By Jesus Figueora
A nostalgic look back at the inspiration of artist Roberto Chavez had on the art community also took panelists back 40 years to their time at East Los Angeles College last Saturday at the Vincent Price Art Museum.
Co-curator Sybil Venegas led an informative discussion at the VPAM with a panel of East Los Angeles artists including: Ofelia Esparza, Margaret Garcia, Will Herrón III and John Valadez.
Each of the artists talked about their experience with Chavez as a professor and as a mentor, while showing their artwork that best represented the lessons that Chavez taught them.
Chavez was at ELAC during a critical time in the Latino, Chicano, movement and was able to capture the attention of the youth at ELAC.
“I was here on (ELAC’s) campus after the summer his (Chavez’s) mural was whitewashed. It was shocking to myself and my colleagues, of course most of all Roberto (Chavez). I never forgot that,” Venegas said.
“Quite frankly, I think the whitewashing of his mural devastated him to the point where he quit his job and he moved out of the Los Angeles area. I know that during his time up in Northern California he continued to paint, but it was difficult for him,” she said.
The artists in the panel talked about how Chavez disappeared once he left LA for Northern California.
When Chavez left ELAC it shocked those who were close to him.
Venegas said that Chavez did continue doing his art while he lived in Northern California in the 1980s, but the art movement was changing and artist were only known if they had their art on display on the Internet.
For a long time, Chavez was not heard from and faded away from public view because the Internet made it so difficult,if artists wanted to be known, their work had to be on display the Internet. Chavez was not on the Internet.
Venegas talked about Chavez when she was invited to be part of The Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” and realized that not many people knew of Chavez.
In 2008, Venegas looked up a retrospective of Chavez’s work and pitched it to VPAM director Karen Rapp.
After approval, it took Venegas, Bill Moreno and the VPAM staff four years to build up the exhibit.
“Just recently, his painting called ‘El Tamalito del Hoyo,’ is now the cover of the Smithsonian’s Latino art in the Americas,” Venegas said.
“All of these artists are stellar artists. All of these artists are East LA artists. All of these artists studied and work with Roberto (Chavez) during at a very important time in art history in the city of LA,” Venegas said.
At the start of the opening reception artist walkthrough Chavez explained his passion for art.
“This (paint brush) is my weapon of choice,” Chavez said.
Through out the discussion all the artists explained how they too used art to convey their messages.
Garcia then talked about how she couldn’t remember ever having a Latino teacher when she attended school. But after she came across Chavez, things changed.
“Then, all of a sudden, Roberto Chavez shows up. He is tall, dark and handsome, intelligent and talented, charismatic and we’re all star struck,” Garcia said.
He’s like the rockstar. Everyone was stunned. They were stunned. They looked at the work and it didn’t look like what we had been fed,” she said.
Garcia had been astonished by Chavez in many ways. His dedication to his students and to teaching art helped Garcia explore her own passions in art.
Garcia wasn’t enrolled in ELAC, she just lived across the street, but was fascinated with the thought of attending college.
“He (Chavez) gave me the foundation to drawing in that time and they are the same lessons I teach when I teach now,” Garcia said.
Herrón, just like Garcia, had the same type of experience with Chavez as a professor.
Through several assignments, Herrón gained the confidence in his art and style that helped him get out in the real world and become an artist.
“What he did often, I didn’t really understand it at the time. He always took my drawings, he would always take my assignment and he would put it off to one side,” Herrón said.
“Then, he would have other students put theirs next to mine and talk about why mine was better. Why would he do that? Everybody hated me anyway. They really had a reason to hate me even more. I do recall that vividly. It was just so much encouragement,” Herrón said.
Each artist talked about how Chavez would be supportive and encouraging of their work while teaching the basics of drawing.
The drawing style and manner of each artist became more and more relaxed.
The artists were able to develop and take the skills and mindset learned at ELAC to the real world, outside of ELAC. They were also able to empower themselves to speak their mind, portray their message and do so with pride and confidence.
“You always loved going to his (Chavez) class. He was very supportive,” Valadez said.
Co-curator Bill Moreno was in the audience for the event but was not part of the artist discussion panel.
“Roberto Chavez and the False University: A Retrospective” is on display now through Dec. 6.