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An early version of "Grieving Sun Mural" installed in UCLA AUD's Perloff Courtyard in May 2023. Photo courtesy UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
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UCLA Activist-in-Residence Marlené Nancy Lopez discusses inspiration and process behind "Grieving Sun Mural," ahead of MacArthur Park reveal this Sunday

Aug 8, 2023

Marlené Nancy Lopez was one of UCLA’s four 2023 Activists-in-Residence, and the inaugural Activist-in-Residence at UCLA cityLAB. Born and raised in LA’s MacArthur Park, Lopez has devoted years of service as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and as a community organizer and art-based activist in MacArthur Park and throughout the city.

During her time at UCLA, Lopez brought to life an artistic vision she had been cultivating for decades: “Grieving Sun Mural,” an art installation that ecourages visitors both to acknowledge personal grief and loss, and to seek peace, joy, and love through community. Lopez reveals “Grieving Sun Mural” with an activation event in MacArthur Park this Sunday, August 13 at 3:30 pm, as part of Mundo Maya Foundation's sixth-annual Mundo Maya Day.

“Grieving Sun Mural" is inspired by histories and personal stories Lopez gathered from the MacArthur Park community, and nods to Indigenous architecture and cultural wisdom. Ahead of its reveal, Lopez discusses the project’s inspiration and how it took shape during her time at UCLA.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

“Grieving Sun Mural” is a capstone for your year as an Activist-in-Residence at UCLA. But, it is also a project that you have had in mind for a long time.

When I was 13 years old, my father was suddenly killed on the Long Beach freeway after a night out with his co-workers. He was my best friend. Losing him destroyed my family's mental and financial health.

We held his memorial service in his native Guatemala, near the home he grew up in. As we walked down the memorial procession, our family and neighbors from my father’s village walked beside me. We decorated his tomb with flowers, letters, candles, and prayers. My Guatemalan family held me, and created space for me. Their compassion and remembrance held me together in such a dark time. As I tried to make sense of this tragic moment, I needed my father’s life to matter, and Guatemala made me feel like his life mattered. Because of them, I felt stronger.

Lopez at 14, leading her father's memorial procession in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of the artist.

But when I returned to my home in MacArthur Park, I felt cut off from all of that. I was desperate to find my father in LA, to honor him. So I began looking. I went to churches, rooftops, stairways, the park after dark–but nowhere felt sacred. My healing process ended, and for years, I reeled inside with pain.

My father had passed along a love of visual arts, of music. And it was art that found me, again and again. When I fell into deep depression, I would instinctively start painting Guatemalan faces and symbols. This summoned forward all of the people who had held me and walked next to me at my father’s funeral, and it made me feel strong. Art was connecting me to my memories and, most importantly, to others. It was healing me.

And that’s when light bulbs started going off. I started thinking about the correlation between art and mental health, art as healing. In the hood, we knew nothing about art therapy, or using art as therapy, and that’s somewhere we need it. This felt like my mission.

How did you nurture this mission from an idea to action?

I began with art parties through my family's creative collective, CrewNative, and became a teaching artist for the City of Los Angeles’ Summer Night Lights program. This work brought me to over 40 at-risk neighborhoods that the city works with as part of its Gang Reduction and Youth Development program. In these spaces, I witnessed the prevalence of mental health issues found in our youth today, as well as a shared need to heal and say goodbye to fallen loved ones and personal loss. Both factors, of course, grew more severe during the Covid-19 pandemic.

These experiences and stories inspired my art, including “Grieving Sun Mural.” I want people to find sacredness in the piece; I want them to feel like it was made for them to use and touch, but more importantly, I want anyone who is grieving a lost loved one to feel like we are all walking next to them with a wreath. The mural offers a space to write a letter, leave a photo, or just sit and remember. I wish for community members to leave items for music and art-making, and create impromptu art or music circles. I wish to fill my neighborhood with its own music and art–anything that summons healing, so they can go on and eventually free themselves from suffering.

I am so thankful to cityLAB for giving me the first opportunity to work on what has been a life-long project in the making.

How did the project take shape with cityLAB?

The first time I ever spoke in public about “Grieving Sun Mural” was at my Activist-in-Residence welcome ceremony in AUD’s Perloff Hall. Before then, it was just a dream I had in my artivista heart.

The Welcome Ceremony for UCLA's 2022-2023 Activists-in-Residence. Left to right: 2020 UCLA Activist-in-Residence Leonardo Vilchis; UCLA Luskin School's Ananya Roy; 2023 UCLA Activists-in-Residence Steve Diaz, Marlené Nancy Lopez, Josiah Edwards, and Melissa Acedera; UCLA AASC's Karen Umemoto and Melany de la Cruz-Viesca; and UCLA cityLAB's Rayne Laborde Ruiz, Luskin's deputy director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy Marisa Lemorande, and UCLA cityLAB's Gustavo Alfonso Rincon.

My cityLAB team was just as excited to make the project happen as I was, and that was crucial. I knew it was a big project and a big ask, but from the beginning I had enormous moral support and resources. The AIR grant really helped get the project off the ground, too.

I spent the first few months sitting in the UCLA Arts Library, researching public art and Indigenous architecture and auditing the course “Aesthetics of the Oppressed,” with professor Bobby Gordon from the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance (WACD). This entire time, I was learning more about cityLAB’s work and especially the concept of “spatial justice,” all of which really nurtured my vision of carving out spaces for the poor and the disenfranchised. Everything I was learning inspired me to see more and more potential to impact communities and advance liberation efforts through art and design.

Then I teamed up with cityLAB collaborators, my homebase of Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), Sara Mijares from Mundo Maya Foundation, and my fellow AIR Melissa Acedera from Polos Pantry to design a four-part series of story-art circles in MacArthur Park.

From there, cityLAB’s Rayne Laborde Ruiz was an immense help in creating 3D modeling and rendering of the mural. Rayne then connected me to Philip Soderlind, who runs AUD’s fabrication shop, and began building the structure in earnest with him and a team of amazing AUD volunteers.

Early sketches of "Grieving Sun Mural." Image courtesy of UCLA cityLAB.
Lopez guides volunteer painters as they illustrate an early version of "Grieving Sun Mural."

Once the structure was done in early May, we spent five days with volunteers and friends in Perloff Hall, painting the first half of the mural for its soft debut in Perloff Courtyard on May 15. cityLAB also helped program two memorial services and one story-art circle that week, alongside the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the cyclist groups Night Owls and CycoSundays, to commemorate recent victims of gun violence and bicycling accidents. [Editor's note: see below for a gallery of photos from May 2023's UCLA activation events for "Grieving Sun Mural."]

Speaking of volunteers, during the winter quarter of my residency I teamed up with seven UCLA students from the UCLA program “Engaging Los Angeles” to build a website, soundscape, GoFundMe campaign, documentation, and ‘zines in order to push the project even further.

Lopez meets with undergraduate students from UCLA's "Engaging Los Angeles" program. Photo courtesy the artist.

Alongside the research and process, what did it feel like to actually create your vision?

Designing the project was a spiritual journey within itself. I really enjoyed reviewing the footage and stories captured in the story-art circles. It made me realize what a powerful impact thoughtful non-profit work can make in a person’s life. I’m glad to contribute to that civil society.

My gratitude swelled as I saw Philip and the AUD shop team finish the wooden structure, volunteering after work and on weekends for this project. And then the students, my engaging UCLA students, were a true pleasure to work with. Everyone cared about the project and it showed in their work. Every time someone would stop by to paint for even just a little bit, I was so humbled.

And seeing the first version of the mural in AUD’s courtyard was a dream come true, akin to a scientist's eureka moment. Almost immediately the space began to create the space it was intended to, sacredness and connection. Hearing the Asian American Studies Center’s Karen Umemoto say a few words for Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park victims, and then hearing a cyclist tell stories of riders “dying alone” and no one leaving flowers or markers–that was when I saw how inclusive and healing the space could truly be.

Karen Umemoto, center, leads a remembrance during a May 17 activation event for "Grieving Sun Mural," joined by 2023 UCLA Activist-in-Residence Melissa Acedera [left]. Photo courtesy UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
An early version of "Grieving Sun Mural" after installation in UCLA AUD's Perloff Courtyard in May. Photo courtesy UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Afterwards, a cityLAB colleague said to me, “You know, I’ve known some of these people for years but this was the first time I felt like I got to know them as people.” We all made new friends that day. Having these experiences made me feel like I had accomplished my mission as your 2023 AIR: I disrupted your campus and flipped things around, and the best part? I did it with art.

As "Grieving Sun Mural" comes home to MacArthur Park, what do you envision for its future?

“Grieving Sun Mural” is part of a September exhibition at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles–my first curated show–called “Unlocking Sacred Spaces: The Public Art Movement in MacArthur Park.” Also on display will be some early visions from something I’m working on with cityLAB, a project called “Enchula LA: The Culturama Project” inspired by the Futurama city model in the 1939 World’s Fair. For this, we are creating a vision of a future Los Angeles that makes space for our most pressing social and climate issues. [Editor's note: "Unlocking Sacred Spaces" opens on September 1, 6:00 to 9:00 pm.]

I'd love to one day see “Grieving Art Mural” permanently installed in MacArthur Park, somewhere near water. I could imagine an entire water feature or theme around it. As the mural travels back to the space that first inspired it now, cityLAB and I are still brainstorming ways to continue collaborating and eventually imagine a permanent grieving space in MacArthur Park, and perhaps some day for all vulnerable and in-need communities in LA.

A rendering of "Grieving Sun Mural" and its placement in MacArthur Park. Image courtesy of UCLA cityLAB.

In the meantime, I would like to paint more “Grieving Sun Murals” and connect as many people and communities as possible through art and through grieving. I envision an LA with places where people can rest, reflect, connect and heal, a city where humanity and earth can prosper.

I also look forward to combining forces with other projects and artivistas that are working on spatial justice through the arts. I find so much inspiration from Modesto “Flako” Jimenez and his “Mercedes” project in New York. Amber West at UCLA Writing Programs connected us, and he is looking to do a coastal crossover collaboration with the “Grieving Sun Mural.” I can’t wait to see what else is out there on the horizon.

Lopez reveals “Grieving Sun Mural” this Sunday in MacArthur Park this Sunday, August 13, with live programming from 3:30 to 4:00 pm. The event is part of the Mundo Maya Foundation’s 6th Annual Mundo Maya Day.

Lopez acknowledges the following “Grieving Sun Mural” collaborators:

Paint Partner: Miguel “Moska” Hurtado Rivera

UCLA cityLAB team: Dana Cuff, Carrie Gammell, Alejandra Guerrero, Gustavo Leclerc, Claire Nelishe, Rayne Laborde Ruiz, Gus Wendel, Yang Yang

AUD Fabrication Lab: Philip Soderlind, Alvaro Guillen, and team

UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC): Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, Karen Umemoto

UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy: Anaya Roy, Marisa Lemorande

Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), in particular Nara Hernandez, Tony Brown

Night Owls Bike Club, in particular Carina Lomeli

CycoSundays Bike Club

Volunteers, including Sonia & Will Gomez, Abraham Aragundi, UCLA students from “Engaging Los Angeles”

Studio Friends: Aldubbers and Jasmin Amaya

And Mathew.

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