An artistic legacy in La Conner
What: "The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage"
Where: Skagit County Historical Museum, La Conner
WHEN: 11am-4pm Fri.-Sun., through May 23
Cost: $4-$5 per person, $10 per family
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Jesus Guillén was born in 1926 in Texas. As a child, his father moved the family to Mexico for several years, where the festivals, culture and art of the Tarascan people made a lasting impression upon him—as evidenced by his painting of a flamboyant warrior, “Guerrero Aguila,” on display through May 23 as part of “The Work of Jesus Guillén: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” exhibit at the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner.
The oil painting is Guillén’s most extravagant work in the show, vividly expressing his drive to connect with proud ancestors whom the Aztecs failed to conquer.
In 1960, Guillén came to the Skagit Valley as a migrant worker to pick strawberries. He returned the next season with his wife and children and they made their permanent home here, first living in farmworkers’ housing and finally in their own home in La Conner. We’re told that he never attended school and was entirely self-taught as both an artist and writer: “He would simply grab a pencil or a paintbrush and figures and forms would appear on his canvas like flowers from the earth.”
Skagit artist Kris Ekstrand has done a magnificent job of curating the exhibition at the Skagit County Historical Museum, including a touching memorial by Guillén’s widow, Anita.
In the exhibition are a selection of Guillén’s drawings and paintings as well as stone carving and clay sculpture. When a stretched canvas wasn’t handy, he didn’t hesitate to paint on burlap. He drew and painted flowers, vegetables, pumpkins. But the heart of the exhibit is the tulip field works.
If, as Anita remembers, Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera were Jesus’ inspiration, in a sense he surpasses them. The bitterness, violence, the grotesque which frequently surface in the work of these two masters is absent in Guillén’s. His work is unfailingly loving and sweet, celebrating color, gaiety and fulfillment.
In “Tulip Season,” four colorful harvesters gather blossoms in a field of red, yellow, pink and green with snowcapped peaks in the background. A man in a white shirt and sombrero holds massive bunches of pink flowers in each hand. In profile is a woman in red, wearing elegant silver earrings. Foreground, another woman embraces an impossible number of bunched red tulips.
Guillén’s crowning achievement is “Fiesta Tarascan.” Nine barefoot maidens—are all modeled upon a single woman?—form an unbroken line at once highly abstract and very realistic.
A graceful energy surges through them. Two quietly visit, another pair regards the viewer, a set of three (each with her own attitude) confront something offstage right, while in the background, two more continue the business of decorating the hall with chains of marigolds. Black overskirts tied with red, blue or green sashes and subtle, unique embroidery embolden the young women’s white dresses.
Guillén was in his late 60s when he died in 1994, without having been included in artists’ gatherings in the Skagit Valley. Posthumously, “Tulip Season” was selected for the 1995 Skagit Valley Tulip Festival poster. It was a fitting tribute, as is this must-see exhibit.
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