Judy Baca is a master artist, a legendary muralist and a distinguished professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. She’s been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was Harvard’s Master Artist and Senior Scholar. Yet she says her most important revelation came not in a classroom nor in studio, but rather in the form of a question many years ago from her maternal grandmother, Francisca. An indigenous woman born in Mexico during the revolution, Francisca was a spiritual healer who had been Baca’s primary caregiver as a child growing up in California. She was the kind of woman who would ask a plant permission before cutting a sprig — then replant the offshoot in a garden of potted coffee cans on the front porch. She had a deeper question for Baca.

“Tell me, mija,” Francisca asked, flipping through the pages of a portfolio Baca, then an art student at California State University at Northridge, had handed her. “What is this for?” The book was filled with artwork Baca had created at school and presented to earn her undergraduate degree. It was filled with abstract forms and color fields, all the things she’d learned in class. But Francisca seemed confused; the art elicited no emotional response. Something was missing.

As the conversation between Baca and her grandmother unfolded, extended family surrounded them. Ranchera music filled the air. Tables were laden with traditional dishes. Children played outside. The occasion felt like a baptism fiesta, and indeed it was a new beginning for Baca, marking a before and an after in her art and in her life. “I realized at that moment,” recalls Baca, now 65, “that I wanted to make art that could speak to my family and to my community.”

She went on to do exactly that when in 1976 she founded SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which sponsors public art projects with the aim of fostering cross-cultural connections and promoting civic dialogue. It was through SPARC that she worked on The Great Wall of Los Angeles — a traditional mural started in 1974 and completed over the span of five summers. Created with the help of 400 youth painters, artists, oral historians, scholars and hundreds of community members, it offers a visual storytelling of California’s ethnic history.

Now that nearly four decades have passed, how does a painstakingly drawn mural fare as an art form? Especially in the age of digital technology, when artists are more likely to scan and animate than to pick up a paint-brush? Enter Baca’s latest creation: the Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab.

In this highly collaborative studio environment, Baca works with an interdisciplinary group of students, blending digital technology and community organizing to make large-scale public artworks. College students begin by hosting workshops in a community where a mural will be created, having local residents share personal memories, photographs and family stories. At the same time, the students research the community to understand its social history and current challenges, including poverty, crime and graduation rates. Google mapping is used to create a digital snapshot of the community, serving as a backdrop for the mural. And then images that emerge from the community stories are recreated in a mythical style, painted with a stylus onto a digital canvas.

In these dreamscapes, abuelas have wings. Tattoos cover buildings. A school becomes a tree. A young woman seeking freedom floats over a crowded apartment building. And a cornstalk grows out of cement pavement. Once the images are combined on a screen, they are printed with archival quality inks in high-resolution onto canvas panels and transported to the mural site.

The digital nature of the mural means the artworks can be easily replaced should they ever become eroded or faded by nature. “We are trying to advance the art form,” says Baca. “We are living in another time. We are using social networking and we are looking at our process of becoming a community in a technologically advanced way.”

As she works on the mural projects, Baca engages with community members of all walks, even rival LA gang members. She’s mentored them and given them jobs. In turn, they’ve trusted and protected her. But things haven’t always worked out. There was, for instance, Fernando, an artist, young father, and former gang member who was one of Baca’s closest protégés. After surviving a stabbing attack, Fernando was murdered. He was 33. The deaths of more young artists are still all too common. “The tragic loss of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds is not like anything else. It is so outside of nature,” says Baca, who believes her art has the power to recycle death and loss and tragedy into something beautiful and transformative. “That’s really the job I have as an artist. Artists take life, even the most difficult things, and transform them into something new.”