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Early Self-Help Graphics

In 1986, I was an exhibiting artist who wanted to work in the print media. On a morning local TV show they spoke about LA’s best kept secret – Chicano art produced at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles, a non profit art organization run by a Catholic nun.

I called Self Help Graphics and to my surprise the nun answered the phone. Short, direct weary but not unfriendly she suggested that I schlep my portfolio down, never making any promises.

My voice over the phone conjures up many different images. Unfortunately not all negotiations can be accomplished over the phone. In the flesh first meetings can be a challenge.

“You’re!!!!????” followed by silence as they try to connect the voice with the person standing in front of them. At that point all the re-conceived notions about Alex Alferov come crashing down.

Women are kinder as they reach back to their past and recall a sensitive friend, someone they could confide their secrets to, or use as their safety crush before they graduated to the real thing.

I have realized that it is a unique voice, a litmus test of sorts to the humanity and maturity of others. The art I carry in my portfolio eventually dispels any questions or fears.

The drive to Self Help Graphics was an eye opener as I made my way from Hollywood into downtown and then across the old stylized bridges that cross the Los Angeles River and the backdrop of so many of the 50’s ”rebel without cause” movies. In all of my years living in Los Angeles I seldom crossed those bridges into East Los Angeles fearful of all of the negative stereotypes of gang bangers and Hispanics.

Feeling the sweat of carrying a heavy roll of my recent canvases up the exterior metal steps, I was met by a stout gray haired woman dressed in a turtleneck and dangling a cigarette from the corner of her mouth.

We stood in the middle of a large auditorium and the air smelled of spilled beer and stale smoke. She instructed me to roll out the canvases on long tables that must have been adorned with party favors the night before, celebrating another girl’s “quinceanera”.

Sister Karen liked the work and then took the time to instruct me how to pen a letter of request and in a couple of months I received a letter informing me that I was selected to be part of the fall Atelier Program.

At the first orientation meeting of ten Hispanic Artists majority of them men, Sister Karen stood in front of us and said “If you are truly an artist, creating your voice requires a certain amount of fearless intuition and motivation.”

The Print Atelier Program was a set format that created discipline, structure and provided a non-competitive atmosphere in which artists of extremely varied backgrounds, styles, and aesthetics could gain from each other’s diversity.

Each artist was given one week and 100 sheets of paper to create a twelve color fine art print under the collaboration of a Master Printer. Each time you made a mistake, your edition got smaller.

Because I came from the outside, I was able to appreciate the creativity, talent and sheer will of the local artists as they created a these limited edition prints. I saw potential.

My grandmother, Julia the countess taught me to be appreciative and return favors. After my first print “Icon”, I was scheduled to exhibit a solo show in a popular local gallery/restaurant. The place was divided into a large dining room and an adjoining “Martini Bar” a social hot bed for some of the most inventive cocktails. I hung my most recentimages in the dining room and incorporated work from fellow artists that were part of my Atelier workshop.

Sister Karen was touched by my gesture and asked me if I wanted to continue trying to find venues that would showcase the prints. That was the start of the Exhibtion Program

Back then, the LA. art world considered Chicano art to be a fanciful distraction that would soon pass. Ten years later, I was still curating exhibits, but the attitude from the art world had changed considerably. Suddenly it was fashionable and lucrative to collect the artists that were doing work at Self Help Graphics.

Sister Karen Boccalero became a mentor and a good friend. There were things understood between us but not discussed. At times a look, a nod would suffice. She was a control freak but gave me freedom to soar because I took the initiative and produced results.

Carmen Boccalero had to let go of many things after her decision to become a nun. But Sister Karen’s love for art and artists and her passion for gardening never wavered. Both passions required patience, commitment and un-conditional nurturing. As Director of the Exhibition Print Program from 1987 to 2001, I remember sitting around the table with Sister Karen, exhausted from a full day of balancing programs, she’d unwind talking about a full harvest of tomatoes or an abundance of succulent figs. With her sharp eye and acerbic wit, she harvested the best from the artists that found their way to Self Help Graphics. Twenty years after her death, the flowers continue to flourish in the art world. Under Sister Karen’s direction, Self Help Graphics grew into a grass root art movement providing artistic images of pride and identity that symbolized the struggle for self-determination of an entire population and ethnic community.

Suddenly you have power to choose

Surrounded with beings

That don’t share your name

These strangers actually understand you

And at best

Mirror all the things that you love about yourself

I’ve come to the most paradoxical conclusion

To some an overworked cliché

You begin in life learning

And eventually you give back

You learn

Or you teach

I’ve run across the same teacher

Wearing someone else’s face

But pushing the same buttons

Wisdom and kindness

Demanding the best

Rewarding good work

With a mixture of discipline and praise.

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