Writers cluster around the 12-foot-by-40-foot image of Christ, awaiting the picture's faint whisper of its 1,000 words. To some, the art speaks easily, and these writers eagerly transcribe its truth onto open-faced notebooks, in foreign scribbles that — when translated — will unfold the image's story. To others, the art breathes silence, and the hard stare of these writers penetrates the piece with a furious friction that sparks imaginative inspiration. One writer turns in unabashed awe to the artist for an answer: "My mural speaks for itself," says the artist.
Would that the art could speak for itself — recall its creation, recount its history, sing each brush stroke like a song lyric. Interpretation has an annoying way of convoluting the picture, especially in the most carefully orchestrated composition; composers can be even more elusive than their art in providing an explanation. But to answer that eternal question of art, one must also include the why of the thing, and so begins a localized struggle to tell the story of George Yepes' La Sangre Mara mural, a portable piece of East L.A. transplanted — much like the artist himself — into the modern art world, commercial society, the history books, and most recently, San Antonio.
How did this Chicano Christ of Yepes' creation — his beautiful brown skin bleeding, his outstretched arms covered in tattooed chrysanthemums and Chinese dragons, the purity of his soul emblazoned on his chest through the Virgen de Guadalupe — come to suffer in screaming silence upon such coarse wood?
THE HOLLYWOOD VERSION
A less-romanticized version of the La Sangre Mara's story is readily available through commercial culture. Commissioned by Warner Bros., Yepes originally created the mural as a set design for the 2001 film Training Day. Although the piece appeared in the trailers for the film, it was ultimately cut from the finished version. "It overwhelmed the scene," laughs Yepes. It overwhelmed Marisela Barrera, as well, who glimpsed the mural in the trailor, but missed it when she went to see the movie.
Serendipitously, Barrera, the new theater director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, met the mural's artist much later in San Antonio. Although she was aware that Yepes was an artist, Barrera was not familiar with his mural work, and was "floored" to discover that he had painted the missing piece from the movie. "I had been playing with the idea of working with a set designer to create a set that performers could react to," she explains. "And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to mount this as a set design?' George said, 'Let's do it.'"
Adapting the mural for the stage, Barrera issued a challenge to the creative community: Read, recite, act out, or otherwise perform an original piece — in 10 minutes or less — inspired by and in response to La Sangre Mara. Equipped with an innate ability to empathize with the art and its artist, writers accepted the challenge with overwhelming enthusiasm, like Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Barrera organized four writers' salons, the first two of which were held in Yepes' studio space at Blue Star. "George has been very gracious and open with the project," says Barrera. Yepes invited dialogue between the writers and himself, communication that continued after the mural moved to the theater, where Yepes took to touching up the piece. "When I was commissioned to do this mural, I had to finish it in one month. So it only has a month of paint on it," he says. "But I like it rough. It looks like it was ripped from the neighborhood."
"Do you feel that some of these writers have influenced the mural?" asks one writer. "The way that you see the mural?"
"I would have liked to have had all of this dialogue before I painted it," says Yepes, who explains that the entire composition was completed upon conception. Likening the image of his work to the symphony inside Mozart's mind, Yepes offers some valuable insight to his art: "I see my paintings in full color in my head," he says. "I have paint in my veins, and it's just screaming to get out."
THE HOMETOWN TAKE
"Chicano arts and literature are cooking here in San Antonio," says Barrera. "It's accessible without pretension." Barrera, who moved from Dallas in mid-April, worked at the Cara Mia Theater in Dallas, a "grassroots organization that produced Latina voices." Trained as an actor, Barrera began producing and directing, and fell in love with the teatrista, which showcases multidisciplinary work. "Something infectious is happening here," she comments at the second writers' salon for La Sangre Mara. "And there are no pretensions about it." She is pleased with the variety of media the writers are experimenting with onstage: poetry, dialogue, music, one-act plays. "One woman wants to cross-dress for her piece," says Barrera. Among the 15 participants are poet Edgar Pace; artist and musician Jacinto Guevara; professor and writer Marian Haddad; and journalist and playwright Gregg Barrios, who has penned an acto, the Chicano version of a one-act play, in response to the mural; and Barrera herself.
"There are so many different mediums, and so many different genres at work," says Barrios. "I think it's a great jumping-off point." Barrios, who moved to San Antonio in 1999 after spending 20 years in L.A., has known Yepes for nearly a decade, and commends his move to Texas. "There is a cultural renaissance occurring here, and George is making it happen by bringing his art. San Antonio is quickly becoming the headquarters of all that is Chicano — more so than L.A."
The Guadalupe is currently receiving the benefits of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which includes a detailed project known as the SA/LA (San Antonio/Los Angeles) Project in its 2002 agenda:
"The nucleus comprises the L.A.-based artists and the presentation of their work in San Antonio, that is, one-half of the building blocks of the SA/LA cultural bridge that will span the project. The second stratum is the artist-to-artist connection that will include informal, more private discussions between local artists and their Los Angeles counterparts. From these points of contact will issue the third level of connections, the project's public dimensions, such as performances, screenings, platicas (humanities lectures and discussions), exhibitions, and youth outreach either on-site or in schools."
"The grant is the aesthetic of an approach of exchange between San Antonio and L.A.," explains Barrera. "And George fulfills it." The public reading, a project brought to life between Barrera and Yepes, is not funded by the Guadalupe. Although the interdisciplinary reading — which includes a live internet feed of an artists' workshop hosted by Yepes the afternoon of the reading — encompasses the three-tiers of the grant structure, Yepes has not been named as one of the L.A.-based artists to formally participate in the project. There are currently no other L.A. artists involved in the SA/LA Project, although the Guadalupe is reportedly negotiating an influx of artists and performers.
"But I'll still be here, rocking this town," says Yepes. "I'm a monster, and all I need is a place to roar."
La Sangre Mara Public Reading
Saturday, August 10
1301 Guadalupe Street
La Sangre Mara Live Internet Broadcast
Between 1-4pm on Saturday, August 10, George Yepes will host a workshop for local San Antonio artists at the Guadalupe Theater. The workshop will be broadcast live through the internet with a Real-time e-mail chat room to Academia de Arte Yepes students in Los Angeles and Chicago, and is accessible world-wide at www.georgeyepes.com. Between 8-10pm, viewers can also access the public reading. For more information, go to www.blondecreative.com/yepes.