Juana Alicia’s Murals Set Walls Aglow With Color: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday November 30, 2004

The colorful, vivid imagery born in the West Berkeley studio of artist Juana Alicia that graces buildings across the nation may soon appear on the walls of a five-story building on University Avenue. 

Recognized as one of the nation’s finest muralists, Alicia was taught by two students of perhaps the greatest North America master of the form, Diego Rivera, whose vibrant forms and hues are reflected in her work. 

Alicia’s mentors in the form were Lucien Bloch, who was Rivera’s painting assistant and the daughter of émigré composer Ernest Bloch, and Stephen Dimitroff, Rivera’s plasterer. 

In Detroit, she grew up in the African American cultural renaissance of the 1950s and ‘60s, where she found strong influence in the muralist John Biggers as well as in her godmother and high school art teacher, Dr. Cledie Collins Taylor. Taylor was the founder of Arts Extended Gallery, the city’s first African American gallery, which is still going strong after 50 years. 

For the last year-and-a-half of her public school education, Alicia switched to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where she found her passion for murals. “I was so inspired that I knew it was what I wanted to do,” she recalls. 

Among her other influences, she cites the two other members with Rivera of the “Tres Grandes” of Mexican murals, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquerios; Rivera’s spouse and fellow artist, Frieda Kahlo; German expressionist Kathe Kollwitz; Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi; African American sculptor and print-maker Elizabeth Catlett; and from antiquity, the anonymous painters of Teotihuacan and the Mayan bas-relief sculptors of Chichen Itza. 

While still in Detroit, Alicia came to the attention of Cesar Chavez after he saw her silk-screen prints of the grape boycott. Chavez asked her to come to Salinas to work with the United Farm Workers. 

“Because there were very few Chicanos in Detroit, when I came to California I rediscovered my own culture,” she said. 

Instead of working in the UFW office, Alicia said, “I decided it would be more fruitful to do work organizing in the fields with the highly politically-conscious Mexican working class that was organizing the strike and bringing about a very different kind of cultural revolution.” 

Her labor of love resulted in pesticide and herbicide exposures which caused her serious health problems, including bouts of pneumonia. 

When Alicia was seven months pregnant with her son, she left field work and started working with the Migrant Teacher Corps, with which she became a bilingual educator. 

After taking classes at a local community college, she was recruited by Professor Ralph Guzman at UC Santa Cruz, where she earned two degrees and three teaching credentials. 

As a teacher, she quickly shifted her focus to doing art with the migrant children of Watsonville, where her projects included a large mural at Watsonville High School. The work was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake. 

In 1981, at the urging of her brother—“He said I needed to be in an urban center, where I could find support for my murals”—Alicia moved to San Francisco, though she continued to commute to Watsonville to work with her migrant students. 

Two years later came her first urban mural commission from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Community Development and the San Francisco Arts Commission. Entitled “Las Lechugueras”—The Women Lettuce Workers—the 1,500-square foot acrylic artwork was installed at 24th and York streets in the Mission District. 

In the intervening years, 29 more murals have followed, invoking not only her Chicano heritage but echoes of the Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and psychedelic styles as well. 

Alicia moved to West Berkeley in 1995, drawn by the creative environment, the multicultural milieu and the schools for her recently born daughter. 

“It’s the arts and ceramics Mecca of the area,” she said. 

Two more murals are in the works: a massive mural project on multicultural healing traditions for the UC San Francisco Medical Center and the exterior of Satellite Housing’s planned 80-unit senior residential facility at 1535 University Avenue—her first Berkeley commission. 

After witnessing the deterioration of her earliest acrylic friezes and the perils of earthquakes, she is using tile for both projects, so the works will endure and can be removed, even from ruined buildings. 

Final drawings for the UCSF panels, which will grace the exterior walls of two adjacent buildings joined by a covered portico featuring a frieze, are due Dec. 17. She’ll then begin fabricating the tiles in February with installation planned for October, when she’ll begin the tiles for her University Avenue commission. 

Meanwhile, Alicia continues her work with activist groups as well as her teaching, offering classes in Chicano Studies at UC Davis and occasional classes in Spanish, Portuguese and Chicano Art History at Stanford and San Francisco State. 

“I have no permanent faculty positions,” she said, “because I spend most of my times doing artwork.” 

Her studio in the basement of her Ninth Street Berkeley home contains a heavy-duty kiln for baking her tiles, drawing tables and pencil sketches—plain and colored—for preliminary renderings of her work, paints, and an assortment of the vibrant works that are her specialty. 

Intense, witty and sharply focused, Alicia brings to her work a unique perspective which has won her numerous commissions and widespread recognition as a leader in her field. 

Alicia will host an open studio exhibit and art sale this Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in her studio, 2016 Ninth Street, a block south from University Avenue. 

For more on the artist and examples of her work, visit her web site at http://juanaalicia.com.›