. It was my own way of interpreting the indoctrination that was going on at the time, because the Chicano Movement wasn’t about just suffering; what I call the physical exploitation, the bad working conditions, bad health care, and bad housing, but also the psychological suffering that was brought to us by the media and the education system. All the images of Chicanos that were portrayed at the time were very negative imagery, so it was a way for me to express my frustration. It was very personal themes that I was drawing, but later on it became more political; it became more expressive to the general audience, because it was a way of teaching.


Who is your favorite muralist and why? I guess I would definitely have to say David Alfaro Siqueiros. I like his work because of his dynamic imagery. He was a master of using perspective towards making a big impact. He is the one that also conquered what they call the punto de oro; everything ended some place. Sometimes, when I am asked about my influences in my styles, I tend to think I have a lot of Siqueiros and Paul Rubens. Paul Rubens was not a muralist, but as an artist, he was the master of movement. In some ways I like those triangular, cubist styles of Siqueiros, and in other ways I like the round shapes and forms of Rubens.


 What is your experience painting in Los Angeles as opposed to El Paso? L.A. is saturated. It’s a little bit harder. In all fairness, I think even though I had a lot more success outside of L.A., but right before coming back to L.A. it was dwindling down. I think it’s almost generational. I have such an abundance of public artworks under my belt, so you would think that is something that certain commissions are looking for, but I kind of think that is not necessarily true. I don’t know if I should be revealing this, but I think I get a double whammy, because of my past experience as a public artist who sometimes dwells in controversial themes and subject matters, but also being a public art advocate and sort of being a troublemaker, in the lack of better words, I get kind of the shaft from the powers that be. But then on the other hand, the new up and coming artists feel threatened because of my experience, that somehow that gives me an advantage in the selection process of commissions. Many of these commissions are political, depending on who the selection committee is. Usually there is a lot of self-interest and a little bias that goes into the selection process. In the past, I always hope that my applications would be judged based on merit and not on political connections. 

Bienvenidos wellness center in East Los Angeles
Carlos Callejo with current work in progress