Jesus Guillén: Exhibition of his paintings and sculptures at the SVC Art Gallery, opens Feb 3 and runs through March 2011.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. —Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Jesus Guillen became a seasonal agricultural worker at the age of ten. He migrated across this country planting and harvesting crops while living in a mobile and vibrant community – a community of farmworkers. A community that during the 1940’s and 50’s was forced to endure endless humiliations even as their sweat and blood fed the nation and made agribusiness powerful and rich.
Why is he different from the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers that traversed the United States harvesting crops?
Jesus Guillen took the time to capture farmworker culture in the way his heart and spirit led him: through his Tarascan heritage of using art to document daily life. Although he worked long and hard hours in the fields, he always found time to paint and draw. Most of his early works were lost, left behind, as he moved from location to location seeking work.
Finally choosing La Conner and the Skagit Valley as the final destination for himself and his family, it was here that he began to fully portray through his art, that there is dignity in the work his community performs. That this work contributes not just to the economy of the Skagit Valley but also to its culture.
Jesus Guillen was able to love the Skagit Valley in spite of the lack of fairness he and thousands of farmworkers experienced while working in the fields. Low wages, sickness from pesticides and other toxins, job insecurity, these were and are daily struggles for the farmworker. Through all he was able to become a leader that the farmworker community recognized; a man of conscience who knew his rights as an American. He spoke out and stood with pride boldly demonstrating the dignity that all farmworkers hold within. He moved that dignity via brush and pencil from the muddy fields, to the canvas and into the public arena where it could continue to inspire.
Anita GUILLEN writes of her husband:
My husband, Jesus Guillen was born in Coleman, Texas in 1926 at the home of his maternal grandparents. A few years after his birth, the Great Depression set in and his father, who was a Mexican citizen, relocated his family to Mexico. There they settled into the town of his paternal grandparents. As a young child, in Mexico he observed the local Tarascan Indians as they crafted all kinds of artistic objects using the native clay of the area and engaged in traditional dance and ceremony. He never forgot the art, customs and festivals of the Tarascan people and as he began to paint, the memories of what he saw in his childhood was reflected in many of his paintings including one that hangs permanently in the library of the Skagit Valley College.
Not long after resettling his family in Mexico, my husband’s father was tragically killed. After the death of his father his mother returned with her young family to the United States. Here, as a young man, Jesus became a seasonal agricultural worker and although he worked long and hard hours in the fields, he always found time to paint and draw. Most of his early work was lost, left behind, as he had move from location to location seeking work.
I was married to Jesus Guillen in 1951. We settled for a while in Knox City, Texas on his uncle’s cotton farm. Here together we worked the cotton fields until the time came to move on; to look for new work and new opportunity. Leaving me and the children behind, he set out across the country in search of stable work. Many years passed with him returning to us and then leaving again in search of work. Sometimes we would travel with him others not. This continued until in I961 he arrived in the Skagit Valley to pick strawberries. He fell in love with the area and knew the northwest was home. He returned one final time to Texas and moved his family to a migrant camp just outside of La Conner eventually settling permanently in the town of La Conner.
Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, two great Mexican painters, were a primary influence for him. This influence and his continued passion for painting coupled with his feeling that he was finally grounded in one location allowed his work to blossom. In spite of the fact that he had to work hard to support his growing family, painting became and remained an integral need in his life. A self-taught artist he never went to art school or to any school for that matter. He just grabbed a pencil one day and figures appeared on his canvas like flowers from the earth. Working out in the fields to harvest the produce of the land is a hardship the laborer must endure, however in his art work the story is never a depressing one. His colors and figures show a richness, a peace, a sensitivity to be admired by those who have eyes to see and a mind to understand the will and perseverance of the farm worker. His legacy is one of dedication to one’s culture, work ethic, family and art.