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How Judy Baca's murals help recover history through 'public memory'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new exhibit at the museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, looks at the scale and achievement of an artist capturing the untold stories of Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Brown took a look at the work of Judy Baca for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It runs a half-mile along the concrete banks of a river in the San Fernando Valley, 13-foot-high panels that tell a history of a city.

It's called The Great Wall of Los Angeles, one of the largest murals in the world, designed and painted, with a little help from her friends, by Judy Baca.

Judy Baca, Visual Artist: The story I wanted to tell was the story of the history that wasn't recorded in the history books, the history of people of color, the history of women, of indigenous people, to look at what was missing from the story of America, and to reconstruct that and teach it to the young people, who'd begin to learn about each other.

Jeffrey Brown: Many of the ideas and stories came from local community members. And so did the actual painting, the work of some 400 people working hand in hand with Baca.

It was the 1970s and early '80s, the beginnings of a commitment to a public art that would reach and benefit those around her. Fast-forward to today, a celebration of that commitment in her first major retrospective exhibition of more than 120 works at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.

Judy Baca: All of them are based in the notion that the land has memory, and that, if I put my ear to the ground, I can hear it, and that I can then articulate it visually.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 75, Baca grew up in the L.A. neighborhoods of Watts and Pacoima, raised by a single mother who worked at the Goodyear tire factory and a grandmother deeply attuned to the land.

Judy Baca: So, I came out of tradition that was both indigenous and also the tradition of a contemporary woman in the United States, a Chicana born here in the United States.

Jeffrey Brown: The works speak to the mythical power of women and the undervalued domestic worker, to the stereotypes of the lazy Mexican in sculptures that play off tourism shop sombreros, and, more recently, drawings that address the isolation she and many felt during the pandemic.

It's an unusual setting, a museum exhibition, for a woman who, from the start, saw herself an outsider in the art world.

Judy Baca: I never aspired to being one of the 2 percent of artists that make it in America. I never thought that that was possible.

First of all, there were no women. And, second of all, there were certainly no Latinas. So, I was free, in a sense. I could put the work where I wanted it to go.

Jeffrey Brown: She wanted it outdoors in public spaces, and she wanted it large-scale, in the tradition of renowned Mexican mural painters like Diego Rivera and others, mostly men.

Judy Baca: First of all, I chose making monumental work, which is basically a male area. I mean, that's...

Jeffrey Brown: Men make things.


Judy Baca: That's the purview of men.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Judy Baca: Women don't make monuments. They could make a model of a monument, right? They could do a dollhouse, but they couldn't build a house, right, or design a house. So, in other words, those -- the scale for women was prescribed.

Jeffrey Brown: To overcome barriers, Baca co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC, a community arts and education hub housed in an old jail in L.A.'s Venice neighborhood.

Here, she works with other artists to plan and design murals and conduct research.

Why is the collaborative aspect of it so important to you?

Judy Baca: It's ownership. I have seen kids come down to the wall many years later saying, "Hey, I painted those mountains, right?"

They feel pride in their support of a larger piece that was greater than anyone could do individually.

Jeffrey Brown: At the core of her project, seen dramatically at The Great Wall, is a sense of recovering histories, especially of those written out of the history books.

She calls her murals sites of public memory.

Judy Baca: One of the things I was seeing with the young people in the neighborhoods I was working in was that they didn't have those connections. They did not understand the ancestry and the lineage that would give them dignity, that would give them pride, and that what we needed to do was recover that content.

Jeffrey Brown: Just one example among many:, the story of David Gonzalez, Medal of Honor winner who died in battle saving others in the Philippines during World War II.

As the wall was being painted, his mother told Baca a county juvenile detention center was being named for her son.

Judy Baca: She said: "I don't want him remembered like that. He was not a juvenile delinquent. He was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Will you paint him here?"

And him depicted with his mother was a joyful thing to paint and a story from my neighborhood that I didn't know.

Jeffrey Brown: Now a new infusion of foundation funding will allow Baca and her team to double the size of the mural, painting on the other side of the river to bring the history up to date.

Meanwhile, back in Long Beach, a chance to for the artist herself to see 40 years of work and take stock.

Judy Baca: Essentially, the thread was always looking at the conditions of my community and of the people that I loved and worked with and cared about, and telling their stories.

I really believe that art has amazing capacities to be transformative.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California.

Judy Woodruff: Some powerful images.

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