Leaving Something Behind: Remembering Chris Martinez

Self portrait of Chris Martinez. | Image: Chris Martinez
Self portrait of Chris Martinez. | Image: Chris Martinez

Chris Martinez died in the early morning on May 4. If you live outside Ventura County, this means nothing to you. Death -- and life -- is like that.

But the passing of Chris Martinez marked the passing of something special for Ventura County, leaving behind an example we would all do well to heed.

Chris Martinez was an artist of many forms; a muralist, a caricaturist, a teacher. He was talented enough to be hired by Disney as an illustrator, although being part of the Mouse conglomerate was not what matters to our towns and the people who live in them.

No doubt, Chris' art work was impressive. If I knew anything about art I would describe his signature shadowing, the way his paintings popped, the clean, delicate lines, how they had a certain petulant insouciance ... Wait, that's wine. But I don't know anything about art (or wine). What I do know is Chris' art work makes you smile, and, if you live in Ventura County, it makes you smile a lot, because it's everywhere -- on the front of schools, on the floor of gyms, on baseball snack bars, inside water purification companies, above restaurant counters and work desks, in treasured keepsake boxes, on the cover of Ventura College sports programs. On basketballs. Really. The man was prolific; Johnny Appleseed with a paint brush, Picasso after a case of Red Bull. Chris Martinez left an indelible trail. This is a fine thing, because there can never be enough smiles.

If you wish to see the mark Chris left -- and I highly recommend you do -- just hop in your car and point it pretty much anywhere in western Ventura County: Santa Paula, Oxnard, Ventura, Port Hueneme.

Sums my friend Hank Tovar, "There are scores of places he painted."

My friend Hank met Chris Martinez when Hank was a parent on the student council at Poinsettia Elementary School in Ventura. Poinsettia had a big empty, boring wall. They needed a mural. They hired Chris. Poinsettia's wall is no longer boring. A lion stands, green eyes impossibly bright, holding a lovely poinsettia. There is an island and a lighthouse and happy blue-green waters, the lot of it overhung with an orange-red kid kind of sun. The once boring wall, it fairly explodes with life. Similar happy murals - dragons and eagles and snarling cougars and swashbuckling buccaneers -- adorn high schools, elementary schools and colleges in Port Hueneme, Oxnard, Santa Paula, Oak View and Ventura.

Photo: Hank Tovar/Pictures That Move

The happy lion, it pops. It makes me smile.

Hank came to know Chris Martinez well. Hank and his two sons often helped Chris with the broader brush strokes - the seas, the skies, the clouds, the snow in Chris' storefront murals at Christmas -- help that came in handier and handier as Chris' diabetes became more and more debilitating.

On this sunny morning, Hank considers the Poinsettia mural.

"He's an amazing teacher and artist," Hank says. "I learned a lot of painting techniques from him. His shadowing is amazing."

I'm not sure if Hank notices he is speaking in the present tense. Art lives on.

Chris was also canny.

Hank smiles.

"He always gave me all the high spots."

I did not know Chris Martinez, but I felt like I knew him. I know I am not alone in saying this. At Christmas his trademark murals sprouted on the window fronts of dry cleaners and fish stores and Chinese restaurants (during the busy Christmas season he might paint three a day), always with a jolly signature touch.

Photo: Hank Tovar/Pictures That Move

"All of his Santas always looked like him," smiles Hank.

My friend Hank is ruthlessly organized and equally thorough, preparation always seeing him confidently to his next move. As we drive about town on a Chris Martinez tour, Hank reaches into his pocket to consult the list he made so that we know where to stop next. Sometimes it's ten minutes between stops, but often it's five; occasionally we just walk across the street. And we are only looking at Chris' school murals; neither Hank nor I can afford to gallivant about town for the next three weeks.

We drive past a Ventura Elementary School. I know there's no need to say anything -- as I said, Hank misses nothing -- but what are friends for?

Didn't he paint anything there?

Hank looks back over his shoulder, a trifle startled.

"Right. He did the leopard here. I totally forgot."

I would fire Hank except for his fee.

We pass the local hospital.

The hospital?

"No." Hank pauses. "I don't think so."

Hank's sudden insecurity is making me feel bad, so I take him to lunch. Actually, Art's Corner Café -- "Pleasing You, Pleases Us"-- is one of our planned stops. Chris Martinez was a regular at Art's -- he lived nearby -- and it's obvious as soon as you walk in the door.

Chris Martinez was an artist of many talents, but he made his greatest mark as a caricaturist. Chris did a caricature of Hank, complete with myriad nuances that include many hearts (Hank has done kind things for many people) and a piece of shrimp balance at the end of a chopstick. Why Hank is wearing boxers, I can't say. Chris also did a sketch of my good friend Woody Woodburn, a long-time local sportswriter, wearing a Los Angeles Rams jersey (I said long-time), a Dodgers cap, and Lakers shorts, surrounded by pretty much every sports ball there is. He did caricatures of legendary high school coaches and quiet farmers and local politicians and ne'er-do-wells (sometimes one and the same); he caricatured the entire inaugural graduating class at Foothill Technology High School. He may have done a caricature of everyone in town but me. For this I am mildly grateful. God knows what the man would have done with my forehead.

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Actually, Chris Martinez was a kinder, gentler caricaturist whose detailed sketches no doubt continue to produce countless smiles.

"He put so much more into it than your average caricaturist," says Hank, as we settle into a booth at Art's. "Look at the caricatures and you'll see there's just so much stuff going on. He'd talk to you about what you liked to do, what you liked to eat, your hobbies, your interests. He was a very outgoing guy. He really cared."

The walls of Art's Corner Café are smothered with this handiwork.

Art's is the kind of down home place where, if the lunch rush is over, Art himself comes and sits with you.

Now it's Art's turn to smile.

"One day he was sitting at the counter and he did a sketch of one of the waitresses," Art says. "I said, 'Hey, maybe we should have some more done and hang them up.'" Art's smiling eyes run along the restaurant walls, smothered with framed caricatures. "And it sort of exploded to this. I have customers who come in all the time saying, 'Hey, look-it, I'm on the wall!' And that's just what you see. I have some stacked up in the back. The ones who pass. He connected with everybody. He could talk to anybody about anything."

Behind the shiny glass frames there's Big Jack and Cheeseburger Jim, not to mention Art's Mom, his sister, and his sons. One of my favorite caricatures is a sketch of an elderly gentleman who shall remain unnamed, pursuing slowly (but I imagine, doggedly) a shapely woman. The caption reads, "I love chasing women... I just can't remember why."

Art has an easy manner himself.

He chuckles.

"As you can see, people have a lot of interests. There were a couple of times when Chris had to scale things back a little."

You should come into Art's, order a mouthwatering club sandwich, and wander along the walls. It's a lot homier than the Getty and you won't get thrown out for dropping a piece of bacon on the floor.

Life isn't all smiles. Among the lines of caricatures is a local school teacher who died far too young. Art left that one on the wall.

This time Art produces half a smile.

"Now the family comes in and her husband and their dad is still up on the wall."

Photo: Hank Tovar/Pictures That Move

Chris is on the wall, too, not as Santa Claus but as himself, wearing a Dodgers cap (he was a huge baseball fan and accomplished player himself) and sketching a buxom woman (Chris was human, too). Fittingly, his self-caricature is hidden among the hordes. But I'll give you a little help. He's hanging right near a sign that says "Welcome Friends."

As I write this I gaze up at a wall notably bereft of Chris Martinez artwork. But I think there is something on my office wall that would make Chris smile: a scrap of paper, scotch-taped and curling at the edges.

"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies," Ray Bradbury wrote, "... a child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there."

Why not smiles?

No finer example to heed.