Judy Baca, founder and artistic director of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resources Center), was introduced to public art as a child.
She grew up in south-central Los Angeles and saw Simon Rodia building his Watts Tower.
She also started to find her way of expression early on when, not speaking English very well, she was set off to the side in grade school to paint pictures.
After graduating from Cal State Northridge with both undergraduate and graduate degrees, Judy became a teacher.
“I was interested in the process of working in a relation with a community so that we can actually work with young people to transform their experiences in the neighborhood and to transform the neighborhoods into beautiful recollections of the stories of their families,” she says. “So, we were teaching both self-esteem and methods that would recover for them their own story and history of place.”
Murals came to Judy through graffiti in the early 1970s when she was an art teacher with the Department of Recreation and Parks in Boyle Heights.
“I was interested in the writing on the streets and how young people were marking the walls and how they couldn’t move between neighborhoods because of the gang territories,” she says.
It was in 1974 that she brought youths together from different neighborhoods to form what she says was the first mural program in Los Angeles.
“We began to paint together across the neighborhoods and the gang territories,” she says. “We created an eclectic vision of the stories of our communities somehow marking the walls to present our own reality in neighborhoods that didn’t have anything that actually indicated that we were there.”
This methodology continued with Judy when she, along with painter Christina Schlesinger and filmmaker Donna Deitch, founded SPARC, in 1976.
“We were interested in art that could be transformative — that could actually create change in a community,” she says.
The precedent was set by Los Tres Grandes — the three great Mexican mural masters David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera — who created a collective consciousness through educational murals with themes of society and revolution.
Judy cites the 1932 work of Siqueiros — La AmÈrica Tropical — on Olvera Street, the birthplace of Los Angeles.
“The intention of that mural was to be an education to the public,” she says. “We took it further. As young muralists we took it to the stages of becoming voices for the neighborhood and voices for people.”
SPARC made a huge and lasting impact with its first major project — The Great Wall of Los Angeles, a pictorial representation of the history of ethnic people of prehistoric times to the 1950s.
The mural, one-half mile in length in the Tujunga Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley, was completed over five summers and employed over 400 youths and their families from different economic backgrounds working with artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars and community members.
Since then, SPARC has created more public art addressing contemporary issues, fostering cross-cultural understanding and promoting civic dialogue.
Themes of murals have changed with the times.
“Over the years increased public control and less public dollars have made murals less cutting and less truthful and more and more decorative,” Judy says.
Besides themes changing, there has been a change in how they are produced.
In 1996 the UCLA/SPARC Cesar Chavez Digital/Mural Lab was established at SPARC to create large-scale digitally generated murals.
“That makes it possible for us to conduct specific dialogues in a lab — that we conducted historically in neighborhood settings — and to work over the Internet to produce large-scale and digital prints,” Judy says. “It’s a different way of operating and interacting.”
SPARC is committed to producing and promoting work that reflects the concerns of America’s ethnically and economically diverse populations, including women, working poor, youths, the elderly and newly arrived immigrant communities.
In addition to the production of murals, SPARC also focuses on education and preservation.
It is said to be the country’s largest repository of information about murals and other forms of public art.
Its journals, magazines, newspaper articles, more than 60,000 slides and an artists registry are visited by hundreds of students, educators, scholars, artists and art historians every year.
As part of the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk Renovation Project, SPARC was commissioned by the City of Los Angeles to produce a visual history of murals that reflected the sentiment of Venice’s unique community. This was reproduced by digital imaging on tile for placement on podiums along the boardwalk from Rose Avenue to Dudley Avenue.
Statements by the original artists and plaques commemorating SPARC’s efforts to promote public art by preserving public memories also appear on the podiums.
There is a sense of regeneration at SPARC, both in its programs and facility as it enters its 30th year.
“We’ve just done a strategic plan for the next 30 years, looking at a time beyond the three women founders who began SPARC so many years ago,” Judy says.
In keeping with the renewal spirit, a capital improvement campaign of the facility is planned which will include an amphitheater and a library of murals from all over the world.
Other immediate improvements include fixing the roof and asbestos removal. Then plans will be made for the long term.
SPARC now pays a rent of $1 a year to the City of Los Angeles.
“It may look like a gift but when you say that the building (the original Venice Police Station) is 1929, operating it standing still has a great deal of money attached to it,” Judy says.
“We have kept it standing which is not an easy feat. We are looking to develop donors and individuals to help us.”
Since the roof repair is currently under way, special activities commemorating SPARC’s 30 years of providing community-based public art will be held on June 30th next year.
In the meantime, check out www.sparcmurals.org for current news and exhibits.