The late nun who founded Self Help Graphics would get a kick out of the 41 year old organization's new home in Boyle Heights. It's next door to Purgatory Pizza. The location is a half-way, a place of transition on the way to a new era. That's what people said at the organization's first open house and print sale this weekend.
Self Help Graphics nearly didn't make it to Purgatory. About six years ago administrators shut the place down for lack of money, and that was before the current recession. No one cast aspersions (I asked) at the Catholic church for selling the building or at previous administrators for dropping the ball.
The people currently running the organization (its current budget is less than $400,000 a year) are the ones who banded together after that shameful moment and vowed not to let the organization go under. There was just too much history, too many artists who've gotten their start there, too many children's art workshops, too many Dia De Los Muertos street parades, too many punk rock, jarocho, and hip hop concerts, and poetry on that rickety second story stage. And too many midnight philosophizing on that steel platform at the top of the stairs with the green Sears neon in the distance as the Alexandria lighthouse for Chicanos from all over the country.
You see, San Francisco has Galeria de la Raza and the Mission Cultural Center. San Diego has the Centro Cultural de la Raza and other cities in the Southwest have similar arts centers born out of the fire of civil rights activism by Chicano activists 45 years ago. It's been a tough transition for all of them. Self Help Graphics couldn't find its way after Sister Karen Boccalero died in 1997.
Artist Yolanda Gonzzales on the opening of Self Help Graphics' new home
People remember her as a chain-smoking, cussing nun dedicated to the Franciscan ideals of social justice. She learned art from Corita Kent and in Rome.
She was the first professional artist to give many young Chicanos in the early 1970s a chance to learn how to make art with professional techniques and the new voice of Chicano activism. She ran and embodied Self Help Graphics while letting in people who worked hard and had something to say. The religious order that owned the group's two story headquarters for the arts revolution in East LA gave it nearly free rent. The religious order sold the building in 2008 and the rent shot up to the heavens.
"You had to be adventurous to visit Self Help Graphics," said long-time volunteer Rosanna Esparza. Her mother, Ofelia Esparza, is the dean of Day of the Dead altar builders. Its building at Cesar Chavez Avenue and Gage Avenue led to the motto, "In the heart of East LA." It's new location on First Street, just east of the L.A. River moves it closer to the heart of Los Angeles.
People in their 20s and 30s who know about Self Help Graphics talk in myth-like references about Gronk, Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez and lots of other internationally known artists getting their start at Self Help Graphics. Shizu Saldamando is one of them. She moved to L.A. from San Francisco to attend art school at UCLA in 1996. Later this year she'll be in a group show of Asian American portraiture organized by the Smithsonian.
There she was on Sunday afternoon, slouching in front of one of dozens of tables with stacks of art on paper for the Self Help Graphics annual print show. She chuckled when I told her the new building used to be a sea-urchin processing plant for sushi restaurants. "My Japanese grandmother is from Boyle Heights," she said. The building still has the "Ocean Queen" name on the outside and is painted to look like The Queen Mary or the Titanic.
Administrators promise the same workshops, more connections with surrounding neighborhoods, and more openness to L.A. at large. The Gold Line stop just outside the door won't hurt. They want the center to once again be an incubator for innovative visual art, music, poetry and performance. The new Self Help Graphics will have to carry out its mission in a cutthroat economy. "The Target logo is OK," Saldamando said, "unfortunately they're the only ones who have the money but they won't influence the art."
It's hard to imagine the current Pope canonizing Sister Karen. But how can you not hold up the miracles she facilitated (not performed) as on par with those of the myriad saints who cured illnesses? Both opened the doors to lives lived with immeasurable more richness.
The 10-foot tall or so Virgen de Guadalupe statue that used to be the parking lot attendant at the old Self Help Graphics came with the move. It now guards the entrance to the art galleries. People this weekend agreed that the glimmer in the Virgen's eyes is the same that Sister Karen would have if she were alive to see the new Self Help Graphics.