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Jesse Treviño is one of San Antonio’s best-known and most loved artists. His numerous public commissions also render him the city’s most visible artist. Many of his works are monumental in scale; all of them are unforgettable.
Treviño’s inspirational biography is so exceptional that if it were submitted to a Hollywood studio in the form of a screenplay, it would likely be rejected for being too implausible. It is with good reason that Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the arbiter and archiver of the unbelievable, has twice made Treviño the subject of syndicated features.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico in 1946, Treviño’s family moved to San Antonio when he was 4 years old. In a time when immigrants – Mexican immigrants in particular – are often vilified, it suffices to say that Treviño overcame almost unimaginable adversity to become a successful artist, a proud Chicano, and a great American.
Blessed with extraordinary talent and a competitive drive to achieve perfection, Treviño won numerous student competitions, beginning with one at the Witte Museum when he was 6 years old. At Fox Tech High school, Treviño received vital preparation and training from Katherine Alsup, who helped him nab a scholarship to study at the Art Student’s League in New York in 1965. There he utilized large brushes to work in a looser, more painterly style while studying with the eminent portraitist William F. Draper. Treviño also learned to perceive and reproduce color in shadows and to compose with broad expanses of color instead of solid lines. He learned to paint from life rather than from photographs, and quickly became so skilled in life portraiture that he was able to support himself by working at a Greenwich Village portrait shop called Village Artists.
After just one year in New York, Treviño received a draft notice. Rather than return to Mexico, he chose to serve in Vietnam, where he was deployed in December of 1966. On Feb. 23, 1967, Treviño was struck by a sniper’s bullet that shattered his right femur and severed an artery behind his knee. He stumbled on a booby trap that propelled him thirty feet and pierced his body with shrapnel in 10 places.
“I landed face-down in a rice paddy,” Treviño recalled. “My broken right leg was folded over my left leg and my right arm felt like it was on fire. The pain was so great I thought I would die. I remembered all the paintings I had made in my life, and I realized I had just painted whatever my teachers told me to paint. I thought, ‘What would I paint if I lived?’ I realized I had never painted my mother or my brothers. I’d never seen museum-quality paintings of the barrio. Right there that seemed to be the thing to do. It made me want to survive to be able to paint the things that mattered most to me.”
Immobilized in mud and a pool of his own blood and expecting to die, Treviño vowed that if he lived he would return to San Antonio and paint the people and places he loved. Fortunately, a medic was in close proximity and rendered critical aid in time – otherwise, Treviño would have died in a matter of minutes. Thus a Chicano artist was born out of a near-death experience in a Vietnamese rice paddy.
Treviño’s right hand and arm were paralyzed and three operations aimed at restoring them were unsuccessful. Armando Albarran, a rehabilitation advocate who had lost both of his legs, urged Treviño to make art with his untrained left hand when he was recuperating in 1968. When Treviño painted with his left hand, he suffered extreme nerve pain in his right hand, but he finally painted Albarran’s portrait so that he would leave him in peace.
Lacking confidence that he could become a professional left-handed artist, Treviño enrolled at San Antonio College (SAC) with the intention of obtaining a teaching credential that would permit him to teach children. He was inspired by professor Mel Casas, who made large paintings on a black ground that were informed by pop art and surrealism. Treviño painted a number of innovate canvases in Casas’ classes, including Zapata (1969), which, in accordance with the class assignment, features a hero (Zapata), a villain (Spiro Agnew), and an anti-hero (food stamps). Treviño took drawing classes in order to re-master human anatomy, and he earned his associate degree from SAC in 1970.
Treviño made the difficult decision to amputate his right arm in December of 1970. Nonetheless, the pain in his phantom limb never abated. At the point of his greatest despondency in the aftermath of this loss, Treviño embarked on Mi Vida (1971-72), the first of an astonishing succession of masterworks. He began this 8-by-14-ft. mural by painting his bedroom wall black. Several weeks later he painted an enormous Purple Heart medal dangling from a metal prosthetic arm. Some time later Treviño painted a smaller Ford Mustang and a ghostly self-portrait as a soldier.
In December of 1971 Treviño joined the Con Safo art group. His friend and fellow student Felipe Reyes was the group’s prime mover, and Mel Casas was its president. Treviño became reacquainted with a young woman he had known in high school. After she attended a Con Safo meeting at his home, Treviño added a monumental portrait of her to the mural. He subsequently added floating objects: coffee, beer, cigarettes, and prescription pain pills. In contrast to how pop artists often deploy tokens of consumer society as relatively vacant formal devices, the objects in Treviño’s mural have a surreal charge, for they are substances that helped him cope with intense physical pain and the difficult return to civilian and artistic life. When critic Roberta Smith surveyed art in Texas for Art in America in 1976, she was “particularly moved” by Mi Vida.
While putting the finishing touches on Mi Vida, Treviño also painted La Fe (1972), a close-up of a hand picking oranges, which alludes to the United Farm Workers, the union whose struggles galvanized the Chicano movement. Treviño characterizes both paintings as “done in the spirit of Con Safo.”
Other paintings executed on a black ground include Santa Ana (1972), The Gran Chile (1973), and a 100-foot wrap-around mural called La Historia Chicana (1972-74). These were painted while Treviño studied at Our Lady of the Lake University, where he took classes with Sisters Tharsilla Fuchs and Ethel Marie Corne and received his bachelor’s degree in 1974.
When Our Lady of the Lake University’s Mexican-American student association invited Treviño to create a painting, he offered to do a mural in the recreation room at his own expense, and so La Historia Chicana (1972-74) was born.
“I started with the Aztecas and Conquistadores,” Treviño recalled. “I put a Mexican revolutionary in the center of the next panel. He is dying with his arms outstretched, like a Christ figure.”
The subsequent panel features campesinos emigrating to the U.S. and becoming farm workers, with a large Virgin of Guadalupe serving as a divine protectress. The final panel has a large United Farm Workers flag, a Chicano couple with a child that functions as a terrestrial trinity, and a view of the campus that abuts the pre-Columbian imagery in the first panel.
Treviño perfected his signature photorealist style in 1976-77, while earning his MFA degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), which he received in 1978. Treviño’s most influential professors at UTSA were Leonard Lehrer, whose landscapes he admired, and Kazuya Sakai, who gave him novel ideas about painting. Richard Estes’ urban photorealist paintings were also a significant influence. Treviño said photorealism appealed to him because it was a style that “most people could understand.”
Treviño’s photorealist paintings depend on high quality photographs or slides. Essentially, compositions are made with the camera and then translated from photographic image to paint. Nonetheless, each brush stroke constitutes an expressive artistic choice: there is no such thing as an objective or neutral painterly rendering of a photograph. While painting the 36-by-48-inch Los Camaradas del Barrio (1976), Treviño realized he needed to work on a larger scale to achieve greater photographic detail and impact. His major works from this period include La Raspa (1976), Mis Hermanos (1976), @Body and Fender (1977), Progresso (1977), La Troca En La Calle Commerce (1979), and El Alameda (1980).
Treviño won additional recognition in 1980 when he was awarded the commission to create the first limited edition poster for Fiesta. His Señora Dolores Treviño (1982), a portrait of his mother hanging laundry, was hailed by Michael Ennis in Texas Monthly as “one of the best paintings of an artist’s mother since Whistler’s.” Treviño wanted to capture a quintessential image of his mother, so he took pictures of her doing everyday chores rather than having her dress up and pose for a formal portrait.
It was this fidelity to lived experience that most impressed a young Ellen Riojas Clark, who is now professor emerita in bicultural-bilingual studies at UTSA. Clark felt validated by this painting because this was “a mother who looked like all Mexican-American mothers,” and that it “was the first time I looked into a painting and saw us front and center.”
Clark emphasizes the art establishment’s hostility to Chicano art and Treviño’s struggles to find acceptance. “I remember being in tears sometimes as I listened to his experiences,” she recalled. “The pain as he talked about his life goal to be an artist, the pain of starting over, the pain of knowing he was a good artist but how the work was not accepted, the pain of realizing that works featuring his family, his friends, the things he knew best were not considered valid themes.”
When Treviño’s mother asked him why he was making this painting so big, he replied, “I hope that someday it will be in a museum.” Today it is in the permanent collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
In 1984, Treviño received the Hispanic Heritage Award for the Arts, for which he painted Hispanic Veteran. Treviño was commissioned to make paintings to serve as gifts for visiting dignitaries, such as Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1985 and Britain’s Prince Charles in 1986. Other significant commissions include Archbishop Patrick Flores (1985) and Texas Theater (1990).
In both his public and private works, Treviño moved beyond conventional photorealism, which typically replicates a master photograph or slide. The scale, medium, and nature of some of Treviño’s commissions necessitated alternative stylistic solutions.
Treviño always had a fondness for cinema, and he commemorated San Antonio’s historical cinemas in his Main Library Mural of 1995. It is imaginatively set in the World War II period because General McDermott offered to fund a mural through USAA and suggested a World War II theme. Since its visual elements are pieced together out of numerous photographic sources that never existed together in time and space, this mural has more in common with the collage-like Mi Vida than with Treviño’s smaller, seamlessly painted photorealist paintings. The mural incorporates a River Walk bridge, the Tower Life Building, and marquee signs from six major downtown theaters.
“I remembered the Christmas lights and the decorations I saw as a kid,” Treviño explained. “I wanted it to be festive, and I wanted it to look like an altar. So I included a statue of San Antonio (St. Anthony) and candles and lights and pictures of people like General McDermott, Cleto Rodríguez, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and Emma Tenayuca, the labor organizer.”
Treviño’s largest work is The Spirit of Healing, a 93-ft. high mosaic mural fashioned out of more than 150,000 pieces of hand-cut ceramic tile. Though Treviño employed 10 student assistants, he cut the majority of the tiles himself. Made between 1995 and 1997, it graces the exterior of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, a highly visible site Treviño had wanted to embellish with art since 1978. Even though he used 70 different colors of tile, the scale and the medium of this work necessitated substantially different effects than the detailed verisimilitude of Treviño’s photorealist paintings. The Spirit of Healing features a young boy holding a dove and is based on a picture of Treviño’s son holding his pet hedgehog. The boy is protected by a guardian angel with a broken wing, which implies that a physically imperfect parent can be an effective guardian.
In La Curandera, a mural painted in 1997-98 for the University Health System Texas Diabetes Center, Treviño pays homage to folk healing traditions. It too was sourced from multiple photographic studies, including many of the botánica known as Casa Mireles whose proprietor was almost 100 years old when she posed for him, Treviño said.
In La Veladora, a three-dimensional mosaic mural made in 2001-03 for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Treviño monumentalized a Virgin of Guadalupe votive candle, which projects from the 40-foot high building like a miraculous apparition.
“It was a dark corner, kind of dangerous,” Treviño said. “I wanted to improve the neighborhood. I had already done a painted veladora, and one day when I drove by I imagined it done on a large scale against the wall.”
His painting had incorporated a three-dimensional votive candle because Treviño had been entranced by pop art that incorporated three-dimensional objects and shaped canvases since his first exposure to them at SAC in the late 1960s. Treviño helped fund the construction of La Veladora by selling giclée prints of his painting.
In Treviño’s assessment of his mosaic’s impact, he “made it a safer place by putting this icon there.”
In 2006, Treviño made an unusual portrait of labor leader César Chávez, rendering him in the glamorous manner of a Mexican movie poster. Treviño also made a monumental portrait of Rosita Fernandez (2006), who was dubbed “San Antonio’s First Lady of Song” by Ladybird Johnson in 1968. He framed Fernandez with the Tower Life Building and a view of the River Walk festooned with Christmas lights. Treviño rendered this portrait in an abbreviated technique: Individual elements are loosely stitched together on a dark ground, a mode of painting developed in the Central Library Mural, which shares some of the same imagery.
In Mexicano, Chicano, Americano, which Treviño began in 1982 and completed in 2007, the artist chronicled his own cultural experiences. Born in Mexico (symbolized by the Virgin of Guadalupe), he became a Chicano (symbolized by the United Farm Workers eagle), and he earned his American citizenship in Vietnam (symbolized by the Purple Heart).
Treviño’s solo exhibitions include: the Instituto Cultural de México in San Antonio in 1981 and 1993, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. in 1994-95, the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1995, the Art Museum of South Texas in 1996, and a retrospective at the Museo Alameda in 2009-10.
“A major American artist, Jesse Treviño’s epic murals and poetic paintings memorialize and universalize the dignity and resilience of Mexican-American working class life and cultural heritage,” said scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto.
Treviño’s success and high visibility inspired generations of Chicano artists to believe that they, too, could realize their artistic dreams. In some instances, Treviño’s example provided the impetus for future artists to have artistic dreams in the first place. Adán Hernández experienced an epiphany at Treviño’s opening at the Instituto Cultural de México in 1981. Hernandez was staggered when he saw “images of the barrio” that he never imagined could be the stuff of art. “It opened up my whole consciousness and changed the direction of my life,” Hernandez said.
The very next day, the 30 year-old waiter decided to become an artist. He quit his job, went to the library to look at art books, and began taking pictures to serve as the basis for paintings. Treviño was an important role model for Chicano artists. “A lot of artists didn’t know how to make Chicano art, didn’t know it was a possibility, or they were afraid of trying,” Treviño explained.
Gabriel Velasquez, executive director of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, first met Treviño in 1994, when he heard that Treviño was trying to open a Chicano museum. Velasquez, who was an architecture student at UTSA at the time, had recently designed a Chicano museum as a school project that was met with resistance because the faculty “was not ready to recognize that Chicano architecture could exist.” Velasquez developed a deep brotherly relationship with Treviño, whom he calls “one of the most generous people who authentically cares about neighborhood, family, and the values that were handed down to him by his parents.”
“You cannot understand the man if you don’t understand the physical pain that he lives with every day,” Velasquez pointed out. “The sacrifice he made is without end. I honor him.”
Restaurateur Jorge Cortez has long considered Treviño a kindred spirit. Cortez was moved by what he calls “Treviño’s portraits of buildings.” El Alameda (1980), a painting of a historic cinema that had long been shuttered, resonated most deeply with Cortez. The two men shared a common vision: they imagined a Zona Cultural that preserved and enhanced the architectural remnants of the past at a time when urban renewal policies seemed determined to obliterate them.
When Treviño expressed his desire to enliven the blank Children’s Hospital wall with art, Cortez felt that he had found San Antonio’s counterpart to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and he arranged the meeting that would make the mosaic a reality. Cortez and Treviño played a crucial role in many initiatives, including the creation of the Museo Alameda. They still hope to transform the historic center of San Antonio into a giant plaza, with, as Cortez puts it “art and beautiful landscaping beaming at you from all directions, with all the arteries connected to this vast heart.”
Treviño has kept his vow to return to his adopted city. He has painted its people, its buildings, its streets, even its gas stations and tire shops.
“My work is vibrant, colorful, and deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Mexican-American community,” he said. “It illuminates the greatness and the humanity of our people, particularly the Chicano family.”
Treviño hopes to complete more public works within the Zona Cultural and elsewhere. His greatest aspiration is to create a mosaic on the side of the Alameda Theatre that would be visible from an adjacent amphitheater that is in the planning stages. Treviño also wants to create a wrap-around mosaic on the exterior of his old high school, Fox Tech. In a nod to Diego Rivera, it would depict the various trades that were taught at Fox Tech for many years. Treviño still burns with a passion to beautify San Antonio by reflecting its unique culture.
In Cortez’s estimation, “San Antonio and Treviño are synonymous,” and they still have much to accomplish together.