Great Wall restoration gives untold history new life
Judy Baca at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, which she created nearly four decades ago and recently restored. (Photos by Christelle Nahas.)
Gaspar de Portola’s expedition to the California coastline in 1769 — the beginning of the end for the native Chumash Indians — was fading.
Desperate Dustbowl refugees — thousands living in makeshift camps in the outskirts of L.A. in the 1930s — were peeling.
Rosa Parks, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche and others courageously breaking through barriers of race and class were cracking and crumbling.
There was trouble up and down the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a half-mile-long mural running along a concrete retaining wall of the Tujunga Wash Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley. Nearly four decades of blazing-hot sunshine, smog, flash floods and infestation by burrowing trapdoor spiders had taken their toll on this monument to interracial harmony, created out of the vision of Judy Baca, a professor in both the Department of World Arts and Cultures and the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.
In the 1970s over seven summers, Baca pulled together hundreds of community members, artists, oral historians, ethnologists and other scholars to conceptualize and paint the mural, which is considered her signature piece. More recently, Baca led a new team in an equally daunting restoration of the Great Wall. In the process, a sense of community was rekindled, and a new generation of muralists was able to learn from an internationally renowned artist, who has dedicated her career to the creation of large-scale, public artworks.
Some of the original Great Wall participants — teens back then and now in their 40s or 50s — showed up to help restore — and in in some cases, to rethink — the aging wall.
"It’s been an amazing experience to come together for one big purpose again," said Baca, dressed in paint-splattered coveralls and a wide-brimmed hat against the San Fernando Valley heat in the channel. Working 13½ feet below street level, with traffic whizzing by along Coldwater Canyon Boulevard in Valley Glen, formerly North Hollywood, she and her crew of students, volunteers and, at different times, muralists from around the world were finally finishing the job just three days before the mural’s Sept. 17 rededication.
The unrelenting work of climbing up and down scaffolding, applying gallons of fresh paint in broad brushstrokes to faded figures the height of a living-room wall was, in many ways, reminiscent of Baca’s first time in the channel.
Baca began the Great Wall in 1976 at the invitation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted to add murals and bike paths along the new flood control channels after encasing nearly 60 miles of L.A. riverbed in concrete. A native Angeleno, Baca was just a few years out of college at the time. She had earned a B.A. in fine arts from Cal State Northridge and, later, would receive an M.A. in art education. At the time, she was running L.A.’s first mural program, engaging inner-city kids in painting murals in their neighborhoods.
Baca envisioned the Great Wall as an historical narrative depicting California and American history, but woven from the untold stories of often unrecognized ethnic groups that have shaped California’s history, starting with prehistoric times and running through the 1950s.
After enlisting 10 fellow artists to help guide the project, Baca assembled a crew of novice muralists: teenage kids from L.A.’s juvenile justice system, which offered the project funding to support their rehabilitation.
"My first 80 kids had all been arrested at least once," Baca recalled. Ultimately, she would bring on some 400 young people, most of them from neighborhoods deeply divided by race and gang affiliation. "You can imagine … many were like complete lunatics," she said. "We had to figure out how to get them to work together — aside from killing each other, which was pretty close to occurring." Undaunted by the challenge, Baca turned the project into a veritable course on getting along across racial and class lines.
Around that same time, she also founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) to help support the Great Wall project and to replicate her model of mural-making as a form of healing in communities across the country.
Baca’s young muralists also learned new lessons in history as they painted scenes showing, among other things, the decimation of thousands of indigenous people in epidemics at Mission San Fernando in Mexico and its sister missions up and down the coast. The teens also heard first-hand from Great Wall consultants like Ami Ishii, who shared stories about her Japanese American family’s relocation during World War II to the Manzanar internment camp. Her stories would form the basis for Great Wall scenes about that period and the history of Japanese Americans in California.
The mural also calls attention to another often overlooked tragedy, Baca said. By its very location at the site of a once free-flowing river now encased in concrete, "it makes a relationship between the history of the people and the history of the river," she said. "Environmental justice and social justice are interwoven."
The flood channel where the mural is located is part of 60 miles of L.A. waterways encased in concrete.
The flood channel, which conveys run-off from points north and east into the Pacific, provided its own challenges during the restoration. On several occasions, said restoration project manager and UCLA alumnus Carlos Rogel, the crew had to pull everything from paint supplies to scaffolding and trucks out of the channel to escape storm-water floods.
Rogel is one of many UCLA-affiliated participants, from current students to Social Welfare Professor Rosina Beccera, former vice provost for faculty diversity and development who serves on SPARC’s board of directors. Most of the students have taken Baca’s "Beyond the Mexican Mural" class, which incorporates both academics and actual work on a public artwork.
Part of their UCLA training takes place in the César E. Chávez Digital/Mural Lab at SPARC’s Venice headquarters. The sophisticated computer facility enables the creation of ambitious artworks that combine high-resolution digital and hand-painted images. Baca and her students have created a number of acclaimed artworks, among them, the world’s largest monument to Cesar Chavez at San Jose State University.
Carlos Rogel, a UCLA graduate, found inspiration in Baca's ability to turn painful history into art.
But work on the Great Wall took students back to the basics: traditional hand-painted murals and the meanings behind them. Rogel recalled his early inspiration in seeing "murals along the freeway when I was growing up" — murals that, he later learned, comprised the Great Wall. While Baca’s student at UCLA, he said, he found deeper meaning in the art form when she introduced her class to the "The Migration of the Golden People." That mural, created under the auspices of SPARC, tells the story of four decades of oppression in El Salvador that started in the 1930s and resulted in the exodus of thousands from that country. Among those who fled were Rogel’s parents, who settled in Los Angeles in 1978.
"I connected very much with that piece," Rogel said. "That mural helped a lot in my being able to understand what had happened to us." But more profoundly, it showed him "how to make art about … a very difficult experience." Recently, Rogel, Baca and other artists traveled to El Salvador where, in a village not far from where his parents once lived, they helped community members create a mural of their own.
Working with Baca, Rogel said, has redefined for him "what art’s role is in society … and lit a fire in me to become an active participant in the story of Latin America."
With the Great Wall restoration now completed, Baca said she’s confident that the mural will be in good shape for at least a half-decade, thanks to her team’s painstaking work and the availability of longer-lasting materials. Rogel and paint company chemists created a resin-like material that will shield surface from new damage.
But Baca isn’t finished. She is now working on plans to build a bridge to give visitors a better view and interpretative stations to better understand the mural. Currently, it can be seen from above at street level through chain link fences.
She is also enlisting Rogel and current students to conceptualize images from the 1960s and beyond, covering the Vietnam War protests, Woodstock, and the civil rights and feminist movements, that will extend the Great Wall.
The important thing "is it’s not art simply as art," Baca said of the mural, "but it’s also an approach to art that has a strong relationship to place and community, as well as to the issues they’re facing.
"Everyone," she said, "finds a piece of themselves in it.