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

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