Higgy Vasquez

Inside Art
Visions of Chapman
The history of Chapman University and its surrounding community are saluted in colorful style in a new wall painting to be unveiled this September on the Chapman campus.  The mural, “Visions of Chapman,” by artist Higgy Vasquez, offers a bird’s-eye view of particularly meaningful historic times.
 
Scenes depicted include a look at the university when it was located in Los Angeles prior to its move to Orange in 1954.  Also portrayed are the university’s early benefactor, Charles C. Chapman, and other iconic figures, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who often visited the university.
 
Vasquez’s Chapman mural, as modern as it seems with its vision of peaceful diversity, is actually part of a very ancient tradition that began in the pre-Hispanic days of the land we now call Mexico.  Back then, the Olmec and other peoples portrayed religious rituals and scenes of everyday life in bright pigments on their temple and city walls.
 
The art of mural-painting, or “muralism,” has been highly significant in the culture of Mexico for many centuries, continuing into our own era.  In the early 20th century, such world-famous artists as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros brought Mexican mural-painting to the forefront of world art with their detailed, colorful and often politically inspired creations.
 
It was only natural that Mexican-American artists would bring the art form with them wherever they went in the U.S.  Southern California, in particular, became a hotbed of creativity and innovation for acclaimed muralists such as L.A.’s Frank Romero and Orange’s own Emigdio Vasquez, Higgy Vasquez’s father. 
 
Emigdio, born in 1939 in Arizona, moved to Orange with his family in the early 1940s.  In his prolific artistic career, he created more than 30 public murals throughout Orange County, becoming a recognized Southern California artistic icon.  When Emigdio passed away in 2014 at the age of 75, his son Higgy—also a gifted artist—picked up and carried on the flame.
 
Higgy carried out a painstaking restoration of a spectacular mural painted in 1979 by his father on the side of an apartment complex at 442 Cypress Street in Orange.  The building is now owned by Chapman University (the university paid for the restoration of the landmark work).  After that restoration was finished, the mural became the centerpiece of the Chapman University art department’s participation in The Getty Center’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA statewide arts initiative in 2017.
 
“The idea occurred: why not create a new mural?” says Lindsay Shen, PhD, Director of Chapman’s art collections.  “It exemplified what we wanted to explore for the Pacific Standard Time project.  That is the connections with community and the opportunity to continue a legacy.  The choice of Higgy as artist was a natural, since he’d just restored his father’s mural and it fit with the concept of legacy.  It all seemed very organic.”

 

 
Higgy, as it turns out, was thinking along the same lines.  On completion of the restoration, he mentioned to Kris Olsen, Vice President for Campus Planning at Chapman, that he’d be interested in possibly painting a new mural somewhere, perhaps on campus.
 
“So those seeds were planted,” says Higgy.  “Three Chapman entities got together with me: Art Collections; the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman’s on-campus gallery, and Denise Johnson, a faculty member who teaches art history and humanities.  The idea of the new mural became a reality.”
 
Then it became a question of how to pay for it, but soon the Suzanne Ellingson family stepped in with a generous gift.  “And that was another organic aspect related to legacy, because Suzanne is the daughter of the late, longtime Chapman visual arts supporters Phyllis and Ross Escalette,” says Shen.  “With that support, we were on our way.”
 
Once plans had been made for the mural to honor the history of Chapman and its community, the first step for Higgy was the research.  “I learned, for example, that Charles (C.C.) Chapman wasn’t the founder of the school, but its most important early benefactor.  And that his history as a pioneer orange grower tied in with my own family’s history, with my uncles picking oranges and my aunts packing oranges, all here within blocks of where the university is today.”
 
That early citrus-centric culture is celebrated in the first (left) panel of Higgy’s mural, which is laid out in the format of a medieval triptych.  White-mustachioed C.C. Chapman appears, gesturing genially to a lush tree full of oranges, as an orchard worker in the background picks from another tree.  A building from Chapman’s old Los Angeles campus signifies the university’s move from LA to Orange, with the current Memorial Hall—once part of the old Orange High School —taking center stage.
 
Also on the mural is a pair of students singing from choir books representing the church roots of Chapman, as well as its longtime status as a hotbed of choral and vocal music.  Shakespearean performers point to the university’s accomplishments in the arts, while a student with a test tube portrays excellence in the sciences.
 
Pointing to the university’s values of inclusivity, well-known figures from Chapman’s past are depicted in the middle third of the mural.  They include Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman who visited and spoke on the campus numerous times; Emmett Ashford, Chapman alumnus and major-league baseball’s first black umpire; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke to a large student and public audience at Chapman in 1961, and Toshi Nagamori Ito, a Japanese-American woman interned in the Heart Mountain relocation center in Wyoming during WWII. She later attended Chapman because it was one of the few colleges in that era that would admit those of Japanese descent.
 
The right third of the mural depicts scenes from the community surrounding Chapman University, with a scene from the Jamaica Festivals that once brought the Orange Barrio community out onto the streets for fun, food and music.  “The Orange Street Fair started in the 1970s, but our Jamaica Festival began in the 1940s,” says Higgy with a proud gleam in his eye.  Individuals from the barrio community, including Higgy himself as a young boy, appear in this scene, which ties the university and its community together as neighbors and friends.
 
“I have to hand it to Chapman and their faculty and staff for having the awareness to see that the time has come,” says Higgy.  “This is a way of giving back to the community.”

 


Published in the Sep/Oct 2018 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Mary Platt, Photograph by Katherine Bowers

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