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Fall 2000
The Writing on the Wall
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Judith Baca's large-scale murals have illuminated the history and stories of Los Angeles' diverse communities. Today, her students are learning to carry on the tradition.

By Cynthia Lee
Illustration by Students of the UCLA César Chávez Digital Mural Lab

For decades, muralist Judith Francisca Baca has painted the untold stories and overlooked histories of the city's ethnic minorities on buildings, outdoor walls and in public places all over Los Angeles. A visual artist with an international reputation, she has altered the outward face of L.A., especially in communities that can now look up to see their own heroes and achievements heralded in bold images.

Venturing beyond visual art, Baca utilizes the mural-making process to span a racial and cultural divide. As a 27-year-old community outreach worker, she first tapped into the team-building power of art in 1973 when she discovered that rival gang members were willing to call a truce to help her create a mural in a city park. Later, as founder of the first City of Los Angeles mural program, Baca saw more than 400 murals produced citywide by 2,000-plus participants in 10 years.

Since then, she has engaged thousands more - the young and old, historical and ethnic scholars, immigrants and pioneers, residents of the barrios and affluent enclaves alike - in the planning, design and creation of public murals.

Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles, completed in 1984 along a portion of the Tujunga Wash flood-control channel in Studio City, still stands as a golden example of this collaborative process: The half-mile-long mural, the longest in the world, celebrates the contributions of ethnic minorities to the history of California and America. The work took Baca and a team of 700 residents 12 years to complete.

Today, Baca heads up a much different enterprise at the helm of the UCLA César Chávez Digital Mural Lab at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). In a former garage where police squad cars were once repaired, students are enrolled in a groundbreaking workshop/class called "Beyond the Mexican Mural - Muralism and Community Development," creating art with and for Angelenos. But instead of paper, pencil, paints and airbrushes, students - many of whom have never picked up a drawing pad - use high-speed computers, scanners, electronic tablets, digital cameras and a host of software programs to create large-scale images that blend together elements of real and virtual art.

"We are working on the cutting edge of this field, utilizing absolutely new approaches to muralism," says Baca, a professor in the César Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies and soon to also be on faculty in the Department of World Arts and Cultures.

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