By Sandy Banks | Cal State LA News Service
As a teenager in the late 1980s, Victor Viesca would pile into a car with his skateboarding buddies and head from Huntington Park to their cultural touchstone in East Los Angeles. They’d gather for concerts in the parking lot behind the tile-studded building that housed Self Help Graphics, a mashup of art gallery, printmaking workshop and communal gathering spot.
“We went to their Day of the Dead celebrations. We’d go there to see punk or ska bands. Sometimes we’d venture inside and check out the art prints being displayed. To me, they were the only Chicano cultural center we had in East L.A.,” says Viesca, now a professor in Cal State LA’s Department of Liberal Studies, where he focuses on ethnic, urban and cultural studies.
What he saw, heard and learned at Self Help Graphics sparked a curiosity about history and culture that shaped his academic career. “The way I came to know of Chicano culture was through the art at Self Help Graphics,” he says today.
Now Cal State LA is partnering with Self Help Graphics & Art to share the group’s legacy of art, innovation and activism through a month-long exhibition—“Entre Tinta y Lucha: 45 Years of Self-Help Graphics & Art”—at the university’s Fine Arts Gallery.
“It is extremely fitting that we are celebrating 45 years of Self Help Graphics & Art at the Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery,” said Cal State LA President William A. Covino. “Self Help Graphics and Cal State LA share deep roots on the Eastside of Los Angeles. We share a mission of engaging and serving our communities.”
The exhibition was curated by Viesca and Michelle Lopez, who teaches in the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies and is an alumna of Cal State LA. It explores Chicano and Latino culture through an eclectic collection of striking serigraphs by more than 50 artists, including Cal State LA alumni Margaret Alarcon, Chaz Bojorquez, Luis Genaro Garcia, Dolores Guerrero-Cruz, Mark Steven Greenfield, Gronk and Frank Romero.
It was launched on August 25 with a reception that drew hundreds of artists, activists and university leaders and alumni to celebrate the breadth of artistic expression rooted in the Chicano experience.
The exhibition itself was three years in the making, and includes an oral history video, a mobile art workshop and a series of panel discussions by artists on issues ranging from printmaking techniques to the role of art in social justice, culture and identity. It runs until September 29 at the Fine Arts Gallery, which is open Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. View the following link for a list of workshops.
“We wanted to make this a place where people could see themselves,” said Lopez, who earned her M.A. and M.F.A from Cal State LA. “As a student here myself, I know it’s important for the student body to see art that they can relate to. Basic art history is primarily Eurocentric. As an art student of color, I didn’t really see myself until I was introduced to Chicano art in a Chicano Studies class at Cal State LA.”
The exhibition at the Fine Arts Galley, which is part of the College of Arts and Letters, celebrates the 45th anniversary of Self Help Graphics & Art, an organization launched in an East Los Angeles garage by a group of Mexican American artists and Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun with a talent for printmaking and passion for fostering creativity.
They specialized in serigraphy—a version of the silkscreen printing process used to make posters, banners and t-shirts—because it was versatile, inexpensive and could produce multiple prints of a single artistic product. “The idea was that this form of art would be accessible and affordable in East LA’s working-class community, where art is seen as not as important as putting food on the table,” Viesca explains. “They wanted to encourage the community to buy and collect and become more serious about how you see art.”
Over time, the art nonprofit became a civic institution: a locus for artists, activists and young people committed to sustaining the gains Chicanos had made during the turbulent civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.
“Self Help Graphics was a community space, which allowed people to come together and creatively resist the forces attempting to repress them and their culture,” Viesca recalls. “It cultivated interest in the arts, but it also used art to raise consciousness about the Chicano movement, the struggle for rights.”
That dual focus, he said, is what led to the exhibition’s title, Entre Tinta y Lucha. “Between the ink and the struggle. It comes out of the fine arts, ink-based art. And it reflects the struggle for dignity and equality for people of Mexican descent.”
In much the same way that Cal State LA links higher education with public service, Self Help Graphics has promoted art as both a singular creative force and a source of collective energy.
Since its early years in the 1970s, it has served as an art studio, a workshop for emerging artists, an incubator of new ideas, and a messaging system that unified and empowered the Eastside community, says Self Help Graphics & Art Executive Director Betty Avila.
“You had a community that had been physically torn up by freeways. You had the Vietnam war, when a lot of Chicano young men were being shipped off to war and coming home in body bags. This became a healing space,” Avila explains. “Even the name—Self Help Graphics—comes from the notion of people lifting themselves up, and having a space to do that.”
Today it’s still that sort of community space, with workshops for children, classes for artists and civic events. “We’ve had weddings and quinceañeras here,” says Avila. “Art is our vehicle, but certainly not the only way people engage with us. We are an anchor in this community.”
She sees a host of opportunities in the relationship between her organization and Cal State LA. “We serve similar communities and we’re literally 10 minutes away from one another. It makes perfect sense to build a bridge between these two major institutions on the Eastside.”
She realizes that young people today might not be familiar with the region’s storied history or the role that Self Help Graphics has played. “We think it’s important for Cal State LA students to know what we have to offer,” she said. “We’re connecting people with this gem in the community, and it’s right in the backyard of the university, which is a gem on the national level.”
Photos: Top, Alumnus Jeff Silverman and family enjoy the exhibition. Middle, Cal State LA faculty members and exhibition curators Victor Viesca and Michelle Lopez with Self Help Graphics & Art Executive Director Betty Avila. Bottom, Dolores Delgado Bernal, chair, Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies Department; Gloria Molina, former Los Angeles County supervisor; Octavio Villalpando, vice provost for diversity and inclusion; and Avila. (Credit: Ty Washington/Cal State LA)
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