An overflow crowd of almost 200 filled the Central Library Auditorium on Tuesday evening for a celebration of Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño, the new book about the life and work of San Antonio artist Jesse Treviño.
Spirit author Anthony Head joked that half the people in the room must be relatives of the artist, who has a large, local family. Before the proceedings began, Treviño’s younger brother Robert reminisced about doing leatherwork and ceramics with his older brother when they were children, and about later witnessing the painting of Mi Vida in 1972, Jesse’s signature outpouring of his emotional reintroduction to civilian life after service in the Vietnam War.
As has often been noted, that service rendered Treviño a wounded warrior, having lost his right forearm and hand to a grenade explosion. Mi Vida represented Treviño’s adjustment to his wounds, including learning how to paint with his intact left hand.
While injured, Treviño had a realization: “I made a promise to myself that if I lived, I would paint the things important to me: my family, my neighborhood – my world,” he said, as quoted in a documentary on the artist produced by Ellen Riojas Clark, which was screened as the audience assembled.
Treviño has since grown into a leading art figure in San Antonio and beyond, with large-scale murals at important locations around the city, including the Spirit of Healing tile mural on the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio downtown. Among other notable achievements, Treviño painted the official portrait of the legendary U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez and is currently honored with the title wall of Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, featuring Mi Vida.
Treviño received a standing ovation upon entering the library auditorium, making his way up the center aisle as Mayor Ron Nirenberg slipped inconspicuously into the back of the room.
Nirenberg took the podium to introduce Treviño, Head, and moderator Robert Rivard, editor and publisher of the Rivard Report, for what he called “an extraordinary conversation about one extraordinary American.” Nirenberg described Treviño as “an example of what we can do when we put our creativity to work for the betterment of mankind.”
Head then gave a brief reading from Spirit, focused on the era of Treviño’s post-Vietnam return to the U.S., as the civil rights movement aligned with the antiwar protest movement. At the time, Treviño was invited to join the Con Safos group of Chicano artists by Mel Casas, who taught painting at San Antonio College. Casas also taught his young student that it’s “not as important how you make your art, but why – your intentions, your meaning, your message,” Head said.
“Jesse took to heart the lessons of Mel Casas, who kept emphasizing how art can be – must be – an important part of any dialogue on social and cultural issues,” Head read.
An issue recounted in the pages of Spirit is that both men, artist and author, suffered bouts with cancer during the book’s eight-year production. As Treviño endured the effects of chemotherapy to treat stomach cancer, “talking about his past was very uplifting to him,” Head said. “And at his lowest moments … being able to give me stories for this book, I know helped his recovery because I could see it.”
When Head was diagnosed with leukemia soon after, he said his own treatments made him able to understand at least some part of the physical and emotional pain Treviño had endured throughout his lifetime. “After he got cancer, and after I got cancer during the research and writing of this book, I think he bonded with me in a way that he hadn’t before,” Head said during an earlier interview.
Their mutual trials made Treviño less guarded, and more willing to tell stories of his life. The result was an overweening, 240,000-word manuscript that was trimmed to a slim 80,000 words, more than enough for the eventual 256-page book.
Head said there is room for more books on Treviño, to tell the stories he by necessity had to leave out. “I think I interviewed half of the people here tonight, and I’m sorry for the other half but after seven years I just ran out of time. … There’s plenty of room for more books about Jesse to be written, I think, because Jesse is the story of San Antonio.”
At one point during the evening, Treviño proved his tirelessness by telling a lengthy story in Spanish. He used a barrio slang term – as described by an audience member – como la fregada (against all odds, roughly), to summarize the dual struggle he and Head went through to finally bring the biography Treviño had always wanted to come to fruition.
Rivard drew laughter as he summed up Treviño’s thoughts for the English speakers in the audience: “He likes the book.”
Despite his recent health struggles, Treviño clearly wants to keep going. He told of a desire to make a new mural for the redeveloped Alameda Theatre, as just one part of an ambitious plan for the near Westside Zona Cultural and the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus.
One detail rarely heard came out during the conversation. Asked by Rivard when he knew he wanted to be an artist, Treviño remembered submitting a drawing to an art competition held by the Witte Museum with the idea of wanting to win. “That’s exactly true,” he said.
His competitive spirit still lives. “The future for me [is] I want to be in the lead of the arts here in San Antonio,” he said. “It’s important that I dominate with my work.”