Fifteen years ago, the right person bought an old stone-and-brick residential house on West Mistletoe Avenue. A frequent purchaser and rehabber of homes, attorney Cindy Gabriel was also an art collector. When she discovered a wall-sized mural painting inside the little house – sold to her by legendary San Antonio artist Jesse Treviño, whose large-scale tile and painted murals adorn buildings throughout downtown and the West Side – she realized it might be important.
The wall painting was Treviño’s first mural-size work, painted in 1972 and titled Mi Vida. It depicts Treviño’s painful experiences returning home from serving in the Vietnam War, where gruesome injuries from a bomb blast eventually caused the amputation of his right hand, with which he painted.
“I knew how much pain and love was poured into it from Jesse,” Gabriel said. “Technically, it was his first mural ever. I could not see that I was not going to preserve it.”
Through Gabriel’s efforts, the 9-by-14-foot painting not only survived removal from the old house, but also eventually made the long journey from Treviño’s old home to the Smithsonian Institution.
Mi Vida is featured in Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, which opens Friday and runs through Aug. 18 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
In the exhibition, Treviño stands alongside some of his artistic heroes: Yoko Ono, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Edward Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Martha Rosler, and Mel Casas, with whom Treviño studied at San Antonio College after his injury.
When Treviño saw a recent article on the show in the Wall Street Journal, with his painting splayed in color across the entire page, he went silent, according to his assistant, Gabriel Velasquez. “He really wanted to impress upon me how significant that story and picture in the Wall Street Journal was. There are artists mentioned in that article that he studied when he was in school,” Velasquez said.
Treviño then said he’d worked his whole career to be an artist that could have his name shared in the context of those artists, “so for him it was a very significant moment,” Velasquez said.
The painting served as the backdrop for a news conference Thursday morning, the day before the exhibition’s public opening. One conversation made clear the import of the inclusion of Mi Vida in the exhibition, Velasquez said.
“The question at the time of the painting was, what is life like after the Vietnam conflict? The answer begins with that painting,” he said. “Of course he’s an artist, so he’s not answering with words, but answering with paint.”
Mi Vida is not just a painting in an exhibit, Velasquez continued, but “a legacy not just of Jesse, but of all Vietnam vets – those that have struggles, and those that have survived their struggles. It’s a testament.”
According to Anthony Head, author of the new book Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño, it was Casas who inspired Treviño to initially paint the wall of the bedroom on West Mistletoe black, as a blank canvas on which to depict his emerging, post-war identity. After contemplating the blackness for days, images begain to emerge: Around the face of a mysterious woman, who had reportedly given him a turquoise bracelet that also appears in the painting, Treviño painted his new prosthetic right forearm and hand, clutching the Purple Heart he earned for his battle injuries. A Darvocet capsule he took regularly to dull pain he still endured from his injuries complements the Viceroy-brand cigarettes and Budweiser beer he used to self-medicate, along with his more innocent vices of coffee and pan dulce. A ghostly image of himself as a soldier hovers to the right of the scene.
“He knew each night that something beautiful was happening in the bedroom,” Head wrote of Treviño’s process of re-learning to paint with his left hand, and of rediscovering his potential as an artist.
Head also notes that Mi Vida “was meant for an audience of one.” Gabriel confirmed that even Treviño himself felt that trying to preserve the mural, painted on a drywall surface dating back to the 1940s, would be a lost cause.
The artist was not alone in his skepticism. Gabriel consulted a raft of experts, including museum curators, engineers, and other artists, but none were able to offer a viable solution. She refused to give up. “Everyone kept saying it couldn’t be saved. I just kept thinking there has to be a way.”
Instead, it was the construction workers already contracted to work on the house’s rehab who knew what to do. They built a metal frame for the wall, then “opened up the home from the exterior wall, laid it down, and took it out,” she said.
Still, Gabriel acknowledged it was a dicey process. She told herself “if it breaks, it breaks.”
Gabriel had already contacted art conservator Anne Zanikos, to whom she entrusted the preservation and restoration of the work. Zanikos coated the surface of the painting in a protective covering of tissue and wheat paste, and it was trucked to her conservation studio in one piece, like a pane of glass.
“Cindy had an amazing, very creative, and brave crew,” Zanikos said.
The first question Gabriel asked her, Zanikos said, was “what do we have?” The painting presented some major problems, having been painted directly onto drywall, a “troublesome support” for preservation.
Zanikos undertook the major project of chipping away the drywall from behind the painting’s surface, “until at one point, I went home at the end of a really long day and realized that what I had was a 9×14 sheet of paint laying face down with a tissue paper and paste facing,” she said. “I didn’t get much sleep that night.”
She gave the piece a new aluminum honeycomb support, and “now it has gone from a wall to an exhibitable work of art,” she said.
One question remained: whether to leave intact the faceplate of the electrical outlet that had been in the wall and was included in Treviño’s painting. “Do we leave the telltale sign that it used to be a wall?” Zanikos asked.
After consulting everyone involved, the decision was made to leave it in “so that we’d always remember that it was a wall in his bedroom,” Gabriel said.
“For me these are parallel stories,” she said, “of the art piece, how it had to survive and come out, and how Jesse had to survive, and come out again. The piece is very significant.”
Treviño will take part in opening festivities for Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, alongside his surviving artistic colleagues from around the nation. He planned to attend a daylong symposium on Friday that considers how artists engaged politics and the public sphere during the Vietnam era. The symposium will be made available as live webcast, according to the museum.
Jesse Treviño also appeared in an earlier exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, which toured extensively from 2014-2017.