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Virginia is for Chicano Art Lovers

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A professor who was selected for a week-long seminar on teaching European Art had a bio that listed courses that she teaches. One class was Chicano Art and Muralism. What made me curious about Professor Andrea Lepage is that the art historian is a faculty member at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, far from Los Angeles, or any urban core. After an initial phone call, there was no doubt she has done enthusiastic research to understand the context of Los Angeles murals and Chicano Art. Her course uses Cheech Marin's collection as a contemporary catalyst, Judith Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles as the anchor of monumental theme, process and practice, and cites David Alfaro Siqueiros' days in Los Angeles as the start of an art movement. Furthermore, she reasons Siqueiros' time in Los Angeles influenced his process as much as the muralist changed the role of murals in U.S. cities. Writing on the Wall had to know more:

Ed Fuentes: Of course the burning questions is, what was your path that brought Chicano Art to a town where the burial site for General Lee is the most visible form of public art?

Andrea Lepage: I became interested in Chicano/a muralism as it related to my study of Mexican muralism and Los Tres Grandes, and specifically David Alfaro Siqueiros. I knew that Siqueiros painted street-side murals in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, but came upon a manual that he published in 1951 entitled "Cómo Se Pinta Un Mural" in which his experiences in L.A. feature prominently. The manual is part autobiography, part technical manual, and part manifesto. Siqueiros' goal was to provide a practical guide so that his version of political and socially-engaged mural painting could be exported around the world.

Initially, I began looking at the Chicano/a murals to see if the manual had any impact on their creation, or the artists who produced them. While I am still interested in that line of investigation, I came to realize -- perhaps more importantly -- that Siqueiros' time in Los Angeles changed his artistic trajectory, especially in relation to his ideas about the moving perspective and the use of photographic projection.

These ideas are central to Siqueiros' artwork and featured prominently in his writings, and it seems that he first became interested in these artistic techniques during his stay in Los Angeles -- he says as much in "Cómo Se Pinta Un Mural" and other writings. I wanted to spend some time in Los Angeles to try to understand the specific atmosphere of the city and its people that changed the path of Mexican muralism.

Once I spent time looking at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, and then many community murals, I became less interested in the connection between Mexican and Chicano/a murals, and was captivated by the uniqueness and artistic vibrancy of the Chicano/a murals. I wanted to share this important and understudied aspect of American art with my students at Washington and Lee University.

Lexington is not a place one would expect a Chicano Art course would be taught, and so well attended. Are your students familiar with the subject, or has this course been a major introduction of those works?

Washington and Lee students are a diverse group, come from different backgrounds, and draw upon a variety of life experiences in the classroom, yet they seem to be united by a desire for intellectual exploration and cultural expansion. A few students were familiar with Chicano/a art before entering the classroom, but the vast majority had no prior knowledge of Chicano/a art whatsoever. Many had never heard the word Chicano before. All but one or two were unaware of The Great Wall of Los Angeles. Even the students who had some experience with Chicano/a art had no idea about the extent and impact of Chicano/a muralism throughout California and beyond.

While most students did not have a background in Chicano/a art, Chicano/a studies are featured throughout the Washington and Lee curriculum. English Professor Deborah Miranda has been teaching Chicano/a literature at Washington and Lee for quite some time, and many of the students enrolled in my class are Latin American and Caribbean Studies minors who have or will spend time studying Chicano/a literature and history as a part of that curriculum.

The town is conservative, and I understand the Confederate flag still waves in some places. How difficult or easy was it to negotiate your syllabus with various chairs?

This course was met with overwhelming enthusiasm across the university. In fact, when I submitted the proposal for the course, the dean of the college sent me a personal note expressing her enthusiasm about the class and the opportunity for students. The class ended up filling past capacity (with a long wait list).

The Staniar Gallery director, Clover Archer Lyle, sought and was awarded funding for the associated exhibition of Chicano/a art ("Chicanitas: Small Paintings" from the Cheech Marin Collection) from a number of organizations across campus -- including the university administration, the art and art history department, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program, and student-run organizations.

When Cheech Marin delivered his lecture about the collection, the auditorium was packed; I saw most of the members of the administration, many professors, hundreds of students, and many members of the Lexington community in attendance. The university-wide support for the study of Chicano/s art was overwhelmingly positive.

This class is one of three that the university chose to document throughout the term, taking photographs, and filming large portions of the content. We were followed from Cheech Marin's visit on the first day of class all the way to the student's final presentations on the last day of class. I couldn't speak for the administration, but my sense is that the support for this class reflects a certain awareness of the timeliness and relevance of Chicano/a studies today.

Clover and I found the local Lexington community to be extraordinarily receptive to the art. I gave a series of lectures on Chicano/a art at the local high school, and then brought those students to the Staniar Gallery for a gallery talk. I also gave lectures about the collection to students from the middle school, and a pre-school class. I have noticed a constant stream of visitors coming into the gallery to see the show. One comment in the gallery guest book reads, "It's about time!"

Professor Andrea Lepage with student at Washington and Lee University
Professor Andrea Lepage with student at Washington and Lee University

You have a goal for what students will take away, and that seems to have been met. Has there been any student observation you found enlightening?

My students amaze me every day in the classroom. The list of what they have taught me throughout the term is too long to include here, so I'll mention just a few of the many enlightening student observations. The students were very interested in issues of identity and self-identification as Chicano/a.

One student, Mark Faubion, noted that, "each artist (in the Chicanitas show) presented just one angle of the 360 degree identity of what it means to be Chican@." Mark's statement reflects what many of the students came to believe firmly: you can't slot Chicano/as -- or any other people, for that matter -- into a single category. Students were struck by the multifaceted nature of Chicano/a art. Throughout the term, students were alarmed, saddened, and angered that there were so many elements of U.S. history that are still not being taught in classrooms -- that are still being erased from mainstream education.

To explain my goal for the class, I'll quote the artist John Jota Leaños: "Hold off amnesia." The narrative of The Great Wall of Los Angeles teaches viewers in a clear and linear fashion that the same wrongs have been perpetuated over and over again in our country. My hope is that the recognition of this fact will help students to hold off historical amnesia, and enable them to forge a better, more equitable and more humane future for our people.

How important has The Great Wall of Los Angeles been in setting the mood or tone of your course, or making early 20th Century murals contemporary?

The Great Wall of Los Angeles has been the central focus of the class -- a touchstone. Each day, we started with an examination of one portion of the wall, and then examined community murals with similar themes.

From there, we examined the ways that the same themes are being explored by contemporary Chicano/a artists in gallery and museum spaces. We met for 2 1/2 hours a day, 4 days a week. The students saw a lot of Chicano/a art -- and we had a lot of fun together in the process.

We asked some students how the class has impacted them, one of which is Anna Paden Carson, a freshman at Washington and Lee University who is from from Roanoke, Virginia. With her father from San Diego, she has a unique "distance" perspective on art from Southern California.

Anna Paden Carson: As a Spanish major, I've always had an interest in the Spanish language and the people of Spanish-speaking countries. Going into this class, though, I had absolutely no idea what the term "Chicano" meant. Although my Dad was born in San Diego and experienced Chicano/a culture throughout his childhood, Chicano/a culture never reached Southwest Virginia.

On the first day of class, I was blown away. After learning about the origins of "El Movimiento" and the Chicano/a movement, I felt robbed from the public education system that I had never even heard the term "Chicano!" After just the first day, I had learned about Cesar Chavez, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Great Wall of Los Angeles, all of which I had never heard of before. After the first week of class, I quickly ran to my friends and told them all about what I had learned and about the amazing art exhibit we had in the Stanier Gallery. Shocked, my friends reported that they too had never heard of Chicano.

After (the first) four weeks of this incredible class, I finally realized what kind of impact it had on me. This class, the art, and the class' content lit a fire in me to learn and tell the history that isn't normally in the textbooks and taught in class but is just as important. For example, to learn from the Great Wall that 500,000 Mexican Americans were deported to Mexico during the Great Depression disturbed me. I firmly believe that you can't change the future unless you know and learn from the past, and I hope that through different mediums (textbooks, art, history classes, etc.) people will learn the rich history of the Chicano/a movement and that it will become more common knowledge.

Ed Fuentes: Did it create a connection to your language studies?

I absolutely feel like I have become emotionally invested in a larger cultural institution. Although I am white, I feel like I can now better understand the difficulties of being "attached" to two different cultures. I am now more empathetic with immigrants, descendants of immigrants, etc., and truthfully, this class has helped to alter some of my political views on immigration. I've found that many classes in college really alter the way you think and stick with you, and this one is no exception. This class and its content will influence me for years to come.

Now more than ever, I want to perfect my Spanish so I can communicate with an ever-growing population of Spanish speakers. Rather than learning for scholarly reasons, I want to learn for personal interest.

Top: Cheech Marin in gallery with W & L students. All photos: Washington and Lee University

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