A team from SPARC works to clean Quezada's mural, 'The Tree of Knowledge" (Photo by Tessie Borden)
A team from SPARC works to clean Quezada's mural, 'The Tree of Knowledge" (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Josefina Quezada: A Lifetime of Fighting for Public Art

A Mexican artist who was responsible for starting the drive to restore David Alfaro Siqueiros’ downtown Los Angeles mural América Tropical was honored Monday, June 11, in perhaps the best way possible: with the start of conservation work on one of her own murals.

Detail of a photograph of Siqueiros’ “America Tropical” mural at Olvera Street (Photo courtesy of Glenna and Jesse Avila)

Josefina Quezada died about three weeks ago in Mexico, but she left much of her work on the walls and public spaces of Los Angeles. She arrived here in 1971 after Siqueiros asked her to evaluate the controversial mural he had painted outside a building at Olvera Street in 1932. The mural’s subject matter, an Indian crucified on a double cross under an American eagle, had caused a sensation on its unveiling, leading to Siqueiros’ expulsion from the U.S. Later, it was partially, then totally, whitewashed and forgotten. Quezada, working with colleague Jaime Mejia, was to report to Siqueiros on what it might take to restore it. She teamed up with art historian Shifra Goldman and filmmaker Salvador Treviño to document the work.

But Siqueiros died in 1974. Three years later, a new curator at El Pueblo Park, the agency that oversaw Olvera Street, realized the work’s importance, according to the Los Angeles Times. She immediately and enthusiastically backed a conservation project, but it would take years to raise the necessary funds. The Getty Conservation Institute signed on in 1987, and its work continues. In 2010, ground was broken for a visitors’ center and a protective canopy for the mural. The center is set to open October 9, 2012, 80 years to the day after the original mural was unveiled.

América Tropical also became the centerpiece of Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied,the Autry’s landmark 2010 exhibition about Siqueiros, his time in Los Angeles, and his legacy to mural art and artists in the city.The show was made possible through a collaboration with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, which contributed works from the collections of several museums in Mexico City.

A team from SPARC works to clean Quezada’s mural, ‘The Tree of Knowledge” (Photo by Tessie Borden)

On Monday, a very different mural that Quezada painted in 1978 on an outside wall of the Anthony Quinn Library in East Los Angeles, The Tree of Knowledge,became the beneficiary of the latest restoration project by the Social and Public Art Resource Center, the organization that has championed mural art across the city. SPARC co-​founder Judy Baca also collaborated with the Autry on the Siqueiros exhibition.

As the SPARC artists began the process of cleaning Quezada’s mural with a mild solution of soap and water, artists who had worked with Quezada stopped by to remember her.

“I don’t remember the first time I met her, but I know I met her through her involvement in the restoration of the mural América Tropical,” said the artist Oscar Castillo, 66, whose show Icons of the Invisible, at the Fowler Museum at UCLA until this past Feburary, formed part of the citywide Pacific Standard Time art initiative.“She was very dear to me, and I felt that she was like family.”

Castillo was instrumental in documenting the work of Chicano artists in the sixties, seventies and eighties, when these artists were operating largely outside the art mainstream. Quezada, who at the time was working with the non-​profit Chicana Action Service Center, was one of those artists, despite the fact that she had been born in Mexico City instead of Los Angeles.

Esparza, who helped with a previous conservation of Quezada’s mural, looks over this conservation effort with artist Carlos Rogel (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“I was always in contact with her,” Castillo said. “I was able to photograph her on many occasions, taking pictures of her actually working, and she asked me to go with her on many occasions to document the murals she did throughout the city.”

Oscar Castillo (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Castillo admired Quezada’s art scholarship.

“Her wealth of knowledge of the cultural and the folkloric art of Mexico was very appealing to me,” he said. “I wanted to know, since I couldn’t go to Mexico firsthand. Knowing her and the stories she shared with me about life in Mexico and her experiences, they were very entertaining to me, and I was able to expand my understanding of Mexican art and Mexican culture. So I appreciated her friendship.”

Castillo had to contain some emotion when talking about his friend.

“When she painted some of her work, she would always ask her family, and at one time, she asked me what would I want to see in a certain work,” he said. “We would tell her and she would get inspiration from us as to what images to paint. She absolutely embraced everybody’s opinion and she got inspiration from us. And we got … well, we got a lot of inspiration from her.”

Quezada suffered in recent years from Parkinson’s disease.

“In her last years, she was not able to paint very well because of the shaking of her hand,” Castillo said. “So I would visit her on many occasions and we’d have lunch together or I would interact with her family, with Felipe and Tere and her grandkids.”

Ofelia Esparza, another Los Angeles artist who worked with Quezada and who lives near the library mural, also dropped by to take a look at the progress and to remember her friend.

“For years I’ve been advocating that she have a retrospective exhibit or some kind of recognition,” said Esparza, 80, who is associated with Self-​Help Graphics. “As she was getting older … she tried to paint and it was really heart-​wrenching because she did do some beginnings. But she’d get mad at herself. (She’d say) ‘Ya no sirvo pa’ nada. Mira estas cochinadas.’

(I’m not good for anything. Look at this trash.)

Artist Ofelia Esparza (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Esparza also remembered an earlier time, when Quezada encouraged her own work. With another friend, they formed an informal group called Las Comadres, in which all three critiqued each others’ work and encouraged each other.

“She was just my dear friend,” she said. “Josefina was a wonderful person, funny, witty, al estilo D.F.,” she said. “She’d have these dichos and ways of saying things. So we would laugh and laugh.”

Esparza helped with a previous conservation effort of Quezada’s mural that Quezada herself directed in 2004. She asked Esparza to paint in a new dedication on the mural, in the figure of a book, to honor those who had helped restore it. And even though Quezada was getting on in years, she was there day after day to supervise the work.

Luis C. Garza, guest curator of the Autry’s Siqueiros exhibition, knew and admired Quezada.

“She’s one of the few Mexican artists that integrates herself into our (Chicano) community,” he said. “That’s part of the overall legacy of Josefina. She was an ambassador. It’s important to recognize that she embraced both cultures.”

Garza is organizing a week-​long memorial exhibition at Pico House near Olvera Street to honor Quezada and to show her work. It is scheduled for August 19.

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.