Visionary Original: Willy Herron
His art emblazoned in a trajectory of historic faces across ELA
Our childhood was punctuated by assassinations. When president JFK was assassinated, the school played the announcement on the public address system and my teacher cried.
Published on LatinoLA: January 29, 2005
When Malcolm X was assassinated, newspapers implied he got what was coming to him. When Martin Luther King was shot, riots broke out in cities across America. When Robert F. Kennedy, who had marched with Cesar Chavez, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, some Chicanos felt it like still another body blow of death in the same Catholic family.
The Vietnam War went on and on; they announced the tallies of young American dead (no Vietnamese) on TV every week. Students were killed in campus protests and sheriffs killed protestors at the Chicano Moratorium Against the war, as well as Ruben Salazar, reporter for the L.A. Times..
In 1970 my father was shot at work in Watts by a black kid who used a high-powered rifle to shoot at everyone on the street. My dad spent a year in a body cast from his ankles to his chest, and he spent another year convalescing and learning to walk again, but the rest of us did not necessarily expect to survive. It seemed to many of us that we would not live long if we stood for anything important, anything that mattered---especially not if we tried to make any difference.
The violence that welled up out of the heart of America was without end. Maybe this was the real America---the America that native peoples, informed by genocide, had known all long. AM radio played a pop tune that Dion crooned with sappy melancholy that went:
"Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin, and John"
That didn?t help. We did not see ourselves strolling over a sunny hill holding hands with MLK, RFK and JFK while Disney cartoon birds chirped overhead, and Porky Pig got ready to stammer, ?Th-tha-tha-that?s all folks!?
Life Magazine displayed full color spreads of piles of bodies, 500 unarmed men, women and children machine-gunned on the paths and ditches of My Lai, and television went on reporting the slaughter without comment, as if that was what was to be expected, and not a single soldier would ever go to prison for murdering a Vietnamese and that was what we expected.
What did we know?
There were alternatives. In City Terrace ELA, even in his teens, Willy Herron was articulating a radical vision, a blast of Mexican muralism, pocho defiance, and agit-prop cultural activism. Probably at the time I must have thought that Willy, along Chicano movement leaders like Jose Montoya and the Royal Chicano Air Force, went to some cadre school in Cuba or in the Bolivian jungles to train in political strategies and existential jujitsu.
Crawling from the wreckage of a family that had crashed and burnt on arrival in ELA shortly before the Watt?s riots of 1965, I was trying to get through my last years of high school, expecting to die or expecting to be sent to Vietnam to kill or to die, and I was heartened and inspired to see---as if born full-grown from his own forehead---Willy Herron?s studio on City Terrace Drive. There was an artist in the neighborhood! In a storefront across from Eva?s Liquors he?d set a matched set of portraits in the window, a 1940/50s couple in zoot suit and coiffed bouffant hairdo, elegantly stylish and poised, confronting the viewer in front of a mysterious black curtain. That was the stark presentation, and to me it said, ?No explanations, no apologies. This is it. This is who we are. Deal.?
I recognized Willy?s murals when I saw them going up around ELA, too. My parents had been art students---my dad, Anglo World War 2 vet who?d seen service in North Africa and returned to study painting with Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, a Beat generation Buddhist who met my mom, a Nisei who?d been incarcerated during the war at Poston, Arizona---but in the face of our family breakup on one hand, and a community and nation in crisis on the other, the drunken Buddhism of years on the road and the abstract expressionism of paintings discarded all the way from Oakhurst to San Francisco to Southern California did not seem to provide terms for personal survival or family self-defense in the times we faced.
Maybe that world view and lifestyle had worked in the fifties, before all the bottles of booze. Maybe not any more though. What I could see in the facets and details of Willy Herron?s work, however, was an articulated political aesthetic actively integrating the issues of community, artist, craft and culture. The roles of these terms were clearly worked out in the imagery, technique, location and message itself.
You could see that this is an artist who makes work which exists---and lives---in our world, on its street corners, in alleys, in storefronts, on the avenues. Here was an artist who was working out terms on which we too might yet survive in this place. I was impressed and instructed at once by his work.
Willy?s murals---impressing me even during midnight visits to a girlfriend in Ramona Gardens, crossing White Fence territory to try to see her, strolling through the blockhouse projects to inspect murals on the end of each row where they met the street---Willy?s bravura draughtsmanship was recognizable. His art emblazoned in a trajectory of historic faces across the front of Farmacia Hidalgo on my endless peregrinations and wanderings up and down City Terrace Drive---these were my first intimations of a whole tradition of Siqueiros or Rivera murals in public locations like the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City or the Orozco ?Man on Fire? in the orphanage in Guadalajara, which I hadn?t even heard of, let alone seen for myself.
Late one afternoon, in one of those last years of high school in the art classroom of a certain Mrs Gaitsch, art teacher, I came across, stacked on the floor along the wall a mural that had been painted on diagonal, maybe triangular, panels, and in the darkened empty classroom I recognized Willy Herron?s imagery. It was dismantled, out of order, random, but alerted already by his images in my neighborhood, I walked back and forth in front of it. It was unmistakably Willy Herron. Instructive, because real.
You could see it in the street, in the alley behind Plaza Market (his legendary ?Wall That Cracked Open,? that visionary, almost hallucinatory response to the near fatal stabbing of his brother Johnny, who?d been my classmate at City Terrace Elementary) or the serpentine kitty corner to the public library, or---another legendary piece---a newsreel of a mural (as if directed by Fellini) depicting the outrageous violence of the sheriffs? attack on the Chicano Moratorium in Cinemascope black and white in Estrada Courts.
Years later when friends visited from out of town, these were among the only landmarks I would take them to see. What other cultural landmarks in Los Angeles could I show people who were from out of town that had anything, really, to do with our lives? Disneyland? The Hollywood sign? Those were for the tourists.
Willy Herron?s art was the clearest, most intelligent response---and a way forward - out of years whose savagery, still, was not yet over. We did not know if we would survive. Some of us might, some of us could. And, meantime, Willy Herron?s art always did, and does, indicate a way forward.