Judith Baca is a world-renowned Los Angeles-based Chicana painter, muralist, community arts pioneer, scholar, and educator. However, she is best known as a muralist where she records Chicano history and fights for social justice through her community-based work.
Baca was the first in her family to graduate from college. She trained as a minimalist painter at California State University, Northridge, and became a teacher in a Catholic high school in Los Angeles. Politically active, she was fired for attending protests against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. She enrolled in a citywide program to teach art to young children and senior citizens. Because she was a Chicana, she was assigned to East L.A.
Independent of her teaching work she enrolled 20 local teenagers to create a mural in a bandshell. This was “Mi Abuelita,” completed in 1970. With this mural, Baca began working within communities to develop imagery for public artworks.
Coming out as a lesbian, she became involved with the feminist community around the Woman’s Building, an education and exhibition space near MacArthur Park where she was one of the few women of color. Moreover, she was one of the few women among the members of the male dominated L.A. Chicano art movement at this time.
In 1976, she began the huge mural “The Great Wall of Los Angeles” with the help of 80 young people referred to her by the city’s justice department. “The Great Wall” is on the National Register of Historic Places but does not appear in monument databases. It is painted on a wall over the Tujunga Wash, a tributary of the Los Angeles River. It extends almost 2,500 feet making it the longest mural in the world. It illustrates California history as seen through immigrant eyes. It has representations of Indigenous labor in the Spanish missions and a panel about the Chinese Massacre in 1871.
The twentieth-century scenes include the illegal deportation of Mexican American citizens during the Great Depression; the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II; Zoot Suit riots; and protests in Chavez Ravine when people were forced out of their homes for the building of Dodger Stadium. The history of L.A. runs through the 1950s and 1960s. The “Great Wall” recently received a $5 million Mellon grant to complete an Interpretive Green Bridge and to extend the mural’s image to present time.
In 1976, Baca cofounded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), a mural-making organization that has been creating sites of public memory since that time. She has been its artistic director since 1981. Today, SPARC is at the forefront of research to advance muralism through its affiliation with U.C.L.A. where Baca is a professor. Furthermore, as a member of the L.A. Chicano art movement, Baca has been pushing the art of the mural into new territory, employing digital technology to co-create collaborative mural designs.