Judith Baca's

Olympic Champions, 1948-1964, Breaking Barriers


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

The image on the computer is a digitized image of the last section of a mural which is over a half mile long. The entire wall,The Great Wall of Los Angeles, may be the longest mural in the world. Some of the smaller details of the mural are not visible in this digitized image.

The mural is painted below ground level on the side of a cement covered flood channel. Viewers can catch glimpses of the mural as they drive on a major street which parallels the channel, or they can park and walk the half mile narrow park between the street and the wash. Because the mural is outdoors, it looks different as lighting conditions change throughout the day and at different seasons of the year. Chain link fences stand at both edges of the wash, so only taller viewers can see the mural completely unobstructed.

CONDITION: What can I determine about the condition of the artwork?

The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), an organization headed by Judith Baca in Venice, California, works to maintain The Great Wall of Los Angeles. After the mural was completed it was covered with a clear acrylic sealer to help protect it. The mural was flooded five times between 1976 and 1983. However, air pollution is a greater threat to the mural than flooding.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

Olympic Champions is the last part of this very long mural which depicts the history of California from prehistoric times to the late twentieth century.

From left to right the mural shows racially diverse athletes in swim and track gear: 1) a female swan diver with greatly arched back diving to the left, 2) a male swan diver in frontal position, 3) a foggy section in which appear a girl on crutches and a full figure female runner, 4) the tipped back head and shoulders of a female athlete with clenched fist, 5) a foggy section in which appears a runner with raised arms, and 6) a male runner with upturned head and raised arms. The right portion of the mural shows a female runner in full stride raising a torch. The flames of the torch mingle with her hair and continue back curving down and to the right behind the female runner until they terminate just below the male swan diver.

"In this final panel, a woman runner carries the Olympic torch, its flame and smoke swirling into scenes of athletes who overcame tremendous obstacles to win Olympic events. Billy Mills, a Dakota-Ogalala marathon runner, overcame his repression in boarding schools to become an important symbol for Native American pride. Black runner Wilma Rudolf, overcoming her childhood infirmities (being unable to walk until her eighth birthday) throws away her leg braces and wins three gold medals, the first American ever. Tommy Lee, a Korean American diver, and Vicky Manalo Draves, a Filipina diver, win gold medals as well." Walking Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984, p. 15.

Mural Lesson Index

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

Over 300 ethnically-diverse young people (ages 14-21) from lower income families in Los Angeles worked on The Great Wall of Los Angeles from 1976 to 1983. Historians, poets, and artists were involved in establishing the themes, of which Olympic Champions is one of fifty. Painting the mural took 75,000 person hours and 700 gallons of paint under the supervision of 50 artists.

After thumbnail sketches were made of each theme, a major challenge was developing the "bridge images" which tied together the many separate segments of the long and complex mural.

"The area is sand- and water-blasted, then 'primed out' with an undercoat of white gesso. The wall is chalk-lined into grids, and the cartoon is projected on to the wall using painted blue lines, one grid at a time. Then a magenta undercoat is applied which serves two purposes: to blend the colors to come, and to color the inevitable 'holidays' (air bubbles bursting in the cement), so they come up magenta rather than white. Each panel had its own base-color, which is applied broadly; then the dark colors are filled in, and the highlight colors come last. 'Scumbling,' a painting technique using a half-dry brush, allows the colors from underneath to come through." Melba Levick (1988), Murals of Los Angeles: The Big Picture, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, p. 87.

Sensory Lesson Index
SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

The forms are dramatically modeled with gradual changes from light to dark to create a strong illusion of three dimensional mass. Notice, for example, the torch bearer's thigh modeled from light yellow facing the light to very dark brown on the shade side of her leg. Even the torch's flames seem to have solid, rope-like form.

Intense orangish reds and blues make up the background of this part of the mural. Large color areas are modified with gradual color mixing. For example brown, yellow, and orange are mixed into the red background.

Curvilinear forms are appear in the torch flames, the athletes' arms and legs and hair.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

Angles are repeated throughout Olympic Champions. The torch bearer's figure and flame angle from upper right down to the left. Behind her one of the runner's arms repeats the torch bearer's angle while the other points up beginning a transition to an opposite angle in the foggy area. This opposite angle from lower right to upper left is repeated by the green clad female runner and the foggy area behind her. The diving male figure provides a transition to the opposite angle again. The angle from upper left to lower right is clearly repeated beginning in the legs of the female diver and continuing along an edge between different colored areas toward the bottom of the mural on the lower left. Judith Baca has used a triangular framework of intersecting lines and points to organize shapes and colors throughout The Great Wall of Los Angeles.


Judith Baca was born in 1946 and was reared in a strong female household.

She earned Bachelors and Masters degrees in art from California State University, Northridge in 1969 and 1979 respectively. She participated in an intensive course in mural techniques at the Taller Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1977.

Baca has been on the faculties of the University of California, Irvine and California State University, Monterey Bay. She is a founding faculty member of the César E. Chávez Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Judith Baca has been the artistic director of Spcial and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC) since 1981. She is the artistic director and founder of the Great Walls Unlimited Mural Project as well as the creator and director of the Citywide Mural Project. She is responsible for the production of 250 murals throughout Los Angeles.

Her one woman shows have been seen in California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, DC, New York and Chicago, as well as in Canada and Mexico. World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear, a 300' traveling mural, has been exhibited in Venice, California; Washington, DC; Joensuu, Finland, and Moscow, then the Soviet Union.

Baca is often asked to deliver keynote addresses and lectures for organizations such as the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York, the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and the National Council of the Arts in Washington, DC. She has been asked to serve as a panelist for many organizations including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her work has been reviewed in such publications as the LA Times, Public Art Review, Artweek, Leonardo, American Art, Phoenix Gazette, New Art Examiner, Southwest Art, Art News, New York Times, Life Magazine, Art in America, Ms. Magazine, and Newsweek, as well as on television on NBC, KTLA, and KNBC.

Judith Baca has received awards or certificates of achievement from Governor Pete Wilson, Mayor Richard J. Riordan, President Ronald Reagan, the Korean Daily News, the National Art Education Association, and the City of San Francisco.


NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made?

The climate of the San Fernando Valley is dry with mild winters and hot summers. Temperatures in the summer, when the mural was painted, often rose above 100 degrees. The area is prone to flash flooding after rains. One flash flood during the painting of The Great Wall of Los Angeles washed away scaffolding and $20,000.00 worth of equipment.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

Judith Baca's "goal was to tell the story of California's ethnic groups--their contributions and their struggles to overcome obstacles and stories often overlooked in classroom textbooks and television documentaries. . . . The Great Wall offers an unique glimpse backward in time and a look at the complex interplay of races and cultures that have contributed to California's history." Great Wall of Los Angeles slide narrative, 1983, Venice, California, SPARC.

In addition the mural has had a social function. "The Great Wall is far more than a series of murals in a flood control channel. It is a tool for multicultural cooperation. Baca refers to the project as a 'tolerance-matrix', for its creation is a mirror of the manner in which the city developed in the past, and a model for Los Angeles in the year 2000--and beyond." Melba Levick (1988), Murals of Los Angeles: The Big Picture, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, p. 87.

A sixteen year old mural maker who worked on The Great Wall of Los Angeles wrote "When I started working here I did it for the money, then I began to take great pride in the mural and in the Chicano section in particular. At first I didn't think an assortment of races could work together because in my neighborhood there is primarily one race. This project made me realize that the prejudices I had inside me were not only false but also ignorant. I only wish all mankind could have gone through this experience with me. I regret that when I leave here my new attitude will change back to before. I hope that when people see this mural they forget all their prejudices and try to live with all people, no matter what race, in peace. Sergio Moreno inWalking Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984, p. 18.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

The Great Wall of Los Angeles is painted in the San Fernando Valley, a largely white suburban area outside Los Angeles. "The muralists were young people from various ethnic communities in [urban] Los Angeles, some of whom were recruited through the juvenile justice system and given the choice between reform school and mural painting." Lucy R. Lippard, in Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Pantheon Books, New York, p. 171.

Some of the mural makers were gang members. Judith Baca used her negotiation skills to gain safe passage of youth through the "turf" of rival gangs.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Judith Baca has stated that for her "the very process of making the Great Wall was art because in the process a single creative vision was carried out, a vision that was both inclusive of other artistic expressions and was a people's retelling of their own history."Great Wall of Los Angeles slide narrative, 1983, Venice, California, SPARC.

"SPARC [the public art center which Baca directs] is particularly committed to heightening the visibility of work which reflects the lives and concerns of America's diverse ethnic populations, women, working people, youth and the elderly." Great Wall of Los Angeles slide narrative, 1983, Venice, California, SPARC.

Baca has stated that artists "have a responsibility to use each other as sources. Because the sources of artmaking in particular have been commandeered

into the service of the dominant culture, we end up paying homage to that culture. . . .We are forging a new way, reasserting our voices, redefining language, to make ourselves present, We have to use other sources--and we are those sources." From a KGNU, radio interview, in Boulder, Colorado, April 7, 1990, as cited by Lucy R. Lippard, in Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Pantheon Books, New York, p. 195.


MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

"I envisioned a long narrative of another history of California; one which included ethnic peoples, women and minorities who were so invisible in conventional text book accounts. The discovery of the history of California's multi-cultured peoples was a revelation to me as well as to members of my teams. We learned each new decade of history in summer installments. . . . Each year our visions expanded as the images traveled down the wall." Walking Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984.

A fourteen-year-old mural maker of The Great Wall of Los Angeles states that "To me the mural means a piece of art, it means workmanship among others, it means a part of ourselves, also making new friends, doing a good job and having lots of fun." Alex Alvarez in Walking Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984, p. 18.

Viewer Lesson Index

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

"The most amazing aspect of the Great Wall is the way it telescopes Southern California history, showing the significance of various indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups. It is a monumentally scaled history painting depicting the panorama of events that contributed to Los Angeles' distinctive profile." Carrie Rickey, May, 1981, Art in America.

"The 'Great Wall of Tujunga Wash' has the same heroic pioneer types you see in your local post office, but often their skins are brown or black." Kay Mills, October, 1981, Ms Magazine

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

"Since its founding in 1976, SPARC [of which Judith Baca is artistic director] has involved hundreds of artists and community groups in the creation and presentation of public works of art." Walking Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984, p. 1.

According to a Los Angeles Times editorial, August 24, 1983, the mural is important for the city. "Only rarely can an art project teach so much, not only to viewers but also to the young people down there in the ditch, learning and painting the summer away." Tour and Guide to the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Venice, California, SPARC, 1984, p. 12.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

Because the over half mile long Great Wall of Los Angeles was completed a section at a time with different mural makers each summer, there are stylistic variances within the mural itself. The mural shares characteristics with paintings of the Mexican muralists, especially those of Siqueiros, as well as WPA murals in the United States. Many such public art works depict locally significant, historical subject matter in a readable, narrative style.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

According to Lucy Lippard, like other Chicana/o artists, Judith Baca's work has been influenced by the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and especially David Alfaro Siqueiros. The triangular framework underlying the overall composition of The Great Wall of Los Angeles is based on compositional principles Baca learned from Siquieros.

In addition, her work has roots in Mexican and Mexican American popular arts, including the visual subcultures of Los Angeles--tattooing and graffiti. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Pantheon Books, New York, p. 170.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

The theme of history painting unifies Judith Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles with paintings by many Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, and nineteenth century European artists, as well as with history paintings from other cultures such as fourteenth and fifteenth century Islamic miniature painting or the Lakota artist, Kicking Bear's painting of the Battle of Little Big Horn . Diego Rivera's Revoltand Revolution is also part of a larger historical mural.

Olympic Champions is among many artworks celebrating the human figure in movement, such as the trophy paintings of classical Greek amphora or Thomas Eakins' divers and crew boaters, or George Bellows' boxers.