Sunday, April 17, 2016

Open Letter to the Chicano artist, Roberto Gutierrez

Roberto asked me to be interviewed for a documentary he is working on about his art. I wrote this in preparation - to collect my thoughts and put my feelings about him in one place. 

I met Roberto Gutierrez in the winter of 1998 when I took an art class with him at Plaza de la Raza.
I remember working on a self-portrait in charcoal for about 10 weeks.
I was hoping that taking an art class after work would help reduce my stress levels and it did.
What struck me most and kept me coming back was that he was an incredibly nurturing instructor.
One day I got up the courage to ask him, "How do you do it? How do you manage to be so positive and encouraging?"
He told me he listened to a lot of guided visualization tapes and read books like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
I read those kinds of books too so we hit it off.
Seventeen years later, he is now my mentor and like family.
When I tell him he is a father-figure to me, he says, "Don't lay that trip on me!"

Recently, I started working on a play about his life and art.
His story traverses significant events in history - like Vietnam and the Chican@ art movement.
His life is full of rocks and flowers – It’s both tragic and hopeful.
My research interests include the nature of trauma and resilience and his particular story is a telling narrative of the nuances and dimensions of these phenomena.
He’s participated in all kinds of healing therapies including psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, limpias, kung fu, tai chi, qi gong, acupuncture, reiki and so on.
He has been persistent and brave.
He has openly talked about the hurts of his early life, although he is still reticent when talking about his experiences in Vietnam.
He tells me all the time that his deepest desire is to be a grown up before he dies.
He also says he wants to win the lottery and be rich.
I think his artistic gifts are his lottery and his ticket to a rich and full life.

His body of work shows the trajectory of his growth as an artist and as a human being.
Early on he copied the masters, as he was taught to do at East LA College.
Then his work became intensely personal and primitive – still life paintings of his own feces and of nails hammered into his penis.
Then he was encouraged by Sister Karen of Self-Help Graphics to document the Eastside – his cultural community and home.
First he painted in vibrant colors.
Then he moved to black and white.
Then he integrated the color and moods of both extremes into a mature wholeness.
Artists like Van Gogh, Soutine, and the impressionists inspired him.
So it makes sense he moved back and forth from painting East LA to Paris.
At 72 and late in his career, he is transitioning from landscape folk artist to abstract expressionist.
It's like he's pulling a Bob Dylan and painting electric guitar-like lines to depict the now demolished 6th street bridge that linked East LA and the downtown of his childhood.
Since the bridge no longer exists in real form, it makes sense to me that he use abstract expressionism to portray what only exists in our reminiscences.

I am the daughter of immigrants from Northern Mexico.
I grew up poor, moving all over East LA because my parents were renters.
Now, I’m a mother and scholar living in my own home in Mount Washington.
Being a collector of Roberto’s art is important to me.
My daughter will inherit this home and Roberto’s paintings.
I love living with his paintings – they’re collective memories of where we come from.
Both Roberto and I are Roosevelt High School alums!
Collecting art is traditionally seen as a privilege and investment of the upper class.
Low-income and middle class communities tend to spend on other priorities.
But this is what I choose to invest in - for my own quality of life and for my descendants.
Roberto’s paintings are a daily reminder to me of beauty, history, culture, place, family, memories, hope and ultimately, integration and wholeness.
I love Roberto - the man and the artist.

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