Second life Jesus Salas paints his redemption with both hands
Santa Fe is not known as a youthfriendly town. Gang violence and crime were severe enough in the mid-1990s to prompt Debbie Jaramillo, who was the mayor at the time, to combat it by encouraging mural projects throughout the city to keep teens occupied and out of trouble. In September 1994, in response to growing gang violence, three rival gangs initiated a truce. In collaboration with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe and other nonprofits, they began working on the city-supported mural projects under the mentorship of local artists. The aim was to combat graffiti, provide alternatives to gang activity, and offer teens an outlet for creative self-expression.
Jesus Salas, a Mexican immigrant raised in Santa Fe, was among them. He saw his friends fall victim to drugs and crime — some even meeting early deaths — and wanted something better for himself. When he started painting murals with the Boys & Girls Clubs, he found that art and art-related skills could provide an escape, a way out of the darkness. He was one of the original students who painted the mural at Capital High School, which was completed in 1996. Salas, now a manual laborer as well as an artist, began helping out in the studio of realist painter Eli Levin. “I picked up the preparation skills from Eli,” Salas told Pasatiempo . “When I started working for him, he had me prep the boards. I was fourteen. Then I was invited by him to go to his drawing group. I did some nudes, some figure drawings. I did an etching, and then I helped him paint a mural for Fabio’s Grill. That was cool. We didn’t eat out, my family and I, and I was so excited that I was part of something that was hanging in a restaurant.” Through the years Salas has occasionally shown a piece or two at Argos Studio/Gallery and Santa Fe Etching Club, owned and operated by Eric Thomson and the current venue for Levin’s long-running drawing group. “I consider myself one of Eli’s apprentices and also one of Eric’s,” said Salas, whose mural project Mi Jornada al
Centro del Yo ( Journey to the Center of the I) opens at the Betterday Coffee Shop on Friday, March 20.
Salas’ mural project consists of two large-scale paintings in egg tempera that are, in many respects, mirror images of each another. One is monochromatic, the other is multicolored. One is finely detailed and figurative, the other more gestural and abstract. One was painted with his right hand, the other with his left. Salas, who is naturally right-handed, worked on the murals simultaneously, switching back and forth between them. “I had to learn the brushstroke as I’m working,” he said of the more abstract, left-handrendered composition. “Once I started, it was kind of weird how the hand was finding its own place. I was not trying to teach it how. You just let it flow. You’ve got to give it its space. It’s just a different kind of focus. There’s no perfection. If I worry about making a mistake, I’ll fall behind because I’ll want to correct it.”
The paintings are autobiographical: pictures of the life he came from and the life he is living now. The dark, monochromatic work is a view of Santa Fe that is filled with symbolic elements related to specific moments in Salas’ past. A line of winged angels representing people from his life fills the painting’s middle, below an image of a powerful locomotive. “I give them wings because I want them to fly,” he said. “I wanted the power of the steam train, the force that would drive me.” A house he built in town is depicted in one area of the work with the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi pictured on a hill above it. Other aspects relate to his faith: the figures of Jesus Christ and of the Madonna, her long mantle of stars spread out behind her. “The constellation starts with Aries and ends with Pisces,” said Salas, who envisioned the work as an allegorical journey of the soul through the endless round of existence. A figure emerges from the darkness on one side, near the representation of Zozobra, the effigy burned annually at the start of the Santa Fe Fiesta. “Why is there a burning? What is the purpose? You burn your sorrows. You burn all those bad vibes. You burn them all and get rid of them and you’re reborn. It comes back to this: You die and you’re reborn.”
In the center of the foreground of the darker of the two compositions is a white peace dove. Behind it a massive hole in a brick wall hints that the bird has broken through some sort of barrier. Inside the hole is a scene of an erupting volcano. “During the beginning of creating this, I felt like I was going to erupt, and I wanted to erupt like a volcano. I just had to do it. Since I’ve gotten this far, that kind of sensation went away. There’s no anxiety to produce the picture anymore. It’s gone. I’m mostly just touching it up to finish it. But the process until now was like a roller coaster.” Christ and the Madonna, who holds her child at her waist, are also in the foreground and have several associations for the artist. “The Madonna has big feet in this picture. It looks like a nail is being pulled out of one foot. It’s
about her pain. Once a woman gives birth, there’s so much sacrifice, from what I’ve seen in my culture. A lot of young girls become moms, and a lot of mothers suffer. Her suffering is seeing the death before her eyes. But the baby is looking at her and letting her know life is OK. In a way, it becomes another cycle. The man is touching the head of the woman, the woman is touching the belly of the boy, and the boy is touching the man’s heart.”
Salas hopes to create a digital print of both paintings, overlapping them to more explicitly reveal their correspondences. The dusky painting’s colorful twin has elements that correlate with some of the former’s imagery — and in roughly the same places. The hole through which we glimpse the volcano in the monochromatic painting is replaced by a greenish circle, a swirling vortex with rays like the sun, in the colorful one. A red bird flies into its center. “This is the creative part, all the emotion. Whatever the pain was, this one has to come back to the opposite. The red represents passion. The green is like the green earth. We’re made of two components, man and spirit.” Taken together, the two paintings are a fusion of contrasting elements into a single whole. Thus they share one title, as with a diptych. His left-hand/right-hand practice is an act of balance and self-mastery; the resulting work tells Salas’ own story of triumph over adversity. “Some of us want to live in our teenage years for the rest of our lives, and we never grow up. But it’s not reality. We’re not really seeing our own process of living because we get stuck. What I’ve learned is that I don’t like getting stuck.”
Jesus Salas: Mi Jornada al Centro del Yo (Journey to the Center of the I) Opening reception 4 p.m. Friday, March 20; through April 18 The Betterday Coffee Shop, Solana Center, 905 W. Alameda St.; open 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays