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His notebooks quickly filled with close to 100 sketches. Twenty-five of them became small paintings. Five eventually became larger paintings on canvases four feet wide by five feet tall.
In one, a man with Gutierrez's face sits in a wheelchair. Sprouting from his back are giant angel wings. Another, titled I Eye, explores what it's like to lose sight. A man with no pupils lifts his hands in the air searchingly, palms out, surrounded by brilliant blue aura and floating open eyes. His white shirt is labeled with "MS."
Another, called Angel of Power, is a self-portrait of Gutierrez with enormous angel wings. One hand holds a cane. The other hand, curled into a fist, is lifted defiantly toward the sky.
Gutierrez had a goal: "I wanted the world to see them."
Three months later, on September 11, 2002, he was on a plane to Germany to show the series at a gallery and club in Berlin. It was his first international show.
"People were really impressed," says Martin Schmidt, known locally as DJ Peri. Schmidt, who was living in Berlin, jumped at the chance to bring Gutierrez's art to Germany and held a benefit concert to pay for his plane ticket.
The paintings, Schmidt says, were "so colorful and so positive — it's not something you'd expect from someone who was suffering from multiple sclerosis."
The Berlin Multiple Sclerosis Society selected Gutierrez's work to display at their 50th anniversary event. They used others to illustrate pamphlets about MS.
Shortly after Gutierrez returned from Germany, his marriage fell apart. He moved back to Phoenix with $6 in his pocket and got a job as a pedal cab driver. It didn't pay well, but he thought exercise would help his body resist the MS. Sometimes he'd work 12-hour shifts, several times a week, even as new symptoms continued to develop. Sometimes he'd get double vision. Other times his speech would slur.
Gutierrez painted through his disease and his painful divorce — transforming his angst into brightly colored, almost optimistic paintings cataloguing human relationships and what it's like to live with a disease. He relies on this optimism and humor to keep him going.
For Sara Cochran, a curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, it's these sorts of experiences that give Gutierrez his gift.
"His paintings reflect that singular vision and experience — and I think there's a great empathy in his work," she says. "Especially with his MS, his work in a way has been an escape but also a way of dealing with [his disease]. The work and his personality have become sort of fused."
The MS series is probably still his most famous work, but it's not Gutierrez's only subject matter. During his divorce, Gutierrez painted a lot about relationships. Then his work became political. Often, it's inspired by his heritage, as well.
In 2005 — around the same time he met Anna June Wilks — Gutierrez visited a friend in Montgomery, Alabama, where he happened upon the Hank Williams museum. The museum was inviting artists to submit paintings for a calendar.
Gutierrez struggled with the assignment. He couldn't quite capture the lines of Williams' nose, or the narrowness of his lips. "I wasn't used to painting white people. He kept coming out looking Mexican," he says. Tired of listening him to complain, a friend said, "Just make him a Mexican."
Hank Williams Is a Mexican never made it into the calendar. The curator sent a curt letter to Gutierrez saying that the painting was not included because Hank Williams was, "most decidedly, not a Mexican."
But it did inspire an entire series of work. "I realized, because of reciprocity, that if I identified with Hank Williams, I became Hank Williams for a little bit of time," says. "So if reciprocity is the rule of life, then you can switch it around, and he becomes a Mexican. And if that's true, then all my heroes were Mexican. Batman was Mexican, Jesus was Mexican, Steve McQueen was Mexican."
Joe Baker was looking for local artists to use in a show at the Heard called "REMIX," featuring Native American and Chicano art. In 2005, he saw the painting of Hank Williams hanging in Fair Trade Café, near Portland's in downtown Phoenix, and immediately knew that Gutierrez belonged in the show.
"It's about real stuff," Baker says. "Real stuff is not comfortable for people. He paints with humor. But underneath that humor is the reality of a big, powerful story. It's visceral, and humor is a way into the story. It's up to you how far you want to go with it."
After "REMIX," Gutierrez was flying high. The show went to the Smithsonian in New York, then Ontario. He exhibited paintings in the Virgin Islands. When he wasn't exhibiting his own work, he taught art to children in the Phoenix area, as part of an after-school program. Earlier this year, the Phoenix Art Museum invited him to participate in "Locals Only," which showcased the work of 12 Chicano artists from the Phoenix area.
Then family tragedy struck.
It had started in 2007 with a phone call, from a sister Gutierrez never knew he had. The girl was abandoned as a baby by his mother, she explained, then adopted by a family in Pennsylvania.
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.
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