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Writing on the Walls

Photo by Max S. Gerber

Photo by Max S. Gerber

In 1976, muralist Judy Baca cofounded Venice’s Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) to preserve and promote her art form. Today she’s busy inaugurating a Masters of Fine Arts program, in cooperation with UCLA and Antioch College, to help emerging artists who remind her of herself in their struggle “to find a place to live within the university.” She’s also behind a new digital lab at the Otis College of Art and Design, which allows selected high school students of color to attend a three-year training program in graphic-design techniques. More recently, she was involved in a bitter dispute with the anti-immigrant Save Our State over her Baldwin Park monument, an arch whose inscriptions the group deemed inflammatory and staged protests against.

Baca was there during the 1970s Chicano Moratorium, when Ruben Salazar was killed and protesters filled the streets. It was an event that formed her political consciousness — and perhaps her political radar. Not long before the recent immigration demonstrations that have spread around the city and the country, she said, “I think the situation for Latinos today in some profound way is worse. The situations that brought us to our feet in the 1970s are very similar.”

She’s also seen changes for the worse in her own Venice stomping grounds. “[It’s become] increasingly filled with vacuous advertising images” (one has only to look at the Bacardi billboard upstaging Rip Cronk’s 1989 Botticellian Venus mural on the boardwalk) and has challenged the City Council to secure money and space for public art. Although Antonio Villaraigosa’s election seemed to augur a brighter future for Latino art, Los Angeles still has an anti-mural climate, with Cultural Affairs Department funding completely cut off and more restrictions placed on muralists than on commercial advertisers.

Ironically, Baca’s own work has suffered from constant tagging, since graffiti signatures enjoy a longer life when spray-painted on murals. In response, Baca is trying to teach the value of public art to those she dubs “the last remaining muralists” by employing them in her restoration projects. Baca’s new work includes San Jose’s first Cesar Chavez monument and San Diego’s first Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, an all-steel mural the size of a football field. She will also be returning to the Tujunga Flood Control Channel to continue restoring her colossal Great Wall of Los Angeles project.

Since history keeps going, so will the Great Wall. “The next step is setting up a method for it to be continued beyond me,” she says. “I’m planning for my succession.”