About 15 hours of my work week are spent driving as I commute from appointment to appointment. As I drive, I immerse myself in the fabric of our city and often find myself praying spontaneously. It’s not just the Instagram-worthy sunsets over the Pacific or the snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains where I recognize God.
In fact, God tends to show himself more to me in glimpses of unexpected beauty in the grittier parts and harsher realities of our city.
Los Angeles street art is one of those places where God can be found.
In his beautiful photo book, “The Virgin of the American Dream: Guadalupe on the Walls of Los Angeles(39 West Press, $25), journalist Sam Quinones documents the ubiquitous presence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in our urban landscape.
The ancient Christian city of Constantinople was so full of images of the Virgin Mary that its inhabitants considered it “Theotokoupolis— the City of the Mother of God. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that it’s the presence of the Virgin – on the walls of laundromats, convenience stores, gyms and auto repair shops – that makes LA the city of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
The permanent presence of “La Morenita” is, however, part of something bigger – the catholic imagination at stake in the streets of our city and our region. When Catholic imagery – the Sacred Heart, the crucifixes, the rosary – appears not only in churches, schools and homes, but also in public places (many of them in grittier areas), it opens a window on the constant presence of God among his people.
Often these windows to the sky open in unexpected places.
Behind a nondescript storefront on a busy boulevard in the heart of East LA, something extraordinary – and in its own way, sacred – is happening. In an art studio, color explodes from large canvases. As the students gather around the computers, elegant digital graphics that will eventually become community murals gather on their screens. Artists work on wooden easels, intensely focused on their craft. The atmosphere is calm and collected.
At the center of it all is Fabian Debora. A former gang member, he is a leading muralist and collected artist whose work is full of imagery from Catholic spirituality. From the exterior of apartment buildings in South LA to Orange County Catholic Schools and on the street corners of Boyle Heights, Debora’s art is part of the fabric of our communities.
Originally from El Paso, Texas, who grew up in Boyle Heights, Debora overcame a troubled start to life marred by drugs and incarceration. He is now executive director of Homeboy Art Academy, a division of Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries. The academy provides art education and training to children and adults formerly involved in gangs and previously incarcerated.
As a child, Debora was strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother, who were deeply devout in their Catholic faith and their reverence for Our Lady of Guadalupe. He first discovered art amid the conflicts of his family childhood, finding that drawing offered an escape from tension, anxiety and occasional violence.
“I would create my own realities,” he says. “Art became a part of me – it was something no one could take away from me.”
Over the years, sketches in his notebooks turned into graffiti on highway signs and watercolors in his jail cell, using crushed M&Ms and Skittles for his paint. After a deep spiritual experience deep in his personal desperation, his passion for graffiti blossomed into an intense focus on telling the stories of his community through murals, paintings and prints.
As an educator and mentor to young adults facing the same temptations and challenges as before, Debora encourages artists to discover their unique inner voice. “Paint what you believe,” Debora recently told a student struggling with an artwork.
Spirituality is at the heart of his work. For Debora, the holy mother is an important symbol of faith and hope, and she figures prominently in her images. An eloquent man, he speaks thoughtfully of “urban Catholicism”.
Watching his community inspires him, because he discovers The beauty of God at stake in everyday urban life — a mother sitting with her two young children on a bus bench or a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk. It is an art which, even when it is not explicitly religious, reveals the dignity of man, as images and likenesses of God.
“I look for God in all people,” Debora said. “They say art is the closest thing to God. In that case, I’m doing God’s work.
I have no doubt that he is right.
Fabian Debora and Sam Quinones will speak at “Guadalupe: Holy Art in the Streets of Los Angeles,” a free event at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 10 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. The event is hosted by USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Readers can learn more and RSVP to iacs.usc.edu/holyart.