I Did Not

The artist with his parents at Disneyland's Tomorrowland, 1959. "We're a happy family, me mom and daddy." Photographer unknown.

The artist with his parents at Disneyland's Tomorrowland, 1959. "We're a happy family, me mom and daddy." Photographer unknown.

I did not start my American life at Disneyland
but it was a close starting point
I was born September 7, 1953
Disneyland opened in California in 1955
my parents took me there in 1959
I was six-years-old.

That same year Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
was denied permission to visit Disneyland
I liked Tomorrowland
where I rode the look-alike U.S. Navy nuclear submarines
I liked the Rocket to the Moon ride with its space age astronauts
I did not like Mickey Mouse.

The comedy album The First Family, was one of the most popular records in the United States in 1962. A lighthearted parody of President Kennedy and his family, the album was recorded on the very evening that J.F.K. made his Cuban Missile Crisis speech. The album sold nearly eight million copies, more than the debut album of Peter, Paul, and Mary. I bought the album as soon as it was released, and in the above photo I am pictured listening to it on my portable record player. Photo by the artist's father, Joe Vallen.

The comedy album "The First Family," was one of the most popular records in the United States in 1962. A lighthearted parody of President Kennedy and his family, the album was recorded on the very evening that J.F.K. made his Cuban Missile Crisis speech. The album sold nearly eight million copies, more than the debut album of Peter, Paul, and Mary. I bought the album as soon as it was released, and in the above photo I am pictured listening to it on my portable record player. Photo by the artist's father, Joe Vallen.

In 1963 at the age of ten
my parents gave me a wooden palette box
with oil paints and brushes
I painted a portrait of President Kennedy
right after he was cut down by an assassin
My painting is lost, but I did not misplace
the wooden palette box
I use it to store my paints today.

In 1967 I was fourteen when
President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke
at L.A.’s ritzy Century Plaza Hotel
outside 10,000 people protesting the Vietnam war
chanted “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
they were attacked by a phalanx of 1,300 club swinging LAPD officers
I did not attend that protest, but it moved me just the same.

It would be a short time later that same year
that I would attend my first political demonstration
a massive protest against the Vietnam war
where thousands of people snaked their way down Wilshire Boulevard.

My father took this black & white Polaroid camera snapshot of my mother and I as we marched in the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstration that took place on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard in 1967.

My father took this black & white Polaroid camera snapshot of my mother and I as we marched in the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstration that took place on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard in 1967. The placard carried behind us that reads "Bring the Troops Home," was the theme of the march.

In 1968 I was fifteen-years-old
The Vietnam war was escalating
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated
So was Bobby Kennedy, at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard
At the Democratic Party National convention in Chicago
police beat and tear gassed thousands of antiwar protestors
I did not go “Clean for Gene.”

When I was sixteen in 1969
I convinced my parents to donate food
to the Free Breakfast for Children program
run by the LA chapter of the Black Panther Party
We drove the family car full of food stuff
to the L.A. Panther headquarters at 41st and Central
A week later on December 8, 1969 the Panther H.Q.
was raided by officers of the LAPD SWAT team
They dropped a bomb on the rooftop of the Panther H.Q.
It was the first military operation by a SWAT team in the U.S.

On August 29, 1970 I watched live TV coverage
of the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles
30,000 Mexican-Americans marched against the Vietnam war
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attacked the people who
gathered in Laguna Park to listen to speeches
Police gunfire killed four that day:
Brown Berets José Diaz and Lyn Ward
a Jewish supporter of the movement named Gustav Montag
and L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar
Salazar was shot in the head with a wall-piercing teargas canister
as he calmly sat in the Silver Dollar Bar and Café on Whittier Blvd.
I was seventeen-years-old and my blood boiled.


Yours truly at eighteen years of age, standing on my home turf of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, California, 1971. Photographer unknown.


My first public art exhibit, an open-air display of pen drawings, watercolors, and collage. The art was displayed at a 1971 counterculture festival sponsored by the L.A. Free Press that took place in the San Fernando Valley. The art included tributes to Hippie, Native Americans, psychedelic rock, and the Black Panthers. I was eighteen at the time, and yes, I made the tie dye backdrops myself. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1971 I published my first street poster
a pre-Watergate print titled “Evict Nixon
I did not vote for George McGovern
In 1972 when traveling in Europe
To avoid the condemning stares of an unapproving public
I hid my ponytail under my collar
Appropriately, I was standing in the Roman Coliseum
when I got the news that Richard Nixon had been re-elected
The Italians were furious; I told them I was Canadian.

In 1973, a U.S. backed fascist coup destroyed Chile’s democracy
sending shock waves around the world
A Chilean family friend told me the coup made her feel “secure”
I did not concur. I preferred Victor Jara.


"Self Portrait" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1973 ©

At twenty-years-old I ate tofu, wheat germ, sprouts, and yogurt
before they could be found in mainstream grocery stores
The fast food culture was driving me insane,
I had a growing interest in T.Rex and David Bowie.

In 1975 the war in Vietnam finally ended
The alternative culture flew apart
I was twenty-two-years-old
A new conformity began to rise
I did not think it would be long before another war started
In 1976 I did not vote for Jimmy Carter.

When I was twenty-four in 1977
I did not listen to the Bee Gees or the Eagles
To provoke the condemning stares of an unapproving public
I writhed and frothed in the birth of LA’s
nihilistic punk rock scene
my hair whacked off and my clothes torn to shreds.


"Self Portrait" - Photo/Mark Vallen Feb. 1983 © Punk rock portrait on Sunset Blvd near L.A.'s infamous Whisky a Go Go.

By 1984 Orwell’s words had already come true
I made art against the policies of President Ronald Reagan
I feared the world would end in a nuclear holocaust
I did not vote for Walter Mondale.

In 1985 I created the silkscreen print, Free South Africa
a poster created to support the anti-apartheid movement
I worked with UCLA students that demanded the
university divest its funds from apartheid South Africa.
Despite the “Reagan Revolution”
I did not vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

I was thirty-eight in 1991
I made art against President George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War
I became a vegetarian
In 1992 I did not vote for Bill Clinton
And with the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere
I condemned 500 years of colonialism in the Americas.

In 1996 I was forty-three-years-old
I worked at a top advertising agency
I offered to build the company’s website,
saying the internet was the wave of the future
The CEOs told me the internet was a “passing fad”
There was no future for me in the 9 to 5 world
I did not vote for Clinton’s re-election.

I was forty-five-years-old in 1999
In the spring of that year, I made art against
the war President Clinton waged on Yugoslavia

I liked the film Wag the Dog
and was amused by “The Billionaires for Bush or Gore
I did not vote for Al Gore
In 2000 my chad was not hanging.

My grief was not a cry for war in 2001
I made art against the war in Iraq
In 2003 I joined 100,000 anti-war protesters
on the star studded Hollywood Blvd Walk of Fame
distributing my artwork Not Our Children, Not Their Children
I did not vote for John Kerry in 2004, the former “anti-war” activist
known in the UK as “The Haunted Tree”.


I am pictured standing before a John Heartfield reproduction at the 2006 J. Paul Getty Museum exhibit, "Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage." Photo/Jeannine Thorpe 2006 ©

In 2008, friends and associates asked me
to create and exhibit artworks to support
the presidential campaign of Senator Obama
I declined, and I did not vote for Obama
but dared not publicly say so until now.

I was fifty-eight-years-old in 2011 when President Obama
without Congressional approval, began a war against Libya
Antiwar activists said the war would being democracy to Libya
I lost friends because I thought the war illegal & unwise
Today Libya is overrun by al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS

In 2012 I attended the first day of Occupy Los Angeles
then got back on the subway and went home
The movement coined the phrase “We Are the 99%”
but in L.A. it degenerated into a squabble about
camping on the lawn of City Hall. Another missed opportunity
I did not vote for Obama’s re-election.

I will be sixty-two on September 7, 2015
I make no apologies for my life thus far
I am the most un-Baby Boomer person in existence
born between the execution of the Rosenbergs
and the premiere of the radioactive monster-movie, Godzilla
Given my crown of thorns in the punk rock summer of hate in 1977
This is not a nostalgic poem
all of this and more made me what I am.


Yours truly at sixty-two years of age, still standing on Ventura Boulevard, but it is now an "upscale" street awash with corporate logos. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe 2015 ©

I’m still clawing my way to the bottom,
as an artist and a counterculturalist
because “radical” means “the roots”
Sometimes saying “no” is not a negative but a positive.
Just think of what I will be writing about after
the lyrics to the Beatles’ song When I’m Sixty-Four
actually fully apply to me.

All this started for me years ago
when people were optimistic enough
to work at creating a new world
While that optimism has lapsed for many
the need continues to be great
This is what inspires me to create my art
to transform horrible circumstances into a world at last livable.
So dear reader, I am not a cynic after all
I did not think that at this late date
I would still be saying
“be more than a witness.”

– // –

All photos and text are the property of artist Mark Vallen ©

In Defense of Art & Artists


Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 6, 2015, a highly praised public mural funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities was defaced by a vandal or vandals. Unashamedly, a leading left-wing activist wrote a vile article celebrating the willful destruction of the artwork because it depicts eleven U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. Then, one of America’s leading “radical” websites published the filthy screed.

What the hell is going on here? Please allow this working artist to fill in the details.


Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

In 2008 the owners of Mama Ayesha’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington D.C., commissioned award winning artist Karla Cecilia Rodas Cortez, popularly known as Karlísima, to paint a large mural on the outside wall of the restaurant.

The mural work was meant to honor the founder of the eatery, Ayesha Abraham, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in the late 1800’s who came to the U.S. as an émigré in the late 1940s. Abraham opened her restaurant, originally named Calvert Café, and it was a success in the community and frequented by the politicos that worked in Washington. When Ayesha died in 1993, her family renamed the business Mama Ayesha’s in her honor.

Karlísima’s mural depicts Ayesha Abraham in traditional Palestinian dress, flanked on her right by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, while on her left Abraham was flanked by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In the background one can see blossoming Cherry trees and the White House. The mural is framed on both sides by a border set in mosaic tile that depicts the U.S. flag. No doubt the restaurant owners wanted to praise Ayesha, but they also wanted to laud their establishment as a favored bistro with government workers, ambassadors, and political dignitaries.


Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

It took three years on a scaffold for Karlísima to paint her Presidential Mural. The cost of producing the artwork was $25,000, and the funding was provided by the Abraham family, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. The artist hired some assistants, but most of the work she did by herself. $25,000 is a pittance for three years of labor, is it not? Allow this proletarian artist to explain the concept for you. I support the fifteen dollar an hour movement, so I know that a 40-hour-a-week job that pays the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 nets a worker a yearly salary of around $13,926, or $41,778 for a three year period. This is wholly inadequate as a living wage, but it also means that in three years of hard work Karlísima earned far less than a worker laboring in a fast food business.

On the night of August 6, a vandal, or possibly a group of hooligans, shot up Karlísima’s mural using a paint ball gun or guns loaded with bright red paint. It took time to methodically place over 50 shots in the groin area of the presidents. The central figure of Ayesha Abraham was not destroyed. One of the hoodlums supposedly signed the work with a scrawl reading, “The War Thugs.” Channel 4 NBC Washington reported that the manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, responded to the destruction by saying: “It’s sad. My family has worked hard for this restaurant - blood, sweat and tears over the past 55 years.” The television station also spoke to the artist, who simply said: “I’m just so devastated.”


Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 7, 2015, the Common Dreams website published an article by Sam Husseini with the awkwardly sophomoric title of: On Shooting the ‘War Thug’ Presidents in the (Paint) Balls. A writer and left-wing political activist, Mr. Husseini is the communications director of the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy. His articles on pop culture, media, and political matters have been widely published, from the Nation to the Washington Post, but his Paint Balls essay is utterly reprehensible. From the opening paragraph to the last moral high-horse sentence, Husseini’s anti-art diatribe made my blood boil; this passionate article is the result.

I will be direct, Sam Husseini is a philistine, a classic example of an individual who knows absolutely nothing about art. The fact that he writes about pop culture and media, and his rubbish is published, points not only to the intellectual squalor of our times, but to the bankruptcy of America’s so-called “left.”

In the malicious opening sentence of his article, Husseini informs the reader that Karlísima’s mural had been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn” by its defacement! He completely dismisses the artist, barely mentioning her, saying only that “the mural was originally labored over by Karlisima Rodas.”


Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

Of Mayan ancestry, Karlísima was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and was considered a prodigy for her artistic abilities. As a child Karlísima was mentored by none other than José Mejía Vides, a printmaker, sculptor, and painter now considered to be an outstanding luminary in Salvadoran art. One does not need to dwell on the conditions suffered by El Salvador in the 1980s. As an artist I worked hard to oppose the “death squad” democracy the U.S. hoisted upon the unfortunate Salvadorans at the time, creating a multitude of prints and drawings that depicted that country’s bloody “civil war.” Karlísima left El Salvador in 1984 and emigrated to the United States where she settled in Washington D.C. In 1992 she graduated from Washington University with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts, and went on to work at the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American Art as a silk screen specialist.

Husseini goes on to call the paint ball vandalism “a sort of art work that is literally paint as paint,” and that for the destroyed mural “there’s a case to be made that this more completes the piece than defaces it.” Husseini adds the wisecrack that “some people, including Karlisima, now seem upset by the addition of the paintballs, but murals are not typically done to glorify the high and mighty.” In what would not be his final spasm of mental incapacity, Husseini jeered that “the original mural is not destroyed, it’s not painted over, but used to make a perhaps unexpected point.” Ah, there it is, the postmodern gobbledegook. You see, an anonymous street artist has merely “appropriated” and “repurposed” Karlísima’s mural! It is with the most bitter sarcasm that I must point out that our paint ball vandal could enjoy a lucrative career in today’s trendy art world, if he or she would only step out of the shadows.

Instead of criticizing Karlísima’s artwork, perhaps Mr. Husseini should offer some critical analysis of America’s progressive movement. The U.S. antiwar movement totally collapsed with the ascendancy of Mr. Hope and Change, the “antiwar” president; the left simply folded itself into the Obama campaign and the democratic party, willingly and mostly uncritically. It has not since recovered, and I have serious doubts that it will. The left’s ineptitude and total incompetence has prevented it from impacting the American political scene, and now out of sheer frustration, lefties are attacking an artist for painting the portraits of eleven U.S. presidents.

What really stuck in Husseini’s craw was that Karlísima dared to paint 11 U.S. presidents without giving them devil horns and fangs. In Husseini’s words: “From using nuclear weapons to bombing Vietnam and invading Iraq to deploying killer drones in country after country, the thuggish-ness of these presidents is hard to compete with.” He went on to say that “an augmented mural could include mushroom clouds in the background, and perhaps jet fighters, bombers and killer drones flying overhead.” Yes, but… we are not talking about the augmentation of an artwork, we are talking about artless pillage. Husseini completely disregards Karlísima’s right to freedom of expression because he deems her artwork “politically incorrect.”


"Nagasaki Nightmare" - Gee Vaucher. Pencil drawing, 1980.

I am in no way opposed to the creation of acerbic works of art that malign the war making ruling class, I have created such images myself. Here I must mention the brilliance of English artist Gee Vaucher. In 1977 she joined the anarchist punk rock band Crass, producing extraordinary hand drawn images that everyone thought were photomontages. In 1980 Vaucher drew the cover art for the band’s Nagasaki Nightmare single, an antiwar musical masterwork. The artwork depicted the leaders of nuclear armed powers and their allies standing on the pulverized remains of Nagasaki, the charred body of a child at their feet. Vaucher’s drawing and the band’s lyrics continue to haunt me: “They’ve done it once, and they’ll do it again, they’ll shower us all in their deadly rain.” If Husseini actually knew anything, he might have told his readers about Vaucher’s works, instead he went for the denigrating cheap shot by belittling an artist and praising a vandal. Crass did not destroy anyone else’s artwork in order to make their point.

Husseini attempts to justify the destruction of an artwork that he does not politically approve of, and he makes light of it. His tone is more appropriate for TMZ or Buzzfeed. He condones the ruining of an artist’s depiction of U.S. presidents, because “all these presidents have used violence.” I find the crudeness and philistinism of Sam Husseini to be frightening. By giving a green light to the defacement of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, my fear is that he incites some screwball to visit the U.S. National Portrait Gallery and begin defacing the museum’s historic Portraits of the Presidents collection; justifying the vandalism of art is a slippery slope.

Furthermore, Husseini assumes the “transformation” of the mural was carried out as a left critique of power. How does he know the defacement was not carried out by your garden-variety lunatic, or simply as an act of teenage vandalism? The signature “The War Thugs” could have been left by anyone and should not be considered evidence for political motivation.

More to the point, it is so much easier to destroy a work that took an artist three years to create, than it is to produce your own artistic statement. Husseini did not call for artists to step forward to create skillful and persuasive works of art to open minds and touch the human soul, no, he made excuses for an act of sheer brutish intimidation, and no American should put up with it.


Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

What would Husseini have written about the City of Los Angeles partially white washing the Siqueiros América Tropical mural on Olvera Street in 1932? Would he have written that it had simply been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn?” I have to wonder how Husseini would respond to a pro-Palestinian public mural being defaced on U.S. streets with red paint ball splats. Would he say that “the paintball artist perhaps admirably exercised restraint from engaging in figurative head shots,” like he did when referring to the ruined Karlísima mural?

It seems so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up, but history has shown us many examples where art and artists were destroyed for political purposes. Starting in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committed destroyed the lives and careers of hundreds of directors, screenwriters actors, and other professionals in the Hollywood motion picture industry, because they were accused of being communists. In the late 1930’s the Nazis began to ban artists that they perceived to be “un-German” and “degenerate,” in particular banning Jewish and communist artists. Husseini’s claptrap regarding Karlísima’s mural reminds me of the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibitions (German: Entartete Kunst), where the fascists exhibited modern art for ridicule and derision before destroying the canvases, sculptures, and prints, or selling them overseas for profit.

I am a dedicated realist painter and printmaker with a lifelong commitment to creating socially conscious works of art. If Sam Husseini, his minions and supporters, would care to go through my online portfolio of artworks and writings published on my Art For A Change website, they will find nothing that even remotely smacks of reactionary politics. That being said, I strongly denounce Husseini’s vile contention that Karlísima’s mural was “transformed” and “made more whole, reborn,” by a wretched act of vandalism.

In 1758 the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius published a controversial book titled On the Mind. The work was banned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne while Helvétius came under relentless attack. The Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire was unimpressed by the book, but when he heard it had been publicly torched, he resolved to support Helvétius.

In 1919 the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall published a book that summarized Voltaire’s position regarding Helvétius in the following words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hall’s phrase is what Husseini should have proclaimed when announcing his displeasure with Karlísima’s mural. Hall’s words should be ringing in our ears. The act of vandalism approved of by Husseini clarifies her words and brings them new life and meaning.

Truth be told, I don’t really care for Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, as I do not believe an artist’s role is to give uncritical support to those at the top. Let us just say it is the Francisco Goya in me. But when goons attempt to physically obliterate her work, and slippery eels publish rationales and apologia for those attacks… I will stand with Karlísima as a fellow artist.  I would hope that I would have the same support, were my own works ever defaced.

The manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money necessary to restore the damaged mural; the goal is to raise $4,000 dollars. At the time of this writing, $3,285 dollars have been raised. Please join me and contribute whatever you can to the restoration of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural.

– // –

UPDATE - 8/12/2015: Craig Brown contacted me on August 11th. As the co-founder of Common Dreams, Mr. Brown directs the editorial content and daily operations of the online publication. He surprised me by writing: “I completely agree with your ‘In Defense of Art & Artists,’” and claimed that since he had not seen nor approved the Paint Balls article by Sam Husseini, its publication was an oversight. To his credit, Brown asked permission to reprint my essay as a rebuttal to Husseini’s piece. In Defense of Art & Artists was republished on Common Dreams on Aug. 12, 2015.

In his e-mail to me, Brown noted that his late wife and fellow Common Dreams founder Lina Newhouser, was also a founder of the Alliance for Cultural Democracy (ACD), and that she would have been infuriated by Husseini’s screed. The ACD was a national arts activism group that organized around issues of cultural democracy from 1982 to 1994. Readers should carefully review the ACD’s Declaration of Cultural Human Rights that was written in 1996.

In the Land of the Tlingit


Fortune smiled upon me and I found myself in the land of the Tlingit from June 7th to June 14th, 2015; I made an all too brief journey to Southeast Alaska and witnessed many wonderful sights during my brief sojourn. The indigenous Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people all live in the region, but this article will place emphasis on the enduring Tlingit people as I encountered them during my visits to the Alaskan communities of Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Juneau, and Ketchikan. This essay features some of the photographs I took during my travels.

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the culture and history of the Tlingit, but I have always had a great affinity for the indigenous of this hemisphere. However, I am writing as a realist painter and printmaker from the metropolis of Los Angeles; I dash off these words as someone who, for a short while, escaped the congested postmodern swamp of L.A. to view another, pristine world.

In the plastic megalopolis where I live, art has degenerated into little more than a voguish commodity, largely disconnected from community and history. Art functions differently in the land of the Tlingit, and we have much to learn from them when it comes to an arts philosophy. This essay is presented in that spirit.


Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

My first stop was Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, which in actuality is the extreme outskirt of nearby Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village. The Tlingit call their lands, Lingít Aaní, (roughly, “Land of the Tlingit” or “Tlingit Nation”). The meaning of the name “Tlingit” can be interpreted as “People of the tides.” It is not known when they settled the area, but evidence points to their being in the region for at least 3,000 years. Beginning in 1700 the Tlingit were forced from their villages in Glacier Bay by an advancing glacier. They eventually settled in a place they called Xunniyaa, “shelter from the north wind,” which is today’s Hoonah.

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The environment at Icy Strait Point is dazzling beyond words; deep blue Pacific waters meet broad pebbled beaches strewn with driftwood, mussel and clam shells. Above the shoreline a lush rainforest dense with cypress and pine trees, ferns, wildflowers, and thick carpets of moss, looms above the sea. Higher up still one finds verdant mountain forests and majestic peaks capped with snow and ice; bear hunt for salmon in the icy rivers and streams.

In the days before European colonization, the Tlingit, like the other indigenous people in the region, lived as fishermen, hunters, mariners, gatherers, and traders in an environment so plentiful that acquiring food did not present a problem. The abundance and variety of food, and the easy access the Tlingit had to it, cannot be overstated. It led to the people having the leisure time to develop a sophisticated art and culture.

By 1912 the place now called Icy Strait Point was transformed into a major hub for the U.S. commercial salmon fishing industry. A huge processing factory and cannery was built at the untouched natural bay, which also served as a dock for the fishing fleet. It would not be until the mid-1990’s that the Tlingit people were able to reassert control over that land.


At Icy Strait Point, the author stands next to a Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

In 1996 the Tlingit-owned Huna Totem Corporation in nearby Hoonah purchased the old cannery, and in 2001 renamed the land Icy Strait Point. The cannery has been transformed into a museum and retail shops; boating, flying, bicycle tours and kayak adventures are conducted out of the village, which is also home to the world’s largest zip-line. Vendors sell fresh caught crab and fresh grilled salmon. “Eco-tourism” is big in Icy Strait Point; one can book tours that will have you walking through glacier-made landscapes, rain forests, and evergreen forests. There are whale watching tours where Orca and Humpbacks abound. Southeast Alaska’s only on-site brown bear viewing is at Icy Strait.

There are a number of impressive totem poles to be found at Icy Strait Point. Totem poles were, and are, narratives that carry on oral traditions, honor ancestors and sacred animal spirits, and mark social or historic events. They also provide identity, as the Tlingit are divided into two moieties or descent groups: Eagle and Raven. The moieties are divided into clans, and clans are further divided into houses. Each entity has its own history, tales, heroes, and guardian spirits, all of which are carved on the totem poles belonging to each tribal group. Traditionally, totem poles were raised in front of community Tribal Houses.


Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

It might surprise the reader to know that salmon eggs played a role in Tlingit art. Pigments - red, green, white, yellow, brown, were derived from minerals; black was obtained from charcoal or coal. These pigments were ground on stones until they became powdered, and then mixed in stone bowls with a little water and crushed salmon eggs. In European tempera painting, the old masters mixed crushed mineral pigments with water and chicken egg yolk to obtain vibrant, transparent, and long-lasting paints. In the same way, Tlingit artisans mixed their mineral pigments with fish eggs. The fish oil made for a tough and lustrous paint that handled like, well, oil paint, and it was fairly impervious to the elements! By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial paints started to take the place of fish-egg tempera.


Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©


Detail of Icy Strait Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Many Tlingit carved and painted to some degree, but when something special was required, an artist of great talent was paid for their skills. Such an artist carried a box full of brushes tipped with soft porcupine hair; brush handles were usually made from carved cedar wood. Up to a dozen such brushes of various sizes were stored in the box, along with other necessary tools like pigments, fish eggs, carved sharpened sticks for drawing, and cedar bark stencils for laying out patterns. Tlingit artists never attempted to shade with their colors, nor did they mix them. While Tlingit art always presented form in a realistic manner, the European understanding of perspective was entirely unknown.


"Indian Village" - Mary Blair. Storyboard art for the 1953 animated Disney film, Peter Pan, depicting a stereotypical and inaccurate teepee village and totem pole. Starting in the 1940s, the talented Ms. Blair was a prominent artist at the Walt Disney Company.

Hollywood movies and cartoons spread the notion that “Indians” lived in teepees next to garish totem poles.

In reality totem poles are a unique art form created only by the indigenous people of the Northwest coastal region, the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nootka.

Totem poles were never created as religious objects to be worshipped. Europeans came up with the term “low man on the totem pole,” a reference to the order of figures placed on the poles, to describe someone without power or social status. In reality, it was not dismissive for a figure to be placed at or near the bottom of a pole. The multiple figures carved on a pole told a story, but one usually understood only by the clan or family that owned it.


A cedar wood carving of an Orca is mounted at the entrance of the Heritage Center Native Theater in Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point is where presentations of Tlingit history, dance, art and music are made. Constructed as a replica of a traditional cedar plank Tribal House, the theater provides a glimpse into the living traditions of the Tlingit.


Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©


Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of the center are two splendid totem poles that were carved by the late Jimmy Marks, who is still widely hailed as a Tlingit master carver whose unique designs are immediately recognizable. Born with the Tlingit name of Jakwteen in 1941, Marks worked in the Hoonah fishing fleet as a fisherman. He became known for his carvings and eventually became a carving instructor. He was fluent in the Tlingit language, and taught it in the Juneau School District Indian Studies Program. Marks passed away in 2009 at the age of 67, but his works continue to inspire.

Icy Strait Point is home to Lisa Andersson (Yak x waan tlaa) and Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh), two impressive artists who create traditional weavings, carvings, drums, and moccasins of the highest quality; they sell their works at Dei L’e.aan, Andersson’s store in the transformed cannery. Mr. Skaflestad has a work table set up in the store where he diligently hand carves traditional wood masks using hand tools. I spent some time talking with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Skaflestad. Sensitive to my interest, he regaled me with stories on woodcarving, the production of Tlingit armor, and methods of producing the world renown “bentwood box.”


The work table of Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh). Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The traditional bentwood box is made from a single cedar plank, shaped and molded through a process of steaming. The boxes are made without a single nail or corner joint, lids for the boxes were similarly produced. The boxes can be elaborately carved, inlaid, and painted or left plain, depending on its intended use. In the old days the wooden cases were used as furniture, shelves, treasure chests, and storage containers. They stored wardrobes, ritual objects, or served as pantries. The boxes were so well constructed that they were even used to cook food. Water in a bentwood box could be brought to a boil by dropping heated stones into the container - just add cuts of salmon!

I had a conversation with a Tlingit woman at Icy Strait Point who, like many locals, is a shareholder in the Huna Totem Corporation. Bright, enthusiastic, and fiercely proud of her heritage, she exemplified all the people I talked to who work in the small town. She told me that collective ownership of the village had brought economic sustainability to her people. Great care had been taken to present the true face of indigenous culture, keeping out most of the cheap, kitschy trinkets in favor of locally made indigenous arts and crafts. She informed me that so far, proceeds from sales made in Icy Strait Point provided a half-million dollars in educational scholarships to Tlingit youth.

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Less than a 2 mile walk from Icy Strait Point is its parent village of Hoonah. Commercial fishing and processing still employs many, but the work is seasonal and grueling. The timber “industry” was the second largest industry in Alaska during the 1970s, but when it collapsed, tourism became the economic lifeblood of Hoonah. With a population of around 800 individuals, 80% are Tlingit, and most of them work at Icy Strait.

I was told time and again that Hoonah is the face of the real Alaska. It is a small, working class enclave fully integrated into a magnificent natural landscape. Colorful rustic homes, mom and pop stores and eateries, picturesque harbors, community centers and churches dot the landscape.


American Bald Eagle in Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

American Bald Eagles perch on telephone poles and rooftops; ravens are everywhere, and they are the biggest ravens I have ever seen… in more ways than one. A traditional Tlingit creation story tells us that Raven brought light into the newly created world. I was enormously impressed by the Ravens I saw, and will be drawing them in future artworks.

At Hoonah an extremely important undertaking for the Tlingit is now underway, the building of a traditional Tribal House. The Tlingit have not had such a structure in their homeland for over 250 years. At present Tlingit master carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, and Owen James are laboring in a workshop next to Hoonah High School, carving totem poles and other items for the project. It was my intention to visit the workshop, not just to assess the endeavor’s progress, but to learn a few things from the committed indigenous artisans. As fate would have it, their workshop was closed when I arrived in the late afternoon, but I can still tell you what I know of their work.


Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The fish depicted on the pole is a Pacific Halibut. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Hoonah Indian Association reached an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) to build the 2500 square foot Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park, the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit. Construction has already begun and it is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2016, just in time for the centennial year of the NPS.

The large plank house has been called Xúna Shuká Hit by tribal elders, which roughly translates into “Hoonah House of Ancestry.” The House will represent both the Eagle and Raven Moiety, and will provide a center for sacred ceremonies, tribal knowledge, workshops, and meetings. It will also be open to park visitors who will have the opportunity to learn about Tlingit culture and history firsthand.

To reach the new Tribal House, one must first cross the actual Icy Strait passage that separates Chichagof Island from Glacier Bay National Park. The region is remote, and all travel is done by boat or plane. On the dedication day in the summer of 2016, the Tlingit and their many friends will arrive at the site in dug-out canoes and ferryboats from wherever they live. They will come singing and drumming to usher in a new chapter in their history.


Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The animal depicted on the pole is a bear, its head surrounded by the tentacles of the giant Pacific octopus that is found in Alaskan waters. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of Hoonah High School are two enormous and intricately carved totem poles created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Brightly painted in red, green, white, and black, the traditional totems at the school are carved in Western Red Cedar; however, they have a modern touch to them. Though based in Juneau, the works of the Brothers Beasley have graced a number of public places, including museums throughout the region. Rick began to carve at the age of eight when he was inspired by his teacher, the aforementioned Jimmy Marks.


"Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell." - Bill Ray Jr. Mural painted on the outer wall of Juneau City Hall. 1988. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska. Named after a gold miner from the late 1800s, it is the second largest city in the state with a population of around 32,000. It was impossible not to notice the public indigenous art, or the apparent pride the city has regarding its indigenous history. For instance, the outer wall of Juneau’s City Hall is painted with a beautiful mural that portrays the spirit animals Raven, Bear, Frog, Eagle, Whale, and Wolf that have been so important to First Nations people of the Northwest Coast.


Detail of the supernatural bear from the Juneau City Hall mural by artist Bill Ray Jr. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Painted by local artist Bill Ray Jr. in 1988, the mural depicts the Haida creation story of Raven discovering man, and so is titled Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell. I certainly cannot say that officialdom in Los Angeles has extended that level of respect to the original people of the L.A. basin, the indigenous Gabrieleño-Tongva.


Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is home to the recently opened Sealaska Heritage museum at the Walter Soboleff Center, in fact I visited the museum just one month after its grand opening on May 15, 2015. It was founded by the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a nonprofit organization of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. The museum’s mission is to showcase indigenous art of the region, but also to rejuvenate it while nurturing future generations of artists. It houses an exhibit space, archives for its extensive collection of art, artifacts, and ephemera, a carving shed for the production of totem poles and other carved items, a gift shop were high-quality indigenous art and crafts are sold, rooms for conducting classes and lectures, and office space for the SHI.


Tlingit Warrior Helmets on display - Photo/Mark Vallen.

During my visit, the Sealaska Heritage museum was exhibiting Tlingit armor, both antique and contemporary. Helmets were usually constructed in two pieces, the collar and the actual helmet, which was carved with supernatural beings, animals, or clan symbols. Collars were created from hard, dense wood burls of spruce, alder, or yew that were made into planks and bent into a circle through steaming. The collar was closed at the back and tied off with a leather thong. Two eye-hole notches were carved into the top of the collar, allowing a warrior to see out, breathing holes were provided, and an internal nose indent was carved. The warrior wearing the collar could bite down on an internal loop of spruce, which acted as a mouth guard but also secured the helmet.

When taking a blow to the head, the warrior could lift his shoulders, causing the helmet to strike the collar rather than his head. The War Helmet in the foreground of the picture shown above, was carved from yew wood in 2014 by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph. It depicts a female warrior, which was not entirely uncommon; historic accounts mention women that not only engaged in battle, but directed attacks. The woman on the helmet has eyes of inlaid abalone, and is decorated with strands of human hair. She is depicted wearing a labret, or lip ornament. The labret was a sign of high rank not worn by all,  but it was worn exclusively by women. At a very young age, a girl’s lip was pierced with a copper wire, later replaced by a wooden skewer, and by thirteen she began wearing a labret carved of wood.

 A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A Tlingit helmet served the practical purpose of protecting its wearer, but with its fearsome carvings of animals or supernatural creatures, the armor was clearly a method of intimidation. The Russians that attempted to conquer the Tlingit during the 1804 battle at Sitka, reported their musket balls being deflected or stopped by the helmets. The Tlingit also wore body armor made from hardwood slates and elk hide that could stop arrows or deflect blows. Warriors were armed with bows and arrows, a variety of clubs, as well as daggers and lances they fashioned from native copper. As trade with Europeans increased, steel replaced copper; Chinese coins were sewn onto leather shirts to make a type of “chain-mail.” But firearms eventually made Tlingit armor obsolete, and the War Helmet evolved into the clan hat at around 1850.

The architectural design of the Sealaska Heritage museum pays homage to ancient ancestors. The huge traditional sculptural motifs constructed of red painted metal and mounted on the cedar façade of the museum’s entrance, represent the “Greatest Echo,” a supernatural being from Haida mythology. The sculpture was created by artist Robert Davidson, who is of Haida and Tlingit descent. In the museum foyer you first see a monumental carved and painted wood house front, of the type that once faced the cedar timber and plank communal village houses that Southeast Alaska indigenous nations made long ago.

In times past such houses were built along the banks of rivers or the ocean, with each facing the water and housing between 20 to 50 individuals. The museum’s 40 ft. wide house front was created by Tsimshian artists David Albert Boxley and his son David Robert Boxley; the carving’s central design tells the Tsimshian story of the earth, and Am’ala, The Man Who Holds Up the Earth. Surrounding that motif are designs representing all the tribes of Southeast Alaska.

But the Boxley mural-like house front is actually an entryway to another room. You have to bend down to go through the small door located in Am’ala’s belly, but it opens into the Shuká Hít (Ancestors’ House), a replica of a traditional clan house that serves as the museum’s public auditorium, performance space, and lecture hall where video can also be projected.

The museum’s glass awnings encircling the building are etched with formline designs created by Northwest Coast indigenous art expert Steve Brown. Formline is the spacial, proportional, and aesthetic basis for all Southeast Alaska/Northwest Coast indigenous art. Remarkably, when the sun shines through Brown’s awnings, the etched glass designs cast their shadows onto the sidewalk, painting in light the ethereal presence of ancient ancestors. All in all these architectural flourishes contribute to a stunning museum, a true gem among America’s art institutions.


Main exhibition room at the Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Dr. Walter Soboleff was Tlingit and a civil rights activist who fought for indigenous rights and the revitalization of his people’s culture. He died in 2011 at the age of 102, and the museum was named after him. The ceremonial Clan hat shown below belonged to Soboleff, it happened to be one of the items on display during my visit. Soboleff’s clan was the L’eeneidi of the Raven Moiety, who were referred to as Dog Salmon. The oral traditions of the L’eeneidi say that they migrated down the Stikine River until they reached the coast and settled in Angoon and later Juneau. Their Dog Salmon name and crest was acquired in a supernatural encounter.


Tlingit Dog Salmon clan ceremonial hat. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1982 the Sealaska Heritage Institute started a biennial festival called Celebration, a mass gathering of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations where their art, culture, dance, oral traditions, and music are shared, not just with one another, but with the entire community of Juneau and beyond. When the festival first began in ‘82 it attracted 150 participants, today it attracts many thousands. The upcoming June 8, Celebration 2016 promises to be the largest gathering yet.

Ketchikan was the last stop on my journey. Long ago the Tlingit named a favorite salmon fishing creek in the area the “Thundering Wings of an Eagle,” or “Ketchikan” in their language. When Europeans founded a town there in 1885 they named it Ketchikan. It had been an important fishing village for the Tlingit, and under European colonization it became known as “The Salmon Capital of the World” due to the massive industrialized fishing industry. Today fishing is still important, but tourism has become the number one industry, and Ketchikan Creek is now a favorite destination for tourists. If I needed any reminder of the city’s origins, I heard Tlingit spoken on the streets.

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Surrounding Ketchikan is the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. It is named after the Tongass group of Tlingit who originally inhabited Ketchikan. At the city’s downtown waterfront dock, a large bronze sculpture titled The Rock welcomes visitors, setting the pace for the Ketchikan experience. In 2007 the city issued an artists call for public art. Artist Dave Rubin won the commission for his proposed bronze monument, whose seven figures would serve as archetypes for the city’s history. Assisted by sculptors Terry Pyles and Judy Rubin, the monument was completed and publicly unveiled on July 4, 2010.

  "The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing at the top of the sculpture is Chief Johnson, a famous leader of the Ganaxadi Tlingit of the Raven moiety from the Tongass group. At the base of the statue sits an indigenous woman who plays a drum while singing her song of Ketchikan. According to artist Dave Rubin, that song is a historical narrative of Johnson and the figures gathered around him: a logger, fisherman, miner, aviator, and European pioneer woman.

Ketchikan is known for its Saxman Native Village and Totem Park, home to a comprehensive collection of Tlingit totem poles and an indigenous carving center where Tlingit artists continue the tradition of sculpting their narrative pole sculptures hewn from live wood. But here I would like to focus on a lesser known treasure,  a unique piece of Ketchikan public art called the Yeltatzie Salmon. Jones George Yeltatzie (1900-1976) was born in Howkan, Alaska. He was a full-blooded Haida and belonged to the Double Fin Killer Whale clan. He settled in Ketchikan in 1935, and though he worked as a commercial fisherman until his retirement, he gained renown as a master totem carver. As a child he learned how to carve from his father George, who was also an accomplished totem carver.


"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle. Mosaic sculpture. 2012. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1963 Yeltatzie received a commission to create a public art piece from the Tourism Committee of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce; the art was intended as a tourist attraction that would be installed at Ketchikan Creek. Yeltatzie carved and painted, in the traditional manner, a red cedar sculptural depiction of a 10-foot long king salmon. The carving was so impressive that it was displayed in a traveling exhibit for more than a year before it was finally situated at the creek. It was placed next to the city’s Park Avenue Bridge near Ketchikan Creek’s famous “Salmon Ladder,” where the fish annually struggle upstream to spawn.

Vandals twice attacked Yeltatzie’s sculpture. The last time, almost 30 years ago, it was ripped from its pedestal and thrown into the creek where it suffered extreme water damage. Every effort was made to repair the sculpture before it was reinstalled, but alas, by 2011 Jones Yeltatzie’s mighty king salmon had almost totally rotted away and the city took it down.

In 2012 the Ketchikan Public Art Works/Arts Council issued an artist’s call for an artwork to replace Yeltatzie’s salmon. Local artist Terry Pyles won the commission for his concept titled Yeltatzie Salmon - a giant iridescent mosaic covered sculpture of a salmon to honor Jones Yeltatzie. Pyles, a realistic painter who also creates sculpture in wood, and metal, helped create The Rock sculpture that greets visitors at the Ketchikan waterfront. His Yeltatzie Salmon was dedicated in a well attended public ceremony and unveiling on July 4, 2013.


"Yeltatzie Salmon" - (Detail) Terry Pyle. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Terry Pyles’ Yeltatzie Salmon is affixed to a concrete post on the rocky shore of Ketchikan Creek. The sculpture’s multi-colored mosaic tiles flash in the sunlight; the silver fish radiates against the intense green of the creek’s vegetation. The endless sound of babbling waters creates a soothing and contemplative backdrop for Pyles’ creation. When the creek’s waters overflow its banks and the sculpture’s post is enveloped in rushing torrents, the colossal salmon appears to be struggling upstream to spawn. Jones Yeltatzie would be pleased.

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

As a sidebar to this story I have to mention that I did some snorkeling at Mountain Point in Ketchikan. Long ago I trained with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) when I took up scuba-diving in the waters of Southern California. I found the waters of Ketchikan not much colder than deep water diving in California, and with a full body, thick neoprene wetsuit I was more than comfortable. When snorkeling I saw a number of sea creatures that were new to me, like Alaska’s giant Sunflower Sea Stars, and nearby a pod of Humpback Whales were breaching while American Bald eagles flew overhead.

Snorkeling in Ketchikan drove home two points for me. First, diving in Alaska’s waters was magical; few undertakings could so quickly disabuse big city dwellers of their being the “rulers” of nature, nor affirm the spiritual beauty of Mother Earth.

To be enchanted by nature is the real key to understanding the indigenous art of Alaska, and the experience made it clear why the indigenous people of the region have an unalterable reverence for the natural world. Secondly, snorkeling underscored the appalling ignorance and rapacious avarice that led President Obama to grant Shell the right to drill for oil in the waters of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean. The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other indigenous First Nations of the Pacific Northwest oppose oil drilling in their ancestral waters, and I stand in solidarity with them.

The appreciation for indigenous art coming from non-Native people in Alaska is impressive, it might be newly found, but it is nevertheless firmly established and growing. I must juxtapose this phenomenon to a very different story that unfolded in Los Angeles in April of 2010, regarding the building of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes cultural center, a museum in downtown L.A. dedicated to Mexican-American heritage.

When construction for the museum began in 2010, the 19th century graveyard of nearby La Placita Church was discovered and the remains of 118 individuals were removed. More desecration than removal, torsos had their limbs and skulls torn away and the remains were placed in bags and buckets for storage at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History. LA Plaza administrators said they had been informed that the old cemetery had closed and moved in 1844, and that no indigenous people were buried there… until indigenous activists produced burial records proving that some two-thirds of the nearly 700 people buried at the cemetery were Gabrieleño-Tongva.

Furthermore, the Gabrieleño-Tongva pointed out that the area under excavation was Yangna, their largest village when the Spanish arrived in 1769. In other words, it was a sacred site for the tribe and a significant archeological find for the scientific community. The California State Native American Heritage Commission asked that excavations for LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes be stopped, and dozens of indigenous peoples held protests to that effect.

On January 13, 2011, indigenous people held a vigil at the construction site, hanging offerings of sacred sage to their ancestors on the chain-link fence around the cemetery. It was all to no avail. Gloria Molina, a Democratic Party politician and then L.A. County supervisor and brainchild behind the museum, did not want any negative publicity to stop the April 9, 2011 grand opening of the museum. When that official opening party occurred, dozens of indigenous people protested outside.

Finally, in April of 2012, the remains of the indigenous dead were returned to the graves from which they were robbed; an ornamental granite plaque notes their presence. The historic cemetery is now located on museum property in what LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes calls a “respectful memorial garden.” The indigenous people of Juneau have the Sealaska Heritage museum, and the City of Los Angeles begrudgingly gives the Gabrieleño-Tongva a granite plaque. So much for forward-thinking “liberal” L.A. and its “enlightened” cultural institutions.

In the Tlingit, I found a people ablaze with creativity and artistic spirit, they understand art as a means to connect with a respected past and to assure the continuation of a beloved culture well into the future. Tlingit art does not exist to shock or alienate, but to uplift, stimulate historic memories, educate, and unify the people; to the Tlingit these aspects of art go hand in hand with an appreciation of craft and beauty.

Such integral facets of art have been altogether rejected by postmodernism. The result being a contemporary art largely reduced to vapid kitsch without elegance, refinement, meaning, or even a tenuous connection to the wider society. The very idea of “craft” has flown out the window. Postmodern artists wear their alienation from the people as a badge of honor. Art has gone belly up. Its worth is defined only by its exorbitant price tag.

An “appropriated” image or a video of someone in the act of vomiting is as good as the ancient Greek sculpture of Laocoön or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes - or so we have been told. How refreshing and invigorating it was not to encounter such nonsense in the wilds of Alaska. By viewing the indigenous art to be found there, artists living in the postmodern blight of the big city might rediscover the real power of art, and what it means to once again, consciously engage with people, community, and society.

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Manifesto for World Revolution?

Vallen finds inspiration in the pages of Adbusters. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

Vallen finds inspiration in the pages of Adbusters. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

The front cover of the latest edition of Adbusters magazine, is a photograph of a surfer “shooting the tube,” that is, riding his surfboard through the hollow part of a large wave as it crests over itself and makes a tunnel. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I have spent much of my life on Southern California beaches… so I know this stuff. The photo is a bitchin image of primo, off the Richter, gnarlatious awesomeness (more obligatory surfer lingo).

But trouble is brewing in paradise. Beneath the eye-popping ADBUSTERS masthead that looks like a garish headline from a 60s B-movie sci-fi flick, a mysterious subhead hovers in the wave’s curl like so much kelp and non-biodegradable beach trash, it reads… Living Without Dead Time. It is a revolutionary proclamation from our past, and if we are lucky, from our future.

To unlock the profound meaning of the text, one has to read carefully while thumbing through the pages of the subversive rag and “art novella.” Hey, this ain’t no trendy, bourgeois gazette I’m talkin about here, this is a mag that promotes itself as a “Manifesto for World Revolution Pt. III.” Zounds! I think they are actually serious!

Adbusters contacted me in April seeking permission to reprint my 1980 silkscreen poster, Whatever Happened To The Future! The publication hoped to use my print in a “dystopic photo album” covering events in the 20th-21st century. Ah! Dystopia! I began to smile broadly.

"Whatever Happened to the Future!" Mark Vallen 1980 © Silkscreen print. Published in the July/August 2015 issue of Adbusters.

"Whatever Happened to the Future!" Mark Vallen 1980 © Silkscreen print. Published in the July/August 2015 issue of Adbusters.

When I was informed that anarchism would be the “overarching theme” of the issue, my ear to ear grin was joined with a sinister twinkle in my eye. Advised that the issue would cover, among other things, a “history of uprisings in the 20th-21st centuries” and an essay on “post-post-modernism,” I began to experience mystical self-transcendence!

I was simultaneously brought back to earth and thrown for a loop when told that Adbusters would like to place my image “right before the history section. We are featuring many old anarchist and situationist comics and cartoons, and would be honored to have your image run as a full page.”

Visions of Guy Debord, the Situationists, the Paris 68 uprising, and those brilliant posters created by the anonymous students and workers of the Paris 68 Atelier Populare galloped through my mind. Of course I did not refuse Adbusters request, which is why I am writing this screed.

Whatever Happened To The Future! has been shown at the MOCA Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles and the Pasadena Museum of California Art, but Adbusters provided the proper historic context for my print.

Adbusters front cover, "Living Without Dead Time" issue. July/August 2015

Adbusters front cover, "Living Without Dead Time" issue. July/August 2015

Aesthetically, Living Without Dead Time is a poke in the eye, especially when compared to the à la mode commercial hipster garbage one finds on newsstands these days. Adbusters’ philosophy of art squares perfectly with that of situationism and its bugbear offspring, punk rock. In fact the publication is somewhat evocative of the rough and tumble punk aesthetic of L.A.’s Slash magazine, that “monthly manifesto of angry refusal” that rose from the polluted urban despair of 1977 to become the city’s first punk publication and an internationally influential journal.

Adbusters has taken the nihilistic graphic style of punk, and polished it up quite a bit. It maintains the punk spirit but meshes it with an overtly anti-consumerism political stance. In the summer of 2011 Adbusters championed a citizens’ “occupation” of Wall Street, and presto, the Occupy movement was born. Adbusters did not create nor control the Occupy offensive, but its contributions are undeniable. In their latest issue they announced they are “planning a #billionpeoplemarch in December” as a stand “against a world order which refuses to produce tangible action in the face of impending climate disaster.”

I do have some criticisms of Adbusters. I was an initial supporter of the Occupy movement, but soon found it rife with opportunists and social democrats. Bill Clinton’s former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, was invited to speak at an Occupy rally outside of L.A. City Hall; Reich’s presence only served to fold people back into the Democratic Party orbit. Likewise, the liberal political commentator and PBS host Tavis Smiley was also invited to address Occupy at L.A. City Hall. With a net worth of some $10 million, Smiley was firmly within the 1% circle that Occupy supposedly opposed. Inviting Reich and Smiley was a major political failing for an ostensibly anti-corporate movement.

When Occupy seized the lawns around L.A. City Hall, the campaign degenerated into a fight over the “right” to camp on City Hall grounds; opportunities to make alliances with working people were squandered over a tussle regarding camping. This can only be attributed to naiveté and a lack of actual working class politics. Adbusters excelled at “culture jamming” but hit the skids when laying the groundwork for political opposition against the entrenched financial aristocracy.

There is one article in the Living Without Dead Time issue of Adbusters that I must give an emphatic thumbs down to, a piece on the Euromaidan “revolution” that occurred in Ukraine in February 2014. It is a hack-job that does nothing but contribute to the jumble of Russophobic Cold War nonsense presented nonstop by the corporate media. It is a lazy minded essay that plays into the war hysteria that seems to be growing by the day.

At Airstrip One, a prole secretly looks at Adbusters before participating in the Two Minute Hate on the telescreen. Photo, E. Goldstein.

At Airstrip One, a prole secretly looks at Adbusters before participating in the Two Minute Hate on the telescreen. Photo/E. Goldstein.

The Adbusters Ukraine article did not once mention NATO, the EU, or the enforced austerity programs of the IMF and the World Bank. The article paints the crypto fascist Dmytro Yarosh as a popular revolutionary leader, when in reality he is the boss of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Right Sector organization. Yarosh is on record as having written, “I wonder how it came to pass that most of the billionaires in Ukraine are Jews?” [1] The word “fascist” is used in the Adbusters article, but it is decried as a Russian propaganda term used to malign the democratic project in Ukraine.

Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. and Republican Congressman Ted Yoho wrote amendments to ban U.S. troops from training a Ukrainian neo-Nazi militia unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is integrated into the Ukraine National Guard and the army. The Azov flag is a variation of the infamous “Wolfsangel” symbol used by the Waffen-SS. In early June 2015 the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the amendment blocking assistance to the Azov Battalion. I understand that this story broke as Adbusters was going to press, but credible reports of the fascist threat in Ukraine have been circulating for some time, even on this weblog. The Adbusters Ukraine article did not even come close to mentioning this.

The socialist stalwarts at Jacobin magazine have a harsh assessment of Adbusters. Published in 2013, their critique titled Adbusted poses some tough questions about the politics and philosophy of the anti-consumerist publication; these are unsettling queries that demand answers.

I am not an anarchist, marxist, or a democrat, and I am certainly not a republican. The only identity I embrace is that of dissident artist, my humanist politics are fully on display in my art. To be honest, I am happy to be published by Adbusters, my criticism of them not withstanding, just as I would be gratified to be published in Jacobin. It is all part of the essential conversation so needed at this juncture in history.

The final image published in Adbusters is a photo that spreads over two facing pages, in this case the next to the last and the final inside page. It is a grainy black and white snapshot of masked protestors on a nighttime street. It is an ominous vignette laden with tension. Hostage-letter style text floats across the photograph, it reads…

May love and revolution rise from the ashes of this dying civilization.

– // –

Signed prints of Whatever Happened to the Future! can be purchased here.

[1] Practice for a Russian Invasion: Ukrainian Civilians Take Up Arms. Spiegel Online. April 16, 2014.

Rigoberta Menchú, Gilberto Sánchez, & Ana Gatica

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sanchez. Photo courtesy of the Sanchez family.

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez, courtesy of the Sánchez family.

This article is about the barbarous assassination of a young Mexican artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez. Why would unidentified armed men take an artist from his home and murder him? Considering the artist was just one of over 50 victims killed in one year in a single region, why are the authorities unable - or unwilling - to stop the killers? This is the reality of today’s Mexico, the subject of this piece. But this essay is also about much broader, international issues, human solidarity, and the democratic spirit.

Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was a 30-year old artist attending the Popular Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Located in Michoacán, Mexico, the University is the oldest institution of higher education in the Americas.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015. Photo/EFE

By all accounts Sánchez was dedicated to art, he was a printmaker and painter. He was last seen watering the plants at his mother’s home when he was kidnapped on March 30, 2015. The remains of Sánchez were found on May 21, 2015 in Chilapa, Guerrero. He and two other young victims had been killed, dismembered, wrapped in blankets, and dumped along a roadside. The corpse was identified as Sánchez because of its unique tattoo.

The staff, students, and authorities of the University released a statement to express their “grief, anger, and outrage at the brutal murder of the student of the Bachelor of Visual Arts.” The collective statement describes Sánchez as a “peaceful, enthusiastic, and creative young man who actively participated in outreach activities that the Graphic Arts Department organized.”

The University communique also posed some very serious questions; “What happens in a country that allows the murder of its young students?” “Why do they fear the intelligence and creativity of young people, who represent the future of Mexico?” “Why has the whole society become a hostage to terror?”

The statement closed with these defiant words. “We are not willing to continue to act as if nothing happened in this country, that the death of Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was natural and not the result of an undeclared war which has been unleashed against students, workers, peasants, and thinking people not aligned to power.”

The University statement is significant for two important reasons. It comes from the University staff, which includes academic as well as administrative faculty; it was also a collective statement issued in the name of the student body. More importantly, the bulletin expresses what millions of Mexicans are currently thinking about the criminal clique that rules their country.

Which brings us to the self-made controversy swirling around Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the indigenous Quiché woman, Guatemalan Human Rights activist, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner. If anyone in the U.S. remembers Rigoberta Menchú Tum, it is as a heroic and altruistic “native rights” activist. After surviving the depredations of death squads in her homeland and the state murder of her family, after suffering insults and verbal muggings from right-wing critics aplenty, Menchú has managed to besmirch and defile her own legacy by collaborating with the authoritarian government of Mexico.

I once respected Rigoberta Menchú… that is no longer the case. The reasons for my bitter disappointment with Menchú are headline news in Mexico, but the calamity she has set off in Mexico has not been covered in the U.S. press. As a result I feel obligated to break this cheerless story to my fellow North Americans.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

On May 26, 2015 Rigoberta Menchú was accredited by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), as an official electoral observer for the country’s June 7, 2015 midterm federal and state elections.

The INE paid Menchú $10,000 U.S. dollars to “promote voting and democracy” during her five-day stay in Mexico. According to information published in the Mexican press, Menchú charged $40,000 dollars for her visit, the balance being paid by private foundations. Here I must add, if Menchú has been paid by the Mexican government to lecture the people on democracy, and to be an election observer, can she really be seen as impartial?

Specifically, the INE is sending Menchú to the conflict ridden state of Guerrero to drum up support for the sham elections, but why Guerrero? Because that region is home to the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training college that had 43 of its students kidnapped by police and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become the political lightning rod of the nation, a democratic prairie fire has sprung from the tragedy, and President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hopes to stamp it out.

It should be remembered that when the police of Guerrero seized the 43 Ayotzinapa students on Sept. 26, 2014, they turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang to be murdered. There is no clearer evidence of the seamless relationship that exists between vast sectors of the Mexican government and powerful drug syndicates.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presented Menchú with her accreditation at a photo-op press conference held at the INE headquarters. Córdova said Menchú was “a woman recognized internationally for her relentless struggle for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and for her convictions concerning peace.” It was a stunning bit of propaganda since just days earlier the Indigenous Council of Guanajuato filed a complaint against Córdova with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. During a phone conversation between the president of the INE and the group’s executive secretary, Córdova made racist jokes that ridiculed the way indigenous people speak.

Does Menchú not see that publicly accepting accreditation and money from Lorenzo Córdova legitimizes his image? If she was unaware of the controversy surrounding Córdova, then maybe she is not cognizant of other Mexican government intrigues. I suppose calling her naive is the best defense that can be offered, but callowness is not an attribute an election observer should possess.

Córdova’s phone call was surreptitiously recorded and released on Spanish language social media, where it has circulated ever since. Because of this Córdova “apologized” for his “unfortunate and disrespectful” jokes, but the INE asked the Attorney General’s Office to mount an investigation into who secretly recorded the conversation and made it public.

The former Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam (affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was widely criticized for attempting to cover-up the truth regarding the Ayotzinapa 43 kidnapping. He infuriated millions when at a press conference he was questioned regarding the 43 missing students, and responded with “that’s enough, I’m tired” before walking away from the press. The pro-Democracy movement then used Karam’s words #YaMeCanse (I am tired) in a social media campaign to show their contempt for government violence and impunity. Karam resigned in Feb. 2015, but the new Attorney General, Arely Gómez González (also affiliated to the PRI), will most likely lack the energy to tackle the Ayotzi 43 case, but I think she will show great zeal in exposing and prosecuting those who recorded Lorenzo Córdova’s racist phone conversation!

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

But back to Menchú and her disingenuous but well paid “This is what democracy looks like” side show. On May 29, 2015, at a large public gathering organized by the INE at the International Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, Menchú delivered a lecture titled Democracy and the Culture of Peace, a talk that many across Mexico found offensive and insulting.

Broad sectors of the population in Mexico are frustrated by narco-politica (narco-politics); millions believe their votes have no power to effect change. They believe, for good reason, that oligarchs and drug lords have an absolute grip on power, nullifying the democratic process. They believe there is no official mechanism that can be used to implement the people’s political will.

Furthermore, the movement for democracy that sprang up around Ayotzinapa has called for a boycott of the elections; it is a strategy that presses for the abolishment of Narco-regime governance and an end to kidnapping and murder by the state. The demand is that the 43 be returned, and if that is not possible, all of the conspirators who kidnapped and murdered them be brought to justice. Who is Rigoberta Menchú to tell the Mexican people that their assessment of the situation is incorrect?

During her lecture Menchú told the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students; “I would urge the families to try to explain the reason” for their children’s “actions” prior to being kidnapped (as if the students shared blame for being taken hostage). Menchú told the parents to do so “without hiding the truth, because the truth dignifies us all,” a statement that implied the parents of the 43 missing students had lied in their campaign to pressure the government.

Menchú went on to say that “the vote is a personal decision,” and that an election “is an opportunity to renew authorities.” She asked the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students to never forget their children (as if they would!), and to go out and vote, because “Gentlemen vote, and that is my message.”

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

At the close of her address, Menchú asked for a moment of silence for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students. After the awkward silence there was a question and answer period, and a 27-year old woman, Ana Gatica, took the stage to deliver what turned out to be a rather fiery public rebuke; Ms. Gatica is an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero.

Shaking with emotion and choking back her tears, Ms. Gatica addressed the honored guest as Hermana Menchú (Sister Menchú), “I do not know how you can ask us to make a vow to vote,” she said, when disappearances and murders of civilians go unpunished. Ms. Gatica pointed out that 50 young people living in the state of Guerrero have been killed between October 26, 2012 and May 30, 2015. The first to disappear “was the daughter of a cousin, Gabriela Itzel Ortiz Vazquez, 15, the last to be killed was Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez.” Gatica began to cry when she spoke of Sánchez, her friend and fellow graphic artist.

Ana Gatica pointedly stated: “Ms. Menchú, the indignation and anger cannot be finished, and I know you understand. One more thing, we cannot keep asking for a minute of silence for the missing, because asking for a minute of silence for each of the disappeared - and for everyone murdered in our country, in our state, means that we will remain silent forever.”

The comments of the brave and courageous Ana Gatica were captured in several Spanish language videos of the Democracia y cultura de la paz conference. Ms. Gatica received a stirring round of applause for confronting Menchú, it was no doubt more enthusiastic and heartfelt than the polite clapping given to Menchú at the close of her speech.

The day after Rigoberta Menchú’s speech, Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students, deplored the conduct of Menchú. He said that she “fell into the INE game of promoting the elections,” and that she “does not know how they have governed us in Mexico for many years.” De la Cruz had some words of advice for Menchú, “If you want the truth, ask those who are paying you to making your comments.”

In 1982 Rigoberta Menchú rose to international fame with the release of her book I, Rigoberta Menchú. It told the story of the impoverished Quiché people living under the boot of Guatemala’s oligarchical landlords and their armed goons. Menchú’s family became involved in the land reform movement, and so became targets of the regime. Her father Vicente was arrested and tortured, her brother was executed by government soldiers, her mother was arrested, raped, and killed by government troops, and ultimately her father was burned to death in the 1980 Spanish Embassy Massacre. In 1981 Rigoberta Menchú fled Guatemala for Mexico and then France.

While in France Menchú met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, who not only convinced Menchú to write her memoirs, but became the ghostwriter for the book. At the time I found the autobiography to be totally convincing, the tome fed the international solidarity movement that was determined to end the butchery in Central America. For the events detailed in her book, Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas. Detail.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas.

Doubts about Menchú finally began to rise in 1999 when anthropologist David Stoll published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, a book that pointed out discrepancies and inaccuracies in Menchú’s autobiography. The left-wing - myself included - dismissed Stoll’s book, but Menchú’s recent skullduggery forces a reconsideration.

In 2009 I attended Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption, an exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. It was a retrospective of artworks by the Ecuadoran master painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Prominently displayed was the artist’s oil on canvas portrait of Rigoberta Menchú. Guayasamín, a social realist artist and a man of the left, would no doubt be outraged over the shameful antics of Menchú.

It should go without saying that I no longer support Rigoberta Menchú, who has become but a faded image of her former self. No, I stand with Ana Gatica, the spirited and outspoken indigenous Nahua from Guerrero who knows how to stand for the people’s rights.

Robert Henri’s California

“Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”  - Robert Henri

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914-1925, is a small but important exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum in the sunny coastal city of Laguna, California. Running from Feb. 22 to May 31, 2015, this exceptional show focuses on the paintings that Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’) created while visiting the southern Californian cities of San Diego and Los Angeles from 1914 to 1925.

I had hoped to take some extreme close-up shots of the paintings, but the Laguna Art Museum does not allow photography of any kind in the Robert Henri’s California exhibition. Fortunately the museum agreed to provide me with some .jpg reproductions of art from the exhibit, which serve as illustrations to this article.

In 2007 I mentioned Henri at the end of my article, Bouguereau & His American Students, which told of Henri being a student of the academic painter William Bouguereau and his inevitable break with academic painting; In 2008 I published a second article, Apostles of Ugliness - 100 Years Later, in which I described the “Ashcan School,” the first art movement in the U.S. that Henri played a major part in founding. The Ashcan group were the original social realist painters of America, given to depicting the lives of the poor and everyday working people.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California dazzles on several fronts. It awes the viewer with Henri’s skill as a painter and brings to life craft as an essential part of painting. It produces a sense of admiration regarding Henri’s ability to capture the essence of people in formal portraiture, revealing the deep humanism Henri possessed. The exhibit also affirms something little known about the man usually thought of as a “New York” realist painter - his deep and abiding love for the lands and people of southern California.

Henri first came to San Diego in June of 1914, and lived in a cottage above the magnificent sun drenched La Jolla Cove. He helped Alice Klauber, a former art student of his living in San Diego, to plan a fine art program for the upcoming 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Henri arranged the Modern American Art exhibit, a display of paintings by Ashcan artists that was shown at the Exposition’s Fine Arts Building. His own works were exhibited along with canvasses by George Bellows, John Sloan, William Glackens, and other artists now considered to be masters from the period. Of the nearly 50 paintings displayed, not a single one sold. Nonetheless, the Exposition was an event that would have considerable impact on the life and work of Henri.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

While Henri lived in California he forsook painting portraits of high society, and instead painted lush and emotive portraits of the people ordinarily kept at arm’s length by the dominant white culture; Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans. He also first painted indigenous people while in California, creating portraits of artisans from the New Mexico San Ildefonso Pueblo that he befriended at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. I found these glorious canvasses of indigenous people to be breathtaking examples of the painter’s craft, and for me they were the core of the exhibition.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Native Americans recreated a Pueblo village at the Panama-California Exposition, what the exposition named “The Painted Desert.” It was an attraction where indigenous people could share their culture, as well as create and sell traditional arts and crafts. Henri was so impressed by the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, that in later years he would visit New Mexico and create a large body of extraordinary Native American portraits.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s paintings of Chinese immigrants on view at the Laguna Art Museum are dazzling in their own right, especially the exquisite canvas of a young girl named Tam Gan. Painted in 1914, the portrait is created with rapid, paint loaded brushes over an underpainting of burnt sienna and ochre. Technically it is like all of the other Henri oil paintings - a radiant masterwork, but there is an unseen political aspect to the painting that makes it out of the ordinary, and that fact is most likely missed by all except for those familiar with the grim side of American history.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s painting of the lovely Tam Gan was made when the thoroughly racist Chinese Exclusion Act was strictly enforced by the U.S. federal government. The xenophobic law was first enacted in 1882 for the express purpose of totally prohibiting all Chinese workers from entering the United States. The exclusionary law strictly curtailed immigration from China and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. The law did not apply to Chinese travelers, merchants, teachers, and students, but all those who were exempt had to present to U.S. authorities a certificate from the Chinese government stating they were not workers.

The Exclusion Act specifically targeted Chinese females. Eligibility to enter the U.S. was based upon marital status; if a woman was not married she was considered a worker (or a prostitute) and denied entry. If a woman was a laborer she was barred from entering the U.S., if she was not a worker but married to one, she was still banned. Only a wealthy merchant’s wife was able to gain entry to the U.S. The government strategy was simple, without women there would be no children, and the radical reduction of the Chinese population in America would be achieved.

The reasons for all of this were tied to economics. Chinese workers supplied cheap labor to those three giant companies behind the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. After the Civil War a wave of nativism swept the nation when white workers violently objected to non-whites “taking their jobs”; the result was the 1882 exclusion law. The act was made permanent in 1902. The Chinese had few friends in the U.S. at the time, as with today it was the nonconformists and political radicals that sided with the immigrants. The Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, consistently opposed the treatment of Chinese workers in the U.S., and twelve years after the Exclusion Act was made permanent, Henri would defiantly paint portraits of the Chinese living in and around San Diego.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 1943, and even then the U.S. Congress allowed only 103 Chinese people to enter the U.S. per year, a law that was overturned in 1965.

Painting portraits of the underclass is what one would expect from the leader of the Ashcan School. But Henri’s interest in the poor and the dispossessed was not a mere bourgeois affectation. In 1915 Henri wrote an essay titled My People that was published in The Craftsman, a journal that promoted arts philosophy and the Arts and Crafts movement. The think piece reveals a large minded and internationalist take on the world. Henri was a forward thinking man, hard to pin down politically, but one could say he was a free thinking revolutionary. He met and admired the revolutionary anarchist activist Emma Goldman, and even painted her portrait in 1915. In My People Henri stated:

“The people I like to paint are ‘my people,’ whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines Nature intended for them. My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only be gestures.” In that same essay Henri went on to say:

“I find as I go out, from one land to another seeking ‘my people,’ that I have none of that cruel, fearful possession known as patriotism; no blind intense devotion for an institution that has stiffened in chains of its own making. My love of mankind is individual, not national, and always I find the race expressed in the individual. And so I am ‘patriotic’ only about what I admire, and my devotion to humanity burns up as brightly for Europe as for America; it flares up as swiftly for Mexico if I am painting the peon there; it warms toward the bull-fighter in Spain, if, in spite of its cruelty, there is that element in his art which I find beautiful, it intensifies before the Irish peasant whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country and my own hearthstone.”

Since Henri could so eloquently put forth his philosophy on art and life, I will close this review with an excerpt from his 1923 The Art Spirit. It was a book that summed up his views regarding art, combining transcribed lectures given to his students, with critical commentary and musings on life and aesthetics. I have long held his words to heart, and feel they should be read and understood by any aspiring artist. The following is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1923:

“We are living in a strange civilization. Our minds and souls are so overlaid with fear, with artificiality, that often we do not recognize beauty. It is this fear, this lack of direct vision of truth that brings about all the disaster the world holds, and how little opportunity we give any people for casting off fear, for living simply and naturally. When they do, first of all we fear them, then we condemn them. It is only if they are great enough to outlive our condemnation that we accept them.

Always we would try to tie down the great to our little nationalism; whereas every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere, a man whom all the world recognizes, accepts, whether he speaks through music, painting, words, or form.”

– // –

The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.


While visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts in May, I noticed a painting by Henri in the museum’s extensive collection.

Painted in 1915 and titled The Young Girl, it is a superlative example of how Henri painted with bold, energetic brush strokes laden with explosive color.

In 2005 David Gordon, the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said the following about the painting:

“Henri encouraged the painting of life as it really was and this three-quarter body nude of 1907 was so striking in its realism that Mrs. Henri took an advertisement in the newspapers to tell the world that it was not her that posed for her husband. The model, Edna Smith, is simply gorgeous and we have used her face as one of the emblems of the Museum. To have used the rest of her would still have shocked 97 years later.”

Because the oil on canvas painting was created in the same time frame as those exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum, I am including details of The Young Girl as an added example of Henri’s prodigious talents.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark Vallen.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark vallen.

May Day with Diego & Frida

Night time in Motor City. I am standing before a backlight banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts, May 1st 2015. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

The Motor City, May 1st 2015. I am standing before a backlit banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I first got the news that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan would be presenting a special exhibition of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I knew I would be making a trip to the Motor City. My wife and I flew from Los Angeles to arrive at the DIA on May Day, the most appropriate day to visit with my old mentors Rivera and Kahlo.

I had never been to Detroit, let alone the DIA, and found the entire experience eye-opening and inspiring. The DIA is an amazing world class museum with a truly impressive collection. My only regret was that I did not have more time to peruse through every wing of the institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit opened at the DIA on March 15th and will run until July 12, 2015. The exhibit features some 70 works from the couple, most of which were done while visiting Detroit from 1932 to 1933 during the Great Depression. The show features 23 paintings, prints, and drawings by Kahlo, with the remaining works having been created by Rivera.

As of this writing I am still working on a review of the exhibit; as a working artist profoundly influenced by the Mexican school of social realism that Rivera and Kahlo were part of, there is so much to cover.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Art critics and reviewers have written positive appraisals of the DIA exhibit, but they have done so with little understanding of Mexican history, and absolutely no sympathy for the politics embraced by Rivera and Kahlo. As an artist that has been involved with Chicano art and politics in Los Angeles since the late 1960s, I have a different take on Rivera and Kahlo.

I view them, not as superstars or interesting figures frozen in a not-so-distant past, but as standard bearers for the type of art so desperately needed today. That is especially so for Diego Rivera.

My overall impressions of the exhibit are overwhelmingly positive, and I suggest that everyone who can should make an attempt to see it. However, my praise for the show does not preclude criticism… but you will read all of that in my forthcoming appraisal of the show.

This essay will be the first installment of multiple observations I will make regarding my visit to the DIA; surprisingly enough, this opening assessment does not focus on the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition, but with my photographs of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco murals found in the DIA’s gorgeous Rivera Court.

In 1932 Rivera was commissioned to create the murals by then president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford. The mural project was encouraged by the DIA’s director at the time, William Valentiner, with the museum providing the wall space for the monumental murals in an interior garden courtyard. Obviously, it was the creation of the murals that brought the couple to Detroit by train in ‘32. Seeing as how Rivera’s monumental sketches for his murals were on display in the special exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the murals and the special exhibit can be seen as one organic whole.

My objective in presenting photos of Rivera’s paintings, is to spotlight the craft of his works and to show the artist’s hand in making them. Rather than present a typical photograph that crams as many figures into the shot as possible, I have chosen instead to zero in on extreme, detailed close-ups. My photos give insight into the physicality of Rivera’s frescos, revealing layered washes and underlying charcoal drawings, as well as showing textures and the absorbent nature of the walls Rivera painted upon.

While fresco was practiced in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome, it is mostly associated with European art of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The technique entails painting upon freshly-laid wet plaster with water-based pigments. The plaster absorbs the pigment, and as the two dry they bind, becoming inseparable. It is an unforgiving medium, and with fresco murals as large as the ones painted at the DIA, only so much wet plaster could be trowelled on the walls and painted before the plaster dried, which means that the entire mural cycle had to be painted in small sections.

In 1920 Rivera learned how to create frescos when traveling and studying in Italy, but as an amateur archaeologist well familiar with the ancient fresco paintings of the indigenous Toltec artisans at Tula and the frescos from craftsmen at ancient Teotihuacan, Rivera was inspired to create a new muralism that sprang from Mexico’s own history.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me.

In this, my first illustrated essay on Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, I am going to set my sights on a certain design aspect of the artist’s frescos, his use of the “predella panel” in buttressing his mural’s overall message.

In European religious altarpiece paintings from the late medieval and Renaissance period, a central figure or depiction would be augmented by a series of small panel paintings, the predella, images that added to or reinforced the overall narrative.

Rivera’s predella panels were painted like traditional grisaille paintings. As a technique, grisaille (pronounced greeze-eye) goes back as far as the late Middle Ages, but it continues to be used today; I use the technique on some of my own oil paintings. Basically it means to paint monochromatically in shades of grey (sometimes in burnt umber), the name for the method coming from “gris,” the French word for grey.

Grisaille can be a monochromatic painting completed in one color, or treated as an underpainting painted over with glazes of color, the technique I choose. Rivera’s grisaille predella panels give the illusion of sculptural friezes.

In painting his grisaille predella panels, Rivera was no doubt also thinking of the Mexican folk art art known as “retablos,” small devotional paintings of Saints or other religious figures that are created on tin, copper, or wood. Many people in the Southwest of the U.S., especially those of Mexican heritage, are familiar with retablos… I have a few in my own house.

But Rivera was not thinking of Catholic saints when he painted Detroit Industry, we was extolling the working class. Rivera’s predella panels were painted monochromatically in tones of blue and grey, each surrounded by a fresco tromp l’oeil frame of bolted green steel. Each predella depicted the workers daily life at an auto plant and the labor associated with automobile manufacturing.

To wrap up this intro, the DIA allows photography of the Detroit Industry murals in Rivera Court, provided you do not use a tripod. I used my Canon Rebel T2i camera with a 17-55mm zoom lens for paintings at eye-level, and a 70-300mm telephoto lens for extreme close-ups and shots of figures placed high up in the mural. Considering the ceiling at the Rivera Court consists of a magnificent laminated glass skylight, I used nothing but natural light for my photos. All quotes by Rivera that appear in my essay come from his personal history, Diego Rivera - My Art, My Life: An Autobiography.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In 1932 the workers at Ford labored under deplorable conditions. They had no union to protect their rights, and Ford liked it that way. What makes this painting so poignant is that at the time workers were forced to work one long grueling shift with only a brief respite for lunch. They would not win the right to two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, amongst other basic rights, until 1941.

Rivera’s works were actually based upon his observations of workers at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. As the artist noted:

“I studied industrial scenes by night as well as by day, making literally thousands of sketches of towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories, busy assembling rooms; also of precision instruments, some of them massive yet delicate; and of the men who worked them all. I walked for miles through the immense workshops of the Ford, Chrysler, Edison, Michigan Alkali, and Parke-Davis plants. I was afire with enthusiasm.”

Rivera said that Edsel Ford placed only one condition on the creation of the murals, “that in representing the industry of Detroit, I should not limit myself to steel and automobiles but take in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which were also important in the economy of the city. He wanted to have a full tableau of the industrial life of Detroit.” Close examination of the Detroit Industry mural cycle reveals that Rivera also depicted workers involved with the pharmaceutical, chemical, transport, weapons, steel, and medical industries, all of which were dynamic in Detroit at the time.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

When Rivera and Kahlo arrived in Detroit the Great Depression was strangling the city as well as the rest of the country. Thousand of workers at Detroit’s great auto plants had been laid-off and those that remained had their wages severely cut. Auto workers labored long hours for an annual salary of $757. The workers had no union and enjoyed no company benefits. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance or social security. The banks had collapsed and workers became impoverished. The Detroit working class was suffering joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and utter despair.

Eventually the workers decided to march on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant on March 7, 1932 in what they called The Ford Hunger March. The workers rallied behind a set of demands; jobs for all laid off Ford workers, the right to organized a union, a seven-hour work day without a reduction in pay, free health care for all Ford workers whether employed and unemployed, no discrimination against blacks and an end to racist hiring practices, no speed-ups, two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, no foreclosures on the homes of Ford workers, and the abolishment of company spies and armed thugs.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

All of the demands from The Ford Hunger March were equally important, but I have to elaborate on the demand regarding the use of armed thugs at the Ford River Rouge Plant. Henry Ford was fiercely anti-union, he hired the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for its brutality, to physically keep the workforce in line and free of union organizers.

Ford also organized an internal “Service Department,” a private security army of armed thugs that was used to defeat the workers’ union movement. Ford appointed a pugnacious ex-navy boxer named Harry Bennett to lead the force of over 8,000 men that used blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, whips, and guns to intimidate the workers in every Ford plant; Bennett quickly became Ford’s most trusted underling. Quoting the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1 by Eric Arnesen, in the 1930s the Ford Service Department was “the world’s largest private army, whose purpose was to disrupt union organizing efforts using espionage, physical intimidation, and violence.”

detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock

Extreme detail from the fresco showing workers punching a time clock.

Through Ford’s connections, Harry Bennett was appointed to the Michigan Parole Board. Arnesen wrote that Bennett used that position to have “men who had been convicted of violent crimes released so they could enter his service.”

Service Department thugs regularly attacked union organizers attempting to distribute flyers to the workforce.

Arnesen wrote that the United Auto Workers, then struggling to be recognized by the Ford Motor Company, “compared Ford’s repressive methods to those of European fascism, and branded the Service Department, ‘Ford’s Gestapo.’”

Some of the men recruited into the Ford Service Department were no doubt fanatics from the extreme right-wing terror organization, The Black Legion, a group I wrote about extensively in my January 2013 article, Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion. Based in Michigan, the Black Legion was a white supremacist gang that targeted African Americans, Jews, union organizers, and leftists.

Auto worker union activists were convinced that members of the shadowy Black Legion terror group were employed by the Ford Service Department, the goons of which were to play a loathsome role in attempts to squelch the labor movement.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

Braving bitter cold and snow some 5,000 workers and their families participated in The Ford Hunger March. They carried banners that read, “Give Us Work,” “We Want Bread Not Crumbs!” “Don’t starve to death in the richest land on earth,” “Negro, White, Unite!” “Fight Evictions!” and “Tax the Rich and Feed the Poor.” When the workers finally made it to the Rouge Plant, they were attacked by the Police and the Ford Service Department, who together fired volleys of live ammo at the unarmed protesters, even using machine guns.

Four workers were killed and fifty more were injured. What had been organized as The Ford Hunger March, turned out to be The Ford Massacre.

In the massacre’s aftermath the repression continued; hundreds of workers were fired at Ford plants for having leftwing literature, those who were hospitalized from police violence at the Hunger March were arrested in their hospital beds, some were even handcuffed to their beds! Labor organizations and offices of the Communist Party were raided and their members arrested. The press churned out lies, for instance, the Detroit Free Press reported that “professional Communists” were responsible for “the assaults and killings which took place before the Ford plant.” Despite the propaganda the workers and the burgeoning labor movement held strong. On March 12, 1932, over 80,000 workers held a funeral procession for the four slain workers, who were buried at the Woodmere Cemetery.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

Detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

A month after the March 12th procession for the martyred workers, Curtis Williams, a committed African American auto worker activist who suffered a vicious police clubbing and inhalation of tear gas at the Ford Massacre, died of his wounds at Ypsilanti State Hospital. The Woodmere Cemetery refused to bury him because he was black. The Communist Party U.S.A. released a statement that in part read:

“At the direct orders of Ford, with the understanding and consent of Mayor Murphy and his police department, the board of directors of the Woodmere Cemetery uncovered their hidden policy of segregation, Jim Crowism, and race discrimination and white chauvinism, by bluntly refusing to permit us to bury the body of Curtis Williams beside that of the rest of our dead. Comrades Joe York, Joe Bussell, Joe DiBlassio, and Coleman Leny, the first victims of the bloody Ford Massacre. This is another attempt by the boss class to split the growing unity of Negro and white workers.”

Mass protests and complaints eventually forced the Woodmere Cemetery to compromise. Williams was admitted to the the cemetery for cremation, but the facility would still not allow a burial. The workers’ movement responded by hiring a plane and scattering the remains of Williams over the cemetery and the Ford River Rouge Plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

This rare silent footage titled Ford Massacre, is the only known film of The Ford Hunger March, the company/state violence that stopped it, and the resulting militant workers funeral march for the slain. It was produced by the Detroit and New York branches of the Film and Photo League, a national collective of filmmakers, photographers, projectionists, writers, and artists dedicated to using film and the photographic arts to bring about radical social change. While a good number of the members were oriented towards Marxism, the league operated independently from the Communist Party U.S.A.

The despair of the Great Depression and the terror of the Ford Massacre describes the political atmosphere of Detroit when Rivera and Kahlo arrived. One cannot truly understand or appreciate the Detroit Industry murals without knowing this history.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

I think the predella panel that shows Henry Ford giving a lecture to the workers is the most interesting panel in the series; it certainly illustrates Rivera’s sense of humor. Knowing that Rivera reviled capitalism, the panel is also a swipe at Henry Ford. To me the painting has religious overtones and contains a veiled critique of capitalism as a theology.

The tableau of the godlike Henry Ford, his finger pointed to the heavens as he lectures the workers, is somewhat evocative of The Creation of Adam, the most well-known panel from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural series - which was also done as a fresco. But instead of being surrounded by angels as in Michelangelo’s depiction of the Lord, Henry Ford stands before a backdrop of slavish laborers too hard-pressed to look up from their drudgery for even a moment.

A close-up view of Henry Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

Close-up view of Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

The reference to religion in this image continues to strike me. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the apostle Thomas was painted with his finger pointing to heaven, likewise, Leonardo painted St. John the baptist in the same manner.

In 1921 German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an unfinished essay titled, Capitalism as Religion. If Rivera had not read Benjamin’s tract, he certainly understood the concept as presented by a fellow Marxist. Benjamin wrote:

“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Benjamin went on to write, “First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in relation to the cult: it has no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring.”

Being a Jewish leftist, Benjamin fled Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis took power - the same year Rivera finished his Detroit Industry murals. Benjamin beat a hasty retreat from Paris when the Nazis seized it in 1940, he eventually wound up on the French-Spanish border that same year where he committed suicide at the age of 48 to avoid capture by the fascists.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

Unlike Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting, Ford is not face to face with Adam, a creation made of dust into which the Lord blew “the breath of life.” Ford stands before a group of workers, who by the looks on their faces have sized up their boss and concluded that they can run the factory just as well without him.

Some have noticed that the V8 engine near Ford resembles a pre-Conquest sculpture of a small, hairless Mexican dog. It is commonly known that the indigenous people of Mexico used the diminutive dogs as a food source, but the spiritual and ritualistic symbology of the dog is not so well known outside of Mexico. As an amateur archaeologist and avid collector of pre-Conquest indigenous art, Rivera knew a thing or two about these dogs.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

In ancient Mexico it was thought that a dog accompanied a person’s soul to the underworld. On the famous Mexica-Aztec calendar stone there is a glyph of a dog named Itzcuintli (Eeetz-kween-tlee). He was one of 20 day-sign glyphs that surrounded the depiction of the sun god appearing at the center of the stone. Itzcuintli represented a period of 13 days ruled by Xipe Totec (Our Lord of the Flayed Skin), deity of spring and agricultural renewal.

The Mexica-Aztec people used the hairless dogs in prayer rituals to Tlaloc, Lord of rain and water. The dogs were sacrificed to Tlaloc, one of the most important Aztec deities, and their bodies were then eaten in ritual feasts. Rivera gave a zoomorphic treatment to the V8 by turning the engine into a dog, but he also gave that dog the iconic face of Tlaloc!

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Partial view of Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In late 1933, as Rivera was finishing up work on his murals, a group of some 200 workers marched into the center of the courtyard, the leader shouting “We want Diego Rivera to come here!” The artist descended from his scaffold and walked up to the burly worker who had called for him. One of Rivera’s painting assistants, Cliff Wight, served as a translator, delivering the extraordinary message from the American auto workers to the Mexican artist. Rivera described what the lead worker told him:

“Waiving all ordinary social preliminaries, he acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head. ‘We are Detroit workers from different factories and belonging to different political parties. Some of us are Communists, some are Trotskyites, others are plain Democrats and Republicans, and still others belong to no party at all.

You’re said to be a man of the left opposition, though not a Trotskyite. In any case, you’re reported to have said that, as long as the working class does not hold power, a proletarian art is impossible. You have further qualified this by saying that a proletarian art is feasible only so long as the class in power imposes such an art upon the general population. So you have implied that only in a revolutionary society can a true revolutionary art exist. All right! But can you show me, in all these paintings of yours, a square inch of surface which does not contain a proletarian character, subject, or feeling?

If you can do this, I will immediately join the left opposition myself. If you cannot, you must admit before all these men, that here stands a classic example of proletarian art created exclusively by you for the pleasure of the workers of this city.’”

Rivera was overwhelmed, and agreed with the workers assessment of his mural. He would write later that he “was deeply touched by this tribute from a representative of the working class of the industrial city I wanted so much to impress.” The group of workers also informed the artist that they were well aware of “much talk against your frescoes, and there have been rumors that hoodlums may come here to destroy them. We have therefore organized a guard to protect your work. Eight thousand men have already volunteered.”

The following Sunday Rivera had completed his fresco murals, and they were put on view for the general public to see for the very first time. As promised, the auto worker’s volunteer guardians were there in force. They checked each person that entered the DIA, having each sign their name and address in a registration book. In order to accommodate the massive crowds on that premiere day, the DIA stayed open until half past one on Monday morning. When the museum finally closed its doors on the first day of the exhibit… there were eighty-six thousand signatures in the registration book.

In 1941 the workers movement finally won union recognition and forced the Ford Motor Company to enter a collective bargaining agreement with the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

The Left Front: Defying Established Order

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940, is a significant exhibit of American art created during the Great Depression years in the United States. Presented by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in New York, the exhibit displays 100 artworks by forty notable artists of the period; including works by John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Mabel Dwight, and Louis Lozowick. Lynn Gumpert, the director of the Grey Art Gallery, said the following about the exhibit and its relevance to the present:

“In the wake of our recent ‘Great Recession,’ many artists today find themselves grappling with the same questions of art and activism raised by this exhibition. Indeed, The Left Front both opens a window onto a fascinating period in the history of American art and politics and brings to mind artistic responses to many of the very issues being confronted today, including alarming inequality in income and opportunity. In so doing, it asks what revolutionary art was during the turbulent 1930s, and what it can be in our own era.”

Ms. Gumpert’s concern for what revolutionary art “can be in our own era,” a period where art has become, not subversive, but subservient to wealth and power, is an urgent question for the arts community. Faced with deepening inequality, resurgent racism, ecological catastrophe, and the ever increasing drumbeat of war, artists should strive to offer critical visions of these systemic problems. By necessity this means turning from a self-absorbed, exclusively inward looking art, to one that is engaged with everyday people and the global community.

Workers of the World Unite - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

"Workers of the World Unite" - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

Herein lies the value of The Left Front exhibit. It provides an in-depth look at one aspect of Social Realism, a type of art that has almost been erased from historic memory in the U.S., a great irony given that the genre began in America with the painters of the so-called 1908 “Ashcan School.” After a slew of art movements since the close of the 2nd World War; abstraction, pop, conceptual, etc., it has became difficult to imagine that the Social Realist school was once a leading art form in the U.S. and around the world.

The school was varied and nuanced, and included American scene painters like John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as politicized African American artists like Aaron Douglas and Charles White. The Social Realist movement had three great centers, the U.S., Germany, and Mexico, each making their own unique contributions. Mexico gave the world Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco (Mexican creations are included in The Left Front exhibit). Germany gave us Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Unfortunately Americans on the whole have largely forgotten about their homegrown Social Realist artists; you can attribute that in part to the Witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Strike Breakers (Company Violence) - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

"Strike Breakers, Company Violence" - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

The Left Front exhibit presents works from the highly politicized branch of Social Realism, where artists used their work in an agitational manner to confront mass unemployment, class oppression, racism, lynchings, and the drive towards war that characterized the Great Depression years. The exhibit is comprised mostly of prints, although drawings, watercolors, paintings, and photos are also included. Inexpensive prints played a meaningful role for dissident artists during the Depression, they allowed low income people to bring art into their homes, and brought new aesthetics and politics to a wide audience.

Subway No. 2 - Alex R. Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935

"Subway No. 2" - Alex Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935. Unemployed and homeless in the U.S.A.

Much of the art in The Left Front exhibit came from artists working with the John Reed Club, a U.S. national federation of left-leaning cultural workers and intellectuals named after American journalist and socialist activist John Reed.

Founded in 1929, the John Reed Club was eventually disbanded in 1935. While associated with the Communist Party U.S.A., members of the John Reed club were not necessarily Marxists or even CP members. I detail some of this in I wanted to tell stories, an Oct. 2006 article I wrote about the American painter Philip Guston.

The young Guston started his art career in Los Angeles as a realist painter before becoming an iconic figure in the New York School of severe abstract painting; thankfully Guston returned to realism, albeit a cartoonish version, in the late 1960s. But as a young man in L.A. Guston attended meetings of the John Reed Club held at the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street.

The Strike Is Won - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

"The Strike Is Won" - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

Guston was one of those artists who worked with Siqueiros when the Mexican muralist came to L.A. in 1932. Guston joined Siqueiros’ Bloc of Mural Painters, artists who assisted Siqueiros in the painting of his famous América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. When the U.S. government unceremoniously deported Siqueiros in 1932, Guston continued working with the Bloc of Mural Painters. That same year the John Reed Club sponsored an exhibit of artworks created by Guston and the Bloc in opposition to racism and police brutality. Before the show’s opening the L.A.P.D. raided the John Reed Club gallery in Hollywood and destroyed the artworks, including Guston’s first public mural… the police shot the portable mural full of bullet holes.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

The above is a perfect example of the political climate and repression that confronted oppositional artists during the 1930s, one should keep this in mind when thinking about The Left Front exhibition. Those who created prints depicting the terroristic lynching of Blacks won no favor from the art establishment; yet those artists defied the established order and pressed on with their wave-making art.

“Art as a social weapon” was the catchphrase of the John Reed Club. Before you laugh that off as a quaint and antiquated notion, I would suggest that art selected, curated, presented, and sold by elite art institutions has always broadly functioned as a social weapon. This was as true under the Ancien Régime of France’s Sun King as much as it is in the modern era.

It is my philosophy that a Jeff Koons is every bit as political an artist as those included in The Left Front exhibit. This matter is unequivocally nailed in the 1931 song, Which Side Are You On?, written during a miner’s strike by Florence Reese, the illustrious American folksong composer from Tennessee. Reese sang “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies, poor folks ain’t got a chance unless they organize.” The song was tremendously popular with millions of down-and-out Americans in the 30s. The net worth of Jeff Koons is over $100 million, his kitsch baubles are popular with billionaires who prefer non-threatening art. Given the choice of standing with Koons or Reese, I will choose the poor folksinger every time.

The Mission - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

"The Mission" - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

One last word regarding Florence Reese and her famous workers’ rights song. On Oct. 4, 2014, during a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, paying members of the audience who also happened to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, peacefully delayed the concert when they stood beside their seats while singing an altered version of Which Side Are You On?

In the ten year period covered by The Left Front exhibit, artists created works against racism, poverty, and the drive towards war, that is… the very same problems we have today. But what of the present? Who wins favor with the art establishment? Why are artists failing so miserably in addressing the world’s problems? Those in The Left Front show entrusted to us a people’s history and a record of resistance. They bequeathed to us images of transcendent beauty, unbreakable spirit, and deep humanism in the face of bottomless cruelty and inhumanity. Now it is our turn.

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934. The artist portrayed the Grim Reaper sitting in an expensive theater balcony, wearing an army helmet and gas mask while clutching a bayoneted rifle. The deathly phantom watches a parade of national leaders strutting across the stage. Which one will win Mr. D's respect and patronage? Why all of them of course!

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans; the rocky fields of Golgotha replaced by the cotton fields of Alabama. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans, the rocky ground of Golgotha replaced by cotton fields. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

Moody Park: An Untold Story

As an active participant in the original punk rock underground of 1977 Los Angeles, I created my fair share of subversive graphics designed to provoke the wider society. One arena of intervention I was involved with was the anonymous production of leaflets for mass distribution; some flyers promoted concerts, others were a “poke in the eye” aimed at an increasingly conformist society. In part, this essay is about one such handbill I designed in 1978, a crossover between benefit concert announcement and insurrectionist vituperation. But this article is also about larger issues.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform. Photographer and date unknown.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform, photographer and date unknown.

Before I provide details on the flyer, it is necessary to look back at the incident in Texas that served as the impetus for the concert. Thirty-six-years ago the police in Houston, Texas murdered a 23-year-old Mexican American Vietnam Veteran named Joe Campos Torres. The murder shook the nation, reverberated through the decades, and continues to have relevancy in the present, though today most have never heard of the killing. In this article I will weave a story with threads of history while divulging my own unique connection to those days of old.

On May 5, 1977, six Houston policemen arrested Joe Campos Torres at a bar for disorderly conduct; he was wearing his Army issued fatigues and combat boots when arrested. Instead of taking him to jail, the cops dragged him off to “the hole,” an isolated area behind a warehouse along the Buffalo Bayou in Harris County, Texas. The cops beat the Chicano Vet to within an inch of his life, then they took him to the city jail. Torres was so badly injured that officers at the jail refused to process him, and ordered that he be taken to a nearby hospital; instead his tormentors took him back to the hole for another trouncing.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

During the beating one of the six policemen, Officer Denson, said “Let’s see if the wetback can swim,” as he shoved Torres off the raised platform of the warehouse to fall twenty feet into the bayou. His lifeless body was found floating in the bayou on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1977.

Initially only two cops were put on trial for the killing of Torres. Officers Denson and Orlando were tried on murder charges and an all-white jury found them guilty of “negligent homicide” (a misdemeanor). Their sentence was one year probation and a $1 dollar fine! It should come as no surprise that across America in 1977 the word on the street became “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar.” There was so much public outrage over that phony trial that Federal charges of civil rights violations and assault were brought against all six officers. That “trial” resulted in all six receiving a ten year suspended sentence for the civil rights charge, and Denson and Orlando getting a nine month prison sentence for the assault charge.

The punishment for murdering a Chicano Vietnam Veteran went from a one dollar fine, to receiving a nine month prison sentence. Discontent simmered in Houston’s Chicano community for a year, until it erupted on the 1st anniversary of Torres’ outrageous murder.

 Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

During the 1978 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) celebration in Houston’s Moody Park, the police attempted to make an arrest. The crowd resisted the police move and began chanting “Viva Joe Torres” and “Justice for Joe Torres!” The melee turned into a full blown riot with waves of Chicanos hurling rocks, bricks, and bottles at the police, 14 cop cars were overturned and torched. The furious crowd surged out of the park and set fire to local businesses, as unidentified shooters took potshots at the police. In a 2008 interview with Houston Public Media, retired Houston police officer Harold Barthe said that “hundreds of people were chanting, ‘Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that’s what the rich call democracy!’”

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Needless to say, the authorities responded with overwhelming force, sending in armed SWAT squads to quell the uprising while police helicopters filled the skies. In the end, dozens were arrested and 15 were injured; property damage ranged in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all became a story on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News broadcast.

Here I must note that the African American bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron, memorialized Torres on his 1978 spoken word album The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron. The emotive track titled José Campos Torres combined a tender and ethereal jazz background with a calmly delivered yet fiercely angry contemplation on racism and police brutality in America. A beautiful act of solidarity with Mexican Americans, the song meant a great deal to us all in 1978; I must have listened to it a thousand times. For me, it set the tone for what an artist could do, not just regarding the murder of Torres, but in confronting social injustice of any kind. I wanted to contribute something as well, and my turn was just around the corner.

Of course the authorities needed someone, other than themselves, to blame for the Moody Park violence. They arrested three communist activists who had been active in the justice for Joe Torres campaign and charged them with “felony riot.” That trio became known as the Moody Park 3, and each faced a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Groups like the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion started to hold events to raise legal defense funds for the trial of the Moody Park 3, one such event was a punk concert at the old Baces Hall in Hollywood. Frankly, I do not remember who asked me to create the concert announcement flyer, but knowing that three of my favorite Southern California punk bands had signed on to play the gig was enough to get me on board, that and my vexation over the murder of Torres.

I was not impressed with the ultra-left Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion, in fact my only point of agreement with them was that the Moody Park 3 had been framed. The committee was new to punk and gravitated to it because of its reputation for rebellion, but it was clear that they did not know what they were getting into. It must be said that at the time punk was wholly repellent to the wider society, venues in L.A. had closed their doors to it, and it seemed the L.A.P.D. had made a hobby out of suppressing it. So I suppose the committee should get credit for being so bold, or is that reckless, for organizing a punk rock concert when few others would dare.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

It goes without saying that I created the flyer in the days before computer technology. In true punk fashion the crude leaflet was made from newspaper and magazine clippings, combined with the use of rub-down letters and tone films from the Letraset company, supplies widely used in publishing at the time. Letraset also manufactured registration marks, which were used to help align colors and images; I used the symbols in my flyer to approximate the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Thousands of copies of the disposable mess were Xeroxed in glorious black and white.

Like most punk flyers from those fire-eating days, it was posted on lampposts and city walls. On the street it countered the babble of the city’s obnoxious merchandising billboards and neon signage. The flyer’s cryptic message was baffling, like some strange cabalistic language. Who on earth were the Moody Park 3 and what was the significance of the bizarre word combination - Plugz, Middle Class, Zeros? In 1978 the throwaway circular was an unsettling image to see on the streets. One must recall that the U.S. Billboard top 100 songs of 1978 included the likes of How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees, You’re the One That I Want by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and Boogie Oogie Oogie by A Taste of Honey.

The leaflet brought hundreds of punk rockers, mischief-makers, and juvenile delinquents to the tenebrous punk shindig. I want to make it clear that history has unfairly characterized the early L.A. punk scene as a movement of apolitical spoiled white kids from affluent communities with nothing better to do than cause trouble; the social phenomenon has been “whitewashed” and depoliticized. Sizable numbers of working class youth and minorities were involved in California’s agitated punk scene, including scads of Chicanos. The “Moody Park” punk concert at Baces Hall was evidence enough of this; there were not only Chicanos in the bands and in the audience, but the entire concert was a protest against the murder of a Chicano Vet in one of the largest Mexican American communities in Texas!

The Plugz were one of L.A.’s original punk bands, and two of their three members were Chicano. Their updated sonic rendition of La Bamba offered altered lyrics like the following, “Capitalistas, mas bien fascistas, yo no soy fascista, soy anarchista” (Capitalists, better yet fascists, I am not a fascist, I am an anarchist). La Bamba was actually a famous Son Jarocho folk song from Mexico’s state of Veracruz made famous in the U.S. in 1958 by Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens.

The Zeros were four kids hailing from Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego, California. Though Chicanos, some nicknamed them the “Mexican” Ramones. Their first single released in 1977 featured two songs, Wimp and Don’t Push Me Around. The later, with its snotty attitude, three chord minimalism, and defiant title, is a classic punk work. Hindsight allows us to see The Zeros as an extremely influential advance guard for a new music.

  Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

The concert also included Middle Class, a group of four young white lads from Orange County, California. Their debut EP, Out of Vogue, was released in 1978, just in time to bludgeon the punks at Baces Hall.

The lyrics to the song Out of Vogue encapsulated punk’s contempt for the wider society, “We don’t need your magazines, we don’t need your fashion shows, we don’t need your TV, we don’t want to know… Get us out of Vogue!”

At the concert the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion attempted to present a political slide show, but anarchistic punks kept standing in front of the slide projector to block the images. When the organizers tried to present Maoist style guerrilla theater on stage between the acts, they were met by the jeers and catcalls of the nihilistic spiky rabble. All three bands played typically searing sets, with the hoi polloi diving off the stage, bouncing off the walls, and in general kicking up their heels in wild punk abandon.

So there you have it. Baces Hall was torn down long ago and standing in its place today is another one of L.A.’s hideous commercial retail plazas, replete with a hipster juice bar. Punk is as dead as a doornail and there is little opposition to the mindless, dumbed-down, commercial pap that passes for culture in L.A. and beyond. Worst of all, police departments all across the U.S. have been militarized with billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; police now have heavily armored, bomb resistant, MRAP fighting vehicles.

As the Clash once sang in their 1982 song, Know Your Rights, “You have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

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For more information on Joe Campos Torres and the Houston Uprising, watch the oral history series: The Case of José Campos Torres, produced by Ernesto Leon and available on YouTube: Part one, two, three, four, five, and six.