An Artist in Flour

Bravo doesn't claim to be the first painter to work with tortillas,
Bravo doesn't claim to be the first painter to work with tortillas, "but I want to elevate the art form." Among his accomplishments: an entry in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" (Above: By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post; Below: Courtesy Joe Bravo)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007


Behold the humble tortilla! Home for beans, room for cheese, the welcome mat for all grilled meats. You or I? We see a tortilla and we think, yum, burrito night. But not Joe Bravo. No, mis amigos, Bravo looks at a toasted tortilla and he sees the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Or perhaps a sleeping pit bull. Or Emiliano Zapata. Or a cockroach, its head bursting into flame!

The point is that we have the eyes, but do not see. And that is why Joe Bravo is traveling to Hong Kong this month for an international exhibit of his tortilla art, and we are eating lunch at Taco Bell.

"One morning," says Bravo, 57, the memory still as fresh 35 years later as a crunchy chip with a scoop of salsa, "I was looking at this corn tortilla . . . " (He has since moved on to flour).

And? "I saw a canvas."

This was back in his wilder student days, at Cal State Northridge, a hothouse for Chicano art and politics in 1972, when he first took acrylic-paint brush to unleavened round bread. The early efforts were inspired. But, alas, short-lived. "I made a mobile of hanging tortillas, they were all painted, but they didn't preserve that well, and it blew apart in the Santa Ana winds."

Scattered like leftover Doritos in the storm.

Why the tortilla, one could ask. Why not the ceiling of, say, a chapel in the Vatican? "Necessity is the mother of invention," Bravo explains. "Mexicans, we Latinos, we have a history of being a resourceful people. We'll paint on tin, on walls, on cars, on anything." (He is a former art director for Lowrider Magazine.) One has the feeling that if you sat still long enough on Bravo's comfy couch at his tidy little bungalow in Highland Park, he might paint on you, too.

Because -- watch! Bravo is skiddling around his house/studio, showing off his painted tortillas. Here he comes, wearing an Aztec mask, made entirely of tortillas, and in place of jade and precious stones, he has pebbled the headdress with kernels of corn. "I'm thinking of making a whole suit of tortillas," he says, and you think, please, can some foundation immediately DHL a large check to this man so the world can witness the suit of painted lard and flour?

It has not been easy being a tortilla artist. For many years, Bravo worked as a commercial graphic designer (he proudly put two sons through Stanford and UCLA), but lately the world has come around to knowing eccentric genius when it sees it. Recently, his work was exhibited at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, which led to a current solo show at the Arte Americas cultural center in Fresno, which led to his upcoming trip to China, where he will display 20 tortillas at a huge mall in Hong Kong and perform demonstrations of his mastery of the medium. The buzz has garnered him pieces in the Los Angeles Times, on Spanish-language TV, and an upcoming entry in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!," which is like the Sotheby's catalogue for artists who work at the outer limits of human potential.

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