Emmy Lou Packard was from a family of early Imperial Valley pioneers. Her father, Walter Packard, was an internationally known agronomist and someone responsible for bringing agriculture to our desert.
Yet the young Packard’s interests did not turn to the agrarian, but to the arts and activism.
From creating pieces for Cesar Chavez and to traveling to Washington, D.C., to preserve the environment, she was an activist who stood up for the planet, women, farmworkers, and children’s rights, to name a few.
Her story is one of a life of giving one’s talents for others’ sake, a talent that was advocated for in Mexico during the 1920s, where she would become inextricably linked with famous artists and lovers Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Packard was born April 15, 1914, near El Centro. But because of her dad’s role as head of the Agronomic Department of the National Irrigation Commission for the Mexican Government, he took his family with him to Mexico. There he introduced his 13-year-old daughter to Rivera and Kahlo.
Diego Rivera wrote about Packard’s art and border background in a letter found in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
“I was surprised at the great character, the sensitiveness of tones, and the objective and subjective truth of the paintings of Mexican life that this North-American child had done,” Rivera wrote. “Born on the (border) growing up in Mexico, this painter is the true type of American, that is, the men and women for whom home is the land from the north of Canada to the tip of the Tierra del Fuego.”
Rivera, in many ways, became an advocate for Packard’s talent. And Kahlo took her under her wing and taught her how to get around Mexico City.
Eventually, Packard moved back to the United States, where she went to study at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1930s. In this decade, she eloped with architect Burton Cairns and had her son, Donal. Soon after, her husband died in a car accident.
John Natsoulas, who knew Packard and has written about her life, shared the struggles she faced during this period of loss.
“She didn’t talk for almost a year, and she was living with her parents and her 3-year-old son, and Diego came to the door and got her to come and help work on the murals he did in San Francisco. He kind of saved her,” Natsoulas said in an interview with the Calexico Chronicle. “She always talked about that. She was in such a deep depression that it was almost impossible for anybody to get her to come back, so she did it through art.”
Packard became Rivera’s chief assistant on his Pan American Unity Mural in San Francisco, a mural that she is featured in on the upper right corner. She is painted next to famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The mural is described by San Francisco State University’s Elsie Casler’s writing as a symbol depicting the union of North and South America, the machine and plastic arts, and a homage to the Indigenismo movement.
Her son, Donal Cairns, now 85, has faint memories of when his mom worked on the mural in the 1940s and how this experience influenced his own interest in the arts.
“I remember being there when it was being painted … meeting (French-born American actress) Claudette Colbert there, which made a very big impression on me,” Cairns said in an interview with the Calexico Chronicle. “Actually, I painted on the back of it. They gave me a brush and paint to keep me busy. I mean, I was 6 years old, the whole thing was a neat experience.”
Cairns remembers his mother’s character and desire to make a difference.
“She was an intelligent, positive person who was definitely progressive politically … and she was socially concerned, she donated her talents to social occasions,” Cairns said. “She was a fighter.”
Packard lived through World War I and II, the Red Scare, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War — events that often made their way into her critical realism art. This stance of hers to promote social issues and work for reform is fundamental to how she is remembered by people who knew her, such as Natsoulas.
“She basically told me why she was here on earth. And that was to try to make a difference, helping people in the environment, children, and women. I could go on and on and on and on,” Natsoulas said about the woman he regarded as a “stoic god.”
Her work with the farmworkers’ movement was one of these instances of her living out her purpose with everything she had.
“She did these farmworker prints that are beautiful,” Natsoulas said. “They are of people picking strawberries, Brussel sprouts, and artichokes. She sold hundreds of dollars (of her prints) to raise money for a school in Kern County for migrants and for farmworkers’ children.
“She was a pioneer, and her passion for human rights or preservation of the environment is like the most amazing story you could read,” he said.
Packard herself described the significance of these efforts for peace in a biographical account of life in the 1970s.
“This kind of involvement makes up my life. At times I have been frightened, many times lonely. But over the years, these periods of working together with other people on a project of common interest to us and to society seems most significant to me,” Packard wrote in a letter preserved in the Archives of American Art.
Though Packard died in 1998 in San Francisco, her legacy lives on in art galleries throughout the United States. She also is starting to be remembered in the Imperial Valley through people like David Varela, a professional designer from El Centro, whose mission is to support the arts in the community.
“I run a nonprofit in El Centro, Starts with Arts Foundation. So, I’ve been using my art and my creativity to give back. And I think that’s what she did,” Varela said during an interview from his Temecula home. “I’m always looking for inspiration, and she’s been one of my current ones. She’s just an amazing person on top of being an amazing artist.”
Varela said he plans to keep Packard’s legacy alive through Starts with Arts by bringing her work to the Valley soon, possibly in April, he said.
“We’ve been discussing reaching out to a couple of art collectors and reaching out to her family to see if they’ll lend us some art pieces that we can showcase in Imperial Valley to bring her back home,” Varela said.
Varela expressed how meaningful it is to him to know that someone like Packard comes from the Imperial Valley.
“I know we have athletes that come from the Imperial Valley. There are politicians that come from the Imperial Valley, but to have a creative and artist, especially since I do art, feels like, that’s one of my own, like, that’s one of my heroes, my inspirations, that is from the Imperial Valley,” he said.