When she was studying fine arts in the late 1960s, Judith Francisca Baca knew that she didn’t want her paintings to hang on gallery walls or museums because her community in Los Angeles never went to those places. Instead, she wanted her art to be on the streets.

Los Angeles gave us an opportunity that was incredible because of year round painting of endless concrete, our freeway systems, our street systems,” Judith says.

Today, she’s one of the most renowned muralists in California. Commonly known as Judy, she’s been documenting the stories of Latino, Black, and Indigenous communities, creating sites of public memory. Her work was showcased in 2022 at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach and MOCA, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2023.

Judith is largely known for her most ambitious public artwork: the Great Wall of Los Angeles. It’s one of the largest communal murals in the world.

The great wall extends for half a mile along the Tujunga Wash river channel in the San Fernando Valley. It tells the story of California from its pre-Columbian origins up to the 1950s.

Judith didn’t do this Herculean work alone. The project, which started in 1974, involved artists and designers, but especially young people —more than 400 of them — mostly Latino and Black youth from underserved neighborhoods like Watts and Pacoima, where Judith grew up.

Working with young people has been an essential part of Judith’s artistic process.

“I didn’t quite understand babies, but I did understand the struggle of adolescence,” she says. “I knew the struggle to keep from being arrested just for walking down the street. I knew that their identification with a neighborhood put them in a category of gangs even though they weren’t involved with criminal behavior in many of the cases of young people I worked with.”

She’s also a professor emeritus of Chicano studies at UCLA. She sees murals not only as art, but as a tool to bring communities together and to organize. 

“I really enjoyed watching them transform in the process of learning to respect each other across race, and in some cases across class,” Judith says. “And for them to do something that they were really proud of that was bigger than any one of them could accomplish alone.”

Getting funding for the Great Wall became such a challenge that the organization she founded, SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, eventually ran out of money to continue the work. They had to stop painting in the 1980s. But that recently changed: Judith and her team are resuming their work on the Great Wall. 

Latino USA visited Judith in her studio in Venice, housed in an old police jail. Surrounded by dozens of colorful paint cans and brushes, Judith speaks about the  new designs that will continue to tell the story of California.

Featured image by Marta Martinez.

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