Pola Lopez was just 18 when she had her first experience with murals. It was 1973, she was a high school senior in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the Brown Berets had gone onto her school campus to protest as part of the Farm Workers’ Movement.
School administrators had told students not to go to school that day, but Lopez said she went because she heard they were painting murals in the parking lot. “I saw then the power of murals to educate, to provoke thought, to make you feel things, to convey information,” she said.
At that moment she knew wanted to be an artist.
Lopez later moved to Los Angeles, where she has created nearly 20 murals, including some at schools, probation camps and juvenile halls.
The meaning of public art and murals has gone through many changes since the 1970’s, yet the role of women muralists has somewhat remained the same.
In the seventies, murals created in the public housing complexes of Boyle Heights and East L.A documented the struggles and culture of a community that felt oppressed. Some created by women are “If We Could Share” by Lydia Domínguez; and “Innocence” and “Fishes of The Future” by Norma Montoya – all at Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights.
“There was a political movement attached to the walls with messages of empowerment, education, gender, and equality,” says Isabel Rojas-Williams, an art historian and former executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
Rojas-Williams says that many of the public art pieces painted today are more decorative, and without a message – pretty to look at, but not deep in content.
“A lot of what’s missing is the honesty and truth of the human condition,” says Lopez, who at 66 believes her career would have been different if she were a male artist.
“My experience in L.A was more challenging, also because I was from somewhere else and not born and raised in L.A… and I lacked the political and art world connections.”
This didn’t deter her from creating her art. “I found that if you keep setting the bar higher, they have to pay attention to you and treat you differently because it makes everyone do better,” she said.
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Sonia Romero creates public artwork in communities like Little Tokyo, East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. Her mural “Hecho A Mano” can be found at Metro’s Mariachi Station. Before painting she asked area residents to bring her objects they felt represented the neighborhood. Romero then painted a pattern of hands holding these objects.
Romero, 41, began creating art because that was simply what her family did. Unlike her parents though, she attended art school and got a formal education. Rather than creating just a pretty picture, she combines materials, color, and narrative to connect the community.
“All I can do is create art, see if it resonates with people, and attempt to make connections,” she says.
Lopez agrees that making those connections is everything. She says that while repainting the170-foot-long “Southwest Museum Mural” by Daniel Cervantes, she realized the importance of community in her art.
“The best part of the whole thing is connecting with people, it wasn’t so much about the art, just that they appreciated seeing a woman there painting in 105 degree temperatures.”
Both Romero and Lopez say it’s not always easy for women artists to get exposure. Romero’s 2014 public art installation “They Fly Through Water” at Belvedere Aquatic Center in East L.A was funded by the LA County Arts Commission, but the artist says it got little attention from the press.
“I wish that more people wrote about my work, and more people advocated for it,” she says. “I feel like my accomplishments are pretty big, but I don’t really feel like anyone notices.”
Rojas-Williams agrees that female muralists are often underrated by media outlets, and says it’s usually left up to artists to promote themselves. “Latina muralists who still get attention are from the older generation,” she adds, referring to artists such as Barbara Carrasco, Judithe Hernández, and Judy Baca, who founded the Social and Political Art Resource Center in Venice.
“When you read about murals, they are mostly about guys,” says Rojas-Williams, who acknowledges that there are more male than women muralists.
Lopez says recently she went back to her high school in New Mexico to see if the mural that inspired her was still there, but the school had been bulldozed.
“I went looking, “ she says, “but it’s not there. That’s the thing about murals, they can be temporary. Be there one day, gone the next.”