Laguna Art Museum presents 'Self Help Graphics & Art at 50'
By Chadd Scott
Glenna Avila, Untitled, 1986, silkscreen on paper, 25 x 38 14 inches. Laguna Art Museum. Gift of Rene and Norma Molina and Museum Purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency
The Laguna Art Museum explores a fascinating slice of Southern California’s arts scene during “Marking an Era: Celebrating Self Help Graphics & Art at 50” on view through January 15, 2024. Over the past 50 years, Self Help Graphics & Art has grown to become one of the leading initiators in the creation of Chicana/o/x and Latinx art in the world.
“Chicana/o/x” refers to a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent; “Latinx” a citizen of Latin America or a person of Latin American descent.
Self Help Graphics & Art has remained consistently focused throughout its history on printmaking, offering public workshops, inviting people to come and make art. “Marking an Era” offers a contemporary look at the organization’s earliest works and themes which have initiated countless discussions and collaborations at the heart of Chicana/o/x art making in the region and beyond.
Sister Karen Boccalero
The organization was founded by Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun, along with a likeminded group of artists working on an old printing press out of a garage in East Los Angeles. The group focused on printmaking for its accessibility and capacity to produce and then distribute artists’ creative, political and social ideologies.
“Sister Karen recognized the lack of representation of U.S. born Latinos, and in particular Los Angeles based Chicanos, in the fine art arena,” Julie Perlin-Lee, Executive Director at Laguna Art Museum, said. “She believed it was vital for the culture to be reflected in the art, to further validate the artistic genius and existence of artists and people of Chicano, Latino and Mexican ancestry in the art world.”
Boccalero was a practicing artist and printmaker herself. She studied art under Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Hart College.
“Since its foundation, SHG has provided a nurturing environment for creative exploration and experimentation allowing self-taught and academically trained artists to build community and learn from each other,” Perlin-Lee explained. “Their work took inspiration from cultural traditions and practices while also being impacted by broader current events and contemporary culture, creating socially and politically driven work, elevating ideological questions of the Chicano/a identity.”
Glenna Avila, Untitled, 1986, silkscreen on paper, 25 x 38 14 inches. Laguna Art Museum. Gift of Rene and Norma Molina
and Museum Purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency
SHG + Laguna Art Museum
Early on in SHG’s evolution, the need for career development by artists engaged with the organization was recognized. SHG wanted to establish and uplift professional artists in addition to being a community resource for hobbyists. In 1983, the Experimental Screen-print Atelier program launched.
Over the years, hundreds of limited-edition fine art prints were produced through the Atelier program and made available to the public. They eventually made their way into museum collections.
The Laguna Art Museum purchased the entire collection of limited-edition silk-screen prints created by Self-Help’s Atelier program for master printers in 1995. The Los Angeles Times described the collection as “riotously colorful, dazzling imagery that expressed an array of cultural influences, from Pop art to politics to pre-Columbian iconography.”
“Marking an Era” represents the largest selection of works by SHG artists from the museum’s collection to be placed on view to date.
“The art world is brutal and institutional racism continues to grasp and dictate it. That is why Self Help Graphics was crucial in the 1970s when artists of color were not considered by blue chip galleries or large institutions,” Perlin-Lee said. “This continued to be an overarching issue until most recently; we are seeing a rise in group and solo exhibitions by artists of color and more people of color in higher positions in these institutions. The culture is shifting, and strides have been made, but we have yet to see if they are permanent.”
One major recent stride was the opening of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture in June 2022 in Riverside, CA. “The Cheech” displays the actor, comedian and entrepreneur’s personal, best-of-its-kind, collection of Chicano art.
SHG continues supporting the aspirations of professional printmakers through what it now calls its Professional Printmaking Program.
Printing with Purpose
As artist groups go, SHG has been exceptionally long lived. The Taos Society of Artists lasted 12 years. The Transcendental Painting Group not even five. The Bay Area Figurative Movement 20. SHG’s longevity is owed to serving a purpose greater than art: community.
Beyond printmaking, Self Help Graphics & Art now offers a wide variety of artmaking workshops, an artist in residency program, a fully realized retail operation, political advocacy, exhibitions of its own, and one of L.A.’s longest running and most popular Día de los Muertos celebrations. It’s Biennial Printmaking Summit and East Side Print Fair will be held Saturday, September 9, 2023, at the Vincent Price Art Museum.
The organization’s historic building in Boyle Heights is currently closed for a major renovation with hopes of reopening to the public in 2024.