By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Inspired by the Lost Generation — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein — he decided to go expat in Europe, enrolling in a foreign exchange program at Rochester University in London. His dad agreed to pay for tuition, but not room and board.
For a while, Gutierrez lived with a British girlfriend. When she decided to go traveling, he was left homeless.
That, he explains, is how he ended up hunched over in a London park, poking through the grass for magic mushrooms with a pretty Italian girl he could barely understand. The girl was a part of an underground community of travelers, druggies, and bohemians who had commandeered a grand, four-story squat in the middle of north London. She was moving out, so Gutierrez moved in.
Depressed by the grim grayness of England, Luis longed for the barrio — the small homes in south Phoenix, with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe mounted above the couch, and a steaming pot of beans on the stove to welcome anyone who might drop by.
"I started to sketch privately, to comfort myself," he says. When he wasn't in school, drawing, or checking out London's acid-jazz scene, he read books about spirituality and shamanism. Soon his private drawings had acquired "auras" — brightly colored fields emanating from the characters.
"I didn't know it at the time — but that was it. That was my art."
Nor did he know at the time that he was afflicted with a serious illness. He was about to find out.
In 1993 on a typical London day — foggy, cold, and gray — Gutierrez and his girlfriend at the time, an Australian named Traci Latimer, got off the London Underground at the Kensington stop and meandered toward the Victorian Albert Museum. Gutierrez had smoked some pot. He could see the people out of the corner of his eye become blurry before splitting apart. He tried to say something about it to his girlfriend, but he couldn't wrap his tongue around the words. They came out labored and slurred.
Gutierrez had tried marijuana before — but this was entirely different from any high he'd experienced. At the time, Gutierrez thought it was pretty cool. It felt as if God were touching him.
Latimer thought something was horribly wrong. She was right.
She called Gutierrez's dad and told him she thought Luis was sick. The couple had already planned to head back to Phoenix to visit with his family for a few weeks before moving on to San Francisco. They made it to Phoenix — but Gutierrez never got on the plane to California. Instead, he went to the emergency room.
"He was worse than we'd expected," Sam recalls. "Really unkempt — kind of shaggy. Not dirty, but not well-cared-for, kind of neglected. But it was self-neglect — and there was the cognitive stuff. He seemed really dazed."
Alfredo was afraid his son had become a drug addict like his mother, according to Sam. Six specialists and an MRI later, Gutierrez was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis — a progressive autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It can lead to the loss of sight, mobility, fine motor skills, and possibly to death. It was the same disease that would kill his mother. There is no cure. He was 23.
At first, Gutierrez was in denial. When his girlfriend's visa ran out, she returned to Australia.
"I started drinking a lot of beer. I was depressed, so I thought, 'I'll just be a drunk!'" he says. "My dad finally brought me back to reality. He said, 'That's fine. You can be a drunk if you want.' But I was on his insurance, and he wasn't going to pay for it if I was drunk."
So Gutierrez transformed his disease into a catalyst.
"I had to become completely honest, completely authentic. Life is short. There isn't time for anything else."
He focused on turning his "private" drawings into paintings — boldly outlined images of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominated gigantic canvases, emanating brilliant auras.
But it was his series of paintings on multiple sclerosis in 2001 that really blew people's minds.
He'd met another woman, Heather Soderquist, a barista turned businesswoman. They had a daughter, Dia, got married, and moved to the Bay Area. It was there he suffered his second major MS episode. He enrolled in a class called "How to Be an Artist," where he had an epiphany.
"I realized there are three different parts to me. The spiritual part, there's the Hispanic part, and the disabled part. And I was going through a disease — I decided to work on the disabled part."
It was the middle of the night. Sitting on the floor of the living room in the small apartment in Concord that he shared with his wife and daughter, Gutierrez painted while his family slept. Canvas propped against the wall, Gutierrez's hand was too shaky to paint a clean line, so he supported it with the other hand. Once he started painting the MS series, he couldn't stop.
"It was like opening the floodgates. I was drawing everything — my hopes and fears and day-to-day trials and tribulations. There was an urgency to them."
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.