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Isabel Rojas-Williams Guides L.A.'s Mural Tradition

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There's no formal pronouncement to name someone from within the Los Angeles mural enclave a Person-of-the-Year. If an award existed, however, the 2013 nominees would have a tough competition up against Isabel Rojas-Williams.

It would be no contest.

As Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, Rojas-Williams guided artists, each with conflicting definitions of murals, through the muck of a developing ordinance. She led many meetings between those same artists, the community at-large, and city officials. She also led tours and fundraising efforts. Her advocacy brought visibility and restoration to Olympic-era murals on the 101 Freeway, abandoned by time and tagged by hostile elements, and highlighted conservation work by other institutions.

She also brought visibility to MCLA. Upon taking her post in 2011, the non-profit, which was founded in 1987, stepped up its social networking for public outreach. MCLA's social media is highlighted with weekly historic pieces. Through that, and her personal page, the mural matriarch also sends directives to the City. "Let's hope whomever will replace Olga Garay will support our local artists, will help make our city a most creative one & will help place the arts and culture of Los Angeles worldwide!" she wrote after the news cultural affairs head Olga Garay-English would not be re-hired by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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Herding those artists and city officials takes diplomacy, and a little fire when needed. As the mural ordinance limped through public meetings and offices in City Hall, Rojas monitored feedback and ideology, gathering public support. After the final sign-off, even single-family homes, through a pilot program in districts with a deep mural history, were not left behind.

It's history that guides Rojas-Williams. Her graduate research at CSULA led to her thesis, which began with Los Tres Grandes, and concluded with the cave paintings of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France being compared to the graffiti artists of Los Angeles. Titled "Los Angeles Street Mural Movement: 1930-2009," the thesis is housed in the research archives of Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in México City, according to the MCLA website.

"This is how I met the younger generation of Los Angeles artists," she once emailed to me. "I followed their careers from the time they were still unable to drive." Those relationships help tie the fragmented idealism in large-scale painting as she labors to have underground work recognized as part of the L.A. movement.

Jeffery Deitch I Photo:Isabel Rojas-WilliamsGraffiti-based works are seen on MCLA tours, along with wheat-pastes and traditional murals, and she lobbies to the big players. She reached out to MOCA in 2010 to offer her research on the city's urban artists, an offer not taken for what became a New York-centric show. But it opened dialogue into 2013, and a panel was planned early in this year with Jeffrey Deitch when it was first thought the ordinance would be passed in Spring. "Jeffrey Deitch's 'Art in the Streets,' although not perfect, it served as a sampler of the larger picture," she said the day after a final goodbye lunch with the outgoing director of MOCA, and she remains determined to keep the West Coast a pivotal role in U.S. and global art.

"Murals are not just a form of L.A. art, but contemporary art," said Rojas-Williams, as she hurried to catch a flight back home for the upcoming holidays. In 2012, Rojas lobbied for the L.A. Art Show to consider murals and street art as part of the Los Angels art scene. She led a panel in 2013, and is now preparing for another upcoming panel.

"Last year's lecture was a result of 'selling' my proposal to the 2013 Los Angeles Art Show, and because of our involvement with the passing of the mural ordinance," she said. "It was my desire to educate a different segment of L.A.'s population." For the 2014 L.A. Art Show, held January 16 through 17, two exhibitions and two panels will be held.

"I believe that now, when more and more are aware of the mural ordinance, and the significance of the city's murals, there's extreme importance to keep the public informed," she said. The panel will include those who "should speak about the future and the process."

It will also be supported by an exhibition that places murals into the contemporary art legacy. "That includes pioneer muralists and artists inspired by L.A.'s mural culture, connecting the politics of the street to the politics of the canvas. The artists I invited go back and forth from the street, to galleries, to museums," Rojas-Williams added.

The timing was right for her advocacy, which was not only about restoration and policy, but also about voicing the underserved. That's a narrative shared by many of the traditional murals, and for Rojas-Williams, it was personal.

"I was politically forced out of my country in 1973," Rojas-Williams said. "The year I arrived to Highland Park, the place where I learned about Mechicano Art Center & Centro de Arte Público," she adds. She recalls meeting "some of the most important Chicano artists of their time," including Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Judithe Hernandez, Gilbert Magú Lujan, Leo Limón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez.

To say that MCLA solely led the policy change -- a claim also made by others -- discounts the larger collaboration. It was city planner Tanner Blackman, then Tom Rothman, who unraveled policy, then pieced it together, to withstand court challenges. It was Councilmember José Huizar who guided policy from within the halls, as well as earlier efforts by the council offices of Ed Reyes and Tom LaBonge.

It was also the street artists, not part of the original traditions, who expanded the scope of what makes a Los Angeles mural, and tested the ordinance before it got out the door. And importantly, it was the artists who prefer paint that made a statement that Los Angeles murals are part of a long tradition, and goes beyond the city's limits.

You can credit Judy Baca and the Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC) as the lobbying force for works that are installed, not just painted. It was a reminder to the city that tiled works, like those by Millard Sheets seen throughout Los Angeles and the West, or Don Johnny D. González and David Botello's "Story of our Struggle" in East Los Angeles, as well as non-painted wheat-pastes curated by L.A. Freewalls, are now part of L.A.'s mural legacy.

The mural policy was a group effort, but after all is said and done, it was clearly Rojas-Williams who kept pushing it through, herding artists into the chambers of City Hall to confront ordinance changes and stalls, or guide lectures and panels on policy. As an organizer she found ways to adapt idealism to the needed negotiations to get policy on the books, but not compromise the intent of murals.

When the ordinance was approved by city council, Los Angeles watched her lift the proclamation, declaring "Mural Day in the City of Los Angeles," over her head like a victory banner. The artists followed her into the streets, where the walls of Los Angeles are once again a legal canvas. And under the leadership of Isabel Rojas-Williams, MCLA did not just save a few murals; the future history of L.A.'s murals has now been preserved.

Rojas-Williams (center) holds up the proclamation of ''Mural Day in the City of Los Angeles. Muralists Judy Baca (left) and Emily Winters (right) look on I Photo: MCLA

Above: Photograph and photo illustration by Ed Fuentes

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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