Four miles east of downtown Los Angeles is a neighborhood where telenovelas blast out of storefronts as women ferry babies and folded laundry back to pastel stucco houses stacked three deep in a lot. Taco trucks serve the blocks as faithfully as mail carriers, the smell of frying onions lingering in their wake.
On a corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue, a single building takes up most of the city block, unremarkable except for its one defining feature: It is wrapped in chicken wire, frosted in cement, and layered with smashed glass, glazed tiles, dinner plates, flowerpots, coffee cups with handles still attached, and the head of a ceramic goose. It is a landmark, built from fragments of the community, applied carefully by hand. One small sign identifies it as Self Help Graphics & Art.
In 1970 Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero began printmaking with several Mexican and Chicano artists in an East Los Angeles garage. “Sister Karen had the idea that Latino artists didn’t have a venue,” says artist Roberto Gutierrez, and the group formed what is now known as Self Help. After holding a few shows they moved into a small location down the street, and in 1978 they moved to their current location, a building owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which negotiated a rent of one dollar a year.
“We didn’t just get free rent,” says Armando Duron, a former president of the board of directors. “We got it because the building was empty and it was better to have us here.”
The neighborhood was gamier back then, and Self Help provided a sort of gang-diversion program for kids, giving them a place to go after school. But last year, the archdiocese sold the building to a private developer and it’s unclear whether the center will be allowed to stay.
Poking through the flat files of Self Help’s archives is like a tour of the Chicano art movement. Some art critics would say this is where the visibility of the movement began, a movement that has now been exhibited all over the world, collected in museums and coveted by collectors. It begins with Los Four, the collective of local artists (Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Luján, Roberto de la Rocha, and, later, Judithe Hernández) who are widely credited with creating the Chicano visual vocabulary during the 1970s: Mexican and Aztec imagery, blended with the street art of the neighborhood. Today it’s artists like Shizu Saldamando, Vincent Valdez, Germs: a raucous remix of cholo, punk, and graffiti.
“They nod to tradition,” says Duron, holding up an image by Germ, who has rendered the Virgin of Guadalupe as a fluorescent, anime-reminiscent squid. “They come up with imagery that the Catholic Church might not agree with,” he adds, laughing, “but we give them the freedom to do what they want.”
Sister Karen died in 1997, but her vision of art as activism has been honored in historic proportions. The center is open to the public, and hundreds of artists and students from all over the world interact with it every month. One of the most popular programs is a printmaking atelier in which artists make high-quality screen print editions. Artists can pay a small monthly set-up fee to work in etching and some other media; more sophisticated serigraph studios are invitation-only. Artists flock here just to make the legendary monoserigraphs, a technique blending the monoprint and serigraph pioneered by Self Help’s master printer, Jose Alpuche.
November 2008 marked the center’s 35th annual Day of the Dead celebration, an event whose print fair, altar-making, food, and music attracted over 4,000 people.
“They don’t have those crowds at MOCA,” Duron says, knocking the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Alpuche is self-taught, from his English to his printmaking. In 1976 he moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles and took an entry-level job at a studio, where he worked his way up, learning everything from embossing to framing. He came to Self Help in 1979.
Artists have changed the tack of their careers by printing with him, but Alpuche has also altered the lives of kids who wandered in one day after school, learned etching, and stuck around for a decade. “You have to take them seriously to keep them off the street,” he says.
The new president of Self Help’s board of directors, Stephen Saiz, started coming here in the ’90s. Saiz looks a good 20 years younger than anyone else in the office, and ready to breathe new life into Self Help.
“There are seven values for Self Help, but the one I attach myself to is accessibility,” says Saiz. “We’re open for everyone.”
Excerpted from Creative Review(March 2009), a British magazine covering visual communication including advertising, design, illustration, new media, photography, and typography; www.creativereview.co.uk.