Self Help Graphics & Art emerged out of the inspiration and energies of a group of artists/printmakers working from an East Los Angeles garage. Known as Art, Inc. when they began working together in 1970, printmakers Sister Karen Boccalero, Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, Frank Hernández, and others held their first exhibition at the El Mercado shopping center in 1971.
Soon after, they relocated to Boyle Heights with a gift from the Order of the Sisters of St. Francis and by 1973, the organization was reestablished as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and changed its name to Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG).
East Los Angeles
The evolution SHG’s focus on printmaking as its core discipline grew throughout the 1970s and by 1979 the programs became increasingly experimental, in the printmaking studio and in other media, including music and performance art. During the 1980s, SHG earned its reputation as a locus for the emerging Chicano and Latino artists and cultural movements. Sister Karen passed away in 1997 and facilities and financial management continued to impart the organization’s health during the twenty-first century.
A significant revival has been in process since 2007, including a major relocation from the former headquarters on Cesar Chavez Avenue to a new location in Boyle Heights, adjacent to downtown Los Angeles.
an iconic cultural arts organization
Self Help Graphics & Art, is an organization that serves as an important cultural arts center that has encouraged and promoted Chicana/o and Latina/o art in the Los Angeles community and beyond.
The seeds of what would become Self Help Graphics & Art, were planted in 1970 during the height of the Chicano Civil Rights movement when two young queer Mexican artists, Carlos Bueno and Antonio Ibañez and several Chicano artists, including Frank Hernandez, met Franciscan nun and Temple University-trained Master Artist, Sister Karen Boccalero. Reflective of the contemporary social and political climate, Bueno and Ibañez were frustrated by the inaccessibility and lack of facilities available to young Chicanos wishing to develop their talents as artists. The cost of private art schools was prohibitive to most Chicanos. While it is generally conceded that art is an intensely personal expression that holds no creative boundaries, some in the art world did not yet accept the concept of a unique Chicano art that would serve as an expression of cultural values. In this context, they set out to develop a plan that would remedy this situation; a plan that would not only serve the needs of aspiring Chicano artists, but that would also serve the greater East Los Angeles community.
Long hours of careful planning and canvassing the community for support ultimately paid off. With a grant from the Order of the Sisters of St. Francis, the trio (who by this time were joined by others interested in serving their cause) were able to acquire 2,000 square feet of space that had once served as a gymnasium in the heart of East Los Angeles. Its subsequent conversion into an art studio and gallery enabled the group to open the doors of Self Help Graphics in 1972. The organization was so well-received by the surrounding community and by aspiring artists that operations soon outgrew the 2,000 square foot facility. Continuing the search for funding through public as well as private resources, a grant from the Campaign for Human Development in 1973 enabled SHGA to acquire an additional 7,000 square feet adjacent to the existing studio and gallery space.
Once Self Help Graphics & Art was firmly established as an art center, the core members of the group began to think beyond the walls of the studio and imagine how in addition to developing their own talents and furthering Chicana/o and Latina/o art, they could reach out in a way that would benefit the greater East Los Angeles community. Placed in its larger historical context, Self Help Graphics & Art’s efforts may be seen as a microcosm of the macrocosmic Chicano Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the goals of this movement was to foster an appreciation for Chicano roots. Chicano activists placed an emphasis on their precolonial past rather than on their European Spanish heritage. Many contemporary activists argued that rather than honoring and preserving this heritage, the dominant Anglo socio-cultural norms were eroding the indigenous culture. Like these activists, Self Help Graphics & Art feared that within such an atmosphere, young Chicanos would not only soon forget their cultural values, but would also develop a negative sense of their heritage and of themselves in light of the Anglo socio-cultural practices and values being taught in the public school system and disseminated by the popular media.
Self Help Graphics & Art spent long hours developing and planning ways through which in addition to exposing barrio children to a variety of artistic media, they could utilize art forms to instill within these children a positive sense of self, community, and culture. Many of the children that Self Help Graphics & Art wished to help were either migrants themselves, or the sons and daughters of migrants not far removed from their homelands. Since participation in art does not require a sophisticated command of spoken or written language, art was perceived as an excellent vehicle by which to achieve this end.
While Self Help Graphics & Art held workshops on its premises to educate neighborhood children (as well as adults) about art and culture, the sheer physical geography of East Los Angeles isolated much of the target group from their services. In an effort to remedy this shortcoming, they set out to devise a plan that would bring the art studio to the surrounding community.
In August 1975, following an exhaustive fundraising campaign, Self Help Graphics & Art instituted the Barrio Mobile Art Studio. The organization acquired and customized a van for this purpose. This specially equipped van introduced children to filmmaking, silkscreen, photography, sculpture, batik, painting, and puppetry. Through a contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Self Help Graphics & Art was able to bring its program to various East Los Angeles elementary schools and thus provide a level of multicultural education in the arts to children who currently had none in their curriculum. The Barrio Mobile Art Studio program was enormously successful and well-received by students, teachers, school administrators, and civic leaders. It remained in operation until Self Help Graphics & Art phased out the program in 1985. Arguably, the Barrio Mobile Art Studio served as a prototype for the types of multicultural curriculum programs that the Los Angeles Unified School District would later adopt.
Self Help Graphics & Art has played an active role in community affairs. Included among these activities are the sponsoring of numerous workshops and art exhibitions. Ever since 1974 the organization staged the now nationally recognized East Los Angeles Dia de los Muertos Celebration. This holiday, which is traditionally celebrated on November 1 and has its origins in Mexico, was originally conceived of as a one-time celebration to be staged by Self Help Graphics & Art. The following year the community demand for this event was so great that the organization decided to continue sponsoring the annual event. With support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the East Los Angeles Dia de los Muertos celebration grew into an event that attracted national attention. The elaborate celebration continued to survive and thrive not only because of grant money received from numerous public agencies and private foundations but through the widespread community support that served as the backbone for producing the celebration. This three-day celebration accomplished some of Self Help Graphics & Art’s goals by educating East Los Angeles residents of their heritage, introducing them to the creative processes involved in art, and ultimately, helping to build a stronger community. By 1985, the Dia de los Muertos celebration had become so popular among the residents of East Los Angeles that the program could be sustained without the primary support of Self Help Graphics & Art. With the assurance that others would take up the responsibility for planning and organizing the event, the organization decided to take a secondary role in staging the celebration. Such a role allowed SHGA to devote more time and energy to the primary reason behind its founding: furthering Chicano Art and providing a training ground for aspiring Chicano artists.
Self Help Graphics & Art has developed an international reputation for the exceptional quality of the screenprints produced by artists at the facility, while its gallery also receives much praise and is well-recognized as an important arena for exhibiting artists’ works. With its continued emphasis on advancing Chicana/o and Latina/o art, Self Help Graphics & Art remains one of the most important centers in the country for training Chicana/o and Latina/o artists.
Self Help Graphics & Art Archives, CEMA 3. Department of Special Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.
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