$70K restora­tion of iconic East End mu­ral brings faded artist/activist back to fore

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Glentzer

DEN­VER — Leo Tanguma is in no hurry to re­turn to the city that holds his ul­ti­mate achieve­ment.

He has had plenty of time to re­think all that hap­pened decades ago, when he painted “The Re­birth of Our Na­tion­al­ity” on the fa­cade of a fac­tory along a des­o­late, in­dus­trial stretch of Canal Street in Hous­ton’s East End.

One of the largest works of Amer­ica’s Chi­cano mu­ral move­ment, the piece had be­come so faded in 30 years that it was barely vis­i­ble when Har­ris County bought the prop­erty in 2013.

County of­fi­cials com­mit­ted $70,000 to re-creat­ing the mu­ral as part of an $8 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion. Tanguma, though, de­clined to re­paint it him­self. At 75, he no longer can climb scaf­fold­ing.

In­stead, he is di­rect­ing the project from a base­ment stu­dio at his home in the leafy Den­ver sub­urb of Ar­vada, with the aerosol artist Gonzo247 serv­ing as his “hands” on the job.

They are an un­likely fa­ther-son pair — the al­most for­got­ten, rab­ble-rous­ing rad­i­cal who sees paint­ing as a po­lit­i­cal protest, and the pop­u­lar for­mer tag­ger whose own re­cent im­ages shower ur­ban build­ings with hap­pi­ness and sun­shine.

Tanguma chose Gonzo, whose real name is Mario Figueroa Jr., from a list of can­di­dates to re-create the mu­ral be-

cause he thought they had a lot in com­mon. Figueroa felt a sense of awe as a small child each time he saw the paint­ing from the back seat of his par­ents’ car on Sun­day out­ings.

He be­gan the re-cre­ation by white­wash­ing Tanguma’s un­sal­vage­able orig­i­nal over the sum­mer. Then he took a care­fully scaled sketch drawn by Tanguma — an ex­act du­pli­ca­tion — and trans­ferred it onto the build­ing’s fa­cade in Septem­ber. He has spent re­cent weeks block­ing in large chunks of color, a foun­da­tion for finer de­tails that likely won’t be com­pleted un­til some­time next year.

“I hope peo­ple get the idea of what it meant,” Tanguma said. “It car­ries a mean­ing­ful mes­sage.” A sig­na­ture work

Hous­ton was a dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent city in the early 1970s, when Tanguma, his friend Remi­gio “Sparks” Gar­cia and a group of stu­dents from Texas South­ern Univer­sity tack­led the 240-by-18-foot fa­cade of what was then the Con­ti­nen­tal Can Com­pany at 5900 Canal Street, a lit­tle less than 3 miles from down­town.

While some in the city’s Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity sensed they were fi­nally achiev­ing equal­ity with An­g­los, oth­ers felt the fes­ter­ing anx­i­ety of racism — ten­sion that ul­ti­mately led to ri­ots in 1977, after Hous­ton po­lice killed Viet­nam vet­eran Jose Tor­res Cam­pos and dumped his body into Buf­falo Bayou.

Tanguma — a son of Texas-born farm work­ers with Mex­i­can an­ces­tors — stood firmly in the so­cial protest camp.

He was mo­ti­vated by his own ex­pe­ri­ence and the work of the Mex­i­can mu­ral­ists who cham­pi­oned work­ers in the early and mid-20th cen­tury. All of the sup­plies for the mu­ral were do­nated by peo­ple in the com­mu­nity.

Tanguma had be­friended the leg­endary mu­ral­ist and Texas South­ern Univer­sity pro­fes­sor John Big­gers, who en­cour­aged him to paint hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. He also trav­eled to Mex­ico, with Gar­cia and oth­ers, to meet his idol, the leg­endary mu­ral­ist David Al­faro Siqueiros.

At the time, Chi­cano artists across the U.S. were de­pict­ing Mex­i­can history in their work, creat­ing im­ages of Aztec cul­ture and rev­o­lu­tion­ary he­roes such as Emil­iano Za­p­ata and Pan­cho Villa.

Siqueiros told Tanguma that was point­less, be­cause Mex­i­can artists had al­ready painted those sto­ries, elo­quently. He en­cour­aged Tanguma to con­vey a more unique nar­ra­tive de­pict­ing Chi­canos — Amer­i­can cit­i­zens with Mex­i­can an­ces­try, like him­self.

In­spired partly by Siqueiro’s fa­mous “March of Hu­man­ity,” Tanguma’s mu­ral con­tains 70 char­ac­ters who move from both ends of the huge piece to­ward a cen­tral cou­ple who reach out to them from the cen­ter of a rose blos­som on a ground of skulls. The parad­ing fig­ures il­lus­trate the strug­gles of Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans to over­come ad­ver­sity and racism — farm la­bor­ers, sol­diers, fac­tory work­ers and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists, male and fe­male, young and old.

Ig­nor­ing the pleas of passersby who thought he should tone down his in­flam­a­tory im­ages, Tanguma knew he was do­ing the right thing when an el­derly woman watch­ing him paint “Re­birth” asked, “Is this for the poor peo­ple?” It was. As he still does with all of his pub­lic works, Tanguma in­cor­po­rated the faces of passersby or par­tic­i­pants who shared their sto­ries dur­ing the mu­ral’s cre­ation. Jesse Si­fuentes, a Galve­ston na­tive who worked on the mu­ral dur­ing his fresh­man year at TSU, ap­pears as a sol­dier in a pho­to­graph held by a woman.

Si­fuentes, now a well­known lo­cal artist and teacher, be­lieves “Re­birth” set a prece­dent for all of the pub­lic art in Hous­ton that would fol­low.

But Tanguma him­self was al­most for­got­ten, for rea­sons that hardly seem fath­omable in one of the most di­verse cities of the 21st cen­tury. His ideas for projects grew ever more con­tro­ver­sial be­cause he wanted to use his art as a voice against po­lice bru­tal­ity, en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion and the Amer­i­can­iza­tion of Chi­canos. In­vari­ably, his am­bi­tious projects were de-funded or — worse — de­stroyed while they were in progress.

Si­fuentes remembers Tanguma as “very rad­i­cal.” Oth­ers re­call him as quiet but in­tense, a man who never smiled and didn’t play by the art world’s un­writ­ten rules.

Jim Harithas, who came to Hous­ton in the 1970s to di­rect the Con­tem­po­rary Arts Mu­seum, in­vited Tanguma in 1973 to dis­play a ma­que­tte of “We The Peo­ple,” a pro­posed project the artist wanted to create with a crew of ex­con­victs. Tanguma hoped a pa­tron might see the model for a free-stand­ing, sculp­tural mu­ral at the mu­seum and pay for its cre­ation.

The ma­que­tte de­picted an Amer­ica built by non­im­mi­grant equals — white, black, brown and na­tive peo­ple.

“Peo­ple said it was what we needed: a sig­na­ture work for the city,” Tanguma said. “I was just a com­mu­nity artist from the bar­rio, but in some ways that made me the ideal mu­ral­ist. I’d learned on my own, by read­ing and meet­ing the masters.”

Harithas said he ex­tended the dis­play an ex­tra two months after Tanguma re­fused to re­move it — an un­heard-of de­mand. Still, it couldn’t be on dis­play for­ever. Tanguma still thinks Harithas was cav­ing to pres­sure from mu­seum bene­fac­tors who didn’t like the pol­i­tics of the piece. Ei­ther way, it ended with a brawl after Tanguma punched Harithas in the face.

“He was tough and wiry, and 15 or 18 years younger than me,” Harithas said. “But when I fi­nally got him down I thought, ‘If I hit him, it will de­stroy my Chi­cano pro­gram.’ ”

Tanguma be­came such a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure that no one com­plained when he dis­ap­peared. Aside from “Re­birth,” al­most noth­ing of his time here has sur­vived.

Tanguma con­cedes that maybe he was too “preachy.” He’s not an­gry any more, he said, “but I needed friends in those days, and peo­ple in Hous­ton had no in­ter­est in con­fronting the sys­tem.”

After his first wife died of cer­vi­cal can­cer in 1983, the artist packed up his fam­ily and moved to Den­ver, con­vinced that Hous­ton would never be hos­pitable. If he was go­ing to earn a liv­ing as a so­cial protest artist, he would have to do it some­where else. Start­ing strong

In mid-Septem­ber, Tanguma sat at the din­ing ta­ble of the com­fort­ably clut­tered home he shares with his sec­ond wife, Jeanne. A can­cer sur­vivor, he ap­peared meek and quiet. Jeanne knows his sto­ries as well as he does, and some­times prompts his thoughts.

“I want to tell you just pos­i­tive things, but there are so many aw­ful things,” Tanguma said.

His first mu­ral, hastily drawn in chalk in the early 1950s, sur­vived only a few min­utes and earned him a whip­ping.

The class­room in the South Texas com­mu­nity of Beeville was in chaos that morn­ing, with­out a teacher. Tanguma wasn’t the first to head to the black­board, but he could draw bet­ter than any of his class­mates.

Many of the chil­dren feared and de­tested Sher­iff Vail En­nis, a hard-line law­man who had killed mem­bers of their fam­i­lies but was never con­victed of mur­der.

“Draw me killing the sher­iff!” the other stu­dents goaded. So young Leo sketched a mob hang­ing En­nis and at­tack­ing him with ma­chine guns and ma­chetes.

Then a big, An­glo teacher ar­rived with a wooden ruler. She whacked Leo as she forced him to erase his of­fen­sive draw­ing.

Tanguma found his in­ner rev­o­lu­tion­ary that day, un­der­stand­ing early that his art could be a po­tent tool for protest and a voice for the op­pressed.

Tanguma’s par­ents dreamed of own­ing a small “ran­chito” but picked cot­ton and mowed lawns to keep their fam­ily of five afloat. In their two-room house, with only a makeshift shower his fa­ther built, ev­ery­one slept on the floor. They were de­vout Bap­tists in a com­mu­nity that was largely Catholic — so Tanguma was an out­sider of sorts even then.

Tanguma loved his par­ents. They were good peo­ple, he said. But like his sib­lings, he was pulled from school in the sixth grade to help in the fields. He left home at 14 with his older sis­ter Dina to find bet­ter work in Pasadena.

At 15, he lied about his age to join the Marine Corps. A wise sergeant sent him home from train­ing camp, but Tanguma made it into the Army at 17, in 1958. He got an ideal as­sign­ment in Ger­many, paint­ing mu­rals of Amer­i­can scenes at a new recre­ation hall. He spent his free time in the li­brary, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic and earn­ing his GED.

Tanguma re­turned home in 1962, mar­ried and had three kids, al­ways strug­gling to make ends meet. He drove a book­mo­bile for a while, worked at a chem­i­cal plant, tried a move to New Or­leans but came back, set­tling his fam­ily in the Baytown home of his mother-in-law.

He sold a few small paint­ings and wanted to go to col­lege but had no money for it. A fi­nan­cial aid of­fi­cer at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton sent him to TSU, where he cap­tured Big­gers’ at­ten­tion.

“Dr. Big­gers gave me a lot of courage,” Tanguma said. “But he didn’t con­front the sys­tem the way I did.” ‘Pro­pose a so­lu­tion’

By the time he left for Colorado, Tanguma was de­ter­mined to be smarter about earn­ing com­mis­sions.

“I didn’t want to wait 10 years to do the mu­rals I wanted to do,” he said.

He met Jeanne soon after he ar­rived, at a war protest meet­ing. She had to chase him but knew they were soul­mates. She loves his com­pas­sion. He calls her his rock.

In Colorado, his path fi­nally looked brighter.

The Den­ver Art Mu­seum hired him to create the 64-foot-wide, eye­pop­ping “The Torch of Quet­zal­coatl” dur­ing four months in 1984, as vis­i­tors watched.

Two per­ma­nent mu­rals, “In Peace and Har­mony with Na­ture” and “Chil­dren of the World Dream of Peace,” have been fix­tures at Den­ver In­ter­na­tional Air­port since 1994.

Yet con­tro­versy still found Tanguma: For a few years, con­spir­acy the­o­rists in­sisted his air­port mu­rals were Satanic. Oth­ers have called his work vis­ual ser­mons. He re­mains an enigma.

Even the art in his home re­flects this.

Aglow from the sun­light of a bay win­dow, the paint­ings on the Tangu­mas’ liv­ing and din­ing room walls possess a child’s sense of won­der, nos­tal­gia and sweet­ness.

The artist thinks of his grand­fa­ther when he looks at his canvas of an el­derly farmer giv­ing his lady a bou­quet of sun­flow­ers. The self-por­trait by the front door de­picts an el­derly man and his young grandaugh­ter, reach­ing to­ward a starry sky as they run through a flock of but­ter­flies.

In the low-walled stu­dio of the dim, L-shaped base­ment, more provoca­tive, so­cially-con­scious works fill ev­ery nook, cranny and wall, along­side new paint­ings with fiercely col­or­ful de­pic­tions of Aztec he­roes. Long ta­bles crowd the big­gest space, hold­ing sketches for the Hous­ton mu­ral.

Out in the pris­tine garage, a cen­tral frag­ment of “The Torch of Quet­zal­coatl” — the big piece cre­ated at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Art — rests against a wall along­side newer paint­ings that have not been shown pub­licly.

Like most of Tanguma’s mu­rals, “The Torch” was de­signed to be portable, painted on wood he saws into swoopy sec­tions, then lay­ers. He mixes sand into his acrylic paints to evoke the tex­ture of walls — a trick he learned from Siqueiros.

Many of Tanguma’s can­vases have a cen­tral fo­cal point, with sub­jects con­verg­ing from op­po­site sides, like the fig­ures of “Re­birth.”

“You can’t just say some­thing all neg­a­tive and leave it there,” he ex­plained. “You need to pro­pose a so­lu­tion.”

Tanguma is pleased to see his Hous­ton mas­ter­work re-cre­ated.

He’s put his re­sent­ment far enough be­hind to think about the fu­ture: He has re­cently sketched a 21st cen­tury ver­sion of “Re­birth” that he’d like to see cre­ated as a com­pan­ion piece to the orig­i­nal.

“I still see so much need for the kids in the streets,” he said.

For that pro­posal, he has drawn the punk­ish pachuco — a fig­ure that rep­re­sents him as a young man — hold­ing a diploma.

Marie D. DeJe­sus / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Above: Hous­ton aerosol artist Gonzo247 works on re-creat­ing Leo Tanguma’s historic “The Re­birth of Our Na­tion­al­ity” mu­ral on Canal Street. Below: “The Re­birth of Our Na­tion­al­ity” was painted by Tanguma and col­lab­o­ra­tors at the site in 1973.

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

Artist Leo Tanguma and his team had al­most com­pleted work on his mu­ral, “The Re­birth of Our Na­tion­al­ity,” on March 6, 1973. His team in­cluded four col­leagues and sev­eral as­sis­tants for the project on Canal Street.

Molly Glentzer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Now 75, Tanguma shows off the cen­ter sec­tion of his 64-foot mu­ral “The Torch of Quet­zal­coatl,” which he keeps in his garage in Ar­vada, Colo.

Molly Glentzer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Tanguma’s wife Jeanne, who was an ar­dent activist in her youth, ap­pears in a sec­tion of a mu­ral that has been saved in the artist’s Ar­vada, Colo., stu­dio.

Marie D. De Jesús / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Gonzo247 has been hard at work at re-creat­ing Tanguma’s mu­ral, start­ing with white­wash­ing the orig­i­nal over the sum­mer.

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