Sister Karen Boccalero

Born 1933, Globe, Arizona
Died 1997, Los Angeles, California




Without, by Sister Karen Boccalero, 1983
Sister Karen Boccalero, Without, 1983  

Self Help Graphics, now called Self Help Graphics and Art, was founded informally in 1970 when a Franciscan nun, Sister Karen Boccalero, began making prints with Latino and Chicano artists, including Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibañez, and Frank Hernandez, in a garage in East Los Angeles. After studying art with Sister Mary Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College, as well as at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Sister Karen settled in Los Angeles and taught printmaking at a drug and rehabilitation center before starting Self Help Graphics, which she led until her death in 1997. The organization, still successfully oper­ating today, aimed to give artists in the barrio both studio space and a venue for exhibiting and selling their work. In 1972 Self Help moved into a space on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) with a grant from the Order of the Sisters of Saint Francis; it expanded the space a few years later when demand for its services grew.

Self Help has sponsored numerous print programs in its forty-year history, most notably producing about forty to fifty curated group editions annually with the help of an in-house master printer. Before the advent of photogra­phy, printmaking had been employed as a journalistic medium capable of communicat­ing news and political messages with speed and efficiency—a legacy continued in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by politi­cally engaged artists around the world. Self Help's output has been consistently responsive to timely political issues, including the Chicano civil rights movement, the Watts rebellion, public education and health care, the AIDS epidemic, and various forms of racism and intolerance. Self Help has shown such work in its own gallery, Galería Otra Vez, in addition to organizing exhibitions—in the larger Los Angeles metro area and beyond—of prints primarily, though not exclusively, by Latino and Chicano artists.

Since the 1980s, Self Help has endeavored first to develop artists within the community and then to help them gain exposure in the larger art world; as such, the organization has been instrumental, particularly in Southern California, in the acquisition of Latino and Chicano art by major museums and in the increased number of exhibitions dedicated to such works and the sociopolitical realities that undergird them. Artists who have worked with Self Help include members of the group Los Four, Gronk, Yreina Cervántez, Leo Limón, Linda Vallejo, Michael Amescua, Yolanda M. López, Roberto Delgado, and Alonzo Davis, among many others.1

Since its inception, the organization has maintained the grassroots attitude and structure inherent in its name. As a commu­nity-based organization, its activities have long extended beyond helping burgeoning and established artists. Self Help effectively became, in part, a gang-diversion program through the Barrio Mobile Art Studio, which, until 1985, taught thousands of children and teenagers in East L.A. the arts of photography, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and puppetry from a specially outfitted van.2 Self Help has also held a popular annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration since 1972. Day of the Dead has become an integral event in East L.A. with various artist-led workshops sponsored by Self Help and several sister institutions leading up to the holiday. It remains Self Help's most visible presence in the city, though certainly not its only one.

 —Andrea Gyorody

Selected Bibliography

Berges, Marshall. "Sister Karen Boccalero: Dedicated to the Community, She Helps Others Find Strength in Art." Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, December 17, 1978, 42–45.



Guzmán, Kristen. Self Help Graphics and Art: Art in the Heart of East Los Angeles. Edited by Colin Gunckel. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2005.



Hernandez, Marita. "Center Serves as a ‘Family’ Home to Chicano Artists." Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1985.



Saldivar, Reina Alejandra Prado. "Self Help Graphics: A Case Study of a Working Space for Arts and Community." Aztlán 25, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 167–81.



Walker, Alissa. "For 20 Years, LA’s Self Help Graphics and Art Has Provided a Creative Outlet for the City’s Latino Community." Creative Review 29, no. 3 (March 2009): 32–34, 36.


Selected Links

Self Help Graphics & Art website.

Karen Boccalero Wikipedia page.

Hector Tobar, "Sister Karen Boccalero, Latino Art Advocate, Dies," Los Angeles Times obituaryJune 26, 1997.

Cathy Weiss and Julia Wasson, "Part One: Tomas Benitez on His Friend Sister Karen of Self Help Graphics," Huffington Post, October 24, 2013. 


  • Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar, "Self Help Graphics: A Case Study of a Working Space for Arts and Commu­nity," Aztlán 25, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 171.

  • Alissa Walker, "For 20 Years, LA’s Self Help Graphics and Art Has Provided a Creative Outlet for the City’s Latino Community," Creative Review 29, no. 3 (March 2009): 33.

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Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar, "Self Help Graphics: A Case Study of a Working Space for Arts and Commu­nity," Aztlán 25, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 171.

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Alissa Walker, "For 20 Years, LA’s Self Help Graphics and Art Has Provided a Creative Outlet for the City’s Latino Community," Creative Review 29, no. 3 (March 2009): 33.

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Gyorody, Andrea. "Sister Karen Boccalero." Now Dig This! Art in Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2016. https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/sister-karen-boccalero.