This Experimental Latinx Art Space Has Supported the Careers of Hundreds of Artists
Barrio Mobile Art Studio, 1970s. Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
For 46 years, Self Help Graphics & Art has been one of Los Angeles’s great artistic centers. From the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, the Latinx art space has supported the careers of hundreds of artists and offered art classes and exhibitions, while also facilitating public art projects at no cost for its Latinx neighbors. Small but mighty, the organization developed one of the city’s most beloved public artworks, the annual Día de Los Muertos celebration, and established one of the nation’s most renowned print ateliers. Self Help has documented and re-envisioned its city through printmaking and socially engaged artworks, changing not only how the city imagines itself, but also how L.A. understands and celebrates its historical and living Mexican heritage.
Sister Karen teaching a group of students in the Professional Printmaking Program. Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
Perhaps it was only possible in the neighborhoods of East L.A. that two gay, Mexican immigrants could partner with a religious sister to found one of L.A.’s oldest and most important alternative art spaces in 1973. Sister Karen Boccalero, Carlos Bueno, and Antonio Ibañez turned the garage of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity’s convent into an informal art studio and classroom where they taught batik and silkscreen. Their program quickly attracted local Latinx artists, and the garage became overcrowded. With the financial support and the blessing of her Order, the trio moved into a space at 2111 Brooklyn Avenue (now Caesar Chavez Avenue), and they officially incorporated their experimental art space as Self Help Graphics & Art.
Sister Karen reviewing a serigraph with an artist in the Professional Printmaking Program. Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
Self Help would join a small network of community art spaces like the Chicanx art space Goez Art Studio and Galleries, and the Watts Towers Art Center. Offering free studio spaces and equipment was at the heart of the trio’s work, but they also developed experimental art spaces that were temporary, public, free, inclusive, educational, and mobile. They shared a deep and profound alliance with their Chicanx neighbors, and they looked to confront some of the social ills they witnessed, like gang violence and drug addiction, as well as city-wide stereotypes that circulated about Chicanxs and the places they lived.
As Self Help became a center for artists and artist collectives in L.A., the needs and requirements of reaching a wider audience demanded a more public and street-centered approach if it was going to advance its objective of serving all the people in its neighborhood. The founders realized that art came with many unintended implications about language and class. As a result, they initiated two of L.A.’s earliest examples of social practice artworks.
Sister Karen celebrating Dia de los Muertos, 1978. Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
In 1974, the group held the first Día de Los Muertos multimedia performance art parade. They improvised on an ancient indigenous and Mexican cultural celebration of the dead for a Chicanx constituency. Still celebrated to this day, it is an intangible gift that only a group of artists could give to a city.
In 1975, the founders of Self Help initiated the Barrio Mobile Art Studio by converting a UPS van into a mobile classroom, complete with a photographic darkroom and foldout tables. The van brought Chicanx and Mexican art objects, films, and lessons in art and art history to numerous public institutions ranging from elementary schools to juvenile detention centers. They were motivated by a well-known motto from their colleagues in public performance, El Teatro Campesino: “If the Raza will not come to the theater, then the theater must go to the Raza.” Self Help Graphics brought art classrooms, studios, and stages—with all their creative, educational, and life-affirming potential—out to Chicanx and Latinx people across the city.
Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
When Bueno and Ibañez left the organization in 1976, Sister Karen began to consolidate the organization’s programming. Maintaining the yearly Día de Los Muertos parade, she phased out the Barrio Mobile Art Studio and initiated the Experimental Atelier Program in 1982. The atelier was a workshop where artists collaborated with a master printer to produce a limited edition of fine art prints. Workshops consisted of group critiques and special attention was paid to print techniques. The program has produced over 1,000 print editions, and by the late 1980s, it established Self Help as the center of Chicanx print production in the United States. Some significant artists have pulled prints here, including Laura Aguilar, Lalo Alcaraz, Alfredo de Batuc, Chaz Bojorquez, Yreina Cervantez, Alex Donis, Wayne Healy, Leo Limón, and Patssi Valdez.
Many of L.A.’s great Latinx artists passed through Self Help’s doors to work on a print or exhibition, or to collaborate with other artists. In the early years, all of the major Chicanx art collectives—Asco, Los Four, and East Los Streetscapers—worked and exhibited at Self Help. The organization’s philosophical approach to cultural work was unique and based in an effort to accompany artists and the space’s Chicanx neighbors in whatever ways possible, even facilitating independent art projects under its nonprofit status. The painter Carlos Almaraz partnered with Self Help to run a design program for gang youth, which produced a barrio newsletter. The performance artist and musician Willie Herrón opened up The Vex, a short-lived punk rock venue that hosted bands in the art space. While Self Help has been labeled a community art space, that label is overloaded with implications of amateurism, obfuscating the high degree of experimentation that went on there.
Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art.
With Sister Karen’s death in 1997, the organization weathered numerous unforeseen financial and real-estate debacles, eventually losing a building the trio had rented from the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for more than a decade. After Sister Karen’s death, directors struggled to fill the shoes of an artist-slash-nun whose selfless commitment was best summarized by her routinely putting her own salary back into the organization.
Under its current leadership, Self Help has purchased its own building, now on 1st Street. Today, Self Help nurtures a younger generation of Latinx cultural workers through a young curators program, supports intergenerational connections through mentorship, and curates exhibitions like “Black, Brown and Beige,” which explored the connections between Black and Latinx experiences. Always envisioned as a politically active art space devoted to its neighbors, Self Help Graphics & Art presses on as the standard-bearer of a long and local tradition of socially engaged cultural work and artmaking in Los Angeles.