Karen Boccalero

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Karen Boccalero
Karen Boccalero.jpg
Carmen Rose Boccalero

(1933-05-19)May 19, 1933
DiedJune 24, 1997(1997-06-24) (aged 64)

Karen Boccalero (May 19, 1933 – June 24, 1997) was an American nun, fine artist, and founder and former director of Self-Help Graphics & Art.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Carmen Rose Boccalero was born in Globe, Arizona, to Albert Boccalero and Annie Guadagnoli; both her parents were of Italian ancestry. She moved to Los Angeles with her family as a child.[2] She attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Feliz, California, where she studied with Sister Corita Kent. Boccalero pursued further art education at the Tyler School of Art abroad in Rome, Italy, and earned an MFA as a printmaker at Temple University.[3]


Boccalero founded and named Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights in 1971, with a group of Chicano artists.[1] She had acquired a printing press and started a workshop in a garage rented by her order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity.[4] Self-Help Graphics was both a print studio and a community center, with Sister Karen as its longtime director.[5] She worked to highlight Mexican cultural elements in much of the studio's output, and in the educational programs that they undertook. "Sister Karen was very adamant about including Mesoamerican and Mexican iconography and history in teaching young people in East L. A.," noted instructor Linda Vallejo.[6]

Boccalero was a persuasive fundraiser for the program. Her training as an artist informed her work supporting emerging artists.[7] She considered the studio her mission, as a Franciscan nun, and her order recognized it as such, even while she was supporting Willie Herrón in bringing East Los Angeles punkero bands to perform regularly in the studio.[8] In 1988, Boccalero won a Vesta Award from the Woman's Building, for her work in arts community support.[9]

Boccalero lived to see Self-Help Graphics featured in a major exhibit at Laguna Art Museum in 1995.[10]

Personal life and legacy[edit]

Boccalero wore modest informal secular clothing, not a religious habit. "She dedicated herself as a bride of Christ, but she was also a progressive, chain-smoking, cussing nun," remembered colleague Tomas Benitez.[11]

Karen Boccalero died in 1997, at age 64 of a heart attack.[12] A traditional altar was erected in her memory, covered in artworks, photos, cigarette boxes, and marigolds.[13] There was a tribute exhibit to Sister Karen on the tenth anniversary of her death, at Self Help Graphics & Art.[14] Posters by Boccalero and other artists from her community were part of the "American Sabor" exhibit at Bob Bullock Museum in 2010.[15] Work by Sister Karen was also featured in "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980," a 2011–2013 traveling show organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.[16]

Galería Sin Fronteras in Austin, Texas began with inspiration from the work of Karen Boccalero.[17][18] Self-Help Graphics & Art continues as a community institution in East Los Angeles.[19]


  1. ^ a b Alissa Walker, "The Muse on Cesar Chavez Avenue," Utne Reader (July-August 2009).
  2. ^ Michael Fallon, Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s (Counterpoint 2014).
  3. ^ Hector Tobar, "Sister Karen Boccalero, Latino Art Advocate, Dies," Los Angeles Times (June 26, 1997).
  4. ^ Carlos Francisco Jackson, Chicana and Chicano Art: ProtestArte (University of Arizona Press 2009): 159–162. ISBN 0816526478
  5. ^ Marita Hernandez, "East L. A. Center Serves as 'Family' Home to Chicano Artists," Los Angeles Times (December 21, 1985): OC_A4.
  6. ^ Jeremy Rosenberg, "Culture Power: The Importance of Sister Karen Boccalero & Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles History," Los Angeles History Archive.
  7. ^ Roberto Bedoya, "In Praise of Art and Dedication," Los Angeles Times (July 1, 1997).
  8. ^ Colin Gunckel, Vexing: Female Voices from East L. A. Punk (Claremont Museum of Art 2008).
  9. ^ "Nine Vesta Award Winners to be Honored," Los Angeles Times (October 7, 1988): AF32.
  10. ^ William Wilson, "O. C. Art Review: L. A.'s Energetic 'Chicano Art,'" Los Angeles Times (March 25, 1995).
  11. ^ Cathy Weiss and Julia Wasson, "Tomas Benitez on his Friend Sister Karen of Self-Help Graphics," Huffington Post (October 24, 2013).
  12. ^ Tobar, Hector (26 June 1997). "Sister Karen Boccalero, Latino Art Advocate, Dies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  13. ^ Norine Dresser, Come As You Aren't! Feeling At Home with Multicultural Celebrations (Rowman & Littlefield 2006): 236–237. ISBN 978-1-59077-093-1
  14. ^ Agustin Gurza, "Honoring Self-Help's Self Starter," Los Angeles Times (June 23, 2007).
  15. ^ "Estilo Musical: East L. A. Punk," American Sabor website.
  16. ^ "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1," Museum of Modern Art press release (December 5, 2012).
  17. ^ Galería Sin Fronteras, National Museum of Mexican Art website.
  18. ^ Miriam Di Nunzio, "Trio of Exhibits to Open at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art," Chicago Sun-Times (January 15, 2014).
  19. ^ Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, Wendy Cheng, eds., A People's Guide to Los Angeles (University of California Press 2012): 110. ISBN 0520270819

External links[edit]