By Amy Silverman
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Gutierrez props a canvas horizontally between the couch and a foot stand. He paints while sitting because if he stands too long, his back muscles will cramp. He applies cobalt-blue acrylic paint to the bare canvas behind a rough outline of eight angels clustered around a haloed Virgin of Guadalupe.
More often than not, religion figures into Gutierrez's art — especially the Virgin. Cloaked modestly in a flowing cloth mantle, her image anchors Gutierrez to his Mexican-American roots. Abandoned as a child by his mother, Gutierrez has also come to see the Virgin as sort of a maternal guardian angel.
"She's the queen of Mexico," he says. "But for me, it has a lot to do with longing for a mother."
His living room doubles as a studio. His paintings are slowly taking over the house. They're in stacks on the floor, leaning against the wall. There's a pile of prayer flags under the couple's plump, gray tabby, Max, who apparently likes to participate in the creative process by sitting on the paintings. The room adjacent to the kitchen, which most non-artists would use as a dining room, has already been entirely overrun.
Small paintings from a series on multiple sclerosis line the white walls. One depicts nothing more than a man with an "MS" tattooed on his forehead. In another, titled Labeled Disabled, a man with Gutierrez's face is surrounded by dozens of floating handicap-only parking signs.
Entirely blocking off a small desk below the window is a stack of colorful, 5-foot-by-4-foot acrylics from a series in which Gutierrez explored what Europe might look like through a Native American's eye, had Native Americans discovered Europe first. One depicts a cartoonish knight mounted on a white horse, jousting with a small green dragon. In another, the Virgin Mary is ascending to Heaven, aided by a host of small angels.
The top painting belongs to a newer series — in which Gutierrez plays with archetypes, splicing and interweaving deities into god-like Frankenstein's monsters.
"I want to show people that they're all the same," he says.
For example, Gutierrez has taken the head of Hindu elephant god Ganesh, the "remover of obstacles," given it a halo and giant angel wings, and merged it onto the body of Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god of the Aztecs. In his hands are U.S. passports.
Wilks jokes that they might need to buy another house just to hold his art.
"I haven't been able to throw away junk mail in five years, because he's always drawing on it," she says. "I never know what could turn into the next big piece."
At first glance, Gutierrez's paintings appear simple. Drawing heavily on the style of Mexican folk art, they lack shading or perspective.
It's the themes that really pop. A Mexican Superman surrounded by angels runs from a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, cradling a woman in his arms. A Captain America wrestles a snake with skin the colors of the Mexican flag. A Portrait of the Artist as a Vegetable depicts a giant carrot, with Gutierrez's head on top — a commentary on his greatest fear: losing his ability to function because of his disease.
There's raw honesty in his paintings — an uninhibited naiveté inscribed in unapologetic lines. Interwoven into nearly all of his paintings — even the those dealing with the most serious subject matter, like racism, or those exploring his own mortality — is Gutierrez's cutting humor.
"It's got to make me chuckle. I can't hold a stoic face without breaking out into laughter," says Gutierrez of his art. "It seems so stupid if you're not laughing at life — because it's not that serious. It can get harrowing and seem serious but, shit, you've got to keep the joy."
From an outsider's perspective, it doesn't seem as though Gutierrez's life experience would give him very much to laugh about. He was born in 1969 in Mesa to Chicano activist parents. High school sweethearts Alfredo Gutierrez and Kathy Castro fell in love working in the civil rights movement.
They divorced when Luis was 4, and he and his older brother, Sam, moved with their mother to Northern California. Their father, by then a prominent Chicano activist and state senator, remained in Arizona.
His mother, a "Chicana, hippie, and flower child," apparently didn't like to stay in one place for too long. So after less than three years in California, she packed her two young sons into her new boyfriend's green Buick Electra and took to the road.
Luis and Sam refer to the next year of homelessness as "car school." Skipping Arizona, they drove across the country, never staying in one place for more than a month at a time, eventually making their way to Florida. (Alfredo Gutierrez declined to comment on this part of his son's history. Kathy Castro died in 2005.)
During the day, his mom would quiz them on math problems and current events. Sam would read local newspapers out loud to Luis, who passed time on the long stretches of road by drawing the cars and scenery outside the window. At night, Luis and his brother would sleep in the wells behind the seat — or in gas stations, trailer parks, or fleabag motels.
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.
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.
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.
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.