Longform

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

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.

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."

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Malia Politzer
Contact: Malia Politzer