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Mario Torero, a counterculture artist and first-time SDSU lecturer, is showing students how to make an impact outside of a studio or gallery.
In the ‘80s, Mario Torero painted a large mural at San Diego State’s old Aztec Center. The piece was sandwiched between the bowling alley and a bar and it stayed there until 2013, when it along with the rest of the building was torn down to make way for the new Aztec Student Union.
When Torero found out his mural had been destroyed, he approached the school. Citing the California Art Preservation Act, which protects artists’ rights when it comes to the intentional destruction of fine art, he said his lawyer had conversations with the school administration about what they might be willing to do to bring a replica of the mural back.
“We were banging loudly on the back door,” Torero said. “That was the same time the new president was getting more and more interested in the arts.”
SDSU invited Torero in. They asked him to teach an experimental new class at the university. Torero just wrapped up the first semester of the new class, Artivism: Understanding Street Art.
Torero’s a counterculture artist who was one of the original painters behind the murals in Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park. One of the first things he did with his new class was paint signs on recycled vinyl that asked, “Where’s the art?” He and the students Duct-taped the signs on walls all over campus.
“Most of the art is hidden indoors at SDSU,” Torero said. “Outdoors, there’s nothing. The school’s spending millions of dollars building buildings, but where’s the sculpture? Where’s the murals? Where’s the color? Nowhere. It’s a sterile space.”
Torero invited people who weren’t even enrolled at SDSU to crash his class, which he describes as a quick way to teach an artist how to become an activist by using creativity to spread political messages. One of the next assignments he had the class do was to paint a small mural on a building – without asking for permission.
Torero said the mural was quickly painted over but the move opened up a dialogue with administrators and eventually led to an opportunity. Kotaro Nakamura, the director of SDSU’s School of Art + Design, got involved and helped Torero and his students get the permission necessary to paint a large-scale mural on one of the Art + Design buildings.
“It was a good teaching moment,” said Nakamura. “I had to approach the dean, the dean went to the vice president, the vice president talked to the head of facilities and planning and finally they gave us permission to do it, but with conditions. It’s temporary, so we agreed to paint it over in one year.”
The mural will be the first significant work of art on the building, which has housed art-making activities for over 50 years.
For the design, Torero decided to bring back his famed “Eyes of Picasso” mural, which has been painted on almost a dozen locations across the world. He and the students are still working to finish up the piece.
Nakamura, who was the one who invited Torero to teach the class at SDSU as a visiting artist, said none of Torero’s tactics have made him uncomfortable. He said he wants his students to learn about how art can have an impact if you take it outside studio and gallery walls.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity for our students to engage with a local famous artist and do more public art instead of studio art,” he said. “So, what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to stir up the feelings behind art. Art’s not just a pretty painting on a white wall. Art can mean something to society, good or bad.”
Whether the gesture was meant to or not, the class and Torero’s new connections with SDSU haven’t pacified his desire to bring back his original mural from the 80s. He and Nakamura said the SDSU administration is currently considering a proposal to commission Torero to recreate an updated version of his original mural on the west wall of the Professional Studies and Fine Arts building. If approved, the mural would be permanent and made of mosaic, similar to a mural Torero installed at UCSD in 2011.
“I personally would like to see it happen,” Nakamura said. “But I am sympathetic to the administration’s point of view, which is once you start allowing something like this, everyone will want to do it and soon it will be a mess. We need a mechanism to allow art to happen, but we also need a vetting process so we know the duration, cost, maintenance and responsibility. But all that concern has made everybody kind of scared to do anything at all and it has kind of created a sterile environment on campus.”
But, he said, the new 15-foot “Eyes of Picasso” mural is a major step in the right direction.
“It’s a big breakthrough for us,” Nakamura said.