One of America’s leading visual artists Dr. Judith F. Baca has been creating public art for four decades. Powerful in size and subject matter, Baca’s murals bring art to where people live and work. In 1974, Baca founded the City of Los Angeles’ first mural program, which produced over 400 murals and employed thousands of local participants, and evolved into an arts organization known as the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). She continues to serve as SPARC’S artistic director and focuses her creative energy in the UCLA@SPARC Digital/Mural Lab, employing digital technology to promotes social justice and participatory public arts projects. She is an emeritus Professor of the University of California Los Angeles, where she was a senior professor in Chicana/o Studies and World Art and Cultures Departments from 1980 until 2018.
Beginning with the awareness that the land has memory, she creates art that is shaped by an interactive relationship of history, people and place. Baca’s public artworks focus on revealing and reconciling diverse peoples’ struggles for their rights and affirm the connections of each community to place. She gives form to monuments that rise up out of neighborhoods. Together with the people who live there, they co-create monumental public art places that become “sites of public memory.”
Baca has stood for art in service of equity for all people. Her public arts initiatives reflect the lives and concerns of populations that have been historically disenfranchised, including women, the working poor, youth, the elderly and immigrant communities, throughout Los Angeles and increasingly in national and international venues.
Her most well-known work is the Great Wall of Los Angeles. It is located in San Fernando Valley, the mural spans half a mile and still is a work in progress engaging another generation of youth. The mural-making process exemplified community involvement, employing more than 400 youth and their families from diverse social and economic backgrounds, artists, oral historians and scholars. In 2017 the Great Wall of Los Angeles received national recognition on the National Registry of Historic Places by the US Department of the Interior.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District named a school after her called the Judith F. Baca Arts Academy, located in Watts, her birthplace. She is a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the United States Artist Rockefeller Fellowship and over 50 awards from various community groups.
“I want to produce artwork that has meaning beyond simple decorative values. I hope to use 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. By telling their stories we are giving voice to the voiceless and visualizing the whole of the American story while creating sites of public memory.”
– Judy Baca
I am beginning to believe I am a political landscape painter. I have always known the value of art as a tool for transformation both personal and political. What I have had to learn through being attentive to my own curiosities and artistic focus, is that I choose often to use land as my method of recording memories and stories in my paintings and murals.
The concept of the Land’s memory is not new for me. I can first remember my thoughts that the land could remember all that had occurred in a particular place when I was a small child. I walked to elementary school across hot fields of weed and grasses in the burning Southern California sun through agricultural fields. A plant grew in the fields that we called “clocks” and as children we would snatch a tiny stem and hold it to the light, each child watching the slim weed with a seed at its end, release small hair like outgrows to turn the seed into the earth and plant it. The stem began turning, as soon as it was separated from the pod on which it grew. Sometimes the wind would snatch the seed from our tiny fingers and it would become airborne planting itself despite our interventions.
I still don’t know the official term for this weed, so common in the San Fernando Valley were I grew up. My home was called Pacoima, named by the original people, and in open fields the clocks still grow there, despite the fact that Pacoima gained a reputation as a dangerous barrio. Long ago, we stood in a circle each with our tiny seed stem held high and raced each other to see whose stem could turn the most times. As we watched the amazing plant literally twist in our fingers, it was like the turning of a hand on a clock.
I knew then, that there was an intelligence to living and growing things and to the earth that nurtured them. I would pass along trails and the temperature would change from hot to cold and sometimes there were stories associated with the temperatures of different places. This slight incline in the path was cold. It harbored a dark secret because someone once found human bones there. We would shout the story to each other. which never ceased to scare us, even when told repeatedly. The story was recalled by our passing through the cool spot.
I thought the land was, nevertheless, recording all that had occurred there in the field. I needed only to listen to the land to hear the story. It could have been the fact that my grandmother was an indigenous woman who asked a plant’s permission to transplant it. Or when taking a clipping from a branch of plant, she spoke kindly to the plant and asked first if it did not mind, she would coach a new plant from it. Everything she touched grew in coffee cans on our porch, before they were replanted into our lush garden. This did not seem unusual to me. It was normal.
– Judy Baca
Audio of Judy Baca’s Grandmother
What sets Baca’s work as a visual artist apart from many other artists, is an inspired ability to teach and a creative pursuit of relevancy in developing educational and community based art methodologies. Baca has stood for art in the service of equity for all people and the integration of one’s ethics with creative expression. Baca is a painter and muralist, monument builder, and scholar who have been teaching art in the UC system since 1984. She was the founder of the first City of Los Angeles Mural Program in 1974, which evolved into a community arts organization known as the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) which was has been creating sites of public memory since 1976. She continues to serve as its artistic director and focuses her creative energy in the UCLA@SPARC Digital/Mural Lab, employing digital technology to create social justice art. Baca’s public arts initiatives reflect the lives and concerns of populations that have been historically disenfranchised, including women, the working poor, youth, the elderly, LGBT and immigrant communities. Throughout Los Angeles and increasingly in national and international venues, Baca’s projects have often been created in impoverished neighborhoods that have been revitalized and energized by the attention these works have brought and the excitement they have generated. Underlying all of Baca and SPARC’S activities is the profound conviction that the voices of disenfranchised communities need to be heard and that the preservation of a vital commons is critical to a healthy civil society. Baca’s work channels the creative process of monument design to develop models for the transformation of both physical and social environments in public spaces. And they are monumental, both in space and time: The Great Wall of Los Angeles is ‘tattooed’ along a flood control channel in the San Fernando Valley and employed over 400 at risk youth and their families from diverse social and economic backgrounds working with artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and hundreds of community members. The Great Wall depicts a mile long multi-cultural history of California from pre-history through the 1950’s. It was begun in 1976 and plans are underway for its next four decades of evolution. Baca’s artworks are as much about the process of how they’re made as they are about the end result. She begins as an artist from the awareness that the land has memory that must be expressed and creates art that is shaped by an interactive relationship among history, people and place, that marks the dignity of hidden historical precedents, restores connections and stimulates new relationships into the future. Baca’s public artworks focus on revealing and reconciling diverse peoples’ struggles for their rights and affirm the connections of each community to that place. She gives form to monuments that rise up out of neighborhoods, rather than being imposed upon them. Together with the people who live there, they co-create monumental public art, places that become “sites of public memory.”
Portions of this bio taken from Nina Simons co-founder of the Bioneers biographical sketch of Judy Baca. The Bioneers are engaged citizens from all backgrounds and fields who focus on solving our world’s most urgent problems within a framework of interdependence by networking scientists, artists, scholars and others internationally to work together.