Celebrating Five Decades of LA’s Self Help Graphics & Art Center

LOS ANGELES — Founded 50 years ago in the East Los Angeles garage of Franciscan nun Sister Karen Boccalero, Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG) established itself in the ensuing decades as a vital and vibrant community-focused arts space and printmaking studio. Now, a series of exhibitions staged over the coming months will contextualize the organization’s history and legacy, delving deep into different aspects of its cultural and social resonance.

The inaugural show Marking an Era: Celebrating Self Help Graphics & Art at 50 opened last month at the Laguna Art Museum, one of the first institutions to acquire a significant number of prints made by artists at SHG. In 1992, the museum purchased 170 works spanning the first decade of the SHG’s Professional Printmaking Program (PPP). Curated by Rochelle Steiner, the exhibition features 78 works, one by each artist in the acquisition. Rather than organize it chronologically, Steiner grouped the works thematically, with loose sections devoted to hybridity and immigration, art history, the body, portraiture, war, AIDS, and urbanism.

Sister Karen Boccalero. Photo courtesy of Self Help Graphics
Sister Karen Boccalero (1978) (photo courtesy Self Help Graphics & Art)

Self Help Graphics & Art emerged alongside the Chicano Movement of the early 1970s as an important hub for Latinx and Chicanx artists at a time when they were still fighting for art-world visibility. In 1974, SHG brought arts education to the streets with the Barrio Mobile Art Studio, a van offering printmaking workshops in local communities. The previous year, they began an annual Día de los Muertos Celebration, bringing art, music, and performance together in recognition of the holiday with Indigenous roots that is widely observed in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Although printmaking has always been a central focus of the organization, SHG wanted to create a more formal program, and in 1983, the PPP was born. Every year, SHG hosts two ateliers for five to seven artists who work with a master printer to create serigraphs and monoprints. The initiative is ongoing, with more than 2,000 editions produced to date. Marking an Era highlights a dynamic period in the early years of the PPP, showcasing the experimental spirit and technical growth that took place over the course of the decade.

Barbara Carrasco, “Self-Portrait” (1984), 17-color serigraph, 40 x 28 inches, and Diane Gamboa, “Malathion Baby” (1990), 13-color serigraph, 50 x 38 inches (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

The works in the show embody a remarkable diversity and breadth. Some express a boisterous energy, such as “Cruising Turtle Island” (1986) by Gilbert “Magu” Luján and Yreina Cervántez’s “Danza Ocelotl/Ocelotl Dance” (1983), which both reinterpret Indigenous themes. Other artists employ photo-based techniques, as with Jean LaMarr’s “Some Kind of Buckaroo” (1990), which depicts fighter jets streaking across a purple sky above a brown-skinned cowboy, and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s stark untitled 1986 body print serigraph. An edgy, postmodern-Punk aesthetic is visible in several works: John Valadez’s untitled 1985 screenprint in vibrating orange, purple, and green; Barbara Carrasco’s cartoonish 1984 “Self Portrait”; and Victor Ochoa’s humorous depiction of literal fractured identities, “Border Bingo/Lotería Fronteriza” (1987).

Patssi Valdez, “The Dressing Table” (1988), 12-color serigraph, 37 1/2 x 25 inches (image courtesy the Laguna Art Museum)

Marvella Muro, director of Artistic Programs at SHG, emphasized that the organization has also served as a resource for a broader population of LA artists and people of color. “It has empowered Chicanx communities, but not exclusively,” Muro told Hyperallergic. “That’s what I want to elevate. It’s a multi-cultural space.”

Steiner added that it was important to frame the show in the context of other formative print houses in the region, such as Gemini GEL and Tamarind Press. “There’s a whole other story here about the history of printmaking in LA, of which SHG is an anchor point,” she said.

SHG is in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation to their current 112-year-old building, purchased in 2018, and is operating from remote offices during construction; however, the group is still running programs like the Barrio Mobile Art Studio, Día de los Muertos Celebration, and an upcoming biennial printmaking summit to be held at the Vincent Price Art Museum on September 9. While the building is being updated and retrofitted, these four offsite exhibitions offer an opportunity to revisit and reassess its history on its 50th anniversary.

1992.031.023 Untitled Boltuch Avila
Glenna Avila, “Untitled” (1986), serigraph, 25 x 38 1/4 inches (image courtesy the Laguna Art Museum)

The second exhibition in the series, In the Heart of It, opening at the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center at the Los Angeles LGBT Center on November 18, focuses on the community of LGBTQ+ artists who have worked with and thrived at SHG. Sister Karen, who studied under Sister Corita Kent, an influential and progressive nun in LA who fused art and activism, founded SHG alongside artists Frank Hernández, Antonio Ibáñez, and Carlos Bueno, the latter two of whom were longtime partners who often signed each others’ work.

“I would do some pretty radical stuff, and she would just nod her head like, ‘oh, brother,’” said curator Ruben Esparza, who was invited to create a series of prints at SHG in the mid-1990s. The exhibition will feature about 20 artists including Ibáñez, Bueno, Teddy Sandoval, Joey Terrill, Laura Aguilar, and Miguel Angel Reyes.

Teddy Sandoval Angel Baby 1
Teddy Sandoval, “Angel Baby” (1995), silkscreen print (image courtesy Self Help Graphics & Art)

Los de Abajo/Monográfico, the third show, will focus on a collective that formed in the basement of SHG in the late ’90s. Members including Victor Rosas, Marianne Sadowski, Kay Brown, Don Newton, and Poli Marichal combined their prints to create large-scale collaborations. The exhibition, running from March 2 to April 27 at the Long Beach City College Gallery, speaks to the communal aspect of the space and the connections it fostered between artists.

The final show, titled The Re-membering Generation, will highlight the synergy between art and the East LA music scene that took place in the mid-1990s. During this period, musicians and bands including Quetzal, Ozomatli, and the Aztlan Underground formed a new movement that drew from Chicano history and culture, inspired by the Zapatista struggle for Indigenous rights in Mexico. Curated by musician and historian Quetzal Flores, the exhibition will feature archival works alongside new prints being created during the current PPP atelier that pairs musicians from this period with visual artists. It will be held at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College next spring.

While these four exhibitions offer historical perspectives on Self Help Graphics & Art, they also provide views of an organization that is still alive and generative.

“These works look as fresh today as they did then. These are issues that we’re still interested in, it’s absolutely relevant terrain,” Steiner said. “We should look at them with wide-open eyes.”

Gilbert “Magu” Luján, “Cruising Turtle Island” (1986), 12-color serigraph, 25 x 38 1/4 inches (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

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