Judy Baca: West Coast Artist with Global Impact
The longest mural in the world began 43 years ago when Latina artist Judith Baca spotted the unattractive, but extensive pathway in the Tujunga Wash flood protection concrete complex north of Burbank, California. Built to steer flood waters toward the Pacific Ocean, it protects the Van Nuys suburbs and parts of the San
Fernando Valley from the seasonal heavy rainfall.
The “Wash”has a wide and deep surface space which allows the above the surface concrete walls to remain dry year around. From the beginning Baca’s artistic dreams to paint murals on these walls were ambitious, expensive, and labor intensive. After four decades the Tujunga painted walls are telling the history of California; a remarkable artistic achievement– unlike any other in the art world.
Los Angeles is famous for its thousands of murals, mostly the work of Chicano artists. Baca painted her first
mural in a park in East Los Angeles years earlier as part of a community youth outreach project. She is considered one of the founders of the Chicano mural movement in America.
When Judith Baca organized a small team of East Los Angeles gang members to help paint that mural in
Hollenbeck Park in the summer of 1970, it may not have occurred to her that she was quietly launching an artistic revolution. The mural portraying her grandmother may well have been the earliest Chicano mural painted in America.
Over the next five years, Los Angeles became the Chicano mural capital of America following the completion
of an extraordinary number of murals throughout the city. Hundreds of artists, most of whom called themselves Chicanos, engaged in creating public art and as a result, the Eastside has never been artistically the same.
Baca was born in Central Los Angeles and as a young child moved to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, not far from the Tujunga Wash. In elementary school, she only spoke Spanish, but she improved her drawing skills when she was sent to the corner of the classroom for not speaking English. She learned English quickly and eventually earned two degrees from California State University, Northridge.
As a young artist, Baca gravitated toward large mural undertakings. By the mid 1970s she had completed
several large murals measuring 400 feet in length and had directed the execution of more than 150 murals in the Los Angeles Murals project. Her big break came when she founded the Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC) and went to work on The Great Wall in 1975.
The Great Wall project began when the U.S. Corp of Engineers contracted SPARC to paint the long cement wall of the Tujunga Flood Control Channel. Baca had both great ambition and vision, and over the next twenty-five years, with the assistance of over 400 volunteers and seasoned artists, SPARC completed more than a half mile or 2,754 feet of murals.
In determining the themes and images of The Great Wall, Baca consulted historians and community leaders.
In the initial phase of the mural, artists painted the history of California from the Indigenous period to the 1950s.
In explaining what she hopes to accomplish with her murals, Baca acknowledges an effort to reveal and reconcile “diverse peoples’ struggles for their rights and affirm the connections of each community to that place.”
Several years ago we had the opportunity to visit the UCLA/SPARC Cesar Chavez Digital Mural lab in Venice, California. The SPARC offices and studios are located in a former jail building. SPARC teachers offer state-of-the-art digital art design classes and utilize technology to create billboard size murals. The new technology has enabled Baca and muralists working with SPARC to better preserve their mural images. The preservation is needed since the life of outdoor murals is relatively short because they are painted on property that may change ownership, they may be affected by vandalism, and they experience fading from exposure to weather.
Baca has now been painting murals for nearly 50 years and described her passion as an effort “to produce artwork that has meaning beyond simple decorative values.” She also has a higher cause of using “public space to create public voice and consciousness about the presence of people who are often the majority of the population but who may not be represented in any visual way.”
Art historians appreciate that while the murals may disappear, the images and their historical meaning and purpose have been preserved by SPRAC and UCLA. As a teacher, painter and muralist, Judy Baca is an inspiration to many Latina artists. Her murals present Latinos with important historical narratives and are a testament to creativity, design, and application of color.
Copyright 2021 by Dr. Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of the author.