Betty Avila, executive director of Self Help Graphics, spoke to students and community members Nov. 26 as part of the Oxy Arts Speaker Series. Avila spoke about the programming and mission of Self Help Graphics along with her experience living and working in LA, which was preceded by a drop-in printmaking workshop hosted by Self Help Graphics.
“[Self Help Graphics] is dedicated to the production, interpretation and distribution of prints and other art media by Chicanx and Latinx artists. Our multidisciplinary, intergenerational programs promote artistic excellence and empower our community by providing access to space, tools, training and capital,” according to the Self Help Graphics website.
Avila explained that one of the major components the organization focuses on is printmaking. The nonprofit hosts numerous printmaking and art related events open to the community. For example, in celebration of the 2017 Los Angeles Women’s March, the organization arranged an art-making which involved nearly 1,000 visitors and events for street vendors to create art to elevate their businesses, Avila said. Self Help Graphics also runs a young curator program to give young people the opportunity to curate their own shows with guidance from curator mentors. The organization serves as a vessel to support the community, provide economic resources and art materials and connect them to history and each other.
The other half of Self Help Graphics’ efforts are put into organizing an annual Día de los Muertos celebration, which is the longest-running, free, artist-led celebration of its kind in the U.S., according to the Self Help Graphics’ website.
“You think of what Day of the Dead is today, and the traditional iconography and symbols, and it’s totally evolved over the last decades at Self Help Graphics, and it’s incredible to see the phenomenon Day of the Dead is now,” Avila said. “It’s crazy when you think of the first few Day of the Deads in LA and how that’s blown up over the country. The template that Self Help [Graphics] built and created is what’s used in basically every celebration.”
According to Avila, queer printmakers Sister Karen Boccalero, Carlos Bueno and Antonio Ibáñez founded the organization in 1973, and it has been serving the community ever since.
According to their website, the nonprofit has produced the largest collection of Chicanx and Latinx fine art prints in history and exhibits these pieces in many major museums across the U.S., such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Having Betty Avila come to speak was especially important in terms of supporting cultural workers who come from Northeast LA and highlighting that history,” Allegra Padilla, the Oxy Arts coordinator of community programs, said.
Avila started her presentation by discussing the East Los Streetscapers’ mural, “Chicano Time Trip,” which she saw on her daily bus ride growing up in Cypress Park. It depicts pre-Columbian society, the Spanish conquest and colonization, Mexican independence and the rise of a new ruling class, the Mexican Revolution and a 1970s Chicano family. According to Avila, she missed the mural when she enrolled at Pitzer College and it helped her realize the importance of seeing her visual culture represented.
“This mural basically depicts my history. Once I understood what it was, it became even more powerful than just this thing I would drive by every day,” Avila said during her talk. “[During college] I yearned for this, and I deeply wanted this back in my life.”
It was this experience, combined with her relationship with her brother, that made her interested in the arts and pushed her to apply for an internship at the Getty Research Institute. According to Avila, when she was at college, her 15-year-old brother started tagging (illegally spray painting public property) resulting in negative attention from the police. Avila’s parents asked her to help her brother. She did so by traveling around LA with him, looking at murals.
“He and I would go to all kinds of graffiti art shows and gallery openings and became familiar with the scene … all with this notion that ‘Your creativity is not inherently a crime. Your talent, your brown body is not inherently criminal,’” Avila said. “That was the beginning for me of an interest in the arts at all.”
According to Director of Oxy Arts Meldia Yesayan, Avila’s career spanned work with the Getty Research Institute, The Music Center and the Levitt Pavilion MacArthur Park. Her work centers on the intersection of the arts and social justice, with a particular focus on community building, youth empowerment and amplifying Chicanx voices.
“The idea is that we can tell our stories better than anyone else,” Avila said.
This story was updated Dec. 11 at 12:33 p.m. to clarify in the photo caption that the person in the image is Artist Dewey Tafoya from Self-Help Graphics, not a local dad.