|Mario Chacon at work|
Mario Chacon decided it was time for a break. After a quarter century in academia, the community college administrator opted to further explore his artistic talents.
“I decided if I didn’t do it, I may not get another chance,” Chacon said.
That was in 2007. Since then, Chacon has helped restore two historic murals at Chicano Park in San Diego, crafted several canvas paintings, and illustrated a book. He also has been active creating works for various gallery exhibits.
His latest piece is a colorful mural on a 30-foot wall at Paseo at COMM22, a 130-unit affordable housing complex that opened this spring near a trolley stop in Logan Heights.
Chacon, who returned to his career in higher education last year and who now serves as associate dean of Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) at Grossmont College, calls his years-long, full-time foray into art “an unexpected blessing.”
“I feel that my remaining time in higher education will be filled with a more creative spirit,” he said.
Victor Ochoa, considered one of the pioneers of San Diego’s Chicano arts movement and who taught art at Grossmont College for 23 years, is impressed with Chacon’s ability.
“Mario is very well versed in a variety of techniques, and he also is an artist who has a strong sense of responsibility to the community,” Ochoa said. “His latest project is an example of that.”
In fact, Chacon said that in reaching out to residents of the surrounding neighborhood before creating the mural, he saw the closeness that permeated throughout the community. That element is featured in the work, a colorful collection of scenes that includes children sitting in a circle as they listen to a woman reading from a book, a man helping a young lady step from the trolley, and two men tossing a bouquet of roses over a doorway. Roses are predominant throughout the mural.
“The rose is a metaphor of community, of human connection, of love,” Chacon said.
It was important, Chacon said, to create a work that would reflect the social intersections of the people in the community, while providing residents something uplifting to look at on the way to and from their daily grind.
“It’s a visual intervention.”
Which is a common theme in his paintings.
“I want to convey images that will educate and validate the contributions of working class people and people of color,” he said.
Chacon, 61, was born and raised in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. His first mural came as a juvenile, a non-commissioned piece spray-painted on a concrete embankment alongside the Los Angeles River. “Let’s just say it was a spontaneous job,” he joked.
Chacon went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA (with an emphasis in Latin American studies), and enrolled at San Diego State University for his master’s degree in education.
His academic career began as a counselor at UC San Diego, where he worked with the Upward Bound and Summer Bridge programs, among others. Later he was named director of the Upward Bound program at UC San Diego, before moving on to San Diego City College as Dean of Student Affairs for 13 years.
Art, though, was more of an afterthought.
“I doodled all the time growing up, but the extent of my art training was a ceramics class in high school.”
But Chacon began drawing sketches, and Mesa College art instructor Robert Sanchez noticed his work. He urged Chacon to take a class from him.
“When I took his art class, all these images came flowing out, one after the other,” Chacon said.
He first started painting on canvas. Then he began concentrating on murals. In 2007, Chacon decided to explore his passion full time. His first major contract after retiring from academia was working on the murals at Chicano Park, a national historic landmark. He was the lead artist in restoring “Chicano Pinto Union,” and served as a collaborating artist in restoring “Hasta la Bahia.”
“It was a huge honor,” Chacon said. “It’s an outdoor museum.”
He has become so well known that students who come in for an appointment will occasionally recognize him as Mario Chacon the artist, rather than Mario Chacon the associate dean.