Note: In a few weeks I'm going back to Memphis for the 50th Reunion of my graduating class. I graduated from Memphis University School, a prep school. It's a long story how I got there, but my mother who was widowed when I was two was desperately trying to find a male role model for me. I was a hell-raiser, not a happy young man. Public school wasn't working, she felt. I tried CBHS, a Catholic boys school. I got deeper in trouble. So finally for my last two years she bit the bullet (indeed, our whole family bit the bullet) and off I went to MUS. I don't think I've seen any of these guys (except Kingsley hooker) since 1960, so I'm nervous. One classmate I'm very much interested in seeing again is Todd Slaughter, who has become a very fine artist, with an emphasis on public art. I asked him if he knew my friend Luis Jimenez, and he said yes, so I thought I would post this piece on my blog. It originally appeared in El Paso's Newspaper Tree, which is in limbo now, and the Texas Observer.
Eating Mexican Food on Texas Avenue
In Memory of Luis Jimenez
In Memory of Luis Jimenez
Artist and sculptor Luis Jimenez is dead. The angels killed him. They had been pestering him for years. When he was a kid, walking in the alleys, he was shot in the eye with a bee-bee gun. In 1965 the angels cracked up his car and sent him to the hospital with a broken back. In the 1990s in pure malice they plucked out his left eye, the one injured by the bee-bee. They clawed enough at his right arm and hand that he needed operations. They packed him off to the hospital twice with heart attacks. But he kept working. His art kept him going. He was a blue collar workingman. He loved his tools. He wore a big, complicated utility knife on his belt. He had a nice big pickup.
Houston sculptor Sharon Kopriva says Luis was the hardest working artist she has ever known. He wouldn’t leave it alone. And he was happy when he was lost in his work, his art, using his hands--the stupid angels had left him the one eye in his head, and he saw things only a fronterizo could see. Inside that peculiar geography strange things happened--sex and death danced with the drunks and vatos, cowboys and Indians rejoiced in their legends and defied the onslaught of Manifest Destiny, automobiles made love to America, the myths of Mexico wandered the streets on the sides of low-riders and mingled with the pedestrians of Albuquerque. So he kept on working in the midst of a horrendous divorce and the battles with lawyers. The city of Denver was after him about the Blue Mustang that was to be installed at the airport years ago. The Blue Mustang was cursed.
And of course the angels chose the Blue Mustang with the beautiful eyes of fire as their murder weapon. Thirty-two feet of steel-supported fiberglass and years of labor--he was atop a ladder, hoisting a piece into place, and the angels pushed the Blue Mustang down on top of him.
"When I was young, I felt my skill was inherent in being Chicano, inherent in being Mexican, and that every Mexican not only had ability but appreciated art. It was a kind of fantasy, but certainly within the context a positive thing."The art of Luis Jimenez was rooted in the gritty aesthetics of El Paso--that rasquache aesthetics that grows up out of the bones and dirt of the desert, an aesthetics that speaks poor Mexican and broken English so that it can somehow endure the relentless expectations of America. He worked in his father’s Electric Neon shop and helped design some of the bizarre neon signs that still are sprinkled around the city. He traveled through Mexico and saw the work--sketches, paintings, and murals of Diego Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. They were sometimes funny, political, violent and populist. The murals especially--heroic and monumental. And in the late 1960s he strode manly Chicano into the belly of the beast, New York City, which was awash with Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe pop culture and intellectual minimalism. The New York City art world disdained American regionalism and didn’t know what “Chicano” meant. Still Luis paid very close attention, he learned what he wanted to learn, he began to make waves but he never forgot where he came from.
Sometime in the 1980s I was in downtown El Paso and was wandering through City Hall in search of some bureaucratic permit to fix my house. I turned a corner and, there on the 1st floor bigger than life, stood Luis’ huge “Border Crossing,” a Mexican man with bandana was wading the Rio Grande with a woman in a shawl on his shoulders. The woman was carrying a child in her arms. The family, pura indigena, was immigrating illegally into the United States. They obviously had their own laws to attend to--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The piece was 12-feet tall, made of the polished fiberglass that made the form seep with deep fluid color. In the guise of art Luis had infiltrated City Hall with contraband ideology.
The piece was on loan and so it disappeared after a few months. I know because I went looking for it. It had become part of my imagination. Then years later I saw “Border Crossing” standing in the December snow near the plaza in Santa Fe. The hoity-toity walked by and nobody paid attention. I daydreamed about stealing the sculpture some drunken night and bringing it home to El Paso. I would install it on the El Paso Street Bridge. It belonged in the ferocious Chihuahua sun.
I had wanted to make a piece that was dealing with the issue of the illegal alien. People talked about the aliens as if they had landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them; I wanted to humanize them. I also wanted to deal with the whole idea of family…I went back to my experience in El Paso where this is a common sight…It was dedicated to my dad, at which point my dad said, “You know, I was never an illegal alien. I just never had my papers straight.”
When his mother was alive, Luis would come to El Paso often and he’d stop by and visit. We’d walk down to the Mexican Cottage on Texas Avenue. Luis usually got the caldo de res, and I got the chile relleno plate with the beans and rice, although I know it’s impossible to be a good vegetarian on Texas Avenue. There used to be a waitress there, a woman in her 30s, who would flirt with us. She’d call us los Guapos and los Reyes de la Avenida--both of us grey-haired 60-somethings, Luis with the one eye and me with the baldhead and the goofy hat. We’d laugh with her and do some flirting of our own. Luis especially got a kick out playing with the coy side of Spanish and explaining to me, his gavacho friend, what he was saying. The waitress would bring us special gifts from the kitchen.
The last time Luis visited, his mother only had a few days remaining in her life and Luis told me about sitting with her as she labored with her breathing. She knew she was dying. He’d try talking to her, but she’d slip away into sleep. He pulled out his sketchbook and he sketched his mother as she lay dying. His sister walked in while he was sketching. She got mad at him. Here their mother was dying, and all he could think about was making art. Luis was hurt by his sister’s anger, but he understood. All his life, he said, his art got in between him and the people he loved. “But,” he said in an almost plaintive voice, “that’s what I do. I make art. That’s how I understand.”
The making of the art cut through the crap. The confusion slipped away and all that remained was the man working.
The waitress at the Mexican Cottage has disappeared. I never even knew her name. The new waitress is nice, but she’s slow and almost as old as me. And Luis is dead. That goddamned blue Mustang. He bled to death on his studio floor.
We’ll miss him, huh?