San Antonio painter and muralist Jesus Campos “Jesse” Treviño died early Monday at age 76, leaving behind a legacy of fierce commitment to art-making.
Treviño’s art is as recognizable as the San Antonio skyline, prominently visible in the nine-story Spirit of Healing tile mural of 1997 that enlivens the facade of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, and La Veladora of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a 40-foot mixed media mural from 2003 adorning the plaza of the Guadalupe Center of Cultural Arts.
The artist achieved early notoriety for his photorealist paintings focused on the people and places of San Antonio’s West Side, where his parents Juan and Dolores relocated four years after Treviño was born in Monterrey, Mexico, as one of 12 children.
Many of Treviño’s paintings evoke family and neighborhood life, drawn from experience and rich with Mexican American symbols. Other artworks probe his experiences as a military veteran who witnessed firsthand the reality of war and its aftermath.
All tell the story of an artist who overcame adversity to achieve greatness.
Where to see Jesse Treviño’s public art
Treviño was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2012, and the effects of repeated treatments could be debilitating, said longtime caretaker Gabriel Velasquez. Velasquez traced Treviño’s cause of death back to Feb. 23, 1967, when as a private in the U.S. Army he was gravely wounded in action on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
“So much of what made his struggle difficult was the effects of the Vietnam War,” Velasquez said.
Trevino’s wounds were mental and physical, including post-traumatic stress disorder, deafness, a collapsed lung, a shattered femur and — most devastating to the already burgeoning artist — the loss of his dominant right arm.
Pursuing his passion
As he was medically evacuated from the battlefield, Treviño vowed that if he survived he would continue as an artist, depicting the people and places most meaningful to himself and his Mexican American community.
Years of surgeries and rehabilitation framed a dark period of personal struggle during his recovery, as Treviño faced the loss of use of his painter’s arm.
Biographer Anthony Head wrote in his 2019 book, Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño, that Treviño felt he was being punished by God, unable to pursue his passion of painting.
A persistent fellow veteran persuaded Treviño that his talents lay deeper within, and that he could learn to paint again with his left hand. The result was Armando Albarran, a small 1968 portrait in acrylic paint on canvas. Whatever uncertainties in its execution are far overcome by the extraordinariness of Treviño’s determined achievement.
Still, years of anxiety, depression, uncertainty and physical struggle led Treviño to feel unmotivated while recovering in his mother Dolores’s Monterey Street home.
Inspired by fellow San Antonio veteran artist Mel Casas — both men had been awarded the Purple Heart for their military service — Treviño would paint his bedroom wall black, and eventually realize Mi Vida, 1972, the wall painting that would define the remainder of his life.
In good company
Recently, the painting was removed from its original site in Treviño’s West Mistletoe Avenue house, conserved, then displayed prominently in the 2019 Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
At the time of the exhibition, Treviño told Velasquez he was honored to be displayed alongside his artist heroes Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Edward Kienholz and Casas, among others, and for a full-color image of the work appearing in The Wall Street Journal.
By that point, Treviño was no stranger to receiving recognition and meeting prominent figures.
In 1986, during a brief stop in San Antonio, then-Prince Charles met Treviño and viewed a painting of a mother and child. The following year, Treviño stood in the White House viewing his painting The Alamo with President Ronald Reagan.
Treviño had an uncanny ability to get along with people across the political and social spectrum, Velasquez said. “He was politically savvy, with friends on both sides of the aisle, be it Hillary Clinton or Rick Perry.”
As first lady, Clinton invited Treviño to accompany her on a 1998 trip to Chile, and noting the obstacles he had overcome called him “a remarkable artist and a remarkable human being,” as quoted in Head’s biography.
In the book’s foreward, San Antonio politician Henry Cisneros recognized Treviño’s talent and commitment to depicting the truths of Prospect Hill neighborhood where both lived, praising the artist’s vision of “deteriorating barrio buildings” as “historical and sacred places.”
Acknowledging Treviño’s death, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the artist “an American hero” and noted that he used the scars of Vietnam “to bring healing to millions of people.
“His kindness and courage will live forever in our hearts, as will his works of art that are now icons across the landscape,” Nirenberg said. “He is the embodiment of patriotism. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Remaining deeply rooted
Before his military service, Treviño first left San Antonio for New York in 1965 when he won a National Scholastic Art Awards scholarship to the Art Students League. He returned home before departing for Vietnam, and as noted in an OLLU obituary, after serving he remained deeply rooted in San Antonio even as his fame grew.
In the early 1990s, he recognized the need for a museum devoted to Mexican American art, and helped bring together a coalition of local leaders including restaurateur Jorge Cortez, artist and advertising executive Lionel Sosa, catering magnate Rosemary Kowalski and Velasquez to create what would become the Museo Alameda, which opened in 2007 in San Antonio’s Market Square, but closed five years later.
Still, the imprint was made — and the space on West Commerce Street is now Centro de Artes, a city-run gallery focused on showing Latino art.
By maintaining a presence in the city, Treviño also imprinted his story and values on a younger generation of San Antonio artists.
Muralist Rudy Herrera said his 100-foot mural The Last Parade on the side of the Kress building downtown would not have been possible without Treviño’s trailblazing work and outsized ambition.
“How many brown and Chicano artists like that take it that far and get that [much] recognition?” Herrera said, adding that Treviño’s success “made it less abstract, that it was possible to get there.”
Native San Antonian Vincent Valdez, now a prominent Houston-based artist, said via email that as a child he kept a scrapbook filled with local newspaper clippings of works by Treviño and Cesar Martinez.
“Their works were the very first time that I saw familiar faces, and communities like my own, represented as American painting,” Valdez said. “They filled the void and carried me through childhood in the ways that European and American art history books could not.”
Valdez said he is “eternally grateful to artists like Jesse,” and shared that upon learning of Treviño’s passing, he acknowledged his artistic exemplar in a way the elder artist might appreciate.
“This evening, I said a quiet farewell to Trevino while drawing,” Valdez said. “He is with the painting gods now. His artistic legacy will outlive him, and this is the painter’s dream.”