Baca, Judith F.: 1946—: Muralist, Visual Artist, Educator
Judith F. Baca: 1946—: Muralist, visual artist, educator
When most people think of art, their immediate response has been to imagine the kind of art found in museums. For instance, the works of Rembrandt or Chagall suggest great art of museum quality. In contrast, the kind of art that people could view on the streets of American cities has not always been considered to be great art. In fact, in the past, such art might have been simply labeled street art and dismissed as only a slightly more artistic representation of the graffiti that decorates so many city fences and businesses. But in recent years, public art, the art of the streets and communities, has begun to be valued as a significant representation of American cultural life.
In large part this change in status can be attributed to one artist—Judith F. Baca. Over the past thirty years, Baca has created and led a movement to redefine the meaning of art. She has perhaps become best known for her seven year project, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, but in fact, Baca's work has encompassed much more that just this one notable project.
Raised In A Female Household
Judith Francisca Baca, a second-generation Chicana, was born in south central Los Angeles on September 20, 1946. As a young child, Baca was raised in a female-dominated household that included her mother, Ortensia Baca, her grandmother, and two aunts. Baca's grandmother raised her, while her mother worked in a tire factory to support the family. Baca's father, Valentino Marcel, was not a part of her life. Baca never knew her musician father, but has stated in interviews that her childhood was quite happily spent in the women-only household. One of Baca's aunts had developmental problems, and her mental age of five meant that Baca had a built-in playmate at home.
When Baca was six years old, her mother married Clarence Ferrari, and the family moved from their Huntington Park neighborhood to Pacoima, California. The change was a dramatic one for Baca, whose grandmother and aunts remained behind in their south central Los Angeles home. Although the new town was only about twenty miles north of Los Angeles, it was a new and completely different world for Baca. In Pacoima, Baca entered a school where the primary language was English. Baca's earlier childhood had been in a Spanish-speaking household, and now she struggled in school. Ironically, it was the struggle with language that led to Baca's interest in art. Because of the language problems, Baca's teacher permitted the young girl to sit at a corner desk and paint, while the other students continued with their studies.
In spite of her initial language problems, Baca quickly mastered English, and in 1964 she graduated from Bishop Alemany High School, a Catholic school in Mission Hills, California. Baca married at age 19, but within six years the marriage ended, and she returned to Bishop Alemany to teach, after having received a bachelor's degree from California State University at Northridge in 1969. This first teaching job served as a predictor for how Baca would connect art and community. Soon after she began teaching, Baca enticed a number of ethnically diverse students to paint a mural at the school, thus anticipating the ways in which she would eventually interconnect art and social action.
At a Glance . . .
Born September 20, 1946 in Los Angeles, CA; divorced. Education: California State University at Northridge, B.A., art, 1969; California State University at Northridge, M.A., art.
Career: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), founder, 1976; University of California, professor of Fine Arts, 1980–; UCLA's Cesar Chavez Center, vice chair, 1996–; UCLA, professor of art for world arts and cultures, 1996–.
This first teaching job did not last long, however. Shortly after beginning her new job, Baca became involved in public protests against the Vietnam War. An administrative change at Alemany High School was less tolerant of these protests, and eventually Baca was fired, as were ten nuns and seven other lay teachers. Baca had thought that she would be unable to earn a living as an artist, and so she had gone into education to provide a means of support for herself and her art. Although initially the loss of her job was traumatic, in a sense, the loss of this first position opened new doors for Baca. Rather than rely on teaching as a career, she began to focus on her art.
Began Working With Underprivileged Children
Baca's next job was with the city of Los Angeles in a special program for artists. Baca's new job was to travel from schools to parks, teaching art. She soon formed her own group, Las Vistas Nuevas, a group for children from four different gangs and neighborhood groups. Baca's group painted her first mural for her, in Hollenbeck Park. The success of this mural led to recognition that Baca could use art to turn around the lives of children who other city workers had found unmanageable. Eventually, Baca's work with the city of Los Angeles would lead to the creation of hundreds of murals, most of which were created by youths who might otherwise have never discovered art.
The moment that really changed Baca's life, though, was her discovery of the Mexican muralist tradition. This occurred when she received a book on "Los Tres Grandes,"—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. Reading about these three early Mexican muralists inspired Baca to learn more about the tradition of murals, and by the mid-1970s, she had traveled to Mexico to take classes in mural techniques and materials.
After she returned to Los Angeles, and with the backing of the city, Baca began an ambitious project, the Citywide Mural Project. Under the auspices of this project, Baca supervised the painting of at least 250 murals. It became clear that Baca had a special talent for working with youths and for inspiring their creativity. She was taking multicultural youths, whom the community might otherwise condemn for defacing property with graffiti, and providing them with an acceptable outlet for their creative talents. In a statement that she provided on her website, Baca said that she has worked "to address social justice issues for ethnic neighborhoods." The mural project, which employed more than 1000 youths, led to the creation of more than 500 murals in neighborhoods across Los Angeles. Baca's artists were, in large part, teens whose work served to illustrate the uniqueness of their world. The result of Baca's efforts were murals and walls that reflected the community's diversity.
Launched Great Wall Project
Baca's next project, and the one for which she was best known, was the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a mural that provides 2,435 running feet of art. To create the Great Wall, more than 400 young people, ages 14 to 21, worked for seven summers, from 1976 to 1984. Baca described on her website how she "coordinated the efforts of scholars, oral historians, local artists, and hundreds of community members to create one of the nation's most acclaimed monumental cultural projects dealing with interracial relations." Baca conceived the Great Wall as a tribute to California. At more than 13 feet in height and nearly half a mile in length, the Great Wall tells the story of Los Angeles's history from Neolithic times through the end of the 1950s.
The wall also captures the ethnic diversity of the many groups that shaped California's history, and thus, it narrates a story that is less well known than the stories of the gold rush era with which so many people associate California's chronicle. In an essay that she wrote for Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Baca told of the destruction of many of the old ethnic neighborhoods and landmarks as Los Angeles began to sprawl to meet population demands. In particular, Baca noted the concreting of the entire Los Angeles River, upon whose banks the city was originally founded. The site of all this concrete provided Baca with the site for her Great Wall: "Just as young Chicanos tattoo battle scars on their bodies, the Great Wall of Los Angeles is a tattoo on a scar where the river once ran. In it reappears the disappeared stories of ethnic populations that make up the labor force which built our city, state, and nation." From these words, it is clear that Baca used her mural as a way to resurrect what the city was destroying in its everlasting expanse of cement—the city's diverse ethnic and cultural history.
While still working on the Great Wall, Baca founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in 1976. Although located in Venice, California, SPARC has maintained a website that has provided extensive information about Baca's commitment to public art. The creation of the website has helped to bring Baca's work to both a national and an international audience, which further emphasized the value of her mural projects to an audience that extended beyond Los Angeles. For instance, the work on the Great Wall established the importance of working with diverse ethnic and social groups to create public art, and as such, it was an idea that could be applied to a more global project. This experience, which led to the creation of SPARC, then led to Baca's plan in 1987 for the creation of a World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear. Baca was inspired to undertake this huge project after reading Jonathan Schell's, Fate of the Earth.
The themes of the World Wall included global interdependence, peace, and an end to racial hatred. Unlike the Great Wall of Los Angeles, which was a permanent part of the Los Angeles landscape, the World Wall was a portable mural, consisting of seven 10-by-30-foot panels, arranged in a 100-foot semicircle. The advantage of this portability was inherent in its themes—a mural that was global in nature must reach a global audience. As the World Wall traveled around the globe, new sections were added by artists in each of the countries it visited.
World Wall Established in Jerusalem
One example of the effect of the World Wall was noted when it traveled to Jerusalem. The artists for this new section included an Israeli Jew, an Israeli Arab, and a Palestinian. A report in the New York Times related how, even though the artists worked well together, the many years of conflict could not be breached, especially between the Israeli Jew and the Palestinian. The Israeli Arab, Ahmed Bweerat, told the reporter that "throughout the work on the mural, I felt my role was as a go-between, to lower the fires on both sides."
Yet in spite of a mediator, the completion of this panel of the mural did not bring the hoped-for peaceful resolution to its artists. At its completion and at its first showing, the artists were bitterly divided about how each had represented his people. Yet in spite of these problems, Baca's goals for the World Wall might actually have had a positive result. At the conclusion of the interview, the three artists told the New York Times that they were planning another mural, "a mosaic of children's images to be placed, they hope, on a future Israeli-Palestinian border." Although the mural could not create peace, it might at least lead to a new dialogue and the promise of a future peace.
In addition to the work on the Great Wall, Baca has also been involved in several other mural projects. In 1988 the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, asked Baca to develop a mural program similar to that used in developing the Great Wall of Los Angeles. The result was a program called, Great Walls Unlimited: Neighborhood Pride, which included ninety new murals and involved nearly every ethnic group in Los Angeles.
Baca has also been involved in creating several other murals. In 1996 Baca created a nine-foot by 23-foot mural at the University of Southern California. Titled, La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra (Our Land Has Memory), this mural depicted the role of the land in the historical memory of the inhabitants. In addition to this work, Baca had several other projects in progress. In Durango, Colorado, and with the use of the Internet, Baca has helped to design another mural with the same name and theme, with the Southern Ute and the Chicano youth of Durango. The Durango mural, which will be placed on the side of a building, will be constructed of enamel tiles and will cover an area 20-feet by 35-feet. Also in Colorado, a fifty foot digital mural, again called La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra was created in 2000 for the central terminal of the Denver International Airport. The purpose of the airport mural was to depict the historical stratigraphy of the area. Back in California, Baca created a tile mural on the Venice Boardwalk in 2001. The Venice mural consisted of 15 tile murals that depicted the history of the area.
In a project that began in 2002, Baca has once again returned to The Great Wall of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, after nearly twenty years of neglect and exposure to smog, sun, rain, and floods, The Great Wall was in a serious state of disrepair. With paint chipping and peeling, the mural needed restoration. The New York Times, quoted Baca as saying that the large scale of murals are about "making it the voice of people who were excluded from history."
With that voice in need of repair, Baca set out to help raise some of the projected $500,000 needed to restore the mural. In addition to the repairs, Baca has planned to add another forty years of history to the wall, which would bring the history of the wall to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Since 1980 Baca has been a professor of fine arts at the University of California. She has concurrently held two academic appointments as vice chair of UCLA's Cesar Chavez Center and as professor of art for world arts and cultures at UCLA since 1996.
"Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society," Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, edited by Suzanne Lacy, Bay Press, 1995.
Danzas Indigenas (Indigenous Dance), Baldwin Park Metrolink Commuter Rail Station, 1993.
La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra (Our Land Has Memory), University of Southern California, 1996.
La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra (Our Land Has Memory), Denver International Airport, 2000.
15 Digital Tile Murals, Venice, California Boardwalk, 2001.
La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra (Our Land Has Memory), Durango Mural Project, Durango, Colorado, in progress.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel, begun in 1976 and still in progress.
The World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear, a portable exhibition, on-going.
Lacy, Suzanne, editor, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Bay Press, 1995.
Telgen, Diane, and Jim Kamp, Latinas: Women of Achievement, Visible Ink Press, 1996, pp. 25-30.
The New York Times, May 26, 2002, pp. 29, 34.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger