Con/Safos: Rafa Esparza's Outdoor Art Space

Photo by Matt Rose

On a rare chilly, cloudy day in Los Angeles, the Bowtie parcel can become a daunting place to be. Stormy and cloudy, the unmarked paths are awash in green and a tinge of purple, thanks to the persistent purple needlegrass that has sprouted over the winter season. But in this wild land, where an occasional Metrolink train thunders past and the Los Angeles River rushes, a comforting glimpse of home can be found.

Built over the course of January and finished this February, Con/Safos or C/S is meant to be an oasis where artists and visitors can come and contemplate the intersections of art and life that exist in Los Angeles. The project is a part of an on-going collaboration between arts organization Clockshop and California State Parks turning the Bowtie parcel into a surprising location for a series of art installations and interventions.

As one walks toward the structure, it seems like the corner of a simple home, its rough hewn adobe brick layers towering just above ten feet at the highest and tapering to six feet at its lowest. Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza, together with his father, four brothers and sister, helped build the structure together using handmade adobe bricks.

"My father made his home in his hometown of Ricardo Flores Magon in Durango, Mexico," explains Esparza of his inspiration. "It was important for me to honor this labor and to share it with my family by having my father teach us how to build."

Rafa Esparza at the site of The Unfinished from Clockshop on Vimeo.

Over the summer, Esparza and his family worked beneath the heat over a big mound of dirt, spreading their mixture of dirt from nearby construction sites, horse dung, straw, and water from the Los Angeles River, then eventually molding it into 1,500 bricks. At first, their production was used to cover the Michael Parker's 137-foot long obelisk for a performance, but those bricks were then reconfigured to build this intersecting wall that stands sentry over Bowtie.

Esparza's work is multi-layered, not only was this about the family dynamic and the value of labor -- "Working with my family showed the different relationships we all had to negotiate" -- it also points to how the Los Angeles River played a role in early L.A. history. "The river was first used by the people living on the land, in the same way we had used the river. It was a resource for them."

Eventually, this portion of an adobe home -- a symbol of the Esparza family's labor, of man's connection to the land -- would become a yearlong canvas for collaboration among Los Angeles artists.

Named Con/Safos, the Chicano street term meaning, "with safety," the C/S mark was typically used like a copyright mark, indicating that no other graffiti artist could come and rub off what was already done on the wall before him. Inspired by the respectful spirit, Los Angeles artist Esparza conceived of this space where, literally, two perspectives meet to create one whole. Every other month, two artists, painters, and sculptors will be selected to leave their mark on the adobe structure.

Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose
Photo courtesy of Rafa Esparza, Iris Hu and Sarah Dougherty
Photo courtesy of Rafa Esparza, Iris Hu and Sarah Dougherty

"We're not going to buff out any of the works that come before," says Esparza, clad in blue high top shoes and all black gear that cold day, "We're going to be building onto what they've left behind."

C/S inaugural artists are Sarah Dougherty and Iris Hu. Dougherty notes, "It was important for me to see that Rafa invited two female artists to start the series. You don't often seen female street art. Somehow, it feels different and looks different. It can be inviting a different way."

Future collaborations include Leo Limon, best known for his L.A. River Catz and street artist Roach; Timo Fahler and street artist Vyal and female street artist collective in San Fernando Valley HOOD sisters and Mariel Capanna.

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Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose
Photo: Matt Rose

On her side of the wall, Dougherty creates a cosmological diagram of the people's relationship to the land of Los Angeles. Metastasized symbols abound. At the center of it, Dougherty appropriates the state parks seal and surrounds it with the words "Caliyagna," a mash-up of California [of State Parks origin] and Yagna [the Tongva word for Los Angeles, translated as "gathering place."]

Within the circle, a bear, the state symbol, gradually becomes a dolphin, a symbol of Tongva folklore and familiar landscape renderings pepper its perimeter, offset by beautiful hand paintings of animal tracks and greenery. "It represents landscape architecture's controlled approach to ecosystems and the natural growth of the land," explains Dougherty.

Dougherty's work then gives way to Hu's piece where a California fan palm frond is pasted at the intersection of the adobe wall. Like Esparza and Dougherty's work, Hu's piece once again emphasizes relationships and connections. "All our works engage with the land, the history of the land, and the memory of a place," says Hu.

Though disparate in execution, their themes nevertheless coincide.

Hu's wall is dominated by a beautiful blue fish, which came to Hu in a dream. The fish is kissing the goddess, Mazu, who protects the fishermen and the sea and, Hu notes, in many ways also protected those who traveled the oceans to new lands, such as the many migrants of Los Angeles. On the lower right, a small roofed home for the spirits sprouts on the corner, similar to those found in Asian home altars. "It was originally intended for the Earth God, who protects the spirits of the dead, the land, and the home," writes Hu, a nod to the cultural ancestors and historical ancestors on the land in Los Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Rafa Esparza, Iris Hu and Sarah Dougherty
Photo courtesy of Rafa Esparza, Iris Hu and Sarah Dougherty

At the center, a portrait of three maternal grandmothers -- Esparza's, Dougherty's, and Hu's -- is painted, another homage to the historical past and its repercussions in the present. Beneath them, Hu paints a sprouting of nopales and yucca, indigenous to California, and agave, thought to have sprouted at the Bowtie historically.

Overall, Hu's work, like Dougherty's is one that delves deep into connections, yet leaving conscientiously, it doesn't overwhelm its adobe canvas. Hu and Dougherty consciously left a little breathing room, not only for Esparza's work, but for future artist to intervene. Con/Safos, like Bowtie, is still in the process of being, to be created and re-created in the imagination by Angelenos today and the future.

Iris Hu and Sarah Dougherty's work at Con/Safos is on view at the Bowtie Parcel the whole month of March from sunrise to sunset


Further Reading on Rafa Esparza and Michael Parker's The Unfinished:

Rafa Esparza Transforms Audiences into Communities
Rafa Esparza's performance art is deeply intimate and political; it merges with his audience to form a community response to violence against people of color.

The War on Both Sides: Ostrich Skin
L.A. artist Rafa Esparza investigates ideas about memory, identity, kinship, and place through his performance art.

The Future of the Unfinished Obelisk
Artist Michael Parker will be engaging with the public over the next six months with a series of programs at "The Unfinished" site along the L.A. River.


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