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Eyes Of Picasso Back On San Diego

Eyes of Picasso Mural, 2010

The latest incarnation of the "Eyes of Picasso" mural by artist Mario Torero.


Over the weekend, the latest version of the "Eyes of Picasso" mural was unveiled in a new location. We'll talk with muralist Mario Torero about the various incarnations of this beloved mural and his efforts to launch a new art district with murals along Logan Avenue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The intense, passionate and demanding eyes of Pablo Picasso are gazing on San Diego again. The latest incarnation of the public artwork "Eyes of Picasso" was unveiled last weekend, right after the Cesar Chavez parade in Barrio Logan. The artist behind the Eyes is himself intense and passionate about the value of public art. Mario Torero is on a mission to bring art to the people and in addition to the "Eyes of Picasso," he and fellow artists are painting a series of murals along Logan Avenue. Mario Torero is my guest, and welcome to These Days.

MARIO TORERO (Muralist): Good morning. What a pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s a pleasure to have you here. What was the response of the unveiling on Saturday of this new incarnation of “Eyes of Picasso”?

TORERO: Yes, in a sense it’s kind of a whisper in comparison to the voice that it had for so many years, you know, downtown. And then it was missing since 2004 when they destroyed the last version and the reincarnation building came down.


TORERO: So because I think that, again, this is the new beginning, a reincarnation of the Eyes and which is going to grow as it goes on. And so to us, it’s just that – that visual step that people can realize that we – we’re still here and we are moving and now we are incorporating the barrio because this all is about the arts district. The Eyes were there before in the seventies at the Community Arts Center, which became the Horton Plaza and then at the Reincarnation project, which then became the Ballpark District after we turned it into the East Village Arts District, and so kind of the history sort of repeats itself.


TORERO: And so now we’re a new episode. We call it The Barrio Logan East Village Arts District.


TORERO: The Belief Project, and we have activity happening on both sides. Barrio Logan because of the Chicano Park history, of course, has been there a long time…


TORERO: …but we are taking a new approach into this in which we want to bridge downtown with Barrio Logan, which is also that’s very new as you – we know the history.

CAVANAUGH: Now, for this unveiling, though, this last Saturday, actor Herbert Siguenza, who is playing Picasso…


CAVANAUGH: …at the Lyceum Theatre was there. Tell us about that.

TORERO: Well, we, Culture Clash and all of us have grown together.


TORERO: I’ve known him for many years. And – But this time, when I heard that they were going to do this special thing with the composition with Picasso, that’s when I said this must be the moment…


TORERO: …because I had seen that wall where it’s painted now, now for about a year or so, I saw that wall and I said this is where it should go. And it’s just kind of like all so many dreams I have in my head. But sooner or later they do give birth and so I talked to the Rep. I talked to him first, Herbert, and he thought it was a great idea. We got together and we planned this, and so it was like, yeah, having Picasso there in person. I saw the play and I think it’s a very important situation that’s happening here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you gave us, Mario, a little bit of a rundown on the various locations that the “Eyes of Picasso” have been in San Diego. How did this idea for the mural come about originally?

TORERO: Uh-huh. Well, the contemporary history of San Diego can be traced back to 1970.


TORERO: Before that – and I – me and my father were here, we know that as far as arts we had was at the Sunday art marts in the park by the bay. But the Chicano art movement brought public art into being when we started the Centro Cultural in Chicano Park and placed our murals there. But it wasn’t enough. I thought that San Diego and the arts were one. It wasn’t just in the barrios. So me and my father and my group of artists from Chicano Park opened up a gallery downtown, which – in 1976, which in turn became the Community Arts Center in 1977. By 1978, I realized that we needed to practice what we were preaching and I was the muralist specialist for the city so that’s when I envisioned that on that side wall of the Community Arts Center, which I decided that that’s where the “Eyes of Picasso” would be – would go. But except that let me backtrack. In 1973, when we started painting Chicano Park, the City of San Diego locally was – we feel that the media was really trying to avoid us a bit but it took the Europeans, a French writer, to come to San Diego to do a report on Chicano art, on the Chicano artists, and in the process, by summer, Picasso dies. And soon after that, this writer comes and brings to Chicanos a present from Europe and it was a replica of the “Eyes of Picasso,” a black and white print about three by five feet, done by the famous Picasso photographer David Douglas Duncan. And Salvador Torres, which was the president, he was the leader of us Chicano artists of the park, he said to me, Mario, I think you’ll know what to do with this. So he didn’t know, I didn’t know, no one knew. But five years – four years later, by 1977, I decided to paint it on the side of the Community Arts Center and it was there until 1982 when it was bulldozed to give – to create the Horton Plaza.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been knowing what to do with it now for what? It’s almost 35 years…

TORERO: It’s 37 years or so, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Now, tell us a little bit, Mario, I know mural painting is so much a part of Chicano experience, really the Mexican-Latin American experience. Tell us the power of the mural.

TORERO: It’s community arts at work. It’s in the streets. It’s in the barrio. It’s in your eyes and so it belongs to the people. And Chicanos, well, it’s a long history of indigenous censorship that had existed. We had – we didn’t even know we had a great history with Aztecs and Mayans because we were not being taught that in schools. So when this renaissance comes to us, the Chicanos, Latinos, we were exploding with ways of expressing ourselves, our culture, so the walls were the first things we went at it. I mean, the kids still go at it. They’re doing graffiti and stuff. It’s kind of an instinct. An artist just likes to go to a wall and express themselves, I think. But – So that became our way to tell the world we’re here and it’s a celebration to us. And so when we had Chicano Park, we tried – we knew – we envisioned that we were going to paint those walls but it still took us three years to try to negotiate with the city, with the state, to see how we were going to do this. But we got the runaround, so we decided on our own that on March 27th, 1973, we begun (sic) painting Chicano Park and that’s how community – that’s how public arts kind of got started in the barrios and then we went to the other barrios and then we took it downtown and it’s just – We took it as far as we could take it in the region. And – But that’s the beginning, public art actually is sculptures and anything that is done on the – in the open space but the idea that it belongs to the community.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you because what you said gave me an idea, the murals are basically the way the community had to celebrate its own history, history that had been suppressed. What is, though, the relationship between you, as a painter, and the taggers, the people who do use walls and cover them with graffiti? What do you – Do you see yourself in competition? Or do you see yourself doing the same thing?

TORERO: I do things out of a great need in society. I think if I come to a group of people and I look around and if I see an element missing, I almost take the responsibility to be that element. And because the education has suffered and the recreation centers are closing, libraries are closing, while they’re still putting trails in the air and there’s a lot of waste going on, I want to do my part in reaching out to the needy, to the community, to the kids, to the youth because they are dying to express themselves. They have so much to discover and they like the means and facilities. That’s why my whole thing is a school of art in the open, in the streets with the people. And that’s – and I’ve been getting the attention by – through the school and doing these murals to the point that I just – we just got a grant from – to do more murals and that’s how we encourage. Now we have like five, six murals already going on at the intersection of Samson and Logan where the “Eyes of Picasso” are now. And in the process, we’re meeting more, the residents, the owners of the buildings, and they’re excited about what we’re doing. They would like us to do more on their walls, and so people are starting to feel the pressures coming of the gentrification coming up Logan, and so they know that they have to do something. And fixing up their property is one way of doing it, and the murals are leading the way.

CAVANAUGH: Now are there students involved in the creation of these murals?

TORERO: Yes, my school, the first thing in my school is like you’re my student but I’m also your student. We are here to learn together. We’re going to explore and somehow our energies are going to open up ways. So my students are anybody that I really work with and, yes, they – We call ourselves the Artivists, and primarily right now are the murals.

CAVANAUGH: Now I read what you were saying about some of the murals you’re creating and you were talking about the idea that these works of art could – can be – would be so expensive if they were in a gallery or in a museum but now what they are is they’re everybody’s for free.

TORERO: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm. It’s the only way to get things done. Chicano Park, we have like I want to say 100 pillars, I’m not sure really. I should’ve counted them. At least over 60 pillars. And all that has been done through our own initiative, through our own pockets. We’ve never received any money. And if we waited for the money to show up, where nothing would get done, so out of necessity, we have – we’ve been able to develop new ways, new roads, of progress by not caring or worrying about the money. We feel that if we – so we’re going for the ideas. We’re going for the concept and the dreams, and we’re making them happen through just us putting our bodies in front. And I find so many other artists frustrated because they don’t have the means to show, there’s no venues, there’s no money, there’s no art market almost, so that this is a way – it’s a therapy.


TORERO: It’s a school. It’s a clinic.

CAVANAUGH: Now you had – you say you have several murals underway right now. What is the subject of this Logan Avenue project?

TORERO: You know, I’m leaving it open. It’s freedom of expression, most of all. For instance, there’s a mural there was done over Christmas, done by a group of Mexicali artists by – There was an exhibition at the Centro Cultural amid some artists from Mexicali. I just almost jokingly, I said, you ought to come and paint with us in the barrio. And they took it on. They came, 20 artists in a week, and Saturday, Sunday they created this mural which is completely different from the way we see things here. Here, we put lots of color and Aztec and Mayan gods and – But they came and painted on a large wall, about 15 by 50 feet, many – a whole family sleeping, and they titled the mural “Life is a Dream.”


TORERO: But it’s – it creates some shock in some of the people that live there because like one complained to me, says, what is that? He says, life is not a dream. You know? It’s a nightmare perhaps. Who knows? But I like the controversy or at least it picks up different perspectives of looking at it, so I hope that the artist brings his own perspective, whatever it may be, and create a conversation going, many voices talking, you know.

CAVANAUGH: We only have a few seconds left.


CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, do you think the “Eyes of Picasso” are there to stay now?


CAVANAUGH: Are there to stay at that location?

TORERO: You know, I’ve stopped thinking permanency. Even the murals are not permanent. But we are active. It shows that we are active in Barrio Logan and East Village. In East Village, we’re developing artists studios, live-work spaces. It’s a laboratory again, on 15th and J. It’s called San Diego Arts Space – San Diego Space for Art. Check it out.

CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there. Mario, thank you so much.

TORERO: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Mario Torero is a muralist and artist who has painted many of the murals you’ll see in Barrio Logan, Sherman Heights, and the East Village. People can see images of the older versions of the “Eyes of Picasso” and a video of the new mural at Thanks for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days right here on KPBS.

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