Paint on a Happy Face: Local Artist Luis Gutierrez Is on the Cusp of Making It in the Art World Despite Struggling with MS

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It's a warm November evening, and another First Friday is winding down at Portland's Restaurant & Wine Bar on the edge of downtown Phoenix. The pulsing bass blaring from the art walk's epicenter a few blocks away has faded, and the hordes have trickled to a few stragglers. Inside the restaurant, a few dozen people snack on gourmet hamburgers and pasta to the clink of cups and the thrum of the light rail across the street.

Some have come also to see the work of Luis Gutierrez. On the lawn in front of the bar, the artist has set up two tables covered by blue-and-white tablecloths to display colorful drawings, candles, and paintings. Inside, a few of his larger paintings lean against the back wall — there's one depicting mermaid versions of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are, while on another, a scantily-clad Bettie Page with angle wings kneels beneath a starless sky.

Gutierrez has strung a sagging orange extension cord between a palm tree and a lamppost. Attached by clothespins, and intertwined with red Christmas lights, are close to 100 prayer flags, painted in vivid colors on rough squares of canvas. Usually, prayer flags depict Tibetan writings or serene Buddhas on slips of cloth, but these are quirky interpretations. There's one of Jesus bent over backwards, as if he were a contortionist, with "Christ as a Ghost" scrawled below in childish black writing. Beaming Buddhas painted in bright red and orange are labeled with WWBD ("what would Buddha do?") in bold black.


Luis Gutierrez

Luis Daniel Gutierrez's solo show opens Friday, January 15, 2010, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and will be open for viewing at the same hours on Friday, February 22, and Friday, February 29, at Bragg's Pie Factory, 1301 Grand Avenue. Admission is free.

For good measure, Gutierrez has mixed in pop cultural icons — "St." John Coltrane balances a saxophone on his knee, a third eye painted on his forehead, while Marilyn Monroe blows a kiss with swollen red lips.

Throughout the evening, people have stopped to look at the flags. Others have been drawn inside to look at the artist's larger paintings. Dressed casually in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, dark hair tied back in a ponytail, Gutierrez cuts a sharp contrast to the carefully coiffed couples sipping fancy cocktails.

Though the night is winding down, he's a frenetic ball of energy, grinning beneath the festive prayer flags as he talks up potential clients.

A syrupy Beyoncé song blares from speakers on the outdoor patio, and suddenly Gutierrez is dancing, rocking his lean frame to the beat. He throws his arms in the air, bobbing his head for comic effect. He's the only one dancing on the lawn outside, looking a bit like a crazy person — not that he cares.

"I love this song!" he shouts, startling a young couple strolling down the sidewalk, hand in hand. He grins at them, pumping the air with his hands as they watch with hesitant smiles.

Gutierrez's girlfriend, Anna June Wilks, watches Luis as he stops and walks stiffly to one of the tables.

"His MS is bothering him," she murmurs. "I can tell by how he's walking."

She's probably the only one who notices. To others, he looks like a guy drunk on life — and maybe a little beer. He's all smiles as he staggers slightly, catching himself on one of the tables.

There's a lot about Gutierrez that isn't immediately apparent. To look at the irreverent, brightly colored prayer flags, you'd never guess they were created by a man plagued by multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that could one day make it impossible for him to paint. Already, on his worst days, Gutierrez is forced to crutch his hands, one supporting the other, just to draw a straight line. Other days, he sees double. It's possible that eventually he'll go blind.

So far, MS — not to mention a host of other life challenges — hasn't stopped Gutierrez from creating art as whimsical and goofy as he is. At 40, he's on the cusp of "making it," attracting international attention and exhibiting his paintings at venues as varied as the Smithsonian Museum in New York, museums in the Virgin Islands, Ontario, and Berlin, and locally at the Heard Museum and Phoenix Art Museum. Next, he's gearing up for a solo exhibition at Bragg's Pie Factory. Slated to open January 15, it will be his largest one-man show to date and will include selections from all phases of his career.

Of course, he still struggles to make ends meet. Gutierrez chats up a middle-aged woman in a leopard-print shirt who's been lingering for the better part of two hours before finally leaving with two paintings firmly under her arm. That'll cover next month's mortgage.

"Luis and his art — they're one and the same. They're inseparable," says Joe Baker, a former curator at the Heard who now works as Director of Community Engagement at the Herberger College of the Arts at Arizona State University. "Luis is making art about the raw truth of his experience and his view of the world. That's the good stuff."

It's early fall, and Luis Gutierrez is sitting on a navy blue couch he retrofitted with Anna June Wilks into the couple's modest two-bedroom home in downtown Phoenix. Wilks is in the kitchen, cooking pasta as Gutierrez paints.

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.

"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.

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."

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.

Alfredo Gutierrez was instantly suspicious. "I was afraid it was a scam," he admits. Luis wasn't. She was a living link to the mother he'd lost. Her name was Carmen. She came to visit Gutierrez and Wilks in Phoenix. They immediately fell in love with her.

"She was really warm," he says. "We connected instantly. I could tell that she really was my sister." As they became closer, Gutierrez says, she told them that she was married to a man who abused her. They began to plot how to get her out of her relationship — and failed. In June of this year, Carmen died. Acccording to local news accounts in Pennsylvania, her husband admitted he hit her with his car.

The news hit Gutierrez hard. He dealt with it the only way he could — through an art piece, created in the studio of his friend, Alexander Krump, and exhibited at "Chaos Theory," a group exhibit featuring local artists, and later at Arizona State University's Dia de los Muertos festival exhibit.

Unlike much of Gutierrez's other work, the sculpture is devoid of humor. It's eight feet tall — a massive, black strip of road divided in half by a broken yellow line, tapered at the top to provide perspective. In the distance, a green papier-mâché car races toward a woman. Dressed cheerily in a blue sleeveless dress, she emanates four layers of brightly colored auras, and clutches a bag labeled "last chance."

Though she seems unaware of the car, death has already cast its pallor. Her head is a gleaming white skull. On the ground, behind a kneeler from a church pew, the artist placed five squares of ragged canvas, inscribing them with a simple, brutally direct narrative.

"My sister was killed by her abusive husband. He ran her over with a car. Carmen had predicted her death. She said that if she ended up dead, we would know what happened to her. She said that. Her husband would kill her."

Krump says he'd never before seen Gutierrez work with such intensity.

"It was as though I wasn't in the room," he says. "When I saw the piece fully assembled I thought, 'Wow.' It was about family — it was about life. It was real."

The sculpture helped launch Gutierrez into the next phase of his career.

Bragg's Pie Factory on Grand Avenue in Phoenix is a yawning cavern of space with vaulted ceilings interlaced with thick, wooden eaves. It's the 5,000-foot blank canvas on which he plans to showcase his next artistic movement.

In mid-January, it will be filled with paintings from every stage in Gutierrez's career. Large and small pieces from the multiple sclerosis series will hang on the walls alongside larger paintings from the series in which Gutierrez re-imagines a Europe discovered by Native Americans.

But the artist is already looking beyond the two-dimensional paintings of his past, to installation sculpture and public art. In the middle of the room, he wants to put a car with two desks in the backseat — a nod to the "car school" of his childhood.

He wants to work in three dimensions — he's moving toward public art. He wants to create a community sculpture garden where local artists can showcase their work. He wants to make gigantic prayer flags and put them on permanent display in downtown Phoenix. He wants to make his mark, and he knows he doesn't have unlimited time. So he's busy.

"For a long time I've been focusing on getting my own voice," Gutierrez says. "Now that I know who I am, I want to see what I can do three dimensionally. I want to take it to the next level."

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