Self-Help Graphics & Art: 40 Years Of Supporting Artists & The Community

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Early on an overcast Saturday morning in February, a number of teenagers have gathered inside a building near the border of downtown L.A. and Boyle Heights. While many of their peers remain asleep in bed, their passion for art has led them here to non-profit community arts center Self-Help Graphics & Art where they’ll participate in a number of workshops to hone their art skills.

On this particular morning, the students in question are here for the aerosol art workshop taught by graffiti artist Vyal One. Vyal and the center provide the supplies and space to nurture the next generation of local graffiti artists without fear of arrest. It’s one of many ways the center develops, nurtures and promotes the work of local, upcoming artists.

Self-Help was founded by Franciscan nun Sister Karen Boccalero and local Chicano artists Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibañez, and Frank Hernandez inside a garage in East L.A. on Cesar Chavez Ave. (formerly known as Brooklyn Ave.) near Soto. “It sprung out of the Chicano movement,” explains program director Joel Garcia. “The art that they were producing was about cultural identity, about social issues.”

It then moved to a building on Gage and Cesar Chavez Ave., which was the former home of the Catholic Youth League, where it remained for nearly 30 years until moving to its new location on East 1st St. right across from the Pico/Aliso Gold Line station. “The term Self-Help…the organization really embodies that,” he continues. “We exist because of the artists, because of the volunteers but, everything we do is really artist- driven. The staff here doesn’t control things. We talk to the artists and they really push the ideas and we just help them make it happen. As any other non-profit, we have a board of directors, there’s a staff but we also have an artist roundtable composed of artists in the community that do a variety of work. They really help guide our programming and what type of workshops we offer.”

Garcia himself comes from an artistic and management background. He’s a graphic designer who learned artist development and management skills during his time at Epitaph Records and other labels.

One of Self-Help’s most popular cultural events is its annual Dia De Los Muertos celebration. “That’s one of the things that Self-Help is really known for,” says Garcia, “for the artists to really nurture here and really keeping the traditional aspect of it, the ceremonial aspect of it and not really focusing on the commercial side of it. When you come here for Dia de los Muertos, you really get that communal feel to it versus it just being like a festival.” Self-Help hosts workshops every weekend in October where families can get together to build Dia de los Muertos-related arts & crafts that will be used for the celebration, which includes a procession that begins in Mariachi Plaza and ends at Self-Help’s building a half-mile away. There is also live music from local artists, food vendors, a traditional ceremonial blessing as well as an exhibition that’s open to the public. A video of last year’s celebration below:

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“It’s been a blessing,” says Garcia of the center’s time in its new home, “because things get stagnant. There was a point where the organization outgrew itself in the early 2000s, so, it’s kind of been like a rebooting of sorts over the last couple of years.”

Self-Help had some of its best years during its time at its home on Gage/Cesar Chavez especially during the 1980s. East L.A.’s punk scene was at its peak then and bands such as Los Illegals, The Brat, and The Undertakers performed regularly at Self-Help’s punk night, Club Vex. This was also the time when the organization launched a number of programs, such as the Exhibition Print Program, which promote the work of local artists on a national and international level. Artists such as Patssi Valdez who exhibited her earliest work at Self- Help in the 1970s has since found success among the halls of the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the El Paso Museum of Art, and more. “By moving,” Garcia continues, “it drew a lot of interest from people who forgot about the organization. Culturally, we have a huge generational gap between older artists and the younger generation. Moving here helped bridge that.”

Back outside in the parking lot, Vyal’s class is in session and the young artists are spraying away on large wooden panels. One student is artist Roten who connected with Vyal via Instagram and has been a regular at his workshops since late July. “The environment is ridiculously cool,” she says of Self-Help. “It’s a really relaxed environment and I like that about it but, you also get stuff done. I wouldn‘t call it a school because I don’t enjoy school. I would call it more of a mentoring program.” Roten plans on becoming more involved with Self-Help by helping out with events.

Garcia and the staff at Self-Help have nothing to worry about with the way things are turning out at the new location. Guys like Vyal are connecting with artists from Roten’s generation and the future for Self-Help and the community at large looks bright with the color of paint (among other art supplies). For more info on events and workshops, visit Self-Help Graphics on the web, and check out their upcoming fundraiser here.