Category Archives: Art

Backyard Art in the SGV: Joe’s Mural

Credit: Black Arts Collective of Philadelphia

Standing in stark contrast to Martin’s Mariscos, the neighboring seafood restaurant painted in rich deep sea blues, Joe’s welding garage colors this part of Valley Blvd just east of the 605 freeway, in the black and white shades of memory. Yet despite its limited color palette, it is the emotional vibrancy of that mural that brings it to life. The mural is clearly a personal one. A young man in a large straw hat, carries in his arms a young woman, both posing with smiles in front of a shiny 1950 Ford Mercury.

It doesn’t take much guessing to figure out that the young man painted on the east -facing wall of Joe’s Welding Shop, located at 13420 East Valley, is none other than Joe himself. Just ask him. Joe is right inside and he’ll come out of his office, if you call for him. At 82 years old, Joe will tell you all about the mural and all of the details with the clarity of a memory that has not dulled or faded with time. Joe will tell you that he is the young man and the woman was his newly wed wife. They lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the time, before moving out to the San Gabriel Valley to start a family and this specialized welding business that still operates today.

Because it continues to be a family-run business, Joe’s son Anthony will tell you with much pride how his father built his business, learning first his trade as a welder and another business before venturing to start his own successful one. He’ll point out their properties, their yards and houses where his father once lived, and where he and his brothers live now.

He will also tell you that this mural was replicated from a family photograph, painted by a customer in exchange for Joe’s labor. I weld, you paint. You paint, I weld. A fair swap of two noble trades that continues to live as a fond and sweet personal memory, immortalized on a wall as public art. Sometimes a place, as drab and seemingly lifeless as parts of eastern stretch of Valley Blvd, is colored by memory, in the simple shades of black and white.


East of East: How’s the Water in Pomona

East of east is another way of saying, “way the hell out there”. East of east is El Monte, Whittier, La Puente, Walnut, Diamond Bar, West Covina, Claremont, Pomona, Chino and beyond… San Bernardino, Riverside, the Inland Empire. But its also Pacoima, and Wilmington. In short, east of east is all the people, places and histories beyond the scope of Los Angeles’ main cultural centers. East of east, can be a barren terrain, or it can be a place of expansive possibilities.

The South El Monte Arts Posse proposes that east of east is ripe ground with untamed voices and visions. In our inaugural show, How’s the Water?, we turned our gaze inward, deep into our personal and communal cultural hinterlands. We made, installed and exhibited original photo work inspired by the inhabitants and geographies of El Monte/South El Monte.

Ironically, in our eastbound ventures, we found ourselves in a thriving arts community in downtown Pomona where SEMAP will be exhibiting How’s the Water? in the Downtown Metro Pomona Gallery on 2nd Street for the entire month of March. This arts community consists of a serious arts colony, strings of galleries and artist studios. We will be participating in Pomona’s art walks on March 10.

While our “a la brava” arts making curatorial approach made for a unique experience for both artists and audiences, we are now moving the show from our front lawn into the gallery. This gallery reincarnation of How’s the Water?, a show about looking closely, will be an opportunity to look even more closely at the carefully crafted work of Christopher Anthony Velasco’s “Juan Valdez: A Tourist” and Romeo Guzman’s “Bici Bici, Bici,”. (For those of you who attend the inagural show, don’t worry there will be plenty of new things: from video installations to interactive photo projects.)

Although Pomona lies deep in eastern territory, well beyond the east-west divide marked by the Los Angeles River, its thriving arts community is evidence of not only its cultural richness, but also of an overlooked history that largely credits the City of Los Angeles proper as the master of a cultured civilization, with its theaters, movie houses, museums and galleries. Today, most of Los Angeles and Southern Cali’s significant cultural institutions remain firmly planted on land west of the L.A. River.

Without getting too much into it, this concentration of cultural capital has left smaller Greater Los Angeles suburbs such as El Monte, bereft of cultural resources. In addition, not only is El Monte, east of Los Angeles, but it is also east of East Los Angeles. Despite East L.A.’s explosive cultural and political awakening in the Chicano Movement that has shaped much of contemporary Chicano culture, El Monte has largely remained just beyond its reach. While East Los Angeles has since sprouted a number of important artists as well as homegrown arts groups and spaces, El Monte and other eastbound communities have sprouted comparatively less. East of east Los Angeles is what has been referred to as “an arts desert.”

However, El Monte, and all its east of east brethren is a landscape lush with creative possibilities and fertile with its own cultural idiosyncrasies and histories. We, SEMAP, invite you to nourish the creative minds that inhabit the east of east and come out to How’s the Water? next month in Pomona.

Hi from NYC: an Update on How’s the Water?

This past Friday November 11, we invited our East Coast friends to our apartment to eat some tamales, beans, rice, have a beer, and check out our exhibit “How’s the Water?” As in El Monte, we had a free raffle to make sure every person who came out took a photograph home. This reflects our desire to create art for and with community and disseminate the vibrant cultural production and heritage of El Monte and South El Monte residents. In an effort to connect photographers, curators, individuals photographed, and raffle winners, and to track the social life of images of El Monte/South El Monte, we are asking that you send us a picture of the home you gave the photograph (feel free to get creative). Please include what part of your house it’s located in and the city… We will then share these images through our blog. (send to

As we get ready for our March 2012 exhibit in Pomona, we want to share with all of you a short video about SEMAP and Hows the Water? (made by Andrew Hakim). A big, big thanks to all the artists, collaborators, family, and friends who made this possible. Ojala nos veamos muy pronto! Abrazos and saludos from NYC

Hi! From the Hopscotch Committee

Armed with a large box of 32 sticks of primary colored chalks, we got on our hands and knees and drew large, small, and medium sized hopscotches on the sidewalks of Tyler Avenue. Each box communicated pertinent information: Public Art, Fotos, Video, Silkscreen T-Shirts, Free Raffle, Todas Edades, July 27th, 7-9pm, Tyler & Asher. These playful ads seek to activate the routine walk to El Monte High School, to Columbia Junior High, to the swimming pool, to the library, to Arceo Park, the bike ride to the bus station or the corner where daily laborers wait for work. To remind us (adults) that happiness, even if brief, is nine short, little, effortless hops away. That the simply joys of childhood need not be in the distant past. That, like the lines that make up the hopscotch, our sidewalks, streets, and parks should be flexible enough to be respond to the needs and desires of its current inhabitants.

Keep your eye out for free lemonade (made from lemons found on public sidewalks), free raspados, and colorful posters/flyers. To help make hopscotches, pick fruit from trees on public property, and/or make or post flyers/poster email

Bike Riders Bike Riders Bike Riders

Sometimes it begins with simple, absent-minded window-gazing. Allowing one’s eyesight to wander beyond the window pane and rest, sprawling in the framed view. The lulling flux bodies and cars in motion, going to school, going to work. The quality of overcast June gloom morning light, the roar of the nearby freeway and local bus. You can sense, perhaps intuitively, there is something for you.

And then in, the repetition of a daily routine, certain things come into focus.

For Romeo Guzman, it was bicycles. Lots of bicycles on Tyler Blvd. At first his west-facing window revealed mornings full of teenagers on BMX bikes en route to school (folded Pee-Chees crammed deep under armpit), or work-boot señores pedaling mountain/street bike hybrids to work (lunch bags clutched at handlebar). Then throughout the day he noticed a whole array of bikes and riders occasional single-speed “fixies”, beach cruisers, some rusty, squeaky-wheeled, others chromed and customized. Then he noticed bikes on Garvey Ave, and Santa Anita Blvd and Valley and Peck and all over El Monte and South El Monte. Bikes in the blazing noontime sun, bikes chilling in the grassy shade outside of Yoshinoya.

Ever since the distinct bike culture of El Monte and South El Monte made itself evident to scholar, writer, and recent El Monte resident, Romeo, it has not released its strong grip on his attention. Now he’s hoping bikes will capture yours as well.

In his project for the South El Monte Arts Posse’s “How’s the Water?” exhibit that will take place on July 27, from 7-10pm in several public locations around Arceo Park in El Monte, Romeo takes a close look at bikes and riders in El Monte and South El Monte. His project incorporates printed and projected photographs, as well as video to capture these bodies in motion.

Romeo began to give his observations a more methodological approach, taking note of distinct characteristics of bike riders, bikes and ways of riding (street or sidewalk) during designated times of day. He even recruited his cousin and South El Monte resident Melissa Guzman to help log the details of a total of 99 bikes and riders in the course of a day.

Rather quickly, this project became about more than mere gazing and his methodology for the photography project revealed a need for more than flash observations crunched into hard data. It required actual engagement with the riders. So Romeo and collaborator Jason Gutierrez hopped on their own bikes and began to talk with riders about their bikes. In the process, they were able to shoot portraits that reveal the relationships that bike riders develop with their bikes, the bike riders’ personalities, as well as how they use their bikes to occupy public space, particularly streets.

But what if bikes occupied other public spaces besides streets and performed other activities besides getting the rider from point A to point B.? What if you could bring the diversity of bike riders together all at once and asked to perform improvised and choreographed bike “dances”?

Approaching these questions required a new step in community engagement: participation, more specifically, performance. Romeo invited bike riders of all ages, styles and bike types to participate in another kind of photo shoot on the emptied lot of the former Pontiac car dealer on Valley Blvd (slightly east of Peck Ave.). Romeo later learned that his grandfather worked as a mechanic in this same dealership in the late 70s.

Photograph by Christopher Velasco

For this event, a group of 10 bike riders and 3 photographers (Juli Grigsby, Lester Lawenko and Christopher Velasco) were asked to participate in a performance, with their bikes/cameras, with each other, and with the space, opening up a series of questions including: What is changed in a bike rider that is asked to temporarily reinvent him or herself as a performer while also transforming the space from a dead block of asphalt, to an activated space full of possibilities for creative movement and engagement? What happens to the relationship between riders, artists and spectators/potential participants? The results were…. well, you can check it out for yourselves on July 27.

In the meantime, check out this interview with Romeo Guzman.

South El Monte Arts Posse: How’s the Water?

Come out and play...July 27

Here’s a parable I learned recently: Once there were two young fish swimming nonchalantly around in their pond, when an older, wiser fish in passing greets them with, “Good morning boys, how’s the water?” and swims off. Perplexed, the two young fish look at each other and one asks, “What the hell is water?”*

Without getting too much into it, one of the things this parable speaks to, for me, is awareness. Awareness of all the little and big, subtle and obvious (but especially the obvious) but mostly overlooked things that make up the water of the lives we go around swimming in. Not just politics, culture, and economics, but also the everyday/personal, eat, sleep, work, play, family and friends aspects of plain ol’ life.

One of the greatest things that good art does is ask questions that address this and ultimately, remind us, swimmers of all ponds, what it feels like to be alive. It allows us to be awake at least for certain moments to our often exhaustingly boring, tedious, repetitive, mundane mundane mundane lives and to freshen up all the sleepy blurred details. The feeling of the sun warming your closed eyelids, or having a conversation with someone who broke your heart, or of trying to make a really tough decision about how to live your life. In other words, art can permit us to be human again.

So if you’re a little fish, big fish, young or old fish swimming around in the El Monte and South El Monte pond (or whatever pond you happen to swim in), I ask: How’s the water?

As part of the South El Monte Arts Posse’s (SEMAP) first public art exhibition and event, I’ve asked artists Jason Gutierrez, Romeo Guzman, David Jovel, Juan Renteria and Christopher Anthony Velasco to dive into the El Monte/South El Monte pond and test it out for themselves. On the evening of July 27 (details forthcoming) they will share with the public their works of art in various neighborhood locations.

Inspired by public spaces such as parks, freeway underpasses, blank building walls, alleys, gardens and vacant car lots, artists have been asked to walk, ride, taste, eat, smell, and experience in whichever way they choose, the streets of this community and make original site-specific works of art. The point is for both artists and audiences to rethink how we all experience, relate to, and understand space.

Between now and July 27, keep an eye out for these artists and please join us at our event for a summer evening of free art installations, screenings and more on a street near you.

Stay tuned!

*I read this parable in a published commencement speech made by the late writer David Foster Wallace, entitled “This is Water”.