Paint the Town Brown

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

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."

Artist Alfredo Ortiz found that he fit right in at CHAC.
John Johnston
Artist Alfredo Ortiz found that he fit right in at CHAC.
Carlos Frésquez first displayed his signature "Zoot 
Suit in Los Rockies" at CHAC.
John Johnston
Carlos Frésquez first displayed his signature "Zoot Suit in Los Rockies" at CHAC.
"Zoot Suit in Los Rockies"
"Zoot Suit in Los Rockies"
Artist Jerry Vigil, Jerry Lawson, director Crystal 
O'Brien and Marcos Lima all found a home at CHAC.
John Johnston
Artist Jerry Vigil, Jerry Lawson, director Crystal O'Brien and Marcos Lima all found a home at CHAC.
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.

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.

"I can't say enough," he says. "I don't want to say that I would have given up without them, but it's almost like that. CHAC keeps me moving forward. I feel very comfortable there. It's like a home."


Crystal O'Brien is a strawberry-blond Norwegian Swede with an addiction to Chicano art. In the late '90s, she was a regular at Jerry Lawson's Artes del Pueblo gallery on 47th Avenue. When the gallery closed, Lawson sent O'Brien to CHAC, which had just relocated to Santa Fe Drive. After she stopped in, Carlos Martinez refused to let her leave until she became a member and a volunteer.

And volunteer she did.

Using her background in sales, management and human resources, O'Brien developed media lists, press kits and publicity sheets. She spread the word, tried to expand the audience and "did whatever needed to be done," she remembers.

But by 1999, CHAC was again struggling. Administrators suggested closing the Santa Fe gallery -- the largest and most visible yet for the group -- and using a P.O. box for an address. O'Brien and other boardmembers refused. Instead, they opened their checkbooks and made the rent.

O'Brien took a year off from work and devoted herself to CHAC. She pestered founders to rejoin. She taught herself how to write grant proposals. She made presentations to corporations. She beat the bushes for new members. She pinched every penny. She grabbed anyone stopping by the gallery and put them to work.

"You'd better be willing to clean the toilets and mop the floors, because that's what it takes," says Carlos Martinez. "Everyone works."

And works for free. With CHAC's survival on the line, neither O'Brien nor anyone else receives a salary. And since there's no money for janitors, repairmen or caterers, artists and boardmembers alike bring casseroles to openings, hang art and patch nail holes.

"Every little bit helps," says O'Brien, herself a multimedia artist who is now CHAC's director and board chair. "Nothing gets done unless someone does it. Everyone is focused on CHAC's survival. Right now, we have to be."

CHAC has opened a gift shop offering original and imported art, which is also available on its Web site (www.angelfire.com/co3/CHAC). It has expanded themed events to include a heart show in February and saints and crosses in September, and showcased special exhibits, such as this summer's Spirit of Frida Kahlo. It has dispatched artists to schools and senior centers. It has held basement sales; it has placed tip jars at opening events. It has joined the Santa Fe Drive Arts Walk, which includes a number of more mainstream galleries that recently opened nearby.

Last year, CHAC's budget grew from $33,000 to about $60,000. The group boosted membership ($50 for artists, $60 for families) to 120, back to a level it enjoyed a decade ago. It won the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

But the turnaround hasn't come easy.

A few CHAC members wondered about O'Brien's motives. Others questioned her knowledge of art. A few grumbled about her ethnicity.

"CHAC had just come from a pretty dark place, so I had to prove my intentions were pure and my vision was the same as the organization's," says O'Brien. "Some people would meet me for the first time and their jaws would drop. I've always been curious and intrigued with Chicano art. I love and respect the culture. I just have a passion for CHAC that fuels me like nothing else. My family has a hard time getting me away from here."

That passion is what CHAC is all about, artists say.

"The people who are involved now are like the people who were involved initially," says Stevon Lucero. "It's an act of love."

Maruca Salazar agrees: "If you would have told me 25 years ago that the chair of CHAC would be an Anglo woman, I would have said you were crazy. But I've come to appreciate people as people: black, white, whatever. Chicanos have, too. That doesn't say they're changing political values; it says they've evolved. CHAC is doing what other art institutions should be doing: being inclusive."

Last year's San Patricios show is one example of CHAC's inclusiveness. Through painting, storytelling, poetry and dance, artists of all surnames honored the Irish conscripts who left the U.S. military during the Mexican-American War and joined with the Mexicans in a show of solidarity for oppressed people.

"We're building bridges," Jerry Lawson says.

A quarter-century after Lawson and other artists began building those bridges, CHAC still faces challenges. Arts funding has been slashed, while rents are rising on Santa Fe Drive. There are some founders who argue that with the high caliber of Chicano artists and the expanding Latino community in this state, CHAC should be "a multimillion-dollar institution" offering scholarships, programs and exhibitions. But the Museo de las Américas, just a block away from CHAC, tried to go global, and it's in deep financial trouble. CHAC may have kept its aspirations more modest, but its contributions are undeniable.

"It has provided opportunities for people at all levels of talent, particularly of color, to go somewhere and be welcomed instead of ridiculed," Carlos Martinez says. "It has also given a coating of legitimacy to things that were not understood by the mainstream. It has helped change the perception that Chicano art is not just folk art or lesser art."

It's art that speaks to a community. A community still concerned about civil rights and women's equality. About immigration.

"During the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s, the art was very crisis-oriented and historically grounded," says George Rivera, a University of Colorado fine-arts professor who's also a digital artist. "Chicanos were trying to recover their identity, so the first thing they did was deal with the immediacy of the situation and re-image the past. Now, in the new millennium, Chicano art has become trans-national. It has to do with problems Chicanos have here, but also globally -- like immigration, language, power differentials. Some deal with these in more of a metaphorical way than representational now, while others are still very much attached to the '60s and '70s . There has been an evolution."

"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 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.

"I can't say enough," he says. "I don't want to say that I would have given up without them, but it's almost like that. CHAC keeps me moving forward. I feel very comfortable there. It's like a home."


Crystal O'Brien is a strawberry-blond Norwegian Swede with an addiction to Chicano art. In the late '90s, she was a regular at Jerry Lawson's Artes del Pueblo gallery on 47th Avenue. When the gallery closed, Lawson sent O'Brien to CHAC, which had just relocated to Santa Fe Drive. After she stopped in, Carlos Martinez refused to let her leave until she became a member and a volunteer.

And volunteer she did.

Using her background in sales, management and human resources, O'Brien developed media lists, press kits and publicity sheets. She spread the word, tried to expand the audience and "did whatever needed to be done," she remembers.

But by 1999, CHAC was again struggling. Administrators suggested closing the Santa Fe gallery -- the largest and most visible yet for the group -- and using a P.O. box for an address. O'Brien and other boardmembers refused. Instead, they opened their checkbooks and made the rent.

O'Brien took a year off from work and devoted herself to CHAC. She pestered founders to rejoin. She taught herself how to write grant proposals. She made presentations to corporations. She beat the bushes for new members. She pinched every penny. She grabbed anyone stopping by the gallery and put them to work.

"You'd better be willing to clean the toilets and mop the floors, because that's what it takes," says Carlos Martinez. "Everyone works."

And works for free. With CHAC's survival on the line, neither O'Brien nor anyone else receives a salary. And since there's no money for janitors, repairmen or caterers, artists and boardmembers alike bring casseroles to openings, hang art and patch nail holes.

"Every little bit helps," says O'Brien, herself a multimedia artist who is now CHAC's director and board chair. "Nothing gets done unless someone does it. Everyone is focused on CHAC's survival. Right now, we have to be."

CHAC has opened a gift shop offering original and imported art, which is also available on its Web site (www.angelfire.com/co3/CHAC). It has expanded themed events to include a heart show in February and saints and crosses in September, and showcased special exhibits, such as this summer's Spirit of Frida Kahlo. It has dispatched artists to schools and senior centers. It has held basement sales; it has placed tip jars at opening events. It has joined the Santa Fe Drive Arts Walk, which includes a number of more mainstream galleries that recently opened nearby.

Last year, CHAC's budget grew from $33,000 to about $60,000. The group boosted membership ($50 for artists, $60 for families) to 120, back to a level it enjoyed a decade ago. It won the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

But the turnaround hasn't come easy.

A few CHAC members wondered about O'Brien's motives. Others questioned her knowledge of art. A few grumbled about her ethnicity.

"CHAC had just come from a pretty dark place, so I had to prove my intentions were pure and my vision was the same as the organization's," says O'Brien. "Some people would meet me for the first time and their jaws would drop. I've always been curious and intrigued with Chicano art. I love and respect the culture. I just have a passion for CHAC that fuels me like nothing else. My family has a hard time getting me away from here."

That passion is what CHAC is all about, artists say.

"The people who are involved now are like the people who were involved initially," says Stevon Lucero. "It's an act of love."

Maruca Salazar agrees: "If you would have told me 25 years ago that the chair of CHAC would be an Anglo woman, I would have said you were crazy. But I've come to appreciate people as people: black, white, whatever. Chicanos have, too. That doesn't say they're changing political values; it says they've evolved. CHAC is doing what other art institutions should be doing: being inclusive."

Last year's San Patricios show is one example of CHAC's inclusiveness. Through painting, storytelling, poetry and dance, artists of all surnames honored the Irish conscripts who left the U.S. military during the Mexican-American War and joined with the Mexicans in a show of solidarity for oppressed people.

"We're building bridges," Jerry Lawson says.

A quarter-century after Lawson and other artists began building those bridges, CHAC still faces challenges. Arts funding has been slashed, while rents are rising on Santa Fe Drive. There are some founders who argue that with the high caliber of Chicano artists and the expanding Latino community in this state, CHAC should be "a multimillion-dollar institution" offering scholarships, programs and exhibitions. But the Museo de las Américas, just a block away from CHAC, tried to go global, and it's in deep financial trouble. CHAC may have kept its aspirations more modest, but its contributions are undeniable.

"It has provided opportunities for people at all levels of talent, particularly of color, to go somewhere and be welcomed instead of ridiculed," Carlos Martinez says. "It has also given a coating of legitimacy to things that were not understood by the mainstream. It has helped change the perception that Chicano art is not just folk art or lesser art."

It's art that speaks to a community. A community still concerned about civil rights and women's equality. About immigration.

"During the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s, the art was very crisis-oriented and historically grounded," says George Rivera, a University of Colorado fine-arts professor who's also a digital artist. "Chicanos were trying to recover their identity, so the first thing they did was deal with the immediacy of the situation and re-image the past. Now, in the new millennium, Chicano art has become trans-national. It has to do with problems Chicanos have here, but also globally -- like immigration, language, power differentials. Some deal with these in more of a metaphorical way than representational now, while others are still very much attached to the '60s and '70s . There has been an evolution."

"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 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.

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