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 money—a thousand dollars in 1949—to 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 master’s 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, it’s 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 don’t have electricity, and I love the quiet. “There’s a tremendous difference between Mexico and America. It’s 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 he’s 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.’ There’s the lady who sells brooms, and the gas-tank man has a song. People play the radio and visit each other. I don’t 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 I’m going to do with my next piece comes to me. “If you’re an artist, you’re not just an artist when you’re making things, you’re an artist all the time. ”
’m not a radio personality,” says Marina Monsivais of El Paso’s KHRO. “I’m a music personality. I’m also promotions director, in charge of the image of the station—any contest, any giveaway, the hokey stuff that keeps people listening—and 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 I’m like, ‘I’m going to play your music because you’re from El Paso. Don’t worry about me liking your music; worry about it getting out, worry about making it happen.’ I can’t make them famous. Nobody’s famous in El Paso anyway. “You’ll have a DJ coming out of Lubbock who is on the air in Salt Lake and Albuquerque at the same time, but El Paso doesn’t have that. “There’s no way that I could have developed the way I have in any other place. There’s 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.’ There’s 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 I’m 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 we’d 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 everything—buildings 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, ‘I’m a craftsman, and if I get into computers, the computers are going to do the work and I’m going to be like a secretary. I’ll 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 Dvorak’s 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 Bach—or 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, I’d be a quadriplegic right now, but I got lucky. I have brachial-plexus, which means my nerves are stretched and I’m 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 cello—I had just bought a new Montagnana cello—I 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 master’s degree in occupational therapy. “I try to let people know that I’ve gotten over it and that it’s 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, I’m afraid you won’t ever be able to play the viola,’ and the guy says, ‘That’s okay; I’m a cellist.’ “I’m just happy to be alive, I don’t 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 I’ve 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. There’s 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 don’t know how many times I would travel back and forth on Louie’s El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express dragging photographic equipment, chemistry, packs of paper—I 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. “I’ve been crossing the Mexican border on and off for the last 20 years,” he says. “I’ve crossed at every major crossing point, starting west to east—Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Yuma, Nogales, Santa Ana, Columbus, Juárez, Ojinaga, Laredo, Del Rio, Brownsville. “The border’s funny—it acts as a funnel, a sieve, where people are in transit, but it’s not enough of Mexico, and it’s too much of here. “The border’s 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 it’s southern New Mexico. The two places have like the same heritage, but New Mexico has an indigenous symbol for their state, it’s ‘The Land of Enchantment.’ “Can you imagine someone calling Texas ‘The Land of Enchantment’? It’s more like, ‘Don’t Mess with Texas.’ “Texas’ ideology is summed up in the right to capture water—if you can pull it out of the land, it’s yours. It’s 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. “It’s like following a recipe, or praying the rosary, where you have to do different things to get to the image. I’m fascinated with processes, thinking how things begin and end. You start a letter, you end a letter. You’re born, you die. But I’m 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. It’s 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 I’ve gotten to know a whole different side. The changes in America frighten me; it’s upsetting and frustrating to see what’s going on, but I don’t have a problem with the States in general. I’ve met great people here. It’s just a different lifestyle. “I don’t feel I’ve 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. Downtown—it’s so beautiful. I get a cup of coffee, I walk around, I go to Juarez, I buy earrings and cheap shoes. “There’s a certain attitude towards life here. I’ve met some of the greatest people here. They’re grateful for life, and they’re adventurous. They’re very easy-going. It’s something I have to learn because I’m like, ‘Here is the next step, this is what I have to do now.’ I’m very structured. I’m very controlled. I’m 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. That’s 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 didn’t work on it. “The protagonist is a young dude who survives Vietnam, a
d it’s about his understanding of what constitutes courage and what constitutes cowardice, and where he sits in the balance of that. It’s portrayed through the story of the Mexican Revolution, and it’s based on historical record as told by fictional characters. But it explores Schopenhauer’s idea that the only way an individual can be free is if he acts on his passions, because otherwise he’s a sheep. “When you start writing a novel, you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s like belladonna—the 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 you’re sitting there looking at the screen. “Flannery O’Connor said that you ought to spend four hours a day at the keyboard, even if you didn’t strike a key, just to be there in case you had a brainstorm. I love Flannery O’Connor, she’s 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 he’s writing about Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. “You have to be passionate about writing,” he says, “But it’s not about writing, it’s about language. In the first sentences of Mark—maybe it’s Luke—it 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 can’t think without words, and if you don’t 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.