If you peer into the Tujunga Canal, you'd be hard-pressed to find water. But what the canal lacks in water, it makes up for in a flowing river of California's history with Judy Baca's monumental mural "The History of California," popularly known as "The Great Wall of Los Angeles." Joining the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art's extensive collection of mural studies and process works is the recently acquired "The History of California" archive, a collection of over 350 objects related to Baca's monumental mural.
"This is a kind of collection that works for us, as an institution in so many ways, because it is connected to storytelling and thinking about how the stories of the past are relevant to today," said Pilar Tompkins Rivas, chief curator and deputy director of curatorial and collections at the Lucas Museum.
Baca's 2,754-foot mural lives along the Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel in the San Fernando Valley, and paints the history of California from prehistory to the mid-twentieth century. The mural flows through time and history, celebrating monumental figures in California history while also shedding light on darker parts of the past like the assimilation of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese-Americans. In February 2020, the Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC) announced the expansion of "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" that continues the historical narrative from the 1960s to 2020.
The "History of California" Archive at the Lucas Museum contains objects that tell the story of the mural's development and execution, including blueprints, concept drawings, mural studies, site plans, sketches and notes and correspondence.
A Peek Into an Artist's Mind
Developmental pieces in the archive from concept sketch to blueprint to final coloration pull the curtain back to show how art is made and offers a glimpse into the working mind of an artist. A series of sketches, blueprints and a colorized draft for "The Great Wall of Los Angeles 1950: Forebearers of Civil Rights" panel show the piece's evolution — how Baca went from a tangle of intersecting diagonal lines to a vibrant mural depicting prominent civil rights leaders and activists like Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King, Jr. rising from their bus seats and moving forward for new destinations.
The first piece in the series lays out the mural's perspective with intersecting diagonal lines, employing the punto perspective — a system of perspective that gives the illusion of images leaping out of the plane.
"These points which fall on the edges of your rectangle have a relationship one to each other, that comes into a ratio, which can be likened to musical time," Baca said in a 1986 oral history interview. "And you can change them — as I have done on 'The Great Wall.' And it was an amazing experience for me to see how when lines, directional lines, went through forms — how forms, if moved to fit within the ratio, to hit the points. Like in other words, if an arm flies out, it goes to the point. Suddenly there's this visual kind of connection between the forms, and it ... clicks like pieces of a puzzle, right into place."
The evolution of Baca's civil rights panel reveals how these systems of perspective become an integral role in Baca's compositions, as subjects click into shapes created by the lines of perspective.
A Painful History
Though vibrant in color, Baca's mural does not shy away from depicting darker shades of California's history. Colorized drafts of Baca's mural unfold often overlooked narratives. In the final coloration of "The Great Wall of Los Angeles 1950: Chavez Ravine and the Division of the Barrios," displacement, segregation and gentrification narratives are center stage. The panel depicts freeways encircling and dislocating a Chicano family. Above them, the Dodger Stadium resembling a UFO descends from the sky as a bulldozer and policemen forcibly uproot the predominantly Chicano community at Chavez Ravine.
In 1951, a decade-long battle began between the city and community members ensued after government acquisition of land largely owned by Mexican Americans resulted in the displacement of an entire population of Chavez Ravine — land that was initially designated for public housing.
Several other pieces in the "History of California" archive unfold underrepresented histories like the deaths of Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad and covenant laws that denied Black people access to equal housing in South Central L.A.
Making a Monument: It Takes a Village
Creating a mural as ambitious in size like the "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" took an effort equally as epic. According to Judy Baca's website, some 400 youth workers aptly called the Mural Makers completed the 2,754-foot monument over the course of nine summers (1976-83), adding 350 feet of the mural each summer depicting a different decade of history.
Scholars, historians, artists, community leaders and local youth made up the core of Baca's village of collaborators. Documents, notes and correspondence within the archive reflect Baca's community-oriented practice.
"I wasn’t asking people, 'What do you want to see on a wall?'" Baca said in an oral history interview from 2010. "I never ask them that. Because they’ll tell me every clichéd image they know, right? I asked them much more. 'What do you care about? What’s happening?' And then from that, I can draw images they understand."
A handwritten document in the archive details crew roles and lays out the project's organizational structure, representing the sheer number of collaborators who contributed to the creation of the mural's narrative and visual content. Baca lists the roles of historians, crew supervisors, volunteers and even Baca herself.
In another handwritten note, Baca writes in bright blue and red marker, "I know how to: Listen, nurture, mediate, organize, adjust."
"It brought a level of...a process to that, where artists work together with communities to discuss what makes sense and what people want and how to reflect the, the ideas and things that are important to those communities," Tompkins Rivas said. "Not just helicopter in and place an image on a wall...You see, kind of, a listing of values and what does it mean to have agency within your community, what is the nature of power?"
To celebrate the acquisition, Lucas Museum Director and CEO Sandra Jackson-Dumont will interview artist Judith F. Baca and Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Curatorial and Collections Pilar Tompkins Rivas about the mural on Zoom. The free public program will take place on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. For more information, and to register for the event, visit the museum's Eventbrite page.