By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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"At the time, I didn't really realize we were homeless," Gutierrez says. "It felt more like camping. My mom was really good at making it seem fun."
Though it left a deep imprint on Gutierrez's memory, "car school" didn't last long. Shortly after arriving in Florida, their father found them. The next day, the two children were on a plane to Phoenix, where they would live with their dad.
Although their mother would visit occasionally, Luis and Sam never lived with her again. Each time she visited, she looked a little shabbier, more spaced out, until one day when he was in junior high, her son barely recognized her.
"She didn't look right," he recalls. "She looked like a homeless scary person." Gutierrez had tucked a Three Musketeers bar into the elastic of a tube sock to snack on later. Hesitantly, his mother asked if she could have a little. "She devoured it like a frightened animal," he says. "It was awful."
At the time, his dad thought she was abusing hard drugs — and she might have been, Luis admits. Although they didn't know it at the time, she was also suffering from multiple sclerosis. It would be years before Luis saw her again.
Abandonment by his mother left an indelible impression on Gutierrez's psyche — expressed in a unique, Gutierrez sort of way. He calls it learning to "ride the wild dragon."
"You just have to learn to get over your shit," he says. "It's the superhero laugh. Your issues are like comic-book villains," he demonstrates by putting his hands squarely on his hips, cocking his chin and belting out an exaggerated baritone laugh. "You can't stop me!"
Relaxing, he shrugs. "You laugh it off."
Luis and Sam moved in with their father, Alfredo, and his wife, Nancy Jordan, in a house on a "good" block in graffiti-riddled south Phoenix, at the tail end of gang wars in the 1980s. In elementary school, Gutierrez remembers coming across bags of drugs lying in the street, and having to run home from school to avoid getting into fights.
Alfredo had successfully risen from a community activist and organizer to a local Chicano leader who marched alongside César Chávez during the civil rights era, and then to state senator — a position he would hold for nearly 14 years, some of those years as Senate president. When Luis and Sam moved in, he had already been serving in the Senate for several terms.
When they weren't in school, Luis and Sam helped their father's political campaigns by making signs and going door to door to talk to people about their dad. On rainy days, Alfredo would put on a documentary about Martin Luther King. King was one of Luis' heroes, "who'd say these amazing things and then get shot."
"It made me wake up," says Gutierrez of his political upbringing. "I got angry sooner than other people did — I wanted to change things. I wanted other people to wake up, too."
It was in the art room of Gerard Catholic High School that he found the way to do it.
"I hated high school. The art room was my solace. I realized I was good at it," he says. "It was something I could do without having to think about everything else."
As he gained confidence, he became bolder. His first attempt at "public art" was a mural on the side of a warehouse in downtown Phoenix. He and his best friend, Dylan Bethge (still a good friend and the owner of Portland's Wine Bar), planned the preliminary drawings days in advance. Their skater crew painted the mural illicitly over the course of several nights. Titled Are You Addicted?, it featured bottles of prescription pills, needles, Jesus, porn, and a television.
"I wanted to wake people up — are you happy? Are you addicted?" says Gutierrez.
While the walls of other buildings disappeared under a deluge of aerosol gang tags, Are You Addicted? stayed up for almost three years. Gutierrez was 16 years old.
Sam, who assisted on the project, remembers the mural as a turning point.
"I realized there was more to my brother — that he wasn't just some clown," he says. "He was serious about art."
Then Keith Haring came to town.
A famous artist from the heyday of the countercultural Pop Art scene in New York, Haring was in Phoenix painting a mural with kids at South Mountain High School. Gutierrez didn't attend that school, but he'd skate nearby and watch Haring work. Sometimes afterwards, they'd hang out at Haring's apartment and talk about art. Gutierrez thought Haring was "it."
After meeting Haring, Gutierrez's work became less representational. He started playing with lines and bright colors. Art became more than an outlet. It became a visual language.
"He was the first person I met who could cross worlds — hang out with kids in the barrio one day and have lunch with the mayor the next," Gutierrez says of Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990. "I wanted to be him."
After high school graduation, Gutierrez studied art at Northern Arizona University. He found the program to be overly traditional, rigid, and stifling.
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.