Willo North Gallery's "Generations: Inspiration of Bird City" Shows Three Artists' Influences

"Generations: Inspiration of Bird City" is about influence.

The exhibition, on view at Willo North Gallery, presents works from three prominent Phoenix artists (though two reside outside Arizona currently): Martin Moreno, Luis Gutierrez, who now lives in the Bay Area, and Joseph "Sentrock" Perez, who's currently based in Chicago. Influences explored include the artists on each other, Phoenix, and Latino culture.

See also: Joseph "Sentrock" Perez Won Bucketfeet's Next Artist Contest

Willo originally planned on hosting a solo show of Perez's work, but he proposed that they make the exhibition a group effort that paid tribute to some of his biggest artistic influences: Moreno and Gutierrez. There are about 20 years between each of them, and though their styles have street art roots, each is markedly different.

"We paint from the same place," Perez says of the artists' shared Phoenix connection. "We all have the same heart. But we express it differently."

Perez says he's consciously trying to move past his street art beginnings and into a more emotionally vulnerable realm of work with his new pieces like Leaving The Nest. Moreno's politically charged work straddles the two worlds with bold colors on large canvases. And Gutierrez looks at Latino culture and pop culture, painting his childhood heroes, including Superman and Wonder Woman, as looking like him.

"I grew up when there were no heroes who were Mexican. In the media and movies, all the Latinos were drug dealers or really just bad people," Gutierrez says. "So I looked to Superman and Super Mario Brothers. These are my heroes. In my world, it's like they become you. If they become like me, they become Mexican."

Seeing the saturated works together is fascinating, but the background story of Moreno and Perez provides more color than any of the paintings or drawings could hold.

To hear Perez tell the tale: Moreno came to his school, Esperanza Elementary in Phoenix, to paint a mural with a group of students. It was Perez's first experience with art, and it made him want to be an artist.

"Whatever this is, I want it forever," he says he realized while working with Moreno on the school project. "For art to come at that age, it meant so much"

Turns out, Perez had an impact on Moreno, too. The two reconnected at an exhibition of Moreno's and Perez told Moreno how he'd influenced him. Moreno had told Joseph's story around the country during his lectures and when painting new murals.

"This was maybe 20 years ago. I worked extensively in schools, mainly in the inner city and later all over the state," Moreno says. "Esperanza wanted to sponsor a residency for me. I had 20 students and worked with them for about 20 days. The idea was to create a mural. Joseph was in about the second grade, very quiet, but very talented. I spent some time teaching him how to draw."

He saw talent in Perez, and had him do the majority of the drawing for the project, which the whole group would go on to paint. When the project was complete, Perez thanked Moreno. That was it -- "thank you."

"I tell this story because I was touched," Moreno says.

Now, the two are showing in the same gallery. "[Perez] wanted to give tribute to people who had influenced him," Moreno says of the show. "It's a way of things coming full circle."

Moreno had inspired Gutierrez, as well.

When Gutierrez started out as an artist in the mid-1990s, he remembers Moreno was a major inspiration. "We were doing murals because Martin was. That's kind of how this whole art thing happens and works," Gutierrez says. "We get inspired by other people and do our thing in the vein of it."

He says inspiration and encouragement is a part of Latino culture. "We're basically taking care of each other. That's the history of Latinos in Arizona. We're constantly getting beat up."

"Latinos, we pass the torch to make sure the light stays on," Gutierrez says.

So, who's next in this line of artists? That's to be determined, the three agree. But Perez's fingers are crossed that Phoenix's next representative of Latino art sees the exhibition. "I hope I inspire somebody with this show," he says.

Maybe that undiscovered creative will be in attendance this Third Friday, August 16, when Willo hosts a free artist reception from 7 to 10 p.m. with Moreno, Gutierrez, and Perez.

In addition to the artwork, the reception will feature a short film by Mark Susan about Moreno and Perez's story that will screen during the event at 7:30, 8:30, and 9:30 p.m.

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