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Chicana Muralist Judith Baca Creates Walls Of Public Memory

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Aired 10/22/09

Pioneering chicana muralist Judith Baca has created public art that is truly public - it engages the community and tells their stories. In the 1970s, Baca created and directed one of the largest mural projects in the world, called the Great Wall of Los Angeles. An exhibit of her paintings, drawings, and renderings will be on display at the San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery.

This mural entitled "La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra" was completed for USC by Chicana muralist Judith Baca.
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Above: This mural entitled "La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra" was completed for USC by Chicana muralist Judith Baca.

Public Art / Private Works, an exhibit of work by Chicana muralist Judith Baca will be on display in the Mesa College Art Gallery through November 12th. Tonight there is an opening reception at 4:30 and an artist lecture at 7 p.m.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. To see the work of a great muralist you usually have to make a special trip to a specific site. Right now, however, the art gallery at San Diego Mesa College is making it easy to see one of the recent works of renowned California muralist Judith Baca. 25 feet of the gallery walls will hold the paintings created for Baca's mural at Denver's International Airport, called "La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra." That mural continues the themes of Chicano and Mexicano history which have inspired much of Judith Baca's work, including one of the longest murals in existence, the “Great Wall” of Los Angeles. The show at Mesa College also includes smaller pieces of art, so-called private works by Judith Baca and showcases plans for a new interpretive center at the site of the "Great Wall" mural. Artist Judith Baca is also a scholar and an educator. She is a Professor of Fine Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. And, Judith, welcome to These Days.

JUDITH BACA (Muralist): Thank you. It’s very nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: You know, thinking about the murals, these giant works of art that you create with, of course, help, and we’re going to talk about that as well, did you originally, when you wanted to be an artist, want to become a muralist?

BACA: No, actually I didn’t know much about muralism at all. I actually came to it around the back door. I saw in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles people using the walls to speak about political issues and it was the 1960s as I came out of the university, and a movement was in process for social justice for women, for Latinos, for Native Americans, for African-Americans, and I was more – most interested in how my art could serve the change, the change toward the positive. And the walls were written on and I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if the walls could be beautiful and that they could say important things? And it was later, after I was painting my first mural that I began to understand that it came from a great tradition and that tradition actually was very much centered where my family came from. And Los Tres Grandes had given us perhaps the most important murals in the 20th century and in the world.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about those murals.

BACA: Well, as I began to paint my own works on the east side of Los Angeles, I began to see the precedences of artists that produced work in Mexico and Los Tres Grandes had painted during the – after the Revolution, a whole series of magnificent works. They were educational pieces speaking about the history of a revolution to teach the people. And I – as I – I had a degree in art, I had a master’s degree in art, and yet we had never looked to the south in our studies, so the Mexican muralists were absent to my knowledge and I made a trip to Mexico very quickly and I went through the Palacio de Bellas Artes, saw the work – the great works of Diego Rivera, Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who later I began to study with. I studied in his workshop and was able to learn the techniques that the great maestro, the youngest of the three, had produced.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, because you must have thought about this now after creating your own murals. What is it that drives people to create art in a public place rather than just, you know, getting a canvas and painting in that form? What is it that drives people to write on walls, to paint on walls, and have that out in the public that way?

BACA: Well, I think it’s actually a very interesting thing for people like myself. I like to say I’m a kind of a straight arrow. I’ve been a public artist from the beginning. I didn’t start as an easel painter and then become a public artist. I was interested from the very beginning of my art making to make work for the people. I wasn’t interested in creating easel paintings that were purchased by people and used for private collections and controlled by those who owned them but I was interested in work that could be owned by everyone or perhaps no one and that they would be in the places where the art was least likely to be seen and perhaps do the greatest good. Get to clean up a blighted neighborhood, to make a space that was once terrifying magnificent, because art should not only be for those who could afford it but it should be art for all people. And since it’s really the work of the soul, I was interested in all the souls.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we’re going to be talking about some of the art that’s going to be on display at the art gallery at San Diego Mesa College but I do want to take just a moment or two to talk about the “Great Wall”…

BACA: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: This magnificently long mural up in LA that you’re so well known for. You – it was completed over five summers in the late 1970s. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the project, how you chose the wall, and the people involved in making this project happen.

BACA: Right. Well, I mean, really it’s exciting because right as I’m speaking—and maybe they’re even hearing me—the “Great Wall” alumni and a new artist are actually restoring the first 1000 feet of a 2740 foot work that was produced by over 400 youth, many of them at-risk youth coming from juvenile justice programs and from poverty programs. And over a 15 year period in five different summers, we produced a long narrative that is the history of all of the different people who built California, who made California, the myriad range of immigrants and indigenous people who made our state and made our country. And it’s the narrative of those people coming to build a country that is depicted in that work, beginning with prehistoric times all the way up to the 1950s. They…

CAVANAUGH: There are dinosaurs on it.

BACA: There are dinosaurs, there are – there are the La Brea Tar Pits, there are magnificent totem animals and spiritual riches of the Chumash. The haciendas, the early Californios. And the California Cultural Historical Endowment has just graced us with a grant for $1.5 million for the restoration of this important historic legacy. It’s a place where many of the stories that have not been depicted anywhere else in Los Angeles are made on the walls. So it’s a – you can go there and see about the Zoot Suit Riots, you can understand about the Japanese internment, you can learn about Mrs. Laws who changed the black covenant laws in her struggle against the control of where black people could live in LA. So it’s quite an amazing narrative.

CAVANAUGH: I just wanted to ask you really quickly where is it located so that everyone can go see it?

BACA: Well, right now’s a great time to see it, to watch it change every day. Go to Coldwater Canyon between Oxnard and Burbank Boulevards in Studio City, which is off the 101 Freeway and which is Studio City, North Hollywood district.

CAVANAUGH: And when we come back, we will be talking about Judith Baca’s show at La Mesa College that is underway right now. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS, and we will return after just a few minutes.

CAVANAUGH: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and I’m here with artist Judith Baca. We’re talking about the murals that she’s done, of course that “Great Wall” of Los Angeles mural up in Los Angeles. And there is also a show at Mesa College Art Gallery that displays her works, even some of her largest works we can see in the form of paintings. And I want to talk about that, Judith, if we may. When people go to the Mesa Art Gallery, and they’ll see your paintings for a mural that’s currently on view at the Denver Airport, it’s called “The Memory of Our Land,” and tell us some of the stories that are included in that large mural.

BACA: Well, actually, this is a mural in which I had the opportunity to tell my family’s story of migration during the Mexican Revolution into a place called La Junta Colorado, which is up the Santa Fe Trail, through the Ellis Island of the southwest, El Paso, into the Denver region. My grandfather came in about 1918, escaping a war in Chihuahua and losing his farm and his ranch, and began to work for the railroad, and so the stories actually are about that trip. And the painting at Mesa College is a collision of landscapes that I actually painted when I was an artist in residence at Harvard, and I was showing what it must’ve been like to walk, to take a train, over various landscapes of that Santa Fe Trail as they went north, which hundreds and thousands of other people took, so while it was my family’s story, it was also theirs. And so out of the land, I brought images that were digital images of various people’s histories who are embedded in that place because all cultures actually believe that memory is embedded in place. So you go to a place, to the Wailing Wall, for example, because of its significance historically, or to the fields of Gettysburg to remember that particular event and the loss of so many lives, American lives in the war, in the Civil War, so this is about place and this particular southwest territory. And out of the land comes Corky Gonzales and Caesar Chavez bringing the grape boycott in the late 1960s, early 1970s. The Cheyenne woman comes up out of the river remembering the massacre at Sand Creek on the corner of the Luisa Maria Baca land grant, which is where I think my family was going. So all of the story is embedded in place and that’s what’s depicted there. Those pieces actually became twice that scale. And…

CAVANAUGH: And I was going to ask you, though, as I said in our opening, that this, even though it is not anywhere as big as the mural, its actual size at the Denver International Airport, this is 25 feet of wall at the Mesa College Art Gallery. Do you often get a chance to exhibit your work at – in that kind of a scale?

BACA: Well, it’s always hard to get, you know, the big pieces, and 25 feet is a pretty modest scale for my work.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

BACA: We were trying to bring 30-foot pieces that were 10 feet high and we couldn’t quite fit them so… I have another work called “The World Wall,” which is about world peace and it travels from country to country and it gets pieces added. We couldn’t fit that. So the 25-foot piece did beautifully. It’s a beautiful display of the maquette, which is the smaller version of the 50-foot work that is in Denver International Airport in the Jeppesen Terminal, so if you’re waiting in security, you’ll be standing in front of my piece.

CAVANAUGH: Now you also have smaller works, what Mesa College is calling private works…

BACA: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …that deal with identity and social issues. There’s a piece called a “Pachuca.” Tell us about this piece.

BACA: The “Pachuca.” Actually, you look real close, and it’s me.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

BACA: And it’s a piece actually that the Smithsonian has in the Latino treasures, it’s part of a triptych and it was about women’s identity that I produced in 1974. And I was looking at what Chicanas, Latinas, at this particular time in the 1970s had as choices, and I – this piece is called “The Three Marys,” “Tres Marias.” And it was looking at the notion of having to be a mother or, you know, rejecting all that and becoming a whore and, you know, that was the alternate choice, or becoming a housewife, you know, sort of like the three Marys, the Virgin Mother, you know, the three classic Marys. And I produced myself as the “Pachuca.” Actually, it isn’t really me from that period because I – my mother would have never allowed me to shave my eyebrows, rat my hair up six inches on my head and to put raccoon eyes on. But she was a character, and a fascinating character with a kind of mask from the 1940s and the early ‘50s. This look, the look of the woman who was fierce and exotic and, in fact, highly sexualized and scary, you know, kind of a little bit scary. She created a mask for herself to deal with the outside world. And so I donned the character and I became the character, and she became one of the three Marys in the triptych. The third Mary in my image, one was a cholla, a kind of a 1970s character, and one was the pachucha from the 1950s, in the middle was the mirror. So in other words, you could add the third version and you could be something entirely different.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, you can progress that way.

BACA: Exactly. Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now, also, as part of what’s being shown at Mesa College Art Gallery, of your work, Judith Baca, we talked about the restoration that’s underway for the “Great Wall”…

BACA: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …in Los Angeles.

BACA: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s also design efforts for – to add to that area with a green bridge and with an interpretive center and I believe that some of the designs for those projects are also on view at the art gallery at Mesa College. Tell us a little about that.

BACA: Well, the green bridge is a wonderful thing because actually for the first time in this mural now that is 35 years old has – we’re making the connection between the people and the river. We painted in the concreted river. The river of Los Angeles was concreted throughout all of the city in the 1920s in the largest public works project in the history of America in which our rivers were controlled and tamed. And, of course, the outcome was a very negative one in many ways. We divided communities, we stopped the water from flowing to the aquifer. We polluted our bay. We made a critical mistake in, I think, in the control of this river in this way. So the “Great Wall” is like the tattoo on the scar where the river once ran. And we were trying to heal that scar and how we were doing it was by bringing back the stories of the people and now we’re actually bringing back the stories of the river because the river and the people are connected because the land and the people are connected. And it’s something we need to know more than ever. Our bridge is going to be the first total photovolactic (sic) green bridge in America. It will be an interpretive site. It will be composed of semititious (sic) material but also the refuse from the river, so our rails will be the shopping carts that float down the river, the broken glass from the river, rubber balls, plastic bottles, the things that are polluting our bay.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a marvelous project. And we have just about – We have so little time. I think I really do have to end it there because that was a wonderful rendition of how to bring back – how to bring back an area from decay. And I want to thank you so much for being my guest and speaking with us today.

BACA: Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed it.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that Judith Baca’s exhibition at the art gallery at San Diego Mesa College is called Public Art/Private Works. It’s on display at the college art gallery through November 12th. And tonight there’s an opening reception at 4:30 and an artist lecture at 7:00 p.m. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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