Six and a Half Weeks: The Making of 'Opening Night' for the América Tropical Interpretive Center


One can only imagine the energy in the air when a group of twenty artists known as the Bloc of Mural Painters assisted David Alfaro Siqueiros on the creation of "América Tropical" just over 80 years ago. If there is any way to witness a similar creative consciousness today, it would be with the artists selected to create the interior mural at The América Tropical Interpretive Center. Painter and museum educator Sandy Rodriguez was with that handful of artists during the mural's production, and she shares that experience in this guest editorial installment for "Writing on The Wall."

by Sandy Rodriguez


Richard Joseph Neutra detail

Exhibition designer Thomas Hartman created a digital composite depicting the opening night of "América Tropical." The scene featured a who's who of the L.A. cultural scene based upon a variety of sources, as no photographic documentation of the opening night from 1932 exists. Thomas invited artist Barbara Carrasco to paint "Opening Night" as a mural for the América Tropical Interpretive Center. They had worked together previously on the Chicano Art Resistant and Affirmation (CARA) exhibition at UCLA, in 1990.

Last August, I got a call from Barbara, an old friend of mine. She invited me to come over to take a look at the mural she was working on. I arrived at an unmarked red door at the side entrance of IQ Magic, an exhibition design space across the street from 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica. Barbara was working on the central portrait of Siqueiros. Sitting next to her was Elizabeth Perez, who was working on a profile portrait of Marcel Duchamp.

I walked around the space, which had cement floors, high ceilings, and blacked-out windows. It was filled with materials: long tables were covered in reproductions for the mural design, while others were loaded with dark, medium and light gray tones of Nova Color acrylic paint, tubs with tongue depressors, plastic plates, plastic bags, acrylic paint retarder, paint brushes and tiny spray bottles. A set of plastic caddies was set up with tools and scaffolding was set up in front of the canvas. My fingers were itching to paint.

Harold Lehman detail
Harold Lehman detail

By the time I came on board, Barbara and John Valadez had been working on this twenty-by-eight foot black and white scene for two and a half months. There were just six and a half weeks left until their deadline, so Barbara invited a few more artists to help paint the remaining portraits and figures. Shizu Saldamando had painted a portrait of the mustachioed architect Summer Spaulding. Elizabeth Perez had worked up several figures, and Laura Alvarez also lent her talents to the project. Barbara invited me to join the team; I started the next evening.

There were dozens of chalk outlines of figures, floating heads and bodies without faces. The first portrait I worked on was of Harold Lehman, WPA muralist and member of the bloc of painters who had worked on "América Tropical." We had a clear image of the artist from the 1940s, but needed to adjust the style of his clothing to match the painting's earlier time period. I had never painted a male portrait with tight curls, so I was a bit nervous.

A few hours later I had completed the first portrait, using a transfer technique that Barbara had devised by drawing with white chalk on a grey ground. My next portrait was of Angelica Arenal, Siqueiros' widow. Her photo was from much later time period, so I had to soften her age in the portrait. As I worked up layers with thin glazes of acrylic paint, Barbara told tales from 1978 when she traveled to Mexico and met with Angelica to study her husband's original drawings. When I completed her portrait, Barbara reworked her hair and pearls to perfection.

Barbara Carrasco working on detail of Siqueiros
Barbara Carrasco working on detail of Siqueiros

The same evening, I began researching various photo archives, including the Los Angles Public Library's collection of over 30,000 photos documenting the city's history. I was determined to get higher resolution images; Thomas' sources were sufficient for the composite digital sketch, but not nearly detailed enough for portrait painting. I searched and found higher resolution images of Charles Pollock, Reuben Kadish, Harry Chandler, and Christine Sterling.

I downloaded several images from the early 1930s, but they didn't necessarily work with the "Opening Night" composition. The gestures and postures of each figure were already outlined in the composition and some of the bodies were already painted. I could not find a single clear image of Christine Sterling's face in profile from 1932.

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However, I did find source images that helped me paint the elaborate embroidery and patterns on her rebozo. Elizabeth and Barbara enjoyed my brushwork on the rebozo -- I couldn't have been happier. Barbara reworked Christine Sterling's hair, and told me about the time she learned to paint hair with Glenna Avila together on "L.A. History -- A Mexican Perspective" mural in 1981. I have known Glenna since I was 17 years old and was my mentor at CalArts. She joined the mural team later that week.

On one particular Saturday, the weather was hot and dry, causing the paint to dry very quickly. We couldn't have the fans on because it accelerated the drying time. The studio was invaded by ants, which crawled up my bare legs as I sat on the floor painting pants, jackets, and more pants at the bottom of the composition. We took the night off to go to the Carlos Almaraz exhibition at the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College. It was great seeing old friends, artists and colleagues.

I found deep inspiration in the works of Almaraz's Los Angeles landscapes, his vocabulary of energized heavily laid marks, and brilliant use of color. Following the reception we headed to Pasadena to a fundraising dinner for the Dolores Huerta Foundation. My mother, Guadalupe Rodriguez, and I sat at a table with Barbara, Dolores, and other friends we talked the night away while enjoying a few tequila shots.

Edith Head and Fernando Palomares detail
Edith Head and Fernando Palomares detail

I spent every weekend and several weekday nights working in that hot warehouse space in Santa Monica. The painters each had their own brushes and styles of painting, some working with bristle brushes, while others worked with synthetic soft hair brushes -- rounds, flats, and brights. I worked with short-handled synthetic rounds and filbert brushes. It was difficult but rewarding to relearn to paint in a way that complemented the overall style of the composition.

The artists and I had hilarious conversations, constantly joking while we painted. Barbara told great stories about working on mural and public art projects over the years, peppering her anecdotes with scandalous stories and chisme. We played French pop, disco, Jack White, Gipsy Kings, and dined on bean and cheese burritos from Tacos Por Favor, luckily just down the street from IQ Magic.

Barbara noticed that the crowd scene was still missing a few important figures. She recommended including Siqueiros teacher Alfedo Ramos Martinez, actor Leo Carrillo, actress Dolores del Rio, and friend of Siqueiros, Fernando Palomares.

Historian Shifra Goldman, who lead the early idea of bringing América Tropical back, is included to honor her work.

Various scholars, historians, artists, and students stopped by the studio while we worked, including Debra Weber and Ondine Chavoya. We were now approaching three weeks to deadline, so Barbara and Tom reached out to painter Abel Gutierrez and Janice Pearlman to join the team.

I also painted the portraits of architect Richard Joseph Neutra, and actor Charles Laughton, whose hanging jowls and full lips were fun to paint. He was wearing a light grey suit in the photo but it wasn't working in the painting, so I made up a black velveteen suit with piping with a patterned tie, based on my research on fashion in 1932.

All of the artists worked on several portraits at a time. I spent the last few days painting clothing and anonymous extras in the scene, such as a woman in a floral dress with her turtle-like husband in profile, and added hands to several of the figures. I reworked a handsome man dressed in a white suit in the foreground, basing his facial features on a head shot of my sweetheart combined with other sources.

As the deadline approached, I photographed hands to study from, including those of the exhibition designer, fellow artists, and colleagues at work. Meanwhile, Barbara worked tirelessly to pull together the work of the nine painters into one unified composition, patiently and skillfully smoothing brushwork and reworking the surface and light logic while perched up on the scaffolding.

A little push here, knocking back values here, some dry brush there. It looks impressive installed in the América Tropical Interpretive Center and I look forward to many more projects with this team in the future.

Artists Bloc II at work
Artists Bloc II at work, by klxadm


"Opening Night" contributing artists: Barbara Carrasco, John Valadez, Elizabeth Perez, Sandy Rodriguez , Laura Alvarez, Abel Gutierrez, Shizu Saldamando, Glenna Avila, and Janice Pearlman. 8' x 20', acrylic on canvas, 2012. All photos by Sandy Rodriguez.

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