National Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15th as a celebration of the cultures and contributions of Americans whose families came from Latin America and Spain. Ending on October 15, the month includes many days of national independence from Central and South American countries. This post begins a series featuring the Hispanic American artists in the Bowers Collections by looking at Emigdio Vasquez, the “Godfather of Chicano artists.” Vasquez was most famous for the 30 some large murals that he painted around Orange County, each of which depicts Chicano daily life in California. Below we look at his life as well as his two paintings which are most associated with the Bowers. They share the curious connection of their subjects having been painted at least twice.
Emigdio Vasquez was born in 1939 in Jerome, Arizona, a mining town which was already drying up by the end of the Great Depression. At the age of two his family moved to Orange, California. In school he took an interest in art and began creating his own comics. He brought this passion into studying at Santa Ana College and later California State University, Fullerton. Throughout the middle of the century he built up his acclaim with exhibitions and by winning commissions for painting public murals. He taught at Santa Ana College throughout his career and earned his title of “Godfather” by founding the Orange County Latino Artists Network (or OCLAN), the first organization dedicated to Latino art in the county.
History of Orange County in 100 ft.
The painter also worked as an artist-in-residence at the Bowers Museum for three years between 1985-1988, leading workshops on painting and creating artworks on site. Perhaps his most notable addition to the museum was made in 1986 for the 50th anniversary of the Bowers opening to the public. Vasquez was commissioned to paint a mural celebrating the history of the county. From left to right Visions of Orange County depicts our state’s Indigenous Peoples; Spanish conquistadors and missionaries; Mexican soldiers and American frontiersmen; the creation of the railroad by Chinese immigrants; the orchards that became the county’s namesake; the role the county took in World War II; a burgeoning aeronautics industry; Micky Mouse and Disneyland; major league sports; the multiethnic workforce that makes Orange County great and a teacher preparing the next generation to pick up that mantle; and finally the Bowers Museum. In Vasquez’ own words, the mural was more universal in its scope than almost anything else in his career. All in all, he worked with some 200 volunteers to complete the 8 x 100 ft. painting. Its completion was inaugurated with an exhibition of Vasquez’ paintings in one of the Bowers’ gallery spaces.
Sorely lacking in space to exhibit the museum’s growing collections, the Bowers made plans to expand its North Wing shortly after the mural was finished. Several proposals were examined, and talks were had about finding ways to preserve the mural which had become such an iconic part of the museum, but ultimately there was no cost-effective option for saving the mural and it was demolished in 1991. The Bowers Museum did however work with the City of Santa Ana to get the mural repainted in a different location. Minor changes were made to the dimensions of Visions of Orange County so that it would better fit a new space, but otherwise the version Vasquez painted outside what is now the OC Health Care Agency is exactly the same as the one that was at the Bowers. It can still be seen just off Santa Ana Blvd. to this day.
The only original Vasquez painting in the Bowers collections is a large, vertically oriented work which will be recognizable to visitors to California Bounty: Image and Identity. It features six Chicanos: a woman and two men at the top, and a man with a child sleeping against his shoulder and an elderly woman at the bottom. The warmth of color and composition give the painting the triumphant appearance of a film poster, and the tenderness of a family portrait all in one. Interestingly the figures are not original to the painting. As already mentioned, Vasquez painted a great many murals around the Southern Californian area. One of the most accessible of these is Memories of the Past, Images of the Present (1977), painted on the side of what is now the Sohan American Market on Lemon Street in Anaheim. Interestingly the men in the hardhat and brown fedora both appear in this mural, meaning that his untitled oil painting created in 1992 is likely a retrospective of sorts, pulling from the many of the wonderful murals celebrating Chicanos that he created throughout his career.
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This painting in the California Bounty collection is one of my favorites. How sad to learn that the fabulous mural depicting Visions of Orange County that was painted for Bowers was then destroyed. Since preserving Orange County history is part of the original vision for the Bowers Museum by its founders, it is disturbing to think that this tribute to Orange County history by a local Santa Ana artist was not preserved and shown somewhere at the museum. Thank you for highlighting this talented, local Latino artist.
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