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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)

More accolades: Bravo got a runner-up stroll down the red carpet in Miami Beach at the 2007 Food Network Awards in the "play with your food" category (he lost to sculptor and photographer Liz Hickok and her "San Francisco in Jell-O" series). Bravo says that actor Cheech Marin, who is also an astute collector of Chicano art, is angling for a piece. Recently, Michael "Flea" Balzary, the bassist of the rock band (and interesting food pairing) Red Hot Chili Peppers, bought a large-format tortilla. Bravo's larger flour works are now selling for $3,200 (though a minor work on corn would go for $800, and a poster for $10).

How does he do it? Naturally, it all begins in his kitchen. Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas company ("Can you give them a plug?" Why sure!) is now providing Bravo with especially large, custom-made flour tortillas measuring 32 inches across. "I felt I had to go bigger," he says. "An audience sees a painting on a little regular tortilla, they might go, okay. But to see a really, really big tortilla? That gets their attention."

To continue. Bravo places the tortillas on his stove top and fires up the gas. The round moist bready flesh begins to crinkle and toast and then burn in spots, creating a topography of subtle peaks and valleys freckled with brown, black and white. Then, Bravo lays the tortillas, steamy hot off the grill, on his cool tile countertop and puts a board on top and weighs it down with a pair of dumbbells. When they are cold and flattened, he covers one side (the back) with burlap (he gets it free from the local fire department; they use it for sandbagging against floods) and seals the tortilla with a varnish -- and then examines it, quite artistically.

"You see patterns," he says, "like when you look up at the clouds. Here," he points, "I'm seeing the fur of a jaguar." The correspondent is seeing a No. 3 special with extra onions from Tito's Tacos. "You're working with the environment of the tortilla," Bravo says. "It's almost like a collaborator, the tortilla is."

Like maybe how Michelangelo saw David trapped in the marble? "Yeah," Bravo says, arching his eyebrows, "something like that. But don't get too serious about it." In his kitchen, there are four or five tortillas ready to paint. He'll do some -- like the pit bulls -- in a hip-hoppy, lowrider style "for the young people." For the traditionalists, it is portraits of the revolutionary Zapata or Mayan kings or Aztec princesses. For the Hong Kong show, he did some Chinese dragons and "Ethnic Elvis," the King, but a pinch darker. The Tate Gallery in London included in a catalogue a Bravo tortilla called "Fridalupe," which is Mexican artist icon Frida Kahlo as la Virgen de Guadalupe, the 16th-century Mexican icon of the Virgin Mary. Also, he's done clown Ronald McDonald for the McDonald's launch of its new "snack wrap."

For that, someone accused Bravo of selling out. His response? "All the money that McDonald's has made off the Latino community? Are you kidding me? If they want to give a little back, I'll take the gig."

Bravo mentions that he is not the first to create tortilla art. "It's been done before," he says, "but I want to elevate the art form." And he has, says Abelino Bautista, curator at Arte Americas in Fresno, where 20 Bravo tortillas are now on display. "We were wondering ourselves, should we do this? Is this is a gimmick? I can tell you it is a very, very well-received show. His work is unique and original and excellent. The public has flipped over this."

There is just something about seeing a painting of a raging bull with flame-red chili-pepper horns on a vinyl-like tortilla. Bravo knows, too, that his art is quoting popular history here: News of the apparition of the divine on the humble tortilla appears occasionally. Religious folklore -- in Mexican culture and many others -- is crowded with reports (some pious, some not) whereby the faithful have seen the visage of Jesus or Mary in gnarled bark or passing clouds or on a cheese sandwich (auctioned on eBay). Bravo is not a mocker. It is beautiful that some people have seen such visions, he says.

Bravo sees things in his tacos, too. "I've solved the problem for everyone," he says. "Now they can go to exhibits and there is the image of the Virgin, big as life, right there on my tortilla."


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