NEW YORK, NY.-
Jesse Treviño, a lauded Mexican American artist who lost the use of his dominant right arm in a land mine explosion as a soldier in the Vietnam War, but who went on to conjure vast murals and dramatic paintings with his left arm that were displayed in three presidential libraries and the Smithsonian Institution, died Feb. 13 in San Antonio. He was 76.
The death, in a hospice facility, was confirmed by Anthony Head, the author of the 2019 book Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño. Head said that the cause had not been determined, but that Treviño had been hospitalized for pneumonia in recent months and had had cancer but was in remission.
Treviño became famous in San Antonio and beyond for his large-scale paintings depicting the hard realities and soaring aspirations of the Chicano culture of his home city. Though they were rendered in a photorealistic style, they were nevertheless exuberant, even dreamlike.
His art is hard to miss; Spirit of Healing, for instance, which portrays a boy holding a dove as an angel watches over him, is a nine-story mural made from hand-cut tiles that adorns the exterior of the Childrens Hospital of San Antonio.
San Antonio was his muse and his canvas, Head said by phone. The Hispanic population on the West Side, and the artists who were from there, had never been seen in museums and galleries before, so he set out to do just that.
While Treviño once had ambitions to become a globe-trotting artist, he ultimately found the inspiration he needed at home.
All my time as a kid, absorbing the things in my community that were eventually going to be a big part of my painting there is so much there, he was quoted as saying in Heads book. I could work the rest of my life and never do it all.
Those efforts were certainly recognized locally. Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio referred to Treviño as an American hero on Twitter after his death. Texas Monthly magazine called Señora Dolores Treviño, a painting of his mother, one of the best paintings of an artists mother since Whistlers.
But Treviños reputation ultimately spread far beyond his home state. In 1987, he presented a painting of the Alamo to President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. In 1998, Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, invited him to an international exhibition in Santiago, Chile, as the American artist representative. His work is in the collections of the presidential libraries of Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Reagan.
One of his most celebrated works was Mi Vida (My Life), a haunting 14-by-8-foot autobiographical mural that he painted on a black wall of his bedroom in 1972, while still mired in depression and anger over his gruesome war injuries.
The painting, a swirl of objects including a Purple Heart medal, a pill, a can of Budweiser beer, a pack of cigarettes and an image of the artist in combat fatigues, appeared in a 2019 exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975. (The show also presented works by Yoko Ono, Edward Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg and others.)
Here you see the personal and political meet, critic Holland Cotter of The New York Times wrote of Mi Vida.
Jesus Treviño was born Dec. 24, 1946, in Monterrey, Mexico, the ninth of 12 children of Juan Treviño, a mechanic and truck driver, and Dolores (Campos) Treviño, a homemaker. He adopted the name Jesse when he entered elementary school.
The family moved to San Antonio when he was 4, and two years later his drawing of a dove won a contest sponsored by the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He continued to take home art prizes throughout high school, and after graduation he earned a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York. He was studying there when he got his draft notice in 1966. He served in Vietnam.
While on a mission in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in February 1967, Treviño was racing to board a helicopter under sniper fire when he stepped on a mine. The blast sent shrapnel through his torso and limbs and hurtled him into the air before he landed face down in a rice paddy.
He was thinking he was going to die, Head said. He began bargaining with God to live, and when he was on the chopper he received morphine and began to have these visions of San Antonio and his family. With this combination of trauma, shock and the medicine, he asked himself, If I had a second chance, what would I do? And it was, I would paint the people and the places of San Antonio, my home.
The concept seemed far more daunting after Treviño was admitted to a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and his right arm, already paralyzed from a severed nerve, was amputated below the elbow.
At first, embittered and racked with anxiety, Treviño had no interest in painting. As he told Head, he felt that he was being punished: I thought God gave me all this ability to paint and all that. Now I cant do anything.
Eventually a fellow soldier, Armando Albarran, who was also from San Antonio and was rehabilitating after losing his legs, began goading Treviño to reclaim his artistic talent, even without the use of his right hand.
Treviño eventually began to rediscover his skills, and in 1968 he enrolled in San Antonio College. There he came under the tutelage of artist Mel Casas, who brought him into an activist-minded Chicano art collective called Con Safo. In 1974, he earned a bachelors degree in art from Our Lady of the Lake College (now University), where he majored in art and minored in Spanish.
Treviño is survived by his children from several marriages, Carolina Treviño, Jessica Treviño Brodman, and Jesse and David Treviño; a stepdaughter, Joanna Deleon Colonna; two grandchildren; a sister, Alicia Treviño Rodriguez; and his brothers, Ramiro, John, Robert and Ernest.
In his later years, though Treviño was still plagued by physical ailments (he dealt with throat cancer in 2012, and, near the end of his life, had a tumor removed from his jaw), he remained undaunted.
Your work is forever, he said in 2013 in an interview for Heads book. It seems like I got momentum and I dont have limits.
The bottom line, he added, is that Id like to think at the end of the show the real art continues.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times