Latina artist puts Utah on map

Arte Latino
Cheech's new high is Chicano art, and the Kimball celebrates the genre Saturday
Greg Marshall, Record staff 03/20/2009

If "Cheech" Marin's biography is best summarized by the title of his 1987 film, "Born in East L.A.," Ruby Chacon's life might be called "Born in East Salt Lake."

Chacon, a painter, grew up in a relatively affluent area of the Salt Lake Valley.

Latinos weren't represented en masse at Chacon's high school and school counselors often waylaid her dreams for the future. "They told me I would just never graduate," she said. "They said I should give up now."

Chacon didn't give up. She trudged through night classes to earn her diploma and went on to be the first person in her family to go to college. A graduate from the University of Utah's art program, Chacon has studied in Mexico and Central America. In June of 2008, she put the finishing touches on a joint coffee house and art gallery on the west side of Salt Lake called the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art, or MICA, and Mestizo Coffeehouse.

A new exhibit at the Kimball, "Arte Latino: A Celebration of Voices in our Community," will highlight works by established and emerging artists including Chacon. Meanwhile, about 40 pieces from Marin's private collection of Chicano art on paper, "Papel Chicano," will also be unveiled in the Main gallery. On Saturday, from 6 until 9 p.m., patrons are invited to attend an evening at the Kimball Art Center that will feature music, dancing, live performances, and children's art. Marin, Chacon and other artists will be present to discuss the work. The exhibits run until May 3.

This is the fifth year Chacon has been involved with the Kimball's "Arte Latino." The art pieces on display in the Garage and Badami Galleries come from workshops and community outreach programs held at MICA. They run the gamut from models of low-riding cars to abstract art.

Chacon started MICA to broaden the audience for fine art. "We want to give access to people who don't feel like they have access," she said. "We want people to come who wouldn't normally consider going to an art gallery" but would regularly socialize in coffee shops. The end game is to channel artistic ability to make people feel like assets to the community rather than liabilities, Chacon said.

Cheech and Chicano art

Marin, who sold his Summit County home three years ago, will return to the Kimball to mingle and answer questions Saturday about a role many thought he would never assume: that of a high-profile art connoisseur.

With about 500 paintings, many of them hanging in his home in Los Angeles, Marin boasts one of the largest private collections of Chicano art in the world. He bought his first painting in 1985, the year he made the movies "Get Out of My Room" and "After Hours."

Marin has shown his collection at some of the most prestigious venues in the United States, including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Not unlike Chacon in his efforts to act as an ambassador for art, Marin said he has been an art lover for most of his life.

Marin wants people to come to "Arte Latino" because "you can't love art you've never seen." Positive response from across the country has helped inform the public about art historically excluded from the American cannon. "It has been really overwhelming," he said. "Once people see these paintings, the stories they tell, they love them."

Veronica Perez, a muralist and one of Chacon's apprentices, said it was an honor to have her paintings shown alongside Cheech's collection. Perez's "Muerte y Renacimiento de Tonantzin" and "Dolor Hereditario" use traditional Aztec symbolism to express the themes of motherhood, authenticity and strength in adversity, she said.

Perez earned her undergraduate and masters in business administration from the University of Utah. She serves as the treasurer of MICA and helped create a pair of murals based on feedback from the community. Once finished, they will be hung in a multipurpose room on Salt Lake's west side. "We don't just create anything," Perez said. "We create what people want to see."

Perez moved from Southern California to rural Utah, between Kaysville and Farmington, in 1990. Her family was one of only three Latino families in her junior high school. "It was a huge culture shock," she said. "We were the only Latinos within a mile radius, almost like I was the phenomenon."

Art helped Perez express and share her often contradictory feelings of alienation and pride. Her apprenticeship with Chacon has helped her network with galleries and art instructors to hone her craft, and make a living at it.

Brittney Flores met Chacon about a year ago when her dad, a door maker, literally hung and hinged the doors onto Mestizo. Initially, Flores wanted to be a tattoo artist. "I didn't think I would ever be a painter at all," she confessed. "[Ruby] showed us what was possible. That's how I found my own style."

Flores pointed to a painting of a fetus-like shape cradled in the branches of a tree. "This is a picture of creation," she said. "This is a picture of creation. Ruby created my future and helped me grow."

Then Flores walked to another of her paintings affixed to the wall, a tree with a beating heart for soil and roots. "This is 'Passion,'" she said. "It's my heart. It's what I love to do."

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