Mystery of mural leads to Bruin of distinction
For 21 years, a mural depicting proud, multigenerational African-American men, women and children in vibrant hues of green, orange and fuchsia greeted students, faculty and staff when they entered the main office for the Center for Afro-American Studies, later to be renamed the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, in Campbell Hall.
But over the years, the origins of the 7-by-9-foot mural faded into obscurity. There was no plaque identifying the title or the artist. Finally, in 1991, the mural, painted on wooden panels, went into storage.
Flash forward 19 years to 2010 when the founding of UCLA’s four ethnic studies centers is being celebrated with an expansive exhibition opening Sunday, Feb. 28. “Art, Activism, Access: 40 Years of Ethnic Studies at UCLA” reaches back through history with its display of artwork, films, photographs and ephemera to tell the stories of UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, the Asian American Studies Center, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and the Chicano Studies Research Center.
And that’s when the old mural, intertwined with the history of the Bunche Center, came to light again. Exhibition organizers at the Fowler decided to dig further into its creation. To find the artist, they wanted to post signs at the exhibition asking if anyone had information on the creation of this mural.
Richard Wyatt Jr.
When Betsy Quick, director of education at the Fowler Museum, found out, “I looked him up and saw that he is a very accomplished artist who has worked all over the country. …We were delighted to be able to feature his work.” Quick noted that his mural would hang in a section of the exhibit called “Leaving Their Mark,” illustrating what students who have worked at the center over the years have accomplished.
In 1970, Wyatt, along with a childhood friend, Guillermo Anderson, was commissioned to paint the mural when he was only 14 years old by Arthur L. Smith, director of the year-old Center for Afro-American Studies. Anderson has since died.
A precocious artist, Wyatt had already been drawing and painting since elementary school. He was taking classes at the Watts Towers Art Center and even competing in local art competitions. “In 1968 I won a street competition called the Watts Chalk-In,” Wyatt recalled, who took home the $200 prize. “I was 12 years of age at the time.”
Smith, now known as Molefi K. Asante, hired the young artists as part of a summer outreach program for students who might be recruited to enroll at UCLA and gave them complete freedom to pick a theme. Taking their inspiration from the black family and culture, the teenagers chose to portray impressive figures in bold colors at different stages of life.
A photo of Wyatt working on his award-winning chalk drawing appeared on the cover of summer 1968 UCLA Alumni Magazine.
Quick also saw something else in the piece, a latent spirituality. “It’s not strictly religious,” Quick said, “but there’s this notion of protection of youth. I think certainly that is still a very important hope and goal for all of our families and communities.”
The two boys rode the bus to Westwood daily during the summer of 1970 to work on the mural. “Working at UCLA was great,” Wyatt recalled. The youths were so familiar with each other’s styles they worked seamlessly together. And the experience of being on campus motivated them to want “someday [to] become part of an academic community,” he said.
That dream became reality for Wyatt. He eventually received a scholarship from the Center for Afro-American Studies, and in 1978 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
Wyatt still remembers what inspired him to go to UCLA — a brief conversation the winner of the Watts Chalk-In had with Tom Bradley, who was running for city council at the time.
“I remember [him] asking me, ‘What college do you plan to attend?’ I replied, ‘UCLA.’ He smiled and clapped and said, ‘What a great choice.’ I later found out that Bradley was an alumnus. … So, in a way, I guess I was destined to attend the university.”
Wyatt was interviewed by KCET's Huell Howser in 1996 about a mural he painted of desert pioneers William and Elizabeth Campbell.
Today, his most famous work, “City of Dreams/ River of History,” a collaborative piece Wyatt created with UCLA alumna May Sun that combines mural and sculpture with an aquarium, is in the eastern lobby of Los Angeles’ Union Station. His works also have graced the Watts Library, the Ontario International Airport, the I-10 Freeway for the Olympics in 1983 and the Capitol Records building in downtown L.A.
Wyatt is returning to campus on April 17 to give a talk on his career as a muralist and to lead a tour to see his work at Union Station.
Reflecting on the changing times, he said. “There are still challenges in the family and the community. … There is unemployment, only compounded by our current economic condition. However, as represented in our mural 40 years ago, there is always hope in our children.”
On Sunday, Feb. 28, a festival will open the exhibition with poetry readings; performances by, among others, Grammy-nominated Hiroshima, jazz master guitarist and Ethnomusicology Professor Kenny Burrell, and a family art workshop.
For more information on the exhibition, go here. See this schedule of events for this Sunday’s opening festival for the entire family. To reserve a spot in the April 17th Fowler on the Town tour featuring Wyatt, call (310) 825-8655. The cost of $20 for members, $25 for non-members, includes transportation. To read more about his work, go here.