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KPFA La Raza Chronicles: Interview with Rick Tejada-Flores, co-curator of Emmy Lou Packard exhibition

Julieta Kusnir spoke with curator Rick Tejada-Flores about the exhibition Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience at Richmond Art Center on June 14, 2022.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW (STARTS AT 16:26MINS)

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity. 

Julieta Kusnir: You’re listening to La Raza Chronicles, I’m Julieta Kusnir and I’m so happy to have on the line with me Rick Tejada Flores. Many people know Rick from his filmmaking, he’s produced incredible documentaries that serve to be a history of so many important movements, everything from looking at farm worker struggles to looking at his own personal journey understanding the context of Bolivia’s revolution through his own family story. So Rick it’s so wonderful to have you here on the line with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rick Tejada Flores: It’s wonderful too. It’s nice to talk about things to people who care about them.

Julieta: So you actually have a really exciting exhibit that is opening up soon and it’s related to Emmy Lou Packard’s life, who was a California post-war activist, muralist, painter, many many many other things. But let’s just start there – a lot of people maybe don’t know about her work – why don’t you give us some context. Who was she and what was happening in the world while she was most active?

Rick: Well, she was a great artist and I think her art career started when she was twelve. Her parents took her to Mexico because her dad was an agronomist working for the Mexican Government on irrigation issues and her mother introduced her to Diego Rivera, the famous muralist. And they met and Diego Rivera decided this is a really talented young girl – she was twelve at the time – so I’m going to give her art lessons. So imagine, you’re twelve years old and Diego Rivera is teaching you how to paint. This sort of set the direction for her life. She grows up, studies art, and then Diego comes to the United States to paint a big mural at Treasure Island in 1940 and he brings her on; she’s his chief assistant on the mural. So I think that connection with Rivera formed her political vision and her artistic vision. 

Rick: After the mural she goes back and lives with Diego and Frida in Mexico. She’s a very good friend of theirs. Then she comes back and starts her own artistic path. It’s the end of World War Two and she goes to work at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond as an artist drawing illustrations about integration, women in the workforce, the importance of health and vaccinations. And that sort of gets her started as an artist and as someone who can make a social connection. After that, she’s a very political person, but she focuses on ordinary people and ordinary life. She doesn’t paint pictures of demonstrations or people with guns. She celebrates humanity. She did a wonderful series of images – she’s a printmaker, by the way, she did large linoleum prints – of ordinary people: net menders, artichoke pickers, fisherman, things like that. Those [works] become what she is known for. 

Rick: But there’s a connection between her art and her politics. For example, her most famous print is a print called ‘Peace is a Human Right’. It came out of the anti-war movement after World War Two. It shows three children sitting around a sunflower. They’re just ordinary kids. But they have a right to peace and to live a life. She brings her politics and beautiful images of life together in that way. 

Rick: I met her in the 1960s. I was an art student, and she asked me if I wanted to sit her gallery for her and she taught me how to print artist editions. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship for me. And later on, she knew I was a filmmaker… I said, “Is Diego Rivera Mexican artist?” And she said, “Well, not quite. He was an American artist too.” And she gave me a wonderful biography of Rivera to read, and that led me down the path of doing a big film on Diego Rivera in the United States. I have very strong connections with her. She’s a significant figure. 

Rick: Given the way politics influences art… The 1950s was the age of abstract expressionism. Political art, social art, it was forgotten. It was shoved to the side. So she was pretty much ignored. She died in 1998, and she was known to a small circle, but no one has seen her art in many, many years. So this was an ideal time to bring her back to the public. Especially since of her connection with Rivera. There’s a large Rivera show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and so I thought if there’s any time to do an Emmy Lou Packard show it’d be now. She was a San Francisco artist. She worked with Rivera on his San Francisco mural. So that was the impetus for what I’m doing now, working on this show with Robbin Henderson, my co-curator. To do a retrospective, to connect all the dots; between her personal life, her political life, her connections with Rivera and Frida, and paint a real portrait of this wonderful woman. 

Julieta: Her artwork was telling these stories. I know that she was also involved with UC Berkeley. Tell us about some of the movements, touchpoints, and issues that were important to her.

Rick: She had a wide range of issues: she was concerned about history, she was concerned about working people, she was an educator too. She’d been a teacher in San Francisco schools and she’d taught kids to make murals. There’s still one of her murals at a San Francisco public school.* At the bottom it says, “Created by 650 children and Emmy Lou Packard.” So that was her vision of including people. At UC Berkeley she did a very large relief underneath the campus commons dining hall, so she did architectural work. But her real love was prints. You know they’d say, “Why do you do prints? Why not paintings or more murals?” “Well, it’s hard to get murals done and for people to see them. And people need art. So I want to make beautiful pictures that-” (and they can’t afford art? Who can buy a painting if you’re taking care of your kids?) “I want to create beautiful affordable art that they can have in their houses.” Even the implicitly non-political art had a political motive. It furthered what she thought was important. Art is important. And as we know, art is the first thing to go onto the chopping block, art teachers are fired at schools, it’s considered expendable. So she was making the point that art is really important to us; to our culture, to our society.

Julieta: We’re speaking to Rick Tejada-Flores who is part of an important exhibit. So tell us how we can get to know about Emmy Lou Packard and actually see her work. So tell us about this opportunity to actually get to know Emmy Lou Packard’s work. 

Rick: Well, as I said, the impetus was this big Rivera show at SFMOMA, which is opening very soon. We’re cross promoting this show and telling people about the Rivera show. And people at MOMA are telling people if you want to know more about Rivera and his work in California then go and see Packard. So this is new to me. I’m a filmmaker, never done an art show, even though I was somewhat of an artist at one point. So I got a very good friend of mine involved; Robbin Henderson, of the Berkeley Art Center. She’s a brilliant curator who sort of guided me through the process. And it’s been a three year path. We started working on this show three years ago: trying to find the art, put it together, the history, the context. So it’s not just her pictures, it’s photographs, it’s statements that Rivera wrote about her. It’s her politics, especially with someone like Emmy Lou Packard you can’t just look at her work. You have to understand the context. Well, you don’t have to, you can enjoy her work. But if you see the context you really get the significance of it. 

Rick: So the show is opening in Richmond this week, June 18. And it’ll run June 22 to August 20. But the Richmond Art Center where it’s at is a wonderful institution. Great, great gallery and a wonderful place to put this show on too, because Emmy Lou Packard worked in Richmond. That’s how we hope to get people there, through the Rivera show. But also through talking to you and people who cared about her, and maybe had a print on their wall. Sort of trying to bring her back in that way. And I should also mention when I did the film about Rivera, Emmy Lou Packard was one of my inspirations and naturally she is one of the people interviewed in the film. So we did a little gallery piece too so people can look at her art and then also hear her and see her talking about her art to understand who she is as a person. It’s been a wonderful journey and it’s time for people to see it. And see what they think about it.

Julieta: That’s the voice to Rick Tejada-Flores, he’s been working on this Emmy Lou Packard exhibit. It’s going to be at the Richmond Art Center. And it’s going to be up for a couple of months. We recommend people check it out. Are you doing any opening or closing activities?

Rick: Yes, first of all the opening reception is this Saturday, the 18th, from 2pm to 4pm. There’s going to be a bunch of activities during the length of the exhibition. We have her [printing] press. So we’re going to be doing a demonstration how Emmy Lou Packard made her art. And the end of the show is going to be celebrated with edible art with an appearance and a presentation by the Great Tortilla Conspiracy, who silkscreen tortillas with chocolate. Kids eat them and adults save them as art. So it seems like the perfect way to end her visit to the Bay Area, hearts and minds.

Julieta: Oh, and it’s also a wonderful project by the Yañez father-son duo, where Rio continues that tradition which is such an important one. 

Rick: There’s another side that I think should be mentioned, that is very important to the Bay Area. She lived in Mendocino for a very long time and she moved back to the Bay Area in the 1970s. And she was an inspiration and a role model. When people wanted to learn how to make murals they didn’t know how to do it, and she taught them how. She mentored a whole generation of Latina women and people in the Mission, supporting the new emergence of murals and political and social art. So that’s a really important side of her that people don’t really know about. You know if you talk to an artist who lives in the Mission District, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, Emmy Lou Packard.” But that’s an unknown part of her that I think is quite important: the issue of whatever you do passing it on to the next generation. I think that’s a real important thing about who she was and what she cared about.  

Rick: So the show is in downtown Richmond. It’s part of the Civic Center complex on Barrett Avenue. The opening reception is this Saturday, June 18, from 2 to 4. The show actually opens the following Wednesday on June 22 and will run until August 20. The galleries are open Wednesday through Saturday each week. Admission is free. There’s information there. You can take a handout and learn more about her. And enjoy her work I hope! 

Rick: It’s been a real pleasure talking to you and spreading the message about this important artist.

*Hillcrest Elementary School, San Francisco

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