Judy Baca is a visual artist, an arts activist, a community leader and a UCLA professor. The co-founder and artistic director of SPARC (Social Public Art Resource Center), she has long defined and been a champion of Los Angeles mural art. Before joining the “What Are Today’s L.A. Women Fighting For?” panel, the third event in the Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County series When Women Vote, Baca called into the virtual green room to speak about the art that articulates this moment, drawing dreamboats, and the finish line of the Great Wall of Los Angeles.
What's hanging on your refrigerator?
Right now, anything related to getting people to vote—trying to get the women's vote out, trying to get people of color’s vote out, trying to get young people's vote out—to transform our country back into a more humane and democratic society. That and Day of the Dead. We're just coming off the Day of the Dead annual events at SPARC. We had to transform from hundreds of people building altars in our space to an online virtual gallery. It was actually kind of an amazing experience, because it was much more personal. Rather than being hundreds of people that you had to go and meet individually, we were taken into living rooms and into communities. We were in small villages in Mexico; we were locally in Los Angeles... So Day of the Dead is on my refrigerator, and please get out and vote, and “Essential workers, essential voices.”
When are you at your most creative?
I really love the time after about 9 or 10 [at night], when the phone stops ringing. I do a lot of my drawings then. In fact, they’ve started to be called “night drawings” for my retrospective, which is opening this year. I have a whole series called night drawings—from 10 'till about 2 in the morning.
How did you get in trouble as a kid? There are some fun stories floating around about drawings you made in school...
Early on in my life, I was identified as somebody who could draw things. So people would come and say, “Would you draw me a dreamboat on my three-ring binder?” So I would draw these really handsome young guys for my girlfriends who wanted a picture. They weren’t portraits of any particular person; I just made them up.
Then my mom made go to Catholic high school, which I hated, but actually was the best thing that ever happened to me. So I went to Bishop Alemany High School. And there I was submitted to a whole lot more discipline than I was used to at Pacoima Junior High, as you can well imagine. And so we had to walk silently through the hallways, and we had to stand with when the nuns came into the classroom; there was all this sort of decorum. And so sometimes I would walk into the classroom, and I would start doing drawings on the chalkboard before the nuns came in. The one I got in most trouble for was naked nuns, with their habits flying, running across the chalkboard.
To follow up on this story, we have to know, what did a dreamboat look like for you at that point in life?
They were Aztec warriors. Beautiful, sculpted Mayan faces that were really the people in my neighborhood, people I grew up with. I still draw those classic faces.
What artwork has come out of this year, murals or otherwise, that you feel has been most successful for articulating this moment?
The Black Lives Matter language on the street across from the White House I thought was a brilliant monument. And then I saw them on the internet taking them off, and I thought that should be made permanent, so I was very disheartened. I think that was a very powerful action. And as windows were boarded all over the streets, those sites became places for people to paint. And so there was a tremendous amount of creative work that was going up on the boarded-up windows, and also on the barricades in front of the White House, in front of other public buildings. And so I saw the portraits of those people who had been lost in the violence by the police. I thought those were amazing.
And SPARC’s “We’ll Bring the Streets to You.” Every week, we put out another artist’s work. We did a whole series on the works that were done in the street during the uprisings. And I think one of the most powerful works was one that my team did. The young people took a big parachute—it’s very hard to paint on a parachute on the ground—and they spray painted “End Police Violence,” with brown hands in the center. And they took it to the giant protest outside of City Hall, and people got into a circle, and they opened it, and it became like this giant flower blooming in the midst of thousands of people.
In a 2010 interview you warned that the city had reached its most destructive moment in history for mural art. Ten years later, where do you think we are now?
To be most hopeful, I think we're at the moment in which we can transition. For example, the reduction of the police budget, the sense of the need for the reappropriation of money that would actually deal with some of our issues on a more humanitarian level, and engagement with who our people are in the city, could give us a moment in which murals could resurrect. I think it's the perfect time for the rebuilding of the infrastructure of America, and the creation of new public works that speak exactly to this moment.
So, I think Los Angeles is due for that change. I don't think we're there yet. [We’ve destroyed a] tremendous number of historic works that were part of an entire movement, particularly the movement within communities of color, that were the only places actually where they could speak directly to their experiences, and could talk about the issues that affected them. So I'm really interested in recovery of those monuments. I'm really interested in the creation of new ones that are narrative works, not spray can throw-ups—although we need spaces for young people to do this breakout work. But increasingly, we've had a dumbing down of muralism. And muralism has not been anything but decorative and sponsored by corporations that just want something up on the walls. So we have to have a city base, we have to have a county base, we have to come from the representation of the people to create a plan for how we do public works in murals, and how we support new artists, and how we diversify who gets to paint, who gets to make the work. We need a new WPA. Where artists are selected because of the quality of their work. But also the diversity of opinion and their willingness to speak from this moment in time and their experience.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I'm working on the 100th anniversary of UCLA. And we're creating a 100-foot-long mural that will be in the Ackerman Union. It will be a central image in the university. So I've been working with graduate students on thinking about what the future of the university looks like. And they were incredibly inspiring, talking about a post-human era, talking about a university that doesn't expand in buildings, but expands in ideas and works everywhere, from prisons to neighborhoods, and that has a library in the sky. And they talked about new methods of learning— and of course, what the pandemic has brought is exactly that. We're never going to be going back to the way we were. And I think that will transform the way universities are built and the way that universities think about themselves.
We can’t leave you without asking about one of your biggest legacies: The Great Wall of Los Angeles, which you’ve been working on since the 1970s, and which traces the history of California. What’s one way that it’s evolving right now that’s surprising you?
Well, I think it's the moment in which we are approaching the completion of it. We are in the midst of actually planning the last half mile—the next half mile—which will bring us into the 1960s, ’70s, ‘80s, ’90s, all the way up to contemporary time. It's about an eight-year-long project. The next three years will be the designing, which is really exciting, and that's a part that I will be playing a very intense role in. And then as we go into painting, we're going to be painting, not on the [Tujunga Flood Control] Channel walls, because of the planet warming and the instability of weather conditions, with terrifying flash floods. So we're looking for airplane hangars and spaces where 350 feet can be put on a wall in a substrate, and painted interiorly, and then applied to the wall, which is the new technique we believe that we can do. And then we’ll train young people through the Great Wall Institute.
We are reaching the most important moment in American history, in the creation of the Great Wall, because we're at the ’60s. And of course, at the same time, our country has to rethink how we move forward. It'll be a really interesting think tank with artists and historians and thinkers who will be helping me configure the next images for the Great Wall.