Essay For An Ese: A Tribute to Chicano Artist José Montoya | KCET
Essay For An Ese: A Tribute to Chicano Artist José Montoya
José Montoya (1932–2013) captured the sentiments and struggles of the Chicano movement through his work as a poet, artist, educator and activist. A key figure of the movement, Montoya’s writings and drawings depicted zoot suiters, campesinos, pachucos and pachucas, revolutionaries, and everyday people that share Chicano history.
Currently on view at the Fowler Museum, exhibition “José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life” presents over 2,000 works. Co-curated by his son Richard Montoya -- actor, director and playwright -- and Selene Preciado, the restrospective examines the legacy of the prolific artist.
In the essay below, Richard reflects on his father’s creative process, his work in the fields and his last moments on this earth.
Being around my father’s works for the last two years has taught me a great many things, chief among them is that the man, the artist, the teacher keeps teaching long after he has departed this physical world and that he was very present in the room where we curated, where my objectivity was challenged daily -- and rightfully so because I have none! José was not sentimental in the execution of these drawings, and neither should we be in presenting and writing about them.
The sheer number of his drawings -- their epic scale -- defies imagination. When and how did he capture this sea of humanity? The cantinas, the labor camps and fields, the churches, the union halls, the barrio streets, corridors of power, and academia, all called him, but so did more than one movement, a fiery national poetry scene and a man named Cesar, plus a large family with many mouths to feed!
When did he have time to create the portraits of so many? Framing their moment with as few lines as a Beat poet? Perhaps part of the riddle is locked in the economy of his line. He was moving, and so his pen and pencil were as well! There is as much an existential question in these works as there is simplicity and beauty. José was so committed to being On the Road that when he and his compadre Esteban Villa went to the corner for a six-pack, they came back two months later from a cross-country trip that included a sojourn in NYC. Playing their guitarras the entire way!
And no! That’s not just one pachuca, there are hundreds, not one sailor but fleets of them on the Pacific, not one pachuco but several barrios of them, not one señora but everyone one he could capture in the improbable time he had or would allow himself for each drawing. The scampering derelict dog in the barrio or a barfly sitting on a stool for mere minutes -- the artist as chronicler recording his subject’s very existence as well as his own.
In looking at these drawing I try to guess where he was at that given time. Where was he existing? Like a Chicano Buddha in the corner, observing all, watching all quietly. Co-curating "Abundant Harvest" was akin to a true detective story, a kind of “forensic poetics” where the subject is your father. Complex stuff. Looking for family and one’s own self in the work. The magic begins when you stop looking.
Paradoxes: The public man whose very public life was about being at the center of many great Chicano moments. They could be chaotic times, yet his lens was astonishingly selfless. Still. Calm. His steady hand, his drawing was very intimate, almost private, yet carried out in large public spaces.
The biggest lesson perhaps is that there is little objectification here. He never objectified his subject. The women are not dolled up, there is color and there is some erotica, oh yes: a clitoris or two this son could not recognize! The artist as voyeur who does not intrude, he allows a respectful distance and understanding of his subject. There is another important lesson of blue-collar discipline at work here. Following the Dust Bowl and post-war America, one had to work! José’s skill is honed, no shortcuts, no iPhone applications, just drawing after drawing, row after row, grape tray after tray, church pew after pew. Repetition yes, yet these are not studies nor are they doodlings.
Echoes of a Catholicism perhaps born in those small wooden, valley churches he wrote poems about, “Irish Priest Chicano Sinners.” Less a religious zeal than a knowing of the dogged toil of working mile after mile of vineyard row -- a discipline he marvelled at while admitting that, unlike the rest of his family, he was a lackluster farmworker!
Heartbreaking. Breathtaking. The artist noting and telling the world of his field-hand shortcomings at the precise moment his skill and discipline as an artist are taking root and blossoming. That he didn’t see his art making or writing as privilege or a higher calling gives the man great irony, warm humor, and a Steinbeck-like affinity for humanity.
Out of all these reasons, lessons, and paradoxes, the idea of the grape tray and fruit box as bearer and protector of his works was born. His family may have had the ability to pick five hundred trays a day, quinienteros! But as José tenderly notes in his epic poem below, the life of the iridescent worm under the shade and protection of the grape-leaf world was more important to him. And under his watch, they were safe, and in this shade and improbable safe space, the twin seeds of artist and poet were beautifully and deeply planted.
When I was
All the un-domed
Charming towns like
Kingsburg and Sanger --
I was lazy
From a family
Of clean pickers
The pride of
Any Fijikawa or
Saroyanesque Krikor --
Five hundred trays
And the day barely
Two thirds along
But everyone said I was
I knew. But how I knew.
Why I was easy
On the clusters --
I was quick to
Sadden at the sight
Of the green, iridescent worm
Scorching itself in the
Hot, planned-for-trays, sand.
And knowing I had something
To do with its death
And rather than
I remained lazy
Sitting under the vines
Imagining what my reactions
Would be to some similar
Upon my head
Stabs of color
On the roof
Of my skull -- and
A child-young urge
Upon the burning sand
I remained lazy.
...And the family
Didn’t make as much
In the Valley of San Joaquin.
But the worms, the wasps, and the
Black widow spiders -- for a short
Time, at least -- frolicked
Cooly in that green-leaf world
Beneath the sun.
"Abundant Harvest" is many things for me. In the final analysis it is still very much about a man, a father very much loved and missed by a large family.
A cultural front-liner, a General with his beloved Royal Chicano Air Force, sacred clowns, profound and profane, popular and poetic! I did not grieve here. There was no time for that, but along with my colega and co-conspirator and co-curator, Selene Preciado, and under the knowing guidance of the elegant Marla Berns and cultural enabler Chon Noriega, we considered the man. We built him of his own sticks and stones and words and art, the wood of grape trays and the soil they sat on.
His work spoke loudly to me in silent ways: sending me off to cross-reference drawings and poetry only to find exhilarating new crossroads where his poetry intersected with his art: “Octavio Peace brother may have left us out of his Labyrinth” José parries with Paz by bringing all his gente with him through these very drawings. While Paz’s indifference to the pachuco is noted, José may have the last laugh -- the term is included in "Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary" -- José may not have agreed with the definition, but that it exists there is a tribute to both writers!
Like so many of his generation, he took his GI Bill -- following U.S. Navy service and an honorable discharge -- and found art education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, determined not to return to the fields he wrote about and loved so much. His generation may have departed the labor camps, but he never forgot those who were left there to sweat and toil. (He would return to the fields picking up summer work in Wheatland’s hop fields in the 1960s while teaching high school!)
Poet, artist, father, Chicano trickster, Godfather, and lackluster farmworker! His works on paper are enmeshed with his worldview. They are scholarship, they are street/calle, they are the fields, and they are the deep blue waters of the Pacific.
They are his legacy left to his gente and his familias. He fully understood the impoverished and humanized them, never making fetish of their plight. He understood the importance and discipline of shiny black shoes whether for a pachuco or a navy man! In fact José worked tirelessly right up to the end of his life: with his dedicated compas at the National Compadres Network and El Circulo de Los Hombres, he engaged the most at-risk young men from the barrios and mean streets of the Southwest and led them gently to the sweat-lodge and to the poetry and arte of La Cultura.
It’s all here, his rivers and deltas and levees where he wrote about and drew his bird-dogging hawks soaring and diving above the banks de su Rio Sacramento, where later his ashes floated out of the Valley toward the inevitable sea.
I remembered his final three breaths that came in the form of books, long poetic sighs that seemed to last a lifetime or split seconds. One breath was a book of humility. Another breath, a book of courage. The final breath, a book of surrender and dignity.
His children, Gina, Joe, Carlos X., Malaquias, Vincent, Tomas, and Qianjin, are ever grateful for and understand the gravity of having to preserve this precious harvest -- blood-rooted deep in the California soil. José, dashingly circling above in red scarf and a commandeered crop-duster smiling down as we study, consider, and grapple with his abundant fruit.
And so, with great gratitude to Marla Berns and her entire, stellar team of caretakers, builders, protectors, and lovers of art!
This essay was originally published in exhibition catalog "José Montoya's Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life" (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2016).
Exhibition "José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life" runs from February 21-July 17, 2016 at the Fowler Museum in UCLA.
Top image: José Montoya, "Untitled," date unknown. Ink on paper. 12.5 x 19.5 cm. Courtesy of the Montoya Family Trust.
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