The Art of El Paso
BY RICHARD BARON
hen Mago Gandara was eight years old, she went to a play and her ankles fell asleep. On her way back home, she could hardly walk, the pain was so severe. Gandara had rheumatic fever. It was during her long recovery that she decided she wanted to become an artist. I remember sitting on my porch taking a little sun bath and munching a carrot, she recalls. I know it sounds strange, but it came right through the top of my head that I wanted to be a visual artist. After earning a degree in education with a minor in art, she began teaching high school in El Paso, then saved all her moneya thousand dollars in 1949to go to the Art Institute of Chicago. She later married and began raising a family, but made a vow to herself that no matter what, she would still be an artist. After 25 years of marriage and motherhood, she decided that the way to do that was to live alone. While teaching at the community college, Gandara wrangled an assignment to design and construct a mural. It took three years to complete, and she parlayed the task into a masters degree from Antioch and an assignment to create a mosaic mural for an elementary school in El Segundo Barrio that was being rebuilt. After a daughter lent her the money to realize her dream of having a home and studio in Juárez, Gandara began receiving assignments to create large outdoor mosaics in Mexico as well. I just want to do art and live like a bachelorette, she says. I go back and forth between El Paso and Juárez. In El Paso, its pure luxury. I have electricity, I have television and a refrigerator. I have all these modern things. In Juárez, I choose to live simple and basic. I dont have electricity, and I love the quiet. Theres a tremendous difference between Mexico and America. Its just culturally different, the way people talk, the sounds you hear. The little guy who sharpens knives has a whistle that goes tweee-doe, tweee-doe, and you know hes coming. The lady who sells tamales sings, Tamales, tamales, tengo rojo, tengo verde, tamales, tamales. You can hear her all over the neighborhood, Tengo rojo, tengo verde, tamales. Theres the lady who sells brooms, and the gas-tank man has a song. People play the radio and visit each other. I dont hear anything in my house in the U.S. Art is such a marvelous thing, I can be lying in bed at night or be digging in my garden and all of a sudden the idea of what Im going to do with my next piece comes to me. If youre an artist, youre not just an artist when youre making things, youre an artist all the time.
m not a radio personality, says Marina Monsivais of El Pasos KHRO. Im a music personality. Im also promotions director, in charge of the image of the stationany contest, any giveaway, the hokey stuff that keeps people listeningand bringing bands in, promoting them, making sure people know about them. I own a record label with a friend, Communal Heart Records. We did a compilation CD of bands from El Paso. We pressed and packaged it, and our goal was to get one of the bands signed to a major label, and we did. People think I have power to make them famous. Every Sunday night we play local independent music, and Im like, Im going to play your music because youre from El Paso. Dont worry about me liking your music; worry about it getting out, worry about making it happen. I cant make them famous. Nobodys famous in El Paso anyway. Youll have a DJ coming out of Lubbock who is on the air in Salt Lake and Albuquerque at the same time, but El Paso doesnt have that. Theres no way that I could have developed the way I have in any other place. Theres no way if I had walked into a station in Austin or in L.A. and said, I want to do a punk rock show. Theres no way I could have walked into TicketMaster and said, Can I learn how to run concerts? because somebody there would have already been doing it. El Paso let me be exactly who I am. And right now Im very, very happy with who I am. ernando Villela was 11 when his family emigrated from Torreón to El Segundo Barrio. He started doing art in the army, drawing portraits of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam. After he was discharged, he worked in Los Angeles, then moved back to El Paso, where he began working as a sign painter, hand-painting billboards on the freeway. We painted some of them in the warehouse and then wed put them up in sections, but we also got out there and climbed the ladders a hundred feet over the freeway and painted right on the billboards. They were 14-feet high by 40-feet long, and I painted pictures of just about everythingbuildings and cars and people. In the 80s, computers came into the advertising media, and little by little the sign painting industry went downhill. There is not any craft there anymore. I was told to get training in computers, but I said to myself, Im a craftsman, and if I get into computers, the computers are going to do the work and Im going to be like a secretary. Ill become a slave to computers.After working as a sign painter for 30 years, Villela enrolled at the University of Texas-El Paso as a painting and sculpture major. In 2004, at the age of 58, he received his degree. He now teaches art at a charter high school for troubled kids, and is working on his teaching certificate.
orn on the east side of El Paso in 1975, Kenny Phillips started playing the cello when he was in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade, he heard some Shostakovich and a recording of Dvoraks Cello Concerto and became determined that he, too, would play that well. He figured out the melodies and themes without looking at the music or learning the études and at 15 was invited to join the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. Playing and studying the cello is like having a conversation with people who lived 250 years ago, he says. When you play Bach, you hit a high and lower octave in the same note, and your attitude changes every day because you can never play Bach the same twice. But Phillips no longer plays Bachor Shostakovich or Dvorak. In September 2000 he was riding his bike, and three months later he woke up from a coma in the hospital. He has no memory of the accident and was told that he had gone through a windshield. If I had been hit a little harder, Id be a quadriplegic right now, but I got lucky. I have brachial-plexus, which means my nerves are stretched and Im paralyzed on my left side.
I was in the hospital for seven months after I awoke from the coma, but I had no insurance so the state just threw me all over the place. My house and my car got repossessed. My celloI had just bought a new Montagnana celloI had to give my cello back to the bank. First thing I learned to do with one hand was tie my shoes. Now I do everything. I change the oil. I can cook really well. I can make dinner, make drinks, make coffee, clean the fridge, all at the same time, all with one hand. You get more focused, you think about what you have to do. For a while he continued to focus on music, teaching cello to several students. Now he is studying for a masters degree in occupational therapy. I try to let people know that Ive gotten over it and that its okay to make a joke about it, he says. Did you hear about the guy who was in an accident and was in a coma for three months? When he woke up, he asked the doctor, Hey, Doc, will I be able to play the viola after I get better? and the doctor looked at him earnestly and put his hand on his shoulder and said, No, son, Im afraid you wont ever be able to play the viola, and the guy says, Thats okay; Im a cellist. Im just happy to be alive, I dont take things so seriously anymore, and my joke is I should be dead. ony Gleaton was born in Detroit in 1948 and moved to L.A. when he was 10. I never saw any of my friends again, he recalls. There was a break, a disconnect, that prepared me to be able to just leave and go off whenever I wanted, which Ive been doing for long as I can remember. After serving with the Marines in Vietnam, he went to UCLA and schlepped around there for three or four years, kind of got interested in art. After UCLA he went to New York and did fashion photography, but left after three years and hitchhiked throughout the West. He started doing photos of cowboys in northeastern Nevada, then black and Native American cowboys in eastern and central Texas. That work led to a project he called Cowboys: Reconstructing an American Myth. From there, Gleaton went to Mexico and began spending time in the Copper Canyon area, living with the Tarahumara Indians. The government gave me the use of a huge kiva house that forded the river. Theres a reason people have small houses in the mountains, because when it gets cold you can only heat so much with a wood stove, and this place was huge. But I put a darkroom in there. I dont know how many times I would travel back and forth on Louies El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express dragging photographic equipment, chemistry, packs of paperI had everything up there. Gleaton began researching the area and discovered that about 500 African slaves had worked the mines of Hidalgo de Parral in the 1600s. Their offspring were still in most of the northern mining centers in Mexico. That led to an investigation of the African diaspora throughout Mexico, and Central and South America, a subject upon which he frequently lectures. Recently Gleaton taught at Texas Tech, where he was also the artist in residence. Ive been crossing the Mexican border on and off for the last 20 years, he says. Ive crossed at every major crossing point, starting west to eastTijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Yuma, Nogales, Santa Ana, Columbus, Juárez, Ojinaga, Laredo, Del Rio, Brownsville. The borders funnyit acts as a funnel, a sieve, where people are in transit, but its not enough of Mexico, and its too much of here. The borders never a place that I wanted to hang out at. I was living up in the mountains with the Indians, and El Paso was a place that I had to negotiate, a place I had to go through. In the rest of Texas, people look at El Paso like its southern New Mexico. The two places have like the same heritage, but New Mexico has an indigenous symbol for their state, its The Land of Enchantment. Can you imagine someone calling Texas The Land of Enchantment? Its more like, Dont Mess with Texas. Texas ideology is summed up in the right to capture waterif you can pull it out of the land, its yours. Its the right-to-carry state. ne of Nadja Plagens earliest memories is of the day her aunt took her to see some Kandinskys at a museum in Munich. It was his later work, his really cool, spiritual stuff, she recalls. I saw it and I liked it, and I convinced my aunt to buy me all the posters. Plagens had spent her childhood traveling from one German Air Force base to another. At 18 she applied to an art school in Munich. The same day that she received her letter of acceptance, her father came home and announced that the family was moving to the United States. Instead of Munich art school, she found herself enrolled at the University of Texas-El Paso in a program designed for Germans assigned to Ft. Bliss. After two years she began studying art, focusing on printmaking. I like that there are a lot of steps to printmaking, she explains. Its like following a recipe, or praying the rosary, where you have to do different things to get to the image. Im fascinated with processes, thinking how things begin and end. You start a letter, you end a letter. Youre born, you die. But Im not just focusing on life and death; I like the idea of things being alive in the memory. Sometimes I alter old photographs, I draw on them, and I work them into a print. Its spontaneous memories and impressions that I put on the plate. My friends in Europe ask how can I be over here, how can I spend money here, how can I support what America is doing by living here, but Ive gotten to know a whole different side. The changes in America frighten me; its upsetting and frustrating to see whats going on, but I dont have a problem with the States in general. Ive met great people here. Its just a different lifestyle. I dont feel Ive become more American; I feel more like an El Pasoan. I never really had a physical house that I could come back to, where you know the certain smell of things, because my parents were always moving around. El Paso became the first place I had that. I enjoy getting up and doing things every day here. The people, the food, the lights, the sunset, the sunrise. Downtownits so beautiful. I get a cup of coffee, I walk around, I go to Juarez, I buy earrings and cheap shoes. Theres a certain attitude towards life here. Ive met some of the greatest people here. Theyre grateful for life, and theyre adventurous. Theyre very easy-going. Its something I have to learn because Im like, Here is the next step, this is what I have to do now. Im very structured. Im very controlled. Im German. Recently Plagens received her degree and will soon move back to Germany. espite his 1938 birth in central Illinois, Jay White is adamantly not a Yankee, damn it. At two months, he moved to Sonora. Thats where he grew up, a Texan.
He started his first novel, The Rattler of Zacatecas, in 1989. It took him 14 years to write. The research took about 10 years, he explains, the writing took about two, and there were a couple years off when I just didnt work on it. The protagonist is a young dude who survives Vietnam, a
d its about his understanding of what constitutes courage and what constitutes cowardice, and where he sits in the balance of that. Its portrayed through the story of the Mexican Revolution, and its based on historical record as told by fictional characters. But it explores Schopenhauers idea that the only way an individual can be free is if he acts on his passions, because otherwise hes a sheep. When you start writing a novel, you really dont know what youre getting yourself into. Its like belladonnathe motherfucker blooms late and then it has a prickly pear. You start dreaming dialogue and plot. You quit the computer late at night and fall into bed, and you sleep for four hours, and you wake up remembering dreams of plot and dialogue. You get up, throw on your ratty-ass robe and get back to the computer and start writing again. Eventually you get to where the unconscious suggests plots and characters and dialogues, like a dream, and you can hardly keep up with the flood of images that emerge while youre sitting there looking at the screen. Flannery OConnor said that you ought to spend four hours a day at the keyboard, even if you didnt strike a key, just to be there in case you had a brainstorm. I love Flannery OConnor, shes a magnificent artist, and it worked for her, but she was Catholic, and she was an invalid. All she had to do was raise peacocks and write.
After finishing his first novel, White began teaching himself how to write a second one. This time hes writing about Pancho Villas raid on Columbus, New Mexico. You have to be passionate about writing, he says, But its not about writing, its about language. In the first sentences of Markmaybe its Lukeit says, In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Language is the mythology that commands our lives; you cant think without words, and if you dont have enough words, the nuance becomes emotional rather than intellectual. You have to have both; you have to have the art and the craft. Richard Baron is a photographer, writer, and arts activist in El Paso. The profiles in this article are part of an ongoing project exploring life and art on the border.