Category Archives: Art for a Change

Profiles of artists working for social change

Emily Mendelsohn, Fulbright Fellow, to direct Asiimwe’s play in Uganda

Emily Mendelsohn Photo Credit: Cal Arts' 24700

A Fulbright Fellowship will take director Emily Mendelsohn (MFA, CalArts ’09) to Uganda where she will study how artists use traditional performance to tackle pressing problems in society. While there, she will direct  Cooking Oil, by Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe about the impact of international aid in developing countries.   In previous years Mendelsohn studied  genocide and conflict resolution during study tours offered by Cal Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Program in Rwanda. (See my post, “Making Art In Troubled Times”) .

While in Uganda Mendelsohn will also  audit courses in peace and conflict resolution at Makerere University in Kampala.

For more on the Fulbright and the production of Cooking Oil see this article in 24700. and check out  this video  featuring interviews with Emily Mendelsohn, Deborah Asiimwe and filmmaker Qadriyyah Shamsid-Deen, another Fulbright Fellow.   All three women are graduates of California Institute of the Arts.


Making Art in Troubled Times

“Untitled #10” Adam Wolpert, 2009

“Our lives are attended by a remarkable beauty, a beauty that extends to the dark things.  I have come to see that light and darkness are dependent on each other.  There is a tenderness that emerges when you come to love both. ” – Adam Wolpert, environmental artist

Survivors of  genocide suffer traumatic experiences unknown to most of us.  Art may help us understand.  But making art from other people’s trauma can be both ethically challenging and emotionally draining.  On study tours to Rwanda and Uganda artists learn to bear witnesses to the stories they hear from survivors.   The first step is to master the art of  silent, compassionate listening.


by Lydia Breen

On a summer evening in 2008, four young Ugandan women sit outside their classroom under the glow of a single battery-powered light bulk, talking to a small group of visiting playwrights about the 20-year reign of terror they experienced under the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Child from Northern Uganda Photo credit: Joseph Michael

“It was a theatrical setting,” said dramatist and teacher Erik Ehn who organizes study tours to promote conversations between artists and survivors of mass violence. The trips are a collaborative project between California Institute of the Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda (IGSC). 

The four Ugandan students belonged to a group of of war orphans and former child soldiers who had been traumatized  by Uganda’s brutal war waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Anea Grace (who is not connected to this story) was abducted and forced to have a child with an LRA commander. She was shot in the leg while escaping. Credit: V.Vick, NYTimes

“They were members of a community of people who had experienced trauma at a level unknown to the rest of us,” said Ehn, explaining that the headmaster at the school encouraged his Ugandan students to testify as part of their healing process.  Still, Ehn remembers feeling uncomfortable with the encounter:

“We heard these very harrowing stories. It was not the first time the students had told them.  But there was something about me that felt like a butcher.  It was abrupt, brutal and incomplete but not entirely inappropriate.”

Conversations begun on the tours continue at the Arts in the One World Conference held at the California Institute of the Arts in the United States  to help artists, students, teachers and scholars discuss how to make art in times of extremity. At this year’s conference ( January 21-24, 2010) the group explored the challenges artists face writing about the traumatic testimonies of survivors.

Ehn says that survivors’ testimonies can help the outside world understand what people have been through.  But artists would do well to receive these testimonies  with humility and respect.   The first step is to act in a way that  invites a person to talk.  The process of silent, compassionate listening can help survivors believe in themselves and be themselves.

Director and writer Emily Mendelsohn was a Cal Arts student when she visited the Ugandan school with Ehn and others. Now an alum, she co-teaches a class to prepare students for future trips. She says one of the main goals of the tours is create opportunities for artists to hear survivors’ stories first-hand.  “There is directness in sitting down to say: ‘I want to hear your story and you want to tell it. Our role is to listen to what happened to people and learn where they are now. We aren’t there to solve problems.”

What are her own recollections of the meeting with the four Ugandan women?

“I have a memory of images, faces and bodies. It’s a feeling that is very heavy,” she says. “It was an intimate encounter, but it didn’t lead me to feel that I knew these girls, that I could appreciate the fullness of their experience.”

"Christopher Oyet, 18, was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with rebel killings. 'Now, I am scard of myself, ' he said." Photo credit: Vanessa Vick for the NYTimes

"Christopher Oyet (who is not connectedto this article) was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with the killings. 'Now, I am scared of myself,' he said." credit: Vanessa Vick. NY Times

 How can an artist bear witness to a testimony when he or she can not fully understand what the survivor went through?

Mendelsohn says it is this kind of question that keeps her returning to the region. (This summer will be her fourth trip.)

Ehn, who was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts and now heads the playwriting  program at Brown University,  says the  process of using art to document trauma  can be a difficult undertaking. It may yield imperfect results,  but  it is important to try.

“We can’t accept that atrocity is unspeakable,” Ehn says.  To do nothing is “to allow tyrants to triumph.

Although the tours can provide only a partial glimpse into the human toll of extreme violence,  they allow participants to stand face-to-face with survivors and try to understand what they have been through.

Ehn drew on his memories from the Ugandan school to write  Dogsbody, his new work about force and trauma, told from the point of view of child soldiers.  The play takes a  journey to a world of unending violence and war, where two child soldiers hack their father to death and another child uses a human head as a soccer ball.

A dog in a genocidal circumstance is grotesque. I know that dogs are to be deeply feared. – Erik Ehn

Erik Ehn's "Dogsbody" at the Theatre of Yugen, 2009 Credit: Mark McBeth, SF Chronicle

Drawing on themes from The Iliad, Ehn says his playdoesn’t take on the cause of violence.  It is about violence itself, violence that is unredeemed and unexamined.  It’s about the damage. “

Mendelsohn directed a partial reading of  Dogsbody at the 2010 Arts in the Once World Conference.  In the first act of the play (“Trauma Ward”) she says Ehn draws on the stories from Uganda to take a journey of the mind, to create an emotional landscape where the normal markers, including one’s sense of time and one’s trust in other people, have been removed.

Deborah Asiimwe's "Forgotten World' at Cal Arts, 2009

Playwright and Cal Arts alum Deborah Asiimwe was also on the Ugandan trip.  Her new work, Forgotten World, was informed by the testimonies she heard there.  Asiimwe, who is from Uganda, says the play looks at a variety of conflict situations where children forced to become soldiers and sex slaves.

Pictured: Playwright Deborah Asiimwe. A reading of her play "Forgotten World" will take place on May 21st at 7:00PM in N.Y.C. at The Public Theater during the NEW WORK NOW reading series.

“It’s not just about Uganda,” she said. “It could also be about southern Sudan or Darfur or the streets of L.A. – any place where children are forgotten.”   Ethical concerns were very much on her mind at the time she was writing the piece.  She remembers hearing about a  conceptual artist who paid people in a poor village in Central Uganda to legally change their last names to that of the artist in exchange for a goat or a pig.   The artist then exhibited the pictures he took of the villagers holding up their new identity cards, all with his last name.

“I remembered thinking this is not right,” she said.  “I started questioning my own art, questioning how art has turned these stories into a commodity.  I asked myself:  ‘How can I as an artist tell these stories without taking center stage?’  I don’t have the answer yet.  But I know there has to be a responsible way to tell someone’s story.”

Child soldier, Burma

Tens of thousands of child soldiers have been recruited to fight in all regions of the world. Most are under the control of non-state armies.

Forgotten World was produced at Cal Arts in 2009 and directed by Obie award-winning actress and director Laurie Carlos.  The final scripting and staging involved an unusual degree of collaboration between the writer, director, cast and crew, a multi-ethnic group who brought their own experiences with  to the production. Asiimwe says she felt extremely supported as an artist.  “It was the best gift that Cal Arts gave me,” she said.

A few month later,  when Asiimwe started working on a re-write of the play, she reported feeling like she did when she was struggling with the first drafts:  “I’m back to having strange nightmares…dreaming of guns…getting into my own world again. Emotionally and physically, I find myself being a witness alone, as opposed to witnessing collectively.”

Genocide separate peoples from the things they hold dear - family, home, culture, community. Testimonies of their experiences can help the outside world understand what they have been through and, in some cases, how the world has failed them. Credit: V. Vick, NYTimes

Artist who tackle war and extreme violence in their art may find the task daunting.  But Erik Ehn says they should try.  If  words seem inadequate to describe the experience,  he suggests discarding language and trying something else – or experimenting with different points of view:

“If you are writing about rape, you can describe it or you represent it, ” he says. “You can replace the rape with something else.  If you are doing that, you might as well make it as creative – like ripping a paper in half.”

Erik Ehn was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts until 2009. He now heads the playwriting program at Brown University and continues to collaborate with Cal Arts and the IGSC in Rwanda. Credit: Kagami

Television images can sometimes be emotionally overwhelming.  He says,  “You can’t compete with the event itself or with the news reports. You can write about your own sense of helplessness. Or see..what your helplessness looks like… Beckett never writes: ‘I don’t know why I am alive.’  He shows how that thought affects his mind.”

The wages of genocide are manifest in the stories of survivors.  Their testimonies shine a light on our collective conscience.  Artists who allow themselves to be transformed by these stories may find themselves on a difficult creative path. But  Ehn believes it is worth the effort.  He says life (like art) “is at essence a dialogue.”  The place to begin is to embrace survivors with tender silence.

“Silence is the most perfect gesture of inclusion.  It is like the darkness of the theatre.” -Erik Ehn



 Lydia Breen is a freelance writer and filmmaker who worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Switzerland for more than ten years.   In 1991 she made the first  film for an international audience about the effects of war on children.  The film drew heavily on the testimonies of child soldiers from Mozambique.  She went on to interview, write and make films about child soldiers and other children living under armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Somalia, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

With the exception of Somalia, which is a failed state, the United States is the only member of the U.N. that has  not ratified the 1989 Convention on the Right of the Child.  In 2002, the U.S. did sign certain Optional Protocols which obliges it to afford certain protections to child soldiers.

To date, children in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be held in detention by the U.S. military.

Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay has been held there for seven years

Children should not be prosecuted for war crimes: Omar Khadr was ten years old when his family moved from Canada to Afghanistan where they lived in Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle.  When he was 15, he allegedly threw a genade that killed a medic with the U.S. Special Forces.  The U.N. and human rights organizations believe that Omar was essentially brainwashed.  They say child soldiers should be rehabilittated not incarcerated. (See Washington Post article, Feb. 10, 2010)


ACLU’s  “Soldiers of Misfortune”

Coaltion to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. and the

Enough Project

Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.


Virgin As Spin-Mistress (artist Colette Crutcher)

Colette Crutcher’s mixed media mural, “Tonantsin Renance”is located at 16th and Sanchez in San Francisco, CA.

When theologian Mary Daly published Beyond God, the Father in 1973, the book sent shock waves around Boston College, the Jesuit school where Daly taught.   Daly’s goal was to explain how men had shaped Western religion to the exclusion and detriment of women.  Women’s sense of the divine –  with its emphasis on nature and nurturing – needed to be put back in the picture, she said.  She challenged women to re-claim their “primal powers” as creators and “spin” a new world.      

 In retrospect, it is difficult to understand the importance of Daly’s views.  They came at a time when many women still accepted  that they needed to sacrifice their interests and talents to those of their fathers, brothers,  husbands.  Daly and other radical feminists called on women to say “Goodbye to All That”   

 In an interview with The Washington Post,   feminist author Robin Morgan called Daly: “the first feminist philosopher”:   

“She really pushed the boundaries, and that drove some people bananas…But that kind of intellectual courage is, in fact, what usually moves the species forward…”  

For budding feminists who felt alientated from heavily male-dominated relgious institutions, Daly helped make religion interesting, even meaningful.   

The women’s movment  went on to make mistakes: with simplistic analysis, at times, and more importantly, a failure to adequately address issues of race and class.  But the world is a better place for “uppity”  feminists like Mary Daly who  helped us see that women have power, talent and rights. 

Mary Daily died on January 3, 2010.  Drawing on her words,  this article is in part a tribute to her.  It is also a tribute to the creative talents of  San Francisco artist Colette Crutcher, a  “Spin-Mistress” in her own right.     


See also:  Susan Brooks Thistlewaite’s remembrance of Daly in the Washington Post’s blog “On Faith.”  

Crutcher painted her original mural in 1991. She replaced it with this mixed-media mural in 1998.

-by Lydia Breen    (quotes in bold italics by Mary Daly)     

Colette Crutcher had just given birth to her second son in 1991 when she started work on a mixed media mural of  Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of Mother Earth.  As she painted Crutcher’s thoughts were about creativity, particularly the creative power of women to bring new life into the world.      

“God empowers women in their humanity to uncover their primordial power and make this world rich…It is a time of reverie in the limitless life now felt and made unfolding. ”  – Mary Daly     

Detail of birds, water, fire

Crutcher says that her image for Tonantzin came largely from her imagination:  “I didn’t do research for the piece-except for the symbols [directly on] her body – the idea came from my head.  

Detail of serpents


 She is surrounded by the four elements:  the snakes  represent the earth, the birds symbolize the air. Water is under one arm, fire above it. Later, I did do some research and found that a lot of the symbols I put in the mural were all correct.”       

“Women themselves must create new spaces, new galaxies and new times… To be a  Spinmaster is to create new landscapes of being and meaning.”     

 “Tonantzin” is thought by some to be a generic term for any Aztec goddesses.  Others think the word refers to one goddess who has many aspects, each with a different name.  (For example, the goddess of childbirth, of war, of corn, etc.)     

The image of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is thought to be a synchronized version of Tonantzin and the Virgin Mary, used by early 16th century missionaries to convert  the indigenous people to Catholicism.  There is some debate about the missionaries’ motivation:  did they want to destroy the notion of the female diety or were they willing  to co-exist with it?       

In this 16th century image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she is appears without her child, a being in her own right.

 While we may not know their intention, we can see that the image they used of the Virgin of Guadalupe ( Catholic teaching say it was revealed by God) is one of a gentle, compassionate, self-sacrificing woman.   

Artist Lalo Garcia  (link to article) says it is significant that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico without her infant son. Unlike European depictions of the Virgin Mary, she appears as a being in her own right. 

“When you look at the scripture,” Garcia says,  “Mary vanished until the crucifixion. Mary of Nazareth is a nobody. In the Americas, she is the boss.  Anyting related to Christianity you’ll wind up with her.” 

 Yet there is still considerable difference in imagery between the Mexican Virgin and Aztec goddeses.  See for example,  the stone statue of  Cihuacoatl, seen encompassed by the mouth of a serpent and holding an ear of maize:   

Cihuacoatl the Aztec goddess of motherhood and fertility, her head encompassed by a snake. Photo credit: Museo Nacional Antropologia, Mexico

In this Aztec stone statue of Tonantzin, she looks up to the heavens

 By contrast, renditions of the Virgin Mary by European artists portray her as an almost-characterless figure (“an empty vessel”) who bows in submision to her own son.      

Adoration. Eyes cast down, Mary bows in reverence to her son

 Crutcher turns that notion on its head.  Her Tonantzin stands front and center, a powerful diety making no apologies for who she is.  She looks like she woke up from a 500-year nap and, disliking what she saw, is ready to set things straight:     

Crutcher dedicated her mural to "all those who work to preserve the cultural heritage of Latin America"

   “There is no possibility of redemption within a system which is founded upon the degradation of the human species and its environment.”      

A watchful third eye

Crutcher puts  the Virgin of Guadalupe in the middle of Tonantzin’s forehead.  The Virgin stands like a watchful third eye in the spiritual center of the goddesses’ body.  

One might see this as an analogy:   just as Jesus is God – or an apsect of Him in Christian theology – the Virgin is the Goddess, or an aspect of Her.  One icon sits at God’s right hand, and another  in the Goddess’  forehead.     

 “Women themselves must become the incarnation of God.”      

Crutcher says her inspiration for the mural came from a favorite song.  She sings it with Choro Hispano, a choral group she has been associated with for more than 30 years. Dios Itlaçonantzine  was composed in the early 16th century by Don Hernando Franco, an Aztec Christian convert.       

Sung in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl (Nahua), the song is a prayer to the Virgin to intercede on behalf of  indigenous people. Crutcher says the lyrics refers to the Virgin as “Dios Itlaçonantzine,” one of the names for Tonantzin.     

At a time when  indigenous people of Mexico were suffering from brutal treatment by Spanish occupiers,  the song to the Virgin by a native might have been a prayer of intercession for a more caring, compassionate world.


"Quetzalcoatl" Colette Crutcher and Mark Roller made this mosaic tile structure at a playground on 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District.

For other examples of Colette Crutcher’s work, see this link to the 16th Ave. Tiled Steps Project.  See also pictures of the exquisite serpent Quetzalcoatl  that Crutcher and Mark Roller, Crutcher’s husband, made in a public playground on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.     


Lydia Breen  in a freelance writer and filmmaker who began her career in the 1970’s, while a member of a feminist media collective  in Tucson, Arizona.  In 1989 she worked with Irene Kahn  (recently retired as Secretary General of Amnesty International) and others at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland to formulate a policy, then make a film about how rape is used as a weapon of war.    

UNHCR’s groundbreaking work in this area helped motivate other international organizations – the International Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, UNICEF and many others- to take a stand.  

 Ten years later,  the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda  declared that rape, when used as a weapon of war, is an act of “genocide”.  In 2007, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other female world leaders pushed the U.N. Security Council  to resolve that the systematic  use of rape is a “weapon of war.” 

  In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered $17 million in funds as well as technical assitance to address the terrible cost of  rape in  Africa.   

…Baby steps.  Twenty years of them.  But each one required an uphill battle.   How much more time would it have taken without “uppity women” like Mary Daly as role models?  

See Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.

The systematic use of rape of as a weapon of war has been used throughout history against women and girls (and sometimes men) in all regions of the world.

An Artist Pays Tribute to 1,000 Slain Soldiers (Marilyn Mitchell)

Artist Marilyn Mitchell in her Encinitas, CA. studio


As the death toll for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan nears the 1,000 mark, an Encinitas artist explains how she honored another 1,000  soldiers felled three years ago during  the  war in Iraq. 

Over the next few months up to  4,000  Marines at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton will be deployed to Afghanistan. Some will leave before Christmas.

In the nearby town of Oceanside, a strange calm prevails.   A uniformed soldier walks somberly into a law office.   Another, the sole customer  in an old-style barber shop, gets his already-short hair trimmed.  Across the street,  another young serviceman picks up his dry cleaning.  Signs in motorcycle shops offer deep military discounts. Old Glory flaps listlessly over a the entrance of a pool hall.

What lies ahead for the Marines?  Will friends or foes be waiting for them  behind the sun-baked walls of Afghanistan villages?

(DAVID FURST/AFP/***** Images)

U.S soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division on the outskirts of an Afghan mountain village. Photo credit: David Furst, AFPage

As more soldiers head off to this eight year-long conflict,  a gruesome statistic looms on the horizon: the 1,000th  U.S. soldier  will soon die fighting in Afghanistan.   When that death comes, how will we will honor those who have already lost their lives?  Three years ago, an Encinitas artist asked herself this question under similar circumstances.  Her response was to draw their portraits.    Little did she know that her tribute  would consume her for the next seven months.


On New Year’s Day, 2007, artist Marilyn Mitchell was leafing through the New York Times when she stumbled across a photo montage that hit her like a brick:   three and a half full pages of photographs of 1,000  service men and women who died  in Iraq. The photographs represented the third set of 1,000 photos that the Times had published since the Iraq war began – the highest U.S. military death toll  since the Viet Nam War.

The visual impact of so many lost lives overwhelmed  her.  “Many of them were so young -the age of my 22-year-old son, some even younger,” she said.   “I just  had to draw them. I wanted to honor them and remind people that these were once-vibrant human beings.”

She set out drawing the miniature portraits with care.  Working in India ink required a delicate but sure touch; one blotch and a portrait would be ruined.  Scouring the photos, she searched for something unique in each  soldier’s character.

Detail from



“Many of the photos were lent to the New York Times by family members. My piece was a gift to the soldiers as well as their families,” Mitchell said. “ I wanted to try to breathe life into each portrait.” 
The effort left her emotionally drained.  “I must admit that towards the end I was ready to finish. It was a painful process, staring at those faces every day.   I was more successful with some portraits than others.  But I cared deeply about each one.”  Mitchell says she likes to see the artists’ hand, their personality, in their work.

The finished pages were  hand-stitched together with thread. Perhaps the stitches were a tribute to her mother who could work magic with a needle.  Perhaps it was a nod to her training as a nurse:  the sutures on the page may have been a symbolic effort to try to stitch the fallen soldiers back to life. 

To finish the piece, she  surrounded the pages with a halo of bridal netting, pearls and silver wire.   “It was another way to pay tribute,” she said.  “My inspiration came from the Romans who put a gold crown of laurels around a person’s head to honor them.” 
Her piece, entitled “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”, was shown at a juried exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of Art.  Later it was shown at the J.C. Gallery in downtown Oceanside, in an exhibit entitled, “God and Country”.

At the bottom of Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers,  Mitchell, an anti-war activist,  added a poem she wrote about the photos of soldiers she had studied so carefully for seven long months.  Was it the nurse, mother or the artist in Mitchell which caused her to write:

“I imagine being their mother…Each one is beautiful to me.  I am sorry that I am not better.  That I can not draw them back to life.”

The following is an excerpt from Marilyn Mitchell’s Web site  on her “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”

“An essential part of my process is to take a date that is personally important to me and find a publication from that date to make an artwork. This piece was created to mark the birthday of my dearest friend in San Diego, Barb Goldsand. By coincidence the New York Times published the photos of the last 1000 soldiers killed in Iraq on that day, January 1, 2007. I decided to draw each one in order to honor them and to give my attention and my prayers to each soldier that had died.”

I draw these soldiers,
so many men gone.
I imagine being their love,
now alone,
remembering their
remembering their gaze.
I imagine being their mother,
losing her very heart
and going on with a fathomless
I imagine being their father
whose loss is unspeakable.
Each one is beautiful to me.
I am sorry I am not better.
That I cannot draw them
back to life.


-Marilyn Mitchell 





The Berlin Wall Comes to Los Angeles: The Wall Project – an art installation

See Flickr slideshow of  The Berlin Wall Comes to Los Angeles, also  Kent Twitchell Installation

1. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.


slide.003-0014. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.

5. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.

5a. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.

5b. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.


7. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.

8. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.

9. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.



12. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.




16. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.




21. The Berlin Wall Comes to L.A.


The Day of the Dead at Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles 2009


Lydia Breen

The Day of the Dead  as explained by people who  built altars memorializing their loved ones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on October 24, 2009:

Scroll down to see individual slides or link to my Flickr site

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “Day of the Dead at Hollywood Forever,…“, posted with vodpod

1. Cover Slide




Opening Ceremony - Procession

 Day of Dead slide.006

Celine Mares, Tyler Cassidy, Daisy Martinez slide.008 Deisy Martinez, Tyler Cassidy, Celine Mares

10.Speaker Celine Mares

slide.009 Procession

11.Speaker Danny Alonzo


13.speaker Danny Alonzo

14.Speaker Danny Alonzo

15. Speaker Danny Alonzo 16. Speaker Danny Alonzo

17.Speaker Danny Alonzo

18.Speaker Danny Alonzo

19. Speaker Danny Alonzo

21.Speaker Danny Alonzo

20.Speaker Danny Alonzo

22a.speaker Danny Alonzo

22.Speaker Maria Ledezma

23. Speaker Maria Ledezma

24.Maria Ledezma


26.speaker Diana Lumbreras


28.Liliana Rosas

29.Joe Seely Thomas Kellogg

31.Thomas Kellogg

31.Jamie Lara32.Speaker Jaime Lara

35.Edith Almander

33.Speaker Danny Alonzo

36.James Davilla

37.Speaker Danny Alonzo

38.Kathleen Roman39.Mavis Leahy40.End of slide show

Luis Villanueva: In Found Objects, He Make Art Zany and Divine

Artist Luis Villaneuva

Artist Luis Villanueva

-by Lydia Breen

Luis Villanueva holds out two crumpled figures, part of a crèche he made fifty years ago as a boy living on the outskirs of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.   “I wanted a crèche for Christmas,” he explained, “but my mother said we were too poor. So I decided to make one. ”

Using cotton stuffing, a burlap sack and gold paper from the inside of  a cigarette box, the crèche supplied Villaneuva with his first artistic lesson:  rich or poor, beautiful art can come from things – and people – that others discard.

For the past fifty years Luis Villanueva has continued to make intricate, decorous and often-humorous pieces out of recycled materials.   Not content with the Spanish and Indian traditions of his childhood,  he is also inspired by the pop culture of Los Angeles, where he now lives and serves as artistic director at the Day of the Dead Festival at Hollywood Forevever Memorial Park—the final resting place of Mary Pickford, Peter Lorre, Douglas Fairbanks and others.

Although Villanueva’s artistic interests range from mythical to folk, sacred and pop art, his use of found materials is constant.  His atelier is filled with a seemingly endless supply of oatmeal containers,  Styrofoam plates,  lamp shades, tennis balls, junk  jewelry, wallpaper and bits of ornaments from discarded Christmas trees.

The full range of his zany materials is difficult to appreciate because his finished pieces are  covered with a layer of papier-mâché, paint, cloth jewelry and other decorations.

Villaneuva's "Catrina Tijuana"

Villaneuva's "Catrina Tijuana"

“To appreciate his genius, you must see him at work, ”  says Yadhira De Leon, promotional director at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where Villanueva  makes mythical Aztec animals in children’s workshops.

“I think twice now  before putting things in the recycle bin, “ explains De Leon.  “ I think Luis uses his art to show there’s something divine or godly about using recycled materials.”

Each  piece is unique, employing delicate hand-painted designs.   His riotously-costumed skeletons (known as “La Calavera Catrina”) have been on display at the Day of the Dead festivities for the past decade.  The Catrinas recall a full range of Mexico’s traditions from its ancient, colonial and revolutionary past – traditions that both revere and mock death.

“The traditional  art world can be very proscribed about the range of acceptable art materials,” says Eduardo Diaz, Director of the Latino Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Villanueva throws that all out the window. For me, art is all about quality, relevance, diversity and accessibility.  Luis’ art is all of that.  There are many artists today working in found objects.  But Luis is one of the best.”