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Art for the Community: An Interview with Emigdio Vasquez (1991)

Jim Dobbs

Editor’s note: This is a reprint, introducing additional archival images, of an interview originally published in the Spring 1991 issue of The Elephant-ear, Irvine Valley College’s annual literary arts journal, Managing Editor Linda Thomas, Nonfiction Editors Kate Clark and Peter Morrison. The award-winning journal of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, photography, and art is now called The Ear, is run by student writers and editors, and still publishes annually. See:


Thanks for photographs included here courtesy Linda Thomas, Roy Bauer (RIP), and Rosemary Vasquez Tuthill. Here are more online images, and see more paintings from the collection of Fred Ortiz in person, currently (happily!) on display at the Hilbert through August 3. Vasquez's art was also featured on the covers of Irvine Valley College course catalogs, also included here.

Very special thanks to Linda Thomas, Frank Marmolejo, Lisa Alvarez, Anita Dobbs, Jim Dobbs, Peter Morrison, Elaine Rubenstein, and Rosemary Vasquez Tuthill.



For the past fifty years, Emigdio Vasquez, who has been called the “godfather of Hispanic art in Orange County,” has lived and painted in his home on Cypress Street in Orange. His studio, located in the basement of his house, is filled with books on art and on politics, and with his paintings. His art depicts the heritage of the barrio, in scenes ranging from groups of young Chicano men engaged in earnest conversation, to sharply rendered images of political protest. It is from his life as an American of Mexican descent that Emigdio Vasquez draws his sense of purpose as an artist---and his images.

JD: Do you feel that the female figure from your Manzanita Park mural that was reproduced for the cover of The Elephant-ear is indicative of your artistic style and your political ideals?

EV: Yes, very much so. In a sense, that image is interconnected to all my art. She is a cotton picker, working in the southwest during the Depression. She is a working class Mexican American, and as such, she reflects my basic concerns. Other details in the mural, such as the snake and the eagle, come from the legends and myths of the Aztecs.

JD: Your art seems full of imagery drawn from the lives of the working class. How did you come to this orientation?

EV: I have always been sympathetic to the struggles of the working class. I consider myself part of that economic class. I trace my roots to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, because that event is what gave my father the impetus to migrate to the United States. My father’s stories of the Revolution in Mexico and of worker strikes in the U.S. influenced me greatly. He told me many stories of the conditions in the mines in Arizona and how life was for Mexican Americans during the Depression.

JD: Could you tell us about your family and upbringing?

EV: My parents were born in Mexico, in the state of Jalisco. My father worked for the railroad until he migrated to Jerome, Arizona, where he worked in the Phelps-Dodge copper mines. In the early 1940s, we moved to Orange, California, and my father worked in the San Pedro shipyard during World War II. Orange was a very rural, small town when my family moved here. I can remember the town as being very racist. The theater was segregated. Even the Catholic church, Holy Family, was segregated---Latinos on one side, Anglos on the other side.

JD: You use the term “Latino.” Is there a distinction drawn within the community between cultural labels such as “Latino,” “Chicano,” or “Hispanic”?

EV: There is a great deal of debate in the barrio over this issue. Many people in the community do not like the word “Hispanic” because it is too generic and refers to all Spanish-speaking peoples---Puerto Ricans, South Americans, etc. There is, in fact, a wide variety of differences among these groups. Although I use the terms “Latino” and “Chicano” interchangeably, for me, “Chicano” is definitely a political term which identifies an attitude as well as a culture.

JD: At what point in your life did you become interested in art?

EV: During kindergarten at Killefer School in Orange, I began copying the drawings in comic books, based on the experiences of my father during the Revolution in Mexico. My uncle, who had fought with Pancho Villa, was also a great source for subject matter.

JD: What formal training have you had as an artist?

EV: To a large degree, I am self-taught. My first formal art instruction was in high school. I received some training while I was in a California Youth Authority facility. My ability to paint portraits was recognized by the director of the institution who provided me with paint and materials, and exposed me to the work of the 20th century Mexican masters---Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. In my twenties, I decided to go back to school and complete my high school education. I subsequently went on to college, to both Santa Ana and Fullerton Colleges and finally to Cal State, Fullerton, where I received a Bachelor and a Masters in Arts.

JD: How much of that “formal” training do you use in your art?

EV: Quite a bit, really. Two or three teachers made a significant impact on me during my education and training as an artist. I owe a great deal to Robert Egan, who taught art at Fullerton College. He was the one who convinced me that I should become a painter. He never tried to change the socially conscious aspect of my art by saying, “This won’t sell.” I think it is very important to have a teacher who supports and encourages your efforts, and Mr. Egan encouraged all the Chicano artists who studied with him.

JD: Have you done any teaching yourself?

EV: Yes, I have taught classes at Rancho Santiago College. In 1987, I taught classes there that involved the creation of a mural on the campus. I looked at the class as a means of recruiting Chicano students to the college because I did not see much minority representation on the campus. This under-representation is definitely true in art departments. There are never many Chicano students in the arts.

JD: Why not? Is it that art is not encouraged in the family or the community? Or are there specifically racial issues involved in admissions policies?

EV: I don't know if there are racial overtones. Most Chicano families encourage their children to go into traditional occupations such as engineering or medicine. Art is not a high priority. I'd like to see more Chicano kids involved in the arts, but I'm a realist. Do they have the guts to stick with it? Kids often gravitate toward activities that provide instant material gratification, and art does not provide that. It is a constant struggle. I've been painting for thirty-five years, have a mature style and some reputation---and still it's an economic struggle.

JD: Do you consider yourself a model for young Chicanos as an artist?

EV: No, not really. I'm just an artist.

JD: How would you describe the possibilities for Chicano artists in Orange County?

EV: There are only a small number of Chicano artists in this area, and it is very difficult to get our work shown in the galleries. Colleges and universities could provide alternative spaces for showing the art of minority cultures. For example, it is important to show Chicano students that someone is recording the traditions of the barrio. The art of minority cultures shown in a college environment portrays the values of that part of the student population that shares the experiences reflected in the art.

JD: Your artistic reputation is based in part on your public murals. How did you become involved in these projects?

EV: I was approached by the city of Anaheim in the late 1970s and asked to develop an anti-graffiti program for the city. I began working on murals with disadvantaged kids from the inner city in an attempt to direct them toward positive endeavors like painting. I worked with the city for seven years in this program. I was subsequently selected as the artist-in-residence at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

JD: What is the process involved in bringing a mural into a community?

EV: After I have determined a location for a mural and received the necessary legal permissions, I organize a community meeting so that local people can come in and express their views about appropriate subject matter. Residents often want particular episodes of local history included in the mural. During the 1960s, young people in the barrio wanted images of low riders, and in the 1970s, they wanted a reflection of the resurfacing zoot suit look. I have to do in depth research on the subject matter, especially for those murals that depict the history of the Chicano struggles in the United States. I then try to arrange the appropriate images in a composition that tells a story or gives a message and thus goes beyond a mere collection of stock figures. As for more technical matters, the preparation of the wall is fairly complex. If the wall is in relatively good shape, I sand, wash and clean the surface before applying a coat of gesso. If the wall is cracked or chipped, it requires repair. After the gesso coat, I transfer a small-scale mock-up to the wall by the use of an opaque projector. Then, I begin laying in large areas of solid color, with modeling. I correct for scale and placement. Then, I paint in the shadows and detail. Afterwards, I coat the mural with an anti-graffiti varnish.

JD: Do you make sketches or take photos of people for your murals?

EV: Yes, if I see an interesting face, I do quick sketches. I will also take extensive photos of a subject and then make a composite of several photos. I usually find the subject matter for these sketches or photos in the local environment and often have a personal acquaintance with the people. For example, a figure in the Flower Street mural is a friend whose face has lots of character. He is a very defiant Sixties-type radical. I can paint people I know with greater sympathy.

JD: Murals represent only a portion of your art. Do you feel any danger of being typecast as a “mural artist”?

EV: Very definitely. People refer to me as a “mural artist,” but I say that I am a painter, and as such I feel that I have a great deal of versatility. I can paint in a wide range of styles, and I can paint landscapes, still lifes and portraits. But I do like the scale and process of mural painting, and murals have always provided me with a way to survive economically. Otherwise, it would be hard to make a living as an artist.

JD: Do the people who commission the murals suggest content to you or try to impose their own ideas on subject matter?

EV: In the case of the Bowers mural, the subject matter---a history of Orange County---was a result of a collaborative effort. The museum left the research and execution up to me. But I have had trouble getting ideas for murals approved, especially when I was working for the city of Anaheim. The issue of why my subjects were not more “American” came up repeatedly. My argument was that a mural artist must paint a particular kind of theme in a particular location. This is especially true in the barrio, where people need to be able to identify with the subject matter. It must be relevant to their lives. I said that I could not put the American flag and apple pie in the barrio---if I did, the mural would soon be covered with derogatory graffiti. If the content is relevant, then the community will respect the art piece and leave it alone.

JD: It is sometimes said of Chicano artists that their subject matter is too narrow, and is appropriate for only a small audience. Have you ever encountered this kind of criticism?

EV: In my opinion, that judgment is somewhat myopic and racist. I have encountered this unfortunate bias not only in critics, but among patrons and gallery owners as well. I was approached recently, for example, by the director of a gallery in Laguna Beach who had seen slides of my work and asked to see the paintings. When I brought the work in, she became very critical, saying that the color was too intense and the subject matter too limited. She showed me art in the gallery that in her words, “sells,” and suggested that I try to work in light pastel colors and focus on more innocuous subject matter, such as seascapes. She said that her clients want “safe art,” art that looks good with their furniture.

JD: Do you have a particular audience in mind as you paint?

EV: The audience is anyone who can identify with and relate to the subject matter. I draw mainly from the environment and experiences of the Chicano community, but I also want to make the compositions universal so that they relate to a more timeless audience. If the viewer is not a resident of the barrio in Orange, the painting should give him some inkling of how the people of this community lived and of some of the political struggles that they went through. I think art can contribute to the raising of consciousness, but it might be too much to ask of art or artists to change the situation.

JD: It is obvious that you consider yourself a political person.

EV: Yes, I do. As a young person, I thought of myself as a cultural nationalist. I read and studied a lot of political literature, and eventually gravitated toward the potentials of socialism. I never considered myself a communist because I felt that the system that emerged in the Soviet Union was flawed in terms of traditional Marxist philosophy. The Soviet Union did not possess the advanced economy necessary to achieve bona fide socialism.

JD: You said a moment ago that you thought it might be “too much to ask” an artist to bring about social change through art. Do you think that your art is in any way a tool for social change or could at least reflect social inequities?

EV: I feel that an essential quality of some of my work is an anti-capitalist critique. Contemporary society has the ability to create a world without poverty---a world in which there is an abundance of food and housing. But the capitalist system is flawed because the mechanism for the distribution of wealth is very unjust. My painting Breadline tries to reflect that reality. This painting was not commissioned. I just felt the need to express my sense of outrage about people having to live on the streets here in Orange County. I think that the existence of poverty in the midst of plenty is really disgraceful. What seems odd to me is that this regressive aspect of capitalism is such a contradiction to the Christian spiritual tradition. Perhaps the Christian ethic is just a lot of empty words.

JD: Do you have a sense of what direction your art will be taking?

EV: I always ask myself the question---have I said everything that I want to say? Have I exhausted my subject matter? But there is so much material for the artist in the people and traditions of this community, images of people like the girl on the cover of The Elephant-ear. I have a great deal of empathy with oppressed peoples, and my empathy is not as a detached observer and is not exclusive by ethnicity. I feel that all humanity suffers to one degree or another. I believe that I can paint the things in my community---the things that I have a familiarity with---for a long time.


Images, in order of appearance above:

John the Prophet, by Emigdio Vasquez, 1983

The complete Visions of Santa Ana, by Emigdio Vasquez, 1986

Detail from Visions of Orange County, by Emigdio Vasquez, 1987 (five total)

The complete Visions of Orange County, by Emigdio Vasquez, 1987


Jim Dobbs graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Economics in 1966. He served five years in the Air Wing of the USMC, including one year in Vietnam and Japan. He then earned a BA in Art History at UCI, followed by an MA in Architectural History from UCR while teaching Art History at Cal Poly Pomona.  Dobbs was working toward a Doctorate in Architectural History from UCLA when he began teaching Art and Architectural History full-time at Irvine Valley College until his retirement in 2001. 

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