A Political Landscape Painter

Prof. Judith 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 clippiing 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.

Today I am walking on the opposite shores from where I come from along this narrow strip of land called the “cape”. It is where the Pilgrims landed in the Mayflower on Nov 21st 1620 before Plymouth Rock. 286 years later history was corrected to memorialize the Pilgrims first home in Provincetown by the building of a towering monument of hand hewn granite. “The people of Provincetown were overcome with joy that at last their town would be recognized as the first home the Pilgrims” says the tourist guidebook.

I cannot help but wonder why they were thrilled given the profound consequences to the indigenous people of that landing.

I am beginning a months stay here and I am anxious to feel this land and its memories which had such profound consequence to millions. The Cape is rich with memory. Despite the joyful vacation aire of Provincetown in August, I find myself worrying as I walk trails here, that children in the inner cities of the U.S. walk on concrete everyday never placing their feet on the soil enough to learn to listen to the land. I worry that the hands of the clock are turning.