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The Past Is Present in the Many Murals of Vasquez

The artist uses people, places from his boyhood home in Orange to tell stories. He has completed 22 wall-sized works in the county.

January 08, 2005|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Emigdio Vasquez's roots go deep into Orange's Cypress Street neighborhood.

As a boy, he roamed the streets next to the railroad tracks and the orange packing plant. He was a skinny, dark-haired youth who loved to scribble cartoons. The area fueled his passion for art and helped him become one of Orange County's pioneers in Chicano art and murals.

Today at 65, he no longer takes on the demanding task of painting murals. But he lives a few miles from Cypress Street and continues to paint on canvas and give private art lessons.

Paul Apodaca, former curator of the Bowers Museum and an art professor at Chapman University in Orange, considers Vasquez one of the county's "true cultural and artistic treasures."

Many have said that through his art, Vasquez illustrated realistic urban scenes with rebellious figures such as zoot suiters and gang toughs that reflected some of the anger in Latino communities during the 1960s.

Simply by including everyday people in his murals, he gave them heroic character, even if they were winos. Some of his favorite art characters were Cesar Chavez, pachucos and farmworkers. His work can be recognized by the "super-realistic" style, although he was influenced by Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

Vasquez painted most of his murals in the 1970s and '80s, when he taught at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. He later was hired by Fullerton and Anaheim to manage a mural- instruction program.

While Vasquez was at the Bowers, he did an 85-foot mural at the Orange County Transportation Center in Santa Ana. Disneyland commissioned one of his murals for the Lawry Food Center in the theme park.

And Carl Karcher Enterprises paid for a mural at Anaheim's Manzanita Park.

The most recent mural from Vasquez was installed in 1997 in the Cesar Chavez Building at Santa Ana College. He has completed 22 murals in the county.

His paintings can fetch $2,500 and up in local museums and galleries like the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, Martinez Books and Art Gallery in Santa Ana, the Hunt-Wesson Foods Corporate Collection and the Bowers.

Along his journey, he taught others how to paint stories on walls, becoming a pied piper of sorts for the mural genre.

"He's a realistic painter and he's one of my biggest influences," said artist Matthew Southgate, 32, of Orange, who specializes in urban realism and urban landscapes.

During a recent visit to Vasquez's old neighborhood in the shadow of Chapman University, Vasquez saw clean streets and newly remodeled homes with fresh paint. The old store where he shopped was gone. The building that housed the community center closed. The old pool hall where he spent summer nights is now razed.

"It's changed. They're even tearing down some of the old factory buildings," said Vasquez, who now lives a few miles away.

But that's where Vasquez's love for drawing was nurtured. He loved to draw the faces of friends and neighbors in his Cypress Street neighborhood.

People who eventually appeared on Vasquez's canvases or murals included streetwise and talkative John, who liked to drink, men playing pool and local pachucos who wore Pendleton shirts over trousers riding low on spit-shined shoes.

Vasquez was a quiet and modest teenager at a time when thousands of Mexican Americans, fueled by anger and a newfound sense of cultural and political awareness, waged open rebellion against a system that had repressed and marginalized them for generations.

Across the Southwest, Chicano activists were demanding better educational opportunities, a respect for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, where Mexican Americans were dying.

Chicano art, including Vasquez's murals, was born against this political backdrop.

In his neighborhood, he would stroll with a camera taking pictures of people, many of whom picked oranges and lemons in nearby groves. He then created murals that depicted the contributions of Latinos to Orange County's agricultural past.

"I don't believe in art just for art's sake. I believe that art should say something," he said during an interview.

Public art can be controversial. One of his late 1970s murals done at a small store in Anaheim was vandalized with graffiti and anti-Latino slogans.

"I didn't want to be controversial, but you can be subtle to get your idea across," he said with a laugh.

Many in the art community consider his earlier works like "Calle Cuatro," and "John the Prophet" his best. The paintings are part of an exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum titled, "OsCene: Contemporary Art and Culture in O.C.," which opened in November and runs through Feb. 27.

"Some of the things Vasquez was doing a long time ago are interesting now because younger artists are doing different things to engage their culture," said Tyler Stallings, chief curator at the Laguna museum. "His approach still has some meaning."

And his work hasn't been relegated to retrospective shows -- an accomplishment in itself. "He sells everything he paints," said Rueben Martinez, who owns a Santa Ana bookstore and gallery. "His paintings depict the time when he was growing up. He won't fade away. His art just keeps getting better and better."

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