Judy Baca artwork: ‘The Great Wall of Los Angeles’

Judy Baca artwork covers Los Angeles literally and figuratively. Focusing on the area’s Chicano and Latinx, Asian American, African American, Native American, Jewish, female, and working-class populations often omitted from populist retellings of L.A. history, her The Great Wall of Los Angeles stretches over a half-mile in length–2,754-feet-long, 13.5-feet-high-in the Tujunga Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley near North Hollywood.

A big mural for a big story, chronologically portraying pre-history through the 1950s.

Visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will see history in the making as Judy Baca and artists from the Social and Public Art Resource Center work on new panel sections for The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural inside the museum during public hours weekdays through June 2, 2024.

I spoke with Baca about The Great Wall’s past and future as well as her background and Judy Baca artwork.

Judy Baca ‘The Great Wall’ additions

Judy Baca painting The Great Wall of Los Angeles, summer of 1983
Judy Baca painting The Great Wall of Los Angeles, summer of 1983, photo courtesy of the SPARC Archives

The new paintings by Judy Baca and SPARC which will be added to The Great Wall span the 1960s with the first panel depicting moments of the Chicano Movement including the Farmworkers’ Movement and the East L.A. Student Walkouts, and the second panel featuring vignettes of the Watts Rebellion, Watts Renaissance, and community organizing by the Black Panthers. LACMA also debuts Generation on Fire, a new section of the wall memorializing activists known as the Freedom Riders.

After painting is completed at LACMA, the panels will be added to The Great Wall, an epic Baca worked on over five summers (1976-83) in collaboration with 400 youth, artists, and community members.

Museum officials were initially interested in staging a standard exhibition for Baca. She was focused on expanding the Wall. It was her idea to marry the wishes with a focus not only on the finished product, but the work required to achieve it.

“It’s a mystery to people, the complexity and the amazing amount of work that goes into the creation of a narrative mural,” Baca told Forbes.com. “It’ll be fun. People will be able to walk in, they’ll be able to talk to the muralists. They’ll be able to see the process in which we work from.”

That process in its early stages includes maquettes transferred onto the panels. Visitors will see these initial line drawings outlining the images to be subsequently painted.

“The first thing we’ll be doing is a monochromatic treatment, one color, so that everything is gradiated–you can see where the darks will go, it’s shaded so that it becomes three dimensional,” Baca explains. “From there we do full color treatment according to colorations that have been done in advance. It’s very systematized, and it’s very studied, it isn’t a spray can piece. One of the reasons that people don’t understand this process is because there’s been an absence of training in murals in our universities and in art schools, and an absence of opportunities for people to be trained.”

Not for any lack of trying on her part.

Baca founded the City of Los Angeles’ first mural program in 1974 which produced over 400 murals while employing thousands of local participants, a program that evolved into SPARC.

“It was going from park to park that I began to make relationships with the primarily young men hanging out in the parks–there were no programs for them–parks were mostly interested in keeping them out of the parks, the non-desirables,” Baca remembers. “It was the non-desirables that I formed into my first team and because of those teams, the city council gave us the first monies to support murals across the city. My interest was giving kids jobs, giving artists jobs, having them work in a relational way to a community site and beginning to articulate the needs and aspirations and fears and the stories of a community.”

Those stories became The Great Wall.

A video exploration of ‘The Great Wall of Los Angeles’

Disappearing a River, Disappearing People

The Los Angeles River is about as much a river as RoboCop is a man. The soul may be in there somewhere, but it’s sure hard to tell looking at it.

Beginning in the 1930s and lasting for decades, the L.A. River was “channelized.” That’s the euphemism engineers give for destroying a river to suit the needs of people.

In the name of flood control, the once free flowing and meandering river was dyked, dammed, straightened, and paved–“channelized.” Its more concrete drainage ditch today than anything resembling what constitutes a “river.” Same goes for its “tributaries” including the Tujunga Flood Control Channel where the Wall is.

“I picked a site the kids referred to as the sewer,” Baca said of her mural’s location. “It was a modest site to say the least, in the river with dirt belts on either side, not at all a nice place, but it had the potential of being able to walk along the river and see into the channel.”

Due entirely to The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural and the community’s passion for it, an area formerly referred to as a ‘sewer,’ now has parks, a green belt and walking trails. It’s a tourist destination.

“I thought we would do this one summer and it would be done. It was not the case because the public demanded we continue–’you can’t stop now, you have to keep going,’” Baca said. “Part of the reason that it’s had such an impact is because so many different people from so many different segments of our society were engaged with it. Somebody had a cousin, or somebody had a friend who worked on it. There were over 450 young people. There were hundreds of ‘community informants’ I called them, they were people who came and told the stories that became part of the mural, and it was so connected to the lives of the people who lived alongside that river.”

As the river was converted to ditch, eyesore, ‘sewer’ over the 20th century, the people who lived alongside it were increasingly immigrant, minority, poor. Property values were lower. Baca draws a searing and insightful comparison between the river over the last 100 years and the people who lived, and live, alongside it.

“If you can disappear a river, how much easier is it to disappear the stories of the people,” she asks rhetorically, knowing full well the answer. “The recovery of the stories of the people, in a sense, is a recovery of the river.”

The Wall recovered the stories.

Murals: The Medium for the Moment

Baca grew up in the Pacoima neighborhood north of downtown L.A. about five miles from the Wall’s future location. She put herself through art school at nearby Cal State University, Northridge. Her focus was sculpture, a medium she would quickly find too expensive to fully engage with upon graduation–the marble, the bronze, the castings, the tools, the scale, etc.

The year was 1969. The peak intersection of the Chicano Movement, Black Power, anti-war protests, feminism and the American Indian Movement. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the year prior having just won the state’s Democratic presidential primary.

He was 42 years old. Baca, 23.

“I was interested almost immediately in not creating a kind of entertainment, not creating work that would simply be hung over somebody’s couch to decorate a living room,” Baca said. “I was interested in the power of the art once I started to get engaged with it and became (serious about) wanting to be a maker. I thought this is too powerful to spend on something trivial.”

Art as activism.

“I thought, ‘what can I do to contribute to a more just society?’” Baca remembers. “I began to study and understand the inequality that occurred. I understood it from my own life. I watched my family suffer from lack of access and most of us not being able to go to school. I saw the hard work that our people did; how can I contribute? I’m just an artist. What do I do with these hands?”

She’d soon put it all together. A medium for the moment, suiting her talents and community.

“I realized as I began to teach in the parks that young people were writing all over the walls. I saw this statement on the wall, I don’t know if it was Ho Chi Minh or somebody that somebody quoted on a big wall in in Boyle Heights, and it said, ‘I’d rather live one day as a lion than 100 years as a lamb,’” Baca said. “I thought, ‘look how powerful that writing is,’ and all around it is people writing their names–yo soy Flacco–they were nicknames from the neighbor–“I am,” “I am,” “I am,” “I am”–over and over again. What was happening if it wasn’t an identity crisis, if it wasn’t a non-understanding of who we are as a country and as a people, and what could we do? The making of imagery that would give back people their own stories and put those pieces where people lived and work. I was more interested in the laundromat than I was interested in a white box.”

But she’ll take the white box, the fancy gallery inside the esteemed museum, too.

A surprising invitation for which she is grateful.

“I honestly think this will change people’s perception of an incredibly important art form that is not an easel painting, which is limited by the frame of a canvas, but work that lives in your peripheral vision, in landscape, related to architecture, and related to the people who live and work in those spaces,” Baca said. “It’s complex, conceptual, difficult, and incredibly engaging.”

The Great Wall of Los Angeles is bordered by Oxnard Street to the north, Coldwater Canyon Boulevard to the east and Burbank Boulevard to the south. Baca intends on continuing the mural’s storytelling through the present day.

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