DUST billowed around the truck as we wound up a wide, rocky footpath in the quiet village of San Antonio de Oriente. Carved into the Honduran hillside were bright, whitewashed houses; intricate patterns of red, clay-tiled roofs; a lone church; and frequent spots of vibrantly colored flora--all familiar elements in the "primitive" paintings of the late Honduran artist Jose' Antonio Vela'squez.
We visited the artist this past January through an introduction from Jose'' Gomez-Sicre, former director of the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America. After our visit, Vela'squez died, on Feb. 14, at the age of 77, leaving a lifetime of humble devotion to painting that brought the country of Honduras as well as the artist international recognition.
Weakened by recent surgery, Vela'squez sat, in his home in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, beneath photographs of him and his wife Raquel being honored by Juan Carlos I of Spain and former Honduran president Policarpo Paz Garci'a. His small, black eyes and broad, soft face were reminiscent of the classic Mayan features that appear throughout Honduras.
At one point he walked over to one of the several paintings hanging on the wall, almost all of them different perspectives of his village. One, however, was a self-portrait. "During my exhibit in Washington in 1954 at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, the director suggested that a true test of my ability as a self-taught artist was to paint a self-portrait from a mirror."
The artist accepted the challenge and during his short stay in Washington painted a meticulous, realistic self-portrait with San Antonio painted in the background in his usual "naive" style. Showing us an affectionate dedication to his wife on the back of a painting, Vela'squez said, "All these pieces are gifts to Raquel. I'm glad to have completed this last painting because it is my gift to her for our 52nd wedding anniversary."
The timeless character of San Antonio, which still lacks roads and electricity, provided constant stimulation for the painter. Since 1975 Vela'squez and Raquel had lived in Tegucigalpa, but they frequently visited the village so he could continue to paint. A flourishing silver mining village in colonial times, San Antonio is now so isolated that even the Coca-Cola signs, so typical of remote areas of Latin America, don't exist.
Raquel and Tulio, one of their nine children, escorted us to the artist's favorite sites. The bold shapes of the houses, the clarity of color and the sharp shadows cast by the bright tropical sun move even the casual observer. Most of the villagers had taken refuge from the high-noon heat, giving the empty village an enigmatic feeling. In dark, smoky kitchens, families ate and rested before the men returned to the fields and the women to their housework. Aside from an occasional dog or child in the narrow stone streets, the most activity we saw was a few women scrubbing clothes at the public water trough.
Vela'squez first encountered San Antonio in 1924. He arrived to operate the telegraph office and subsequently became a barber and the mayor. Before that, he had labored on the United Fruit Co. banana plantations, an experience shared by most working-class Hondurans. The rare, simple beauty of the village caught the barber's eye, and with no previous artistic experience, Vela'squez began to paint. Throughout his lifetime the images remained the same: his family, the village and religious icons. With a technique reminiscent of the bold, "naive" style of American painter Grandma Moses, Vela'squez communicates the modest beauty of rural life with a care that defines every detail. Vela'squez's paintings pick up a light that makes all the colors shimmer with an electrical magic.
His earliest paintings hang in the little church that appears in almost all his work and which is locked except for special events. After hunting down the keeper of the church key, we entered the dimly lit building to see Vela'squez's small religious paintings, flatter in form and more muted in color than his later work.
Vela'squez's first home in San Antonio stands like a monument, a large single room with a partial dividing wall. A few square openings in the walls let in light. Aside from a bed and a table the only other thing in the room is the adobe wood stove that Raquel cooked at while raising her family.
Despite Vela'squez's success, he fit as comfortably in his humble village home as in his large, elegant urban home.
A major retrospective exhibit of Vela'squez's paintings is now at the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America at the OAS in conjunction with a collection of photographs of the village and the artist taken by Francisco Alvarado-Jua'rez during our visit. The exhibit will continue through Friday.