Name: Glenna Avila
City of origin: I grew up here in L.A. I was born and raised here. Ever since I can remember I have loved art.
How did you find yourself in painting murals? When I was in graduate school I was going through an internal turmoil about how an artist can live in this world and why artists create art and who is it for and all these questions about where does the art work end up after you create it. Then I met this wonderful friend in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, named Angelique Acavedo and she actually had a job painting murals and teaching kids how to paint murals at a local elementary school in Albuquerque. One day I tagged along with her and I saw what she was doing at the school and a light bulb went off. It answered all my questions about what is the purpose of art. Why as artists do we choose to engage in it? Where does the art end up? Is it a commodity? Do only wealthy people have access to it? And here were these kids in this run down school in downtown Albuquerque learning how to paint and beautifying their school and doing these remarkable murals on the walls of the school. For me, a light bulb went off and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. So when I came back to L.A. after being in New Mexico I came back and I applied for a job as an art instructor with The Citywide Mural Program and Judy Baca. At that point I didn’t really know about her work but I saw that there was this job teaching art and creating murals and I thought, how perfect. I ended up working with Judy for a very short period of time in the late 70s because she was in the process of founding SPARC. So we were working for the City of Los Angeles, it was the Recreation and Parks Department initially. I had been there a few months and then SPARC was created and so Judy shifted over to SPARC and there I was, left with, running the Citywide Murals Program an coordinating thirty murals a years, two in each City Council district. And we had a whole plan, we had a whole chart of locations and artists and we just continued the work.
Those were the wonderful times when muralists didn’t have to deal with the mural ordinance and the issues we have today, right?
That’s right. Basically, if you got permission from the building owner or if it was a government building and you had permission from the agency that owned the building, you could paint a mural there. We were able to hire youth from that neighborhood, organize meetings, talk to the community about what kind of images they wanted, and make it so that their murals were reflective of the different neighborhoods that we were in.
So you would say that draw your inspiration from what you learned in New Mexico, from this artist that you met and what a wonderful place. It’s so magical there.
Definitely. What’s great there is the blend of cultures. When I was at UCLA as an undergraduate I majored in Art but I minored in Native American Studies. So being in New Mexico was perfect because there were so many great images and art works and architecture that were created by Native Americans that I was able to access and be inspired by.
That’s Great. So you can very legitimately say that you were one of the muralists that helped to make this city the mural capital of the world because you were painting at a time when so many murals were being painted.
It was continuing the work that Judy had envisioned and set up and it was a chance to get to know all of the artists and work closely with them, design and imagine projects together working with a variety of communities which I love.
So at that time you met, I imagine, a lot of the artists that are very well known today. Who did you work with?
Well, tons of great artists. The East Los Streetscapers; David Botello and Wayne Healey had just finished there mural in Lincoln Heights, on the bank building. One of the first projects I got to do was with John Valadez and he was very young in his career and he showed up and we became great friends and we did quite a few different projects together. One summer, we had John Valadez and Carlos Almaraz working with High School students in Highland Park and I’ll never forget that summer (1979). It was an amazing experience. We had about twenty-four High School students and John and Carlos would have these very animated discussions/arguments in the middle of Figueroa, all about art and it was just a great experience. Eloy Torrez, I worked with him. Margaret Garcia did her first mural with her us when she was a young artist, which was in the late 1970s. So many great artists.
What was the most memorable response to your work? I imagine it probably had to do with the L.A. Freeway Kids because it’s such an amazing landmark.
Painting as part of the Olympic Arts Festival, that was a huge honor and really an exciting time because the Olympics were coming to L.A. and ten artists were selected to paint murals on the freeways. So that was great. The amount of attention the Olympics received with not only local press, but international press, was significant. We had lots of interviews and photo shoots. I remember an interview on the freeway with a Japanese film crew and then there was a German film crew and then people were just walking down the freeway. I remember some people were walking down the freeway and I told them, ‘don’t do that! You shouldn’t be walking on the freeway!’ I remember painting on the three stories of the scaffolding on that mural and there was this guy up at the top and he was trying to signal me and so many people are trying to talk to you and you cant really hear anything because of the traffic. I didn’t know what he wanted but he ended up writing a letter, tying to a rock on a string and then lowering down to me on the scaffolding. So I opened it and it turned out that he was the owner or manager of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and he wanted to know if I would come and paint a mural on the Cecil Hotel, which is this very tall fifteen-story hotel. Huge walls. I did go by the site and check it out but it was huge and I was too busy so I didn’t end up doing that project.
When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing?
My major full; overly full-time job is Director of the CalArts Community Arts Partnership and that’s a program where we provide tuition free arts training to K-12 students throughout L.A. County. We have fifty-five different programs in sixty diverse neighborhoods throughout L.A. and that keeps me very busy. I get a lot of pleasure out of being a catalyst for young artists.
Who were some of your mentors?
I had a great mentor at UCLA named Lee Mullican. He was a wonderful painter, artist, and friend. I think he was really inspirational to me and then lots of different artists throughout the times. I was more influenced by contemporary artists than the past. My background and training was more about pushing the medium of artwork and muralism forward and I wasn’t so much interested in referring to the past. It’s a challenge to create things that haven’t been created before and I’m not saying that I have done that. I’m saying that it’s something that I strive for and it does challenge me.
What are you current/future projects?
I am thinking about some new projects but I’m not doing any right now. I’m waiting to hear what’s going to happen with the L.A. Freeway Kids, and the re-emergence of that. I have lots of ideas for new projects but I keep very busy so it’s sometimes hard to squeeze in additional projects but maybe soon.
Which of your murals is your favorite? Why?
I don’t know. I’m not a person who believes in picking favorites or choosing the “best.” What I really like is when that project involves students and when the students can learn all the processes and how to do it and find their voice and create something that is theirs. I think if I had to pick a favorite, and it’s not because the artwork is the best but because the process was so interesting is, I got to do two murals in a probation camp with incarcerated boys. This was Camp Rockey in San Dimas and working with those boys and getting them to express themselves was a transformative experience; they had the best ideas. They had the most forward thinking way of visualizing what they wanted to put on the wall. I was just amazed by what they did. We didn’t have very much source material because they’re incarcerated and we started the process in a classroom, so I brought in books on murals but the only books that were there were American History books. So they were looking at photographs of Mt. Rushmore and looking at the different presidents that were carved in Mt. Rushmore, and they were saying, ‘why don’t we do a mural, but instead of these presidents, we pick our heroes.’ So they picked Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, really important figures to them. So we changed Mt. Rushmore in the mural. Another mural that I did was at the Phoenix House. It’s a school and residential facility for young people who have drug and alcohol problems and I was there for a period of some months. We painted the whole entire courtyard area, which is this huge courtyard and the walls were fifteen to twenty feet high. We covered every single one of the four walls. The students wanted to do an underwater oceanography theme. It became this whole environment because once you’re in the middle of it you’re surrounded by these whales and fish and underwater subjects. That was really fun and also, I find it very therapeutic for the students. We would have hours and hours of just being out there painting. Painting can be very relaxing and also, inspiring and energizing. It can be a group activity or it can be a group that has very solitary elements to it where you’re engulfed in your own painting.
What themes/messages do you convey through your work?
I think as I get older it’s getting easier and easier to be more forthcoming about certain issues and certain political things that I think are important to express through art. I’m always thinking about those kinds of things, but when I did the L.A. Freeway Kids it was more about celebrating youth and the kind of activities that youth are engaged in as they relate to athletics and the Olympics. I think if you did find a theme in my work it would be about young people finding their voice. Especially as it is more and more difficult to find quality arts training in the public schools. There still are great art teachers and great music programs but it seems the arts are always under attack and there are fewer and fewer opportunities in the arts. That’s why programs like the one we are doing: the CAP program is so important because we can provide youth with quality arts training, after-school, and in-school, on the weekends, and in the summers. CAP stands for the CalArts Community Arts Partnership and is a partnership between CalArts and 45 public schools, community-based organizations, and social service agencies. In this program, CAP is able to involve up to 10,000 young people annually in the visual, performing, media, and literary arts.