By Liz Monroy
Behind layers of dust, worn stage props, and shrouded in mystery backstage of the Phillips Hall Theatre is one of the last examples of famed Chicano painter Emigdio Vasquez’s career: a lost mural few knew existed.
The work started as a class project in the late ‘80s during Vasquez’s tenure as an instructor at Santa Ana College and is typical of the artist’s work.
It includes labor icon Joe Hill, as well as a bare-chested construction worker, and even a rare depiction of Frida Kahlo.
Vasquez admired Kahlo but this is her first appearance in one of his murals.
The untitled piece is one of 24 scattered across Orange County. His three children and wife are scouring the county to find these in the wake of Vasquez’s death.
Vasquez’s son Emigdio Vasquez Jr., who goes by Higgy, plans to restore his father’s murals and share them with the public. Kathy Vasquez is documenting the search for a film.
“Part of my thing now is trying to preserve his legacy and try to identify the murals that either could be saved, resurrected, repainted and try to bring them back into light,” Higgy said.
Out of the 24 murals, two were destroyed and two were rediscovered, both in Southern California colleges. Santa Ana College has a mural that has been hidden away for more than a decade. Irvine Valley College has the other.
“This one is a gift back,” Kathy Vasquez said. “It was a missing mural we did not know was here, and there is a Frida in it.”
What is known about the mural, designed by Vasquez, is that it was a created as a part of two classes that he was teaching in 1988. The more advanced class painted the large-scale mural and the smaller panels were painted by another group of students.
“Because his work was semi-documentary, they are usually real people in time and space in Orange County,” said Higgy.
“Because he was a Chicano, he has a Mexican heritage. But he was American and he tried to relate to things that were happening in his lifetime or his parents’ lifetime, and usually it was working class people, Mexican revolutionary people,” he added.
Restoration of the Santa Ana mural is estimated to cost between $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the extent of the work.
“He didn’t get rich painting, like a lot of artists,” Higgy said. “They do it for the love of their work. He painted until he couldn’t paint any more.”