Paint the Town Brown

For these Chicano artists, home is where the art is.

"CHAC is very relevant," says Lorenzo Trujillo. "There's a whole new set of issues, circumstances, expressions and concerns. Nothing survives unless there's a need. And the need is there."

"In a hundred years, it might be an institution and it might not be," Stevon Lucero says. "But the point is, it's important now."

Laura Lopez and Dale Lopez Sr. discovered that their 
son, Dale, lived on through his art.
John Johnston
Laura Lopez and Dale Lopez Sr. discovered that their son, Dale, lived on through his art.

Laura could see it in their eyes: a glow.

Minutes after the Dale Lopez Remembrance show opened, dozens of visitors threaded through the CHAC gallery. Gray-haired grandmothers. Tongue-pierced teens. They squinted under the bright lights. They creaked along the wooden floors. They all stood before a retrospective of her son's work, as well as that of a few other artists, including Dale's best friend, and smiled into the colors.

Laura watched it all proudly.

"This was one of his dreams," she said. "Without this place, we'd never be doing this."

And so at CHAC, for a few short hours, Dale Lopez lived.

In the best of times, with grants and proceeds from art sales and events, CHAC's annual budget exceeded $100,000. Programs hummed along, the director received a modest salary, and there was usually enough left over for an assistant or two. But during hard times, the budget fell well below $30,000, straining CHAC's ability to make payroll and rent -- let alone expand.

"It was always very lean," recalls Rick Manzanares, CHAC's director during a period of regeneration from 1991 to 1994. "You could spend all your time just trying to stay afloat."

Members spent considerable energy refereeing disputes. Some artists worried that CHAC was more interested in activism than expression; others argued that work that wasn't overtly political was "wimpy."

"Some artists didn't want anything to do with politics, and with others, that was their whole agenda," recalls Emanuel Martinez. "So you had clashes."

And resentment. And bad blood. And the perception that some artists put themselves before the community.

"Idealism gave way to ambition in some people," Stevon Lucero says. "There was a using of CHAC as a stepping stone for careers."

The pressures weren't all political. Members were also raising families, running households, trying to pay bills. Artists who kept their day jobs couldn't donate enough time, money and energy to the grassroots group. One by one, members left.

Maruca Salazar explains CHAC's dark periods with a saying from her native Mexico: "Hunger takes you to the floor, but pride gets you back up."

"It's part of growth," she says. "CHAC has been radical at times, and sometimes it didn't want to cause controversy. But that's life. That's CHAC. It was never meant to be mainstream."

"There was a learning curve," Jerry Lawson agrees. "You take a step, you move on. It's like brothers and sisters. You disagree, but in the end you support each other. You go out for a rum and coke, and peace settles in the land. It was hard, but you look back and say, `We got through it.'"

At CHAC, artists have tackled everything from AIDS to homelessness. In 1992, Manzanares started the Chile Harvest Festival, which for five years featured traditional colonial art from New Mexico and southern Colorado, including santos, tin work, retablos and weaving. Later, CHAC invited taggers to create aerosol art and featured the Día de los Muertos altars of former gang members. CHAC has displayed everything from ironing-board saints to velvet Elvis paintings, from grandmas' pot holders to erotica exhibitions. And although this openness has led some critics to question the quality of the shows, others see the eccentricity as a strength.

"If you're brave enough to show pot holders, go for it," Maruca Salazar says. "At CHAC, there is no diva bullshit. CHAC keeps you real. CHAC keeps you connected to the community. "

"It has an energy," agrees Jerry Lawson. "You can come and go, but you can always return to CHAC and know you'll be supported."

Alfredo Ortiz is Mexican, and proud of it. Although he was raised in Denver, his heart resides in Juarez. "I do not want to forget where I came from," he says.

That desire shows in his paintings. Although his style is "all over the place," he says, there's one constant: his need to reflect the struggles he witnessed in his homeland. "I've seen a lot of things, and I want people to know that everything is not okay," the thirty-year-old explains.

When he tried to book shows in Denver, gallery owners said he needed more "conformity." But Ortiz isn't about conformity. He is what he is, and he paints what he paints.

Friends at Metropolitan State College told him about CHAC, but Ortiz was reluctant to visit because of the name. To him, Chicanos were people whose grandparents had come from Mexico, didn't speak Spanish well and "were ashamed to be Mexican." He wanted to show his work, but he didn't want to sell out his heritage in the process.

"I didn't identify myself as a Chicano," Ortiz explains. "I wasn't sure what that meant. It was like I was stuck in the middle, looking for somewhere to fit."

But at CHAC, artists told him it didn't matter if he was black, white, whatever. So Ortiz is now a member. He's shown his work and sold about a dozen paintings.

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