Two of his art teachers at the University of Guadalajara had been assistants of José-Clemente Orozco, Espinosa said one afternoon last week in his eponymous new gallery, Gonzalo Espinosa Arte Contemporánea, on South Park Avenue.
And the city itself was filled with the great muralist's works. During the late '30s, Orozco painted his monumental works on walls at the university and on assorted government buildings, from the Chamber of Deputies to the Government Palace. As a young art student, Espinosa was inspired to paint large as well, but it was Tucson that would become his urban canvas.
"I was attracted to Tucson by the Chicano muralists," he said. "Public art has been a powerful movement here. We don't see it as a cultural movement, but it is."
When he arrived in town 18 years ago, Chicano artists were painting big outdoor works all over the southside, filling them with Aztec imagery and heroic images of the people that would have done Orozco proud. But as the paintings aged and began needing retouching and maintenance, Old Pueblo public art shifted from paint to the more durable--and now ubiquitous--ceramic tile. Navigating the nuts-and-bolts headaches of multiple materials in some 20 commissions during the next two decades, Espinosa was helped by his early art schooling.
"It was rigid academic training," he remembered, "but it gave me the skill to solve problems."
Along the way, he also metamorphosed from artist to teacher to social worker. Along with the artist Alex Garza, who's still there, Espinosa labored many years at Las Artes, a laudable art-and-education program for at-risk teens in South Tucson. Kids in the project work toward their GEDs while getting on-the-job training in art-tile design, manufacture and installation. Espinosa found the work demanding, but gratifying.
"Ten to 12 years later, it's great to see them, all grown up, guys working."
He left Las Artes a few years back to return full-time to public art. Since then, he's created a series of murals on 10th Avenue in South Tucson, and worked on an Oro Valley project that was aborted halfway through. He made public art pieces of ceramic tile, engraved concrete and even metal.
"I did eight murals in two years," he said. "It was intense."
Last year, he decided to change direction once again and concentrate on his personal art. "Public art for me is a commission. It's not 'my art.'"
But the switch hasn't left him any less busy. In 2004, he had a 50th-birthday show at Raices Taller 222, another exhibition at the Arizona State Museum, and a two-person outing at Dinnerware. And late in the year, he opened the gallery. At first, he said, he was just looking for a studio.
"As soon as I saw this space, I loved it," he said. Tucked in the so-called Lost Barrio, behind Bohemia and Tooley's Café, across the street from warehouse stores specializing in international furniture and crafts, the space once housed Sharon Holnback's Apparatus Gallery.
Once ensconced in the building, Espinosa was nudged into the gallery business by friends and fellow artists, who insisted, "You've a got a great space; you should do a gallery." Three months ago, Espinosa complied and opened the doors of Arte Contemporánea, figuring he'd be on the premises every day doing his art anyway.
"It's an adventure with no money," he said, only half-joking.
He's showcasing not only his own paintings, prints and sculpture, but work by other artists whose art is compatible. An old friend and fellow student from Guadalajara, Maricarmen Gutierrez, is currently displaying intricate colored etchings, including the ravishing "La Semilla," glowing in delicate gold, green and blue. (It turns out murals are not the only intellectual property exported by his home city. "Etching is a big tradition in Guadalajara too," he said.)
Mary Lou Williams, also a member of Raices Taller, has a selection of her Mexican-inspired linoleum prints, hand-painted in watercolors. Displayed last summer at Raices, these supple works, one featuring a mother and child, another a musician, also owe a debt to Mexican printmakers.
Espinosa doesn't consider his own work to have a particularly Mexican aesthetic. The closest he comes is a table topped with a nearly abstracted face of a Mexican wrestler, rendered in tile in a limited palette of gray, white and red. And among the sculptures, there are perhaps some inadvertent borrowings from his heritage. "Monopteros," a series of human figures in cast plaster, has two bodies entwined, with the woman becoming a sheltering angel's wing. "Milagros en Azul" is a big stela--not unlike Mayan stelae in Central America--that stands on metal legs, its slab covered with slivers of charred wood glued together like puzzle pieces. Hand-made metal milagros, the miracles of Mexican folk tradition--a head, a heart, a hand--hang at the top end, which is stained a brilliant blue.
After years of making outdoor works filled with images readily identifiable to a public motoring past, Espinosa is delving with pleasure into abstraction in his painting.
"I used to say, when I learn how to paint, I'm going to be an abstract painter. People think it's easier to do abstraction, but it's not."
Two small paintings of pure color, in turquoise and green, organized into floating rectangles ("my Rothko paintings," he smiled), are promising. So is "Tu Sombra Tambien Se Mueve" ("Your Shadow Also Moves"), a larger canvas painted in red encaustic and affixed with found circles in wood at the upper right.
For his first official exhibition, he made a point of selecting an abstract artist. Zulmira Carvalho, a Brazilian transplanted, like Espinosa, to Tucson, makes a hip variation on the traditional luminaria. Her material, decidedly un-arty PVC pipe, is very contemporary material. She carves abstract patterns into the surface of the pipe cylinders: criss-crossing cross-hatches, intersecting triangles, fields of dots. Electric lights illuminate the sculptures from within.
"As soon as I saw these," Espinosa said, "I knew I had to have them in my gallery."