Paint on a Happy Face: Local Artist Luis Gutierrez Is on the Cusp of Making It in the Art World Despite Struggling with MS

It's a warm November evening, and another First Friday is winding down at Portland's Restaurant & Wine Bar on the edge of downtown Phoenix. The pulsing bass blaring from the art walk's epicenter a few blocks away has faded, and the hordes have trickled to a few stragglers. Inside the restaurant, a few dozen people snack on gourmet hamburgers and pasta to the clink of cups and the thrum of the light rail across the street.

Some have come also to see the work of Luis Gutierrez. On the lawn in front of the bar, the artist has set up two tables covered by blue-and-white tablecloths to display colorful drawings, candles, and paintings. Inside, a few of his larger paintings lean against the back wall — there's one depicting mermaid versions of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are, while on another, a scantily-clad Bettie Page with angle wings kneels beneath a starless sky.

Gutierrez has strung a sagging orange extension cord between a palm tree and a lamppost. Attached by clothespins, and intertwined with red Christmas lights, are close to 100 prayer flags, painted in vivid colors on rough squares of canvas. Usually, prayer flags depict Tibetan writings or serene Buddhas on slips of cloth, but these are quirky interpretations. There's one of Jesus bent over backwards, as if he were a contortionist, with "Christ as a Ghost" scrawled below in childish black writing. Beaming Buddhas painted in bright red and orange are labeled with WWBD ("what would Buddha do?") in bold black.

Luis Gutierrez
Jamie Peachey
Luis Gutierrez
Untitled
Jamie Peachey
Untitled

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Luis Daniel Gutierrez's solo show opens Friday, January 15, 2010, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and will be open for viewing at the same hours on Friday, February 22, and Friday, February 29, at Bragg's Pie Factory, 1301 Grand Avenue. Admission is free.

For good measure, Gutierrez has mixed in pop cultural icons — "St." John Coltrane balances a saxophone on his knee, a third eye painted on his forehead, while Marilyn Monroe blows a kiss with swollen red lips.

Throughout the evening, people have stopped to look at the flags. Others have been drawn inside to look at the artist's larger paintings. Dressed casually in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, dark hair tied back in a ponytail, Gutierrez cuts a sharp contrast to the carefully coiffed couples sipping fancy cocktails.

Though the night is winding down, he's a frenetic ball of energy, grinning beneath the festive prayer flags as he talks up potential clients.

A syrupy Beyoncé song blares from speakers on the outdoor patio, and suddenly Gutierrez is dancing, rocking his lean frame to the beat. He throws his arms in the air, bobbing his head for comic effect. He's the only one dancing on the lawn outside, looking a bit like a crazy person — not that he cares.

"I love this song!" he shouts, startling a young couple strolling down the sidewalk, hand in hand. He grins at them, pumping the air with his hands as they watch with hesitant smiles.

Gutierrez's girlfriend, Anna June Wilks, watches Luis as he stops and walks stiffly to one of the tables.

"His MS is bothering him," she murmurs. "I can tell by how he's walking."

She's probably the only one who notices. To others, he looks like a guy drunk on life — and maybe a little beer. He's all smiles as he staggers slightly, catching himself on one of the tables.

There's a lot about Gutierrez that isn't immediately apparent. To look at the irreverent, brightly colored prayer flags, you'd never guess they were created by a man plagued by multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that could one day make it impossible for him to paint. Already, on his worst days, Gutierrez is forced to crutch his hands, one supporting the other, just to draw a straight line. Other days, he sees double. It's possible that eventually he'll go blind.

So far, MS — not to mention a host of other life challenges — hasn't stopped Gutierrez from creating art as whimsical and goofy as he is. At 40, he's on the cusp of "making it," attracting international attention and exhibiting his paintings at venues as varied as the Smithsonian Museum in New York, museums in the Virgin Islands, Ontario, and Berlin, and locally at the Heard Museum and Phoenix Art Museum. Next, he's gearing up for a solo exhibition at Bragg's Pie Factory. Slated to open January 15, it will be his largest one-man show to date and will include selections from all phases of his career.

Of course, he still struggles to make ends meet. Gutierrez chats up a middle-aged woman in a leopard-print shirt who's been lingering for the better part of two hours before finally leaving with two paintings firmly under her arm. That'll cover next month's mortgage.

"Luis and his art — they're one and the same. They're inseparable," says Joe Baker, a former curator at the Heard who now works as Director of Community Engagement at the Herberger College of the Arts at Arizona State University. "Luis is making art about the raw truth of his experience and his view of the world. That's the good stuff."


It's early fall, and Luis Gutierrez is sitting on a navy blue couch he retrofitted with Anna June Wilks into the couple's modest two-bedroom home in downtown Phoenix. Wilks is in the kitchen, cooking pasta as Gutierrez paints.

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7 comments
Dia
Dia

Luis is my father! I'm proud of him.

Malissa
Malissa

Luis is an amazing artist and friend. He is fully of joy, humor, passion, ideas, action and partnership. He works alongside others to make their projects, passions or dreams become a reality. Thank you for honoring an artist who utilizes his gifts and demonstrates life's not easy, but MUST be enjoyed and shared with others.

Gustavo
Gustavo

I like the art of Luis. I like the powerfull colors, forms, concept... all.

Felicidades Luis...!!!

susan
susan

A really well-written story about a great artist and a crucial member of the creative community in Phoenix. Kudos to the author for recognizing Gutierrez's body of work. And kudos to the artist for continuing to create despite setbacks from MS.

TommyC
TommyC

An incredible story of humanity and the courses we can take. Have any of you ever thought of how interesting it would be to get on a flight from here to there and interview each passenger and crew member and then write about their lives and experiences? Just one flight could fill a novel...

"...alongside larger paintings from the series in which Gutierrez re-imagines a Europe discovered by Native Americans."

I really have a yearning to see this series. I recently became acquainted with a Native American who educated me on the movement in Europe that sensationalizes the Native American culture.

It will be interesting to see this perspective through art.

Kathleen D. Cone
Kathleen D. Cone

Amazing Story... I love Luis with all my heart! He's been a light in my life from the momemt I met him, brings joy wih his very presense and encouragment with every step. Luis is my Hero and I will always love him, forever and ever.

Kathleen D Cone.

 
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