At the lower right hand corner of a large mural that covers the majority of the exterior wall at the front of Sacramento State University’s Lassen Hall is the signature of artist, Ed Rivera. And although this work is his best known local art piece, it represents only a part of the story of this Sacramento artist.
Rivera, who is a Sacramento resident and a former Sacramento Police Department officer, has certainly drawn much attention for his mural on this university building, which houses the office of the university registrar, the academic advising and career center, a testing center and other services.
After all, the artwork was painted on the building as the resolution to a controversy, which received much widespread media coverage, including coverage in Mexico.
As the story goes, during a six-month period in 1970, Rivera, who is a native Sacramentan of Mexican descent, had painted a previous mural on panels that were placed on the front, exterior wall of the same building, which then housed the school’s library.
In a discussion with Valley Community Newspapers, Rivera, 67, recounted his memories of a dreadful time back in 1976, when he found out that the mural, which had been presented as a gift, had been removed from the building.
“Somebody came by and said, ‘Ed, you know your mural is not up there any more,’” recalled Rivera, who was a student at Sacramento State during the 1960s. “I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ I went down there (to the Sacramento State building) and it was stark white. They tore the panels down and called that a ‘beautification (project).’ We immediately went (to the school) and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do this. We gave this to the community and the state college as a figure of solidarity, peace and culture. What did you do here?’ And then the movement started with Joe Serna, (Rivera and others) and the community rose up and said, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Fate of ‘La Cultura’
The mural, which was named ‘La Cultura’ (‘The Culture’) and had been created as a tribute to Mexican culture, had taken months of negotiations and fundraising and the support of the Chicano community to become a reality.
But in just six years, the artwork was removed and disposed of, except for pieces of the mural, which Rivera said had been cut up and given a new life at the school.
“They made shelves out of (parts of) the panels,” Rivera said. “I saw my artwork on shelving in different parts of the college.”
The protest movement relating to the removal and destruction of the mural led to a September 1976 letter of apology from then-Sacramento State President James Bond.
Two months later, Henry Lopez, executive director of the Sacramento Chicano community organization, Concilio, wrote a letter to Bond demanding that the university finance a new mural, repay the $800 used in community donations that paid for the old mural, produce a public apology from the school and submit a written statement about the university’s policy regarding the mural.
Responding to Lopez’s letter on Feb. 9, 1977, Bond once again apologized for the removal of the mural and extended an offer to have a new mural paid for by the university.
Rivera said that Bond recommended that the mural be painted inside the building to protect it from the outside elements. But after visiting the building’s interior, Rivera rejected this recommendation.
Arrangements were eventually made for Rivera to repaint the mural in a different style on the front of the building. But this time, the mural was painted directly onto the wall.
The Rebirth of ’La Cultura’
On Oct. 30, 1978, a dedication ceremony at the building, which had been converted into the Student Services Center, was held in honor of the completed mural. The event, which celebrated “The Rebirth of the La Cultura,” included speakers, music, poetry and folk dancing.
The 96-foot-wide by 24-foot-tall mural, which depicts the Mexican community’s American Indian-Spanish heritage, features major symbols of the Mexican culture, including an image of the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, an eagle with a serpent in its beak, the Aztec calendar and an ear of corn.
The mural, which is painted with permanent, water-based acrylics, also includes a pair of frogs moving forward, which Rivera said represents the constantly moving forward and never looking back progression of the Mexican people.
A concise description of the mural is located just inside Lassen Hall.
In 1999, Rivera returned to the campus to provide a touch-up paint job to the then-fading mural and to place a protective finish over the work.
Unlike the building’s original mural, today’s mural is protected, Rivera explained.
“That (current) mural, they cannot take it down for 50 years after I die,” Rivera said. “If they’re going to take it down, they have to notify the next of kin, which would be my son (John, who was named after Rivera’s favorite author, John Steinbeck). So, it’s there for a long time.”
Rivera added that even 50 years after his passing, negotiations could be made to preserve the mural and have it touched-up with some fresh paint by an assigned artist.
The Sacramento State mural is but one of Rivera’s murals that have appeared on public buildings.
Rivera also painted murals for the Washington Neighborhood Center at 400 16th St. and the Legal Aid Society at 920 9th St. in Sacramento and Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Unfortunately for Rivera, not all of his murals exist today.
Diverting from the story of his murals, Rivera said that his love for art began at a very young age, as he watched his father, who was a pastry chef, decorate a cake with the image of an eagle.
Fascinated how his father could create something so artistic with his hands, Rivera gained an instant appreciation for art.
This appreciation led to Rivera’s study of art at Sacramento High School under the direction of art instructor, John Moore.
After attending Sacramento City College and Sacramento State, Rivera attended the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute for three years. And while at the art institute, he studied under renowned artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bishoff, Nathan Oliveira, James Weeks, Julius Hytofsky and Frank Lobdell.
Although he eventually became a police officer, serving in this position from 1967 to 1996, Rivera never lost his love for art.
To the contrary, this love grew, as Rivera continued to create art and gain recognition in the art world throughout his time with the police department.
During his time as an artist, Rivera has created hundreds of paintings and although he has painted such art images as local architecture, landscapes and sailing scenes, the majority of his work features pre-Columbian, Aztec and Mayan images.
Explaining his deep connection to this form of art, Rivera said, “I really feel I’m part pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan culture.”
Additionally, Rivera, who participates in occasional art shows, but said that he otherwise advertises by “word of mouth” only, refers to himself as a “tool of what the Hispanic community is about.”
“I’m just a tool,” Rivera said. “I just happen to have the talent as a painter. I’m fortunate I can do this. I enjoy painting. It’s my life.”
Rivera, who credits his mentor, artist Benny Barrios, for showing him not just how to paint, but showing him the life of an artist and what it takes to be an artist, said that he is among a select group of artists.
“There are a few of us (artists), we just don’t live art, we breathe art,” Rivera said. “Everything is art. We don’t see things the way other people see them. We see things in an art view. We see things way, way differently. For me, art is like breathing. You have to breathe. You have to do art.”
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