In frame after frame of Tía Chuck: A Portrait of Chuck Ramirez, the new documentary film about the much-revered San Antonio artist who died in 2010, his radiant smile beams from the screen. Photographs culled from his archives, and those of family and friends, show the artist in his social element, projecting grace and happiness.
Ramirez is smiling in so many shots, said Ethel Shipton, an artist and close friend of Ramirez, “because he’s always gathered around people. That was Chuck’s favorite stimulus,” she said, then added with a grin, “aside from vodka and cigarettes.”
Ramirez balanced a number of dualities during his lifetime, including reckless carousal even as he took care of others around him. The film details his early life and
growth, coming to terms with being a gay man, negotiating his dual white and Hispanic heritage, and realizing his creative potential after an HIV-positive diagnosis.
“In the photographs after he finds out he’s HIV positive,” Angela Walley said, “he’s dealing with a lot, but he still has this magnetic smile.” The same is true of pictures from his hospital bed after heart surgery in 2008 that saved him from an aortic aneurysm.
That smile was, in part, a direct result of his recklessness, Walley said. A re-enactment scene in the film details one night in the early 1990s when a drunk Ramirez leaped out of a moving convertible near his apartment, losing his front teeth in a collision with the asphalt.
“He probably had more confidence in his smile because of the veneers,” Walley said, referring to the resulting dental work. At a young age he was sensitive about his crooked teeth, she said, but then “he got into that strange accident, and out of that came this brilliant smile.”
The dentist noticed a sore
that might be related to HIV, and recommended testing, which came back positive. Even so, the day he received the potentially devastating test results turned into a celebration.
“This is changing my life,” Ramirez narrates to his friend Judy Bankhead, who accompanied him to both the initial HIV test and the sushi dinner he suggested after the results arrived a week later. “I am going to figure this out and live with this,” Ramirez states. “I’m going to get my shit together here. I started to live after I found out that I was HIV positive.”
The film portrays Ramirez as a charming, thoughtful, soft-spoken young man who galvanized the creativity of those around him, then grew into an artist just coming into his own when he died suddenly – in a bicycle accident at age 48 – leaving the community around him without its center.
Ramirez was already a
central figure in the collegiate community around him by the early 1980s, as close friend Jeff Adams says in the film, which recounts parties Ramirez would throw for his college friends. Art was a part of these parties, as guests and host would drop acid and draw collectively in a sketchbook. Ramirez later burned the sketchbook in a drunken fit, in front of other partygoers.
“I know people get sanctified after they die, but I think people understood him with his faults and with his strengths, too,” Shipton said, reflecting on the film’s measured approach to Ramirez’s behavior.
Throughout his life, Ramirez continued to be a prominent figure in the San Antonio art community, regularly hosting dinners and parties at his rented home on the grounds of “The Compound,” as the community of artists on the corner acre of Stieren and St. Mary’s streets is informally known.
The Walleys met Ramirez in 2008, and soon began the gradual process of interviewing him for their regular series of Texas artist profiles. One morning in early November 2010, Angela received a text message from her friend, artist Jeremiah Teutsch. She recalls it as reading simply, “Chuck died.” Ramirez had suffered irreparable brain damage from a bicycle accident the previous night, and never made it home to a gathering awaiting him.
The gathering moved to his hospital room for a vigil, then after his death, back to his home for what become a daylong, impromptu wake. Once notified, Angela and Mark brought their camera to Ramirez’s Stieren Street house. Striking footage in the film shows friends wearing bicycle helmets in honor of their deceased friend, dancing long into the night.
Ramirez is revered as having been a “connector,” Shipton said, for his generosity in helping fellow artists succeed. “He’s a person who really tried to shift things,” she said. “He was deeply rooted in helping whoever needed a leg up. If one achieves, we all achieve,” she said of his overall philosophy.
Beyond those qualities, “people just loved him,” she said, and not always in the expected ways. “He was a guy who could talk to anybody,” she said. At a gala event for the Old Jail Museum in Albany, Texas, “suddenly he had all these ranching women who wanted to date him,” Shipton said. “
He was very charismatic.”
Though she knew Ramirez for more than a decade, and thought she knew everything about him, Shipton said that even she learned new things about him from Tía Chuck, particularly about his early life. The film’s title came from the “Aunt Chuck” moniker he was given as Shipton’s wedding planner, as he ran interference between her and her “overly helpful” aunts.
Incorporating interviews the Walleys had done before Ramirez’s death, the filmmaking pair has worked on Tía Chuck for eight years, drawings on archives from museums, galleries, family, friends, and Ramirez’s own collection of photographs and videos – including a startling iPhone video from his own point of view riding the same bike he was on the night he died.
With Tía Chuck, “the Walleys have given the city a great gift,” said Riley Robinson, director of Artpace, which exhibited Ramirez in 1999 and 2002. The film “cements San Antonio art history and serves as a wayfinding tool” for people to follow Ramirez’s example,” he said. “He did it his own way, and you can do it your own way.”
A portion of the proceeds from the Tía Chuck premiere screening will benefit Casa Chuck and Sala Diaz, which are combined as a legacy nonprofit art organization.
Asked why people who did not know Ramirez might want to see the film, Shipton cited “the spirit of humanity and community” he possessed. “I think that’s why people still miss him,” she said.
Tickets for the Tía Chuck premiere are $20, with an $80 option for a 6 p.m. dinner and “cocktail art tour.” Further details are available here.