"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
"The Steps We Take": An Interview with Eloy Torrez
Living in El Monte can sometimes feel like living on an island, disconnected from the world at large, floating along on its lonesome patch of insular, cotidian activity. Despite its proximity to Los Angeles and its connectedness to California's major highways, including the 10, 60 and 605 freeways, residents can often find themselves bound too closely to home.
Eloy Torrez's mural at the El Monte Bus Station, "The Steps We Take," aims to transport its audiences outside of their ordinary experiences. Torrez, an important figure in L.A. muralism and Chicano arts worlds, pushes himself to explore new aspects of his practice, while inviting viewers into new territories where their own perceptions and interpretations flesh out the narrative landscape of the work. In classic Eloy Torrez-realism that borders on the unearthly, "The Steps We Take" brings an expansive sense of contemplation that reaches both into one's personal past and into the potential future, sometimes arriving at unexpected locations.
Eloy Torrez is an artist, painter, muralist, singer, songwriter and attended Otis Art Institute. Torrez has completed numerous public and private commissions including one of Los Angeles' most recognized murals, "The Pope of Broadway" located on downtown's Victor Clothing Co. building. He has also received the COLA Individual Artist Award and The California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists, among many other awards.
You were born in New Mexico and moved to Los Angeles when you were 13 years old. How did this affect your relationship to Southern California and Los Angeles area? And how did it affect the way you make murals?
It was a long process. My family and I lived in Albuquerque but my dad lost his job, so we came to Torrance, CA for another job. Eventually we ended up in Barstow where we lived for years. While I was there, I was lucky because I hooked up with a really good teacher at the junior college. From there I was exposed to L.A. through field trips we used to take to LACMA and the Norton Simon. My teacher encouraged me to apply to Otis because several of his past students had been accepted there. So I thought that this was my way to get to L.A. I was accepted to Otis and finally moved to L.A. That's how it all started.
I was terrified of L.A. At first it was exciting because I was 22 and I thought of it as an adventure. But the city seemed so aggressive compared to Barstow and it took me a while to acclimate. Also, there were no Chicanos at Otis at the time. Well just one or two. But I didn't hear about Carlos Almaraz or any of those guys until I got out of school and I applied for a job at Self-Help Graphics, and Sister Karen offered me a job working in the Barrio Mobile. We'd go into different neighborhoods to do art classes and that's when I got more exposed to Los Angeles as a whole, and East Los Angeles in particular. The funny thing about that is that all of my Chicano peers were so confused by me and they'd ask me, who are you and what are you? Where are you from? I didn't understand what they were asking. Being from New Mexico, it was a lot like living in East L.A., with a very big Latino community. Then in Barstow it was the complete opposite with hardly any people of color at all. But I was always just a guy. So it took me a while to understand what a big city like Los Angeles is really about, with such diverse groups of people living and working together. But before that, my heritage had never really been put to question like that. What I did know is that part of my heritage was Native American and European but I never felt discriminated against.
Where you already in L.A. during the Chicano Movement with the walkouts and all of those events?
No. I was still in Barstow. I had no exposure to Chicano studies or any of that.
What did it feel like to finally be in L.A. and working in what many considered a kind of arts mecca for Chicano artists in its day? Was it exciting to be there?
To be honest, I felt really pressured to be something that I didn't know. I didn't want people telling me that I had to be one way or another when I was still young and still trying to understand myself and my own thoughts. I was still trying to understand L.A. At 26, I was still feeling like they can't tell me how to feel, I had to figure it out on my own. This was in the early 1980s.
So I was learning about Willie Heron and Gronk and ASCO and what all those guys did when I got to Self Help. But I'd known about Willie before that because of Los Ilegals. I learned about ASCO because of the music, which I was more involved in during art school. It was around the time that punk was going on. I remember The Brat and Rudy Medina and Sid Medina. At the time a lot us at Otis were closeted musicians, so I gravitated toward other musicians. So I found out about the East L.A. art stuff through the music. And my first experience painting a mural was in South Central, not really in East L.A. The first mural that my teacher from community college introduced me to was Kent Twitchell's "Bride and Groom" mural on the Victor Clothing building in downtown. I was so impressed because it seemed so huge and I knew I wanted to do something like that. That was my exposure to L.A. arts and murals. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on in East L.A. and its whole history.
My first mural was on a huge wall in Hollywood. I painted six Hollywood figures, like Humphrey Bogart and others. I was happy when I did it. It took a long time to do it and I learned a lot in doing it, but as time went on and I learned more about what Los Angeles was really about, I realized that I'd kind of missed an opportunity to include people of color in the mural. But then when i got a contact at the Victor Clothing Building, I knew it was my chance with the Anthony Quinn mural to make up for what I'd left out.
How is location reflected or expressed in your murals?
I think that if I'm in a community and it reflects an environment too much it's not really taking you out of the environment. I've met so many kids in workshops that I've done, that have never left their neighborhood. But the thing is that when you apply to public art projects like this, they often want you to get into the whole history of the place. And I understand because it enriches the environment and it makes community members feel good about where they live. But my idea is to take people somewhere else. Of course, its kind of hard to get commissions when you approach it that way. But it seems like things in general with projects like this have really opened up. Ten or 15 years ago, they would tell you exactly what they wanted you to do and it was always torturous for me. But I liked the El Monte Metro project because they were really open to my ideas. Maybe other agencies like metro are really opening up to artists' interpretations.
Why did you want to make a mural for El Monte's bus station?
I thought it was a really interesting opportunity because I'd just come back from Venice, Italy, where people go from point A to point B mostly walking and by boat, which are like buses going through the canals. I was also thinking a lot about the bridges I saw in my travels through Europe. But I've always been interested in bridges in L.A. and in that moment where people are walking toward each other and they cross. For a split second I always wonder who they are and what their lives are about. As a figurative painter, i have this curiosity of human beings and their stories. The El Monte mural shows people walking and it's supposed to make you wonder where these people are going. It looks like they could be walking into an abyss or the edge of a cliff. But it really depends on the viewer and what they see. I like the kind of art that doesn't tell you everything but lets the viewer participate by adding their own personal interpretation to it.
Can you tell me about the title of the mural?
As I was thinking about the bridges of Venice and all the steps that lead you from one place to another, I started to see footsteps as being part of this mural. And the way the footsteps looked going up and down the stairs reminded me of music. So in my subconscious mind, I was trying to make it musical in a way. I was thinking about abstract sounds, or beats to go with the steps. The title of mural has a sound quality to it. The Steps We Take. It has a beat. It has a kind of activity and suggests some space that is part of the movement that happens at a bus station, but is also part of music. Activity and space are part of art, writing too, I imagine. That was the initial idea that I was working with.
Do you usually have a musical aspect to you paintings?
No this is something I wanted to try for this project. But it is a part of my process. I usually paint in the studio for about three hours, and then I have to take a break. So I pick up the guitar and let something spontaneous happen. I'm not thinking I have to write a song or I have to do a painting; it's just an organic thing. Sometimes something interesting will come out. Sometimes a word will start to take shape through my mumble singing and from that word, a story starts to come out. Each song has a personality. So for the longest time, my process has always integrated music and art simultaneously. There was a period of time when I thought that I'd have to stop making music because it took too much time from my painting. But at some point, I just accepted music as part of my creative process. I'm trying to make works of art and music that go hand in hand. I still haven't fully arrived there, but it's something that i'm currently working on doing. This El Monte mural is part of that.
This mural struck me as being very different from your other murals, which seem to be more like portraits of people. Even murals with groups of people in them seem to be a collection of portraits. But this one seems to not be so much about individuals at all. We see a lot of backs. They're almost like anti-portraits. Where you trying to do something different from your earlier murals?
People always say that I'm really good at capturing personalities, and capturing something internal about the figures. I purposely wanted to not do that for this mural project.
Is that something you've been doing a lot lately?
Not so much. What I've really been doing lately is going back to old paintings that were important for me to start at the time, and at this point in my life, it feels important to finish them. I'm in a different space now. I go back and forth a lot.
For me it's been a recent discovery about myself. I came from New Mexico to Barstow to Los Angeles, and it's taken me a long time to figure out what it is that I really want to paint, and I feel that I'm finally on to something. When I was younger I wanted to be really good at what I did, in capturing a likeness and a personality. But now, I want to go beyond that. It's a process. Some people get it at a young age. But for me, I'm discovering it at this stage in life.
Also i'm still processing my experience in East L.A. and what it means to be Chicano. For me, the term Chicano is always changing. For a time, there were guys saying that if you weren't part of the Movimiento you didn't have the badge of honor that identified you as Chicano. But i wondered at that. What about younger generations that were not part of that, are they not Chicano? You don't get to be Chicano unless you earn your stripes? It's just an ego-tripping thing. So I'm starting a new series of paintings called L.A. Nuevo Chicano. I want to present Chicanos in a new, non-stereotypical way that makes the viewer ask over and over, is that Chicano?
Also, I've been digging back into my childhood. I remember that when we lived in New Mexico, some kids and I would like to play at "las ruinas", the ruins of an old mission. And then it dawns on my in thinking about photos of my grandfather who looked like Geronimo, and my grandmother who looked totally European, that my heritage has all this intermixing. I hadn't given it much thought until recently. And in Barstow, I had practically no exposure to what was going on in the world. So I'm putting all the pieces together now in trying to understand things from this kind of social perspective. So I've been kind of a late bloomer in that respect.
Of all four murals at the El Monte bus station, I feel like yours in particular is asking a big question, though it's not necessarily evident what that question is. Is there a question in your mural that you are asking?
Well, I've been thinking that life is ironic, and sometimes the steps we take are ironic and lead us to unexpected places. My work is like that. I think I'm following an answer and when i get there, it's not at all what I thought it would be. It's not the right answer and I'm disappointed. A lot of my work is a little bit of me thinking about how we assume that if we follow a certain path everything is going to be wonderful and fall into place. It may or may not. But there's no guarantee.
The figures in you mural all definitely seem to have a destination, but those destinations don't seem to be physical locations or places, but rather other states of being. Is this something that you were thinking about?
That's a very good description of my work because a lot of my early interest in art came through the church. As a kid growing up in New Mexico, we'd go to the churches and I'd look at the religious paintings, the figures are always exalted, they're somewhere else but not in a physical place. I've always questioned religion and I've always wondered about those things. And the answer was always that the important thing was not to have a definition but to have faith. I always enjoyed those figures having out-of-body experiences and I think there's a little bit of that in my work.