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The ‘Day of the Dead’ is a 40-year-old celebration at Self-Help. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

 

The phrase “En Boyle Heights, arte y cultura es”¦” is written on a freestanding blackboard at Mariachi Plaza, where skateboarders show off their skills and travelers get on and off the Metro trains. As residents walk past during the evening rush, they stop to express their opinions. One person draws a bodybuilder, while another writes “Arte y cultura es la vida.”

Self Help Graphics & Art put the blackboard there as an innovative way of engaging the neighborhood at a time when the organization has been forced to shut down its new home in Boyle Heights, cancel some of its classes and postpone planned exhibitions.

The blackboard is a perfect fit for the organization’s mission as a “place that cultivates new artists and new creativity in whatever medium it is,” said Rudy Espinoza, interim executive director.

The 31-year-old urban planner and founding executive director of Leading in Urban Renewal Network (LURN) is guiding the organization through what it calls a temporary setback in its storied history as the preeminent Eastside arts organization.

Self Help was formed at the height of the Chicano art movement, with a clear mission to use art as a tool for social justice. After surviving a major financial crisis in the late ‘90s and the loss of its studio space, the organization managed to regain stability and move to a new Boyle Heights location. It relocated its studio to the site of a former sea urchin processing plant on the western edge of the First Street arts corridor, where it celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.

A series of setbacks

But in February 2014, Self Help was forced to shut down unexpectedly when mold was discovered in the area around the old refrigerators, creating a potential health problem. Repairs were expected to take several months, but have yet to be completed. The organization expects to reopen its exhibition, art production and office space in early 2015.

Even before it lost use of its space, Self Help has had a history of engaging the community in programming that reaches beyond its walls.   A perfect example is its “Día de los Muertos” celebration, considered one of the oldest of its kind in the country.

Prior to the actual “Day of the Dead” event, which follows the Mexican tradition of honoring the departed, Self Help holds workshops throughout the community. Last October, dozens of Boyle Heights residents of different ages gathered at Hollenbeck Park to create the calaveras, papel picado and flowers used during the celebration.   

The November 2 event began at Mariachi Plaza with a community procession that ended at Méndez High School ”“ across the street from the shuttered Self Help studio ”“ where the colorful altars honoring the dead were presented.

Children take part in an art workshop. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

Art focused on social justice

Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun and printmaker, and other artists founded Self Help in 1973. At its original Boyle Heights location, at what used to be Brooklyn Avenue and St. Louis Street, they created a space where artists and community members could come together to learn about printmaking and other techniques that would help them convey issues of social injustice.

“It really was a home for many artists who didn’t feel like they had places in mainstream art institutions,” says Evonne Gallardo, former executive director.

Self Help became a nurturing space for emerging artists like John Valadez, Frank Romero and Gronk, who became leading forces in the Chicano movement and went on to have international careers.

Boccalero “had an incredible gift for innovative ideas that connected creativity with community,” says Gallardo. These ideas included developing a mobile art studio, which sent a van out into the neighborhood where instructors taught workshops on the streets.    

In 1979, Self Help signed a dollar-a-year lease on a popular East Los Angeles building owned by Boccalero’s Franciscan order and used for dances.   With its colorful tiles and murals on exterior walls, the building, at César Chávez Avenue and Gage Avenue, not only became a barrio art institution, but also continued as a home to the flourishing East Los Angeles punk rock scene.

“I’ve known about Self Help my whole life,” says Dewey Tafoya, a well known artist who grew up in Boyle Heights and remembers going to listen to bands play there as a teen.

While studying at UCLA, Tafoya, now 44, joined the organization as an intern and eventually learned silk screening by spending time with other artists. “I definitely took the name literally – help yourself first. If you have these ideas or something you want to do, don’t wait for someone to show you.”

Tafoya, an artist in residence until the building’s closing, describes the institute as a space that has “nurtured me as well as inspired me to share my artwork.”

Financial turmoil

When Boccalero died in 1996, the organization went into financial turmoil, which worsened when the religious order sold the building to a real estate investment company. With a new landlord, much higher rent and dwindling staff and resources, the arts organization was forced to find a new location.

With 13,500 square feet of available space, the Ocean Queen Building seemed a perfect fit. It brought the organization closer to community partners like Proyecto Pastoral, Corazón del Pueblo and Casa 0101 and gave it new accessibility, with a nearby Gold Line Station.

“It was very much a liberation to come to Boyle Heights, but also a homecoming.” says Gallardo, who guided the organization through its move and fiscal recuperation and, among other accomplishments, brought back the Barrio Mobile Arts Studio.

Thanks to a $80,000 grant from the Irvine Foundation, a new truck has been reconditioned to use for mobile art workshops throughout Southern California. The mobile studio is expected to provide a new revenue stream for the organization.

Still, the art center continues to face  challenges without access to a studio, where it typically holds a busy schedule of classes. “It’s important to have a space, but it’s more important for an organization to really fulfill its mission,” says Gallardo, who stepped down in early 2014 to take care of her mother.

While the organization settles on a new executive director, Espinoza hopes his background in urban planning will help Self Help be part of a movement to revitalize Boyle Heights.

“We realized that Self Help is not a building,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how the art and the ‘creative mass’ that already exists in our neighborhood can help build better housing, help build strong businesses, help make our streets more engaging.”

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