Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An Artist For Life - Luis Cervantes (6/12/05 article)

reprinted from
copyright 2005 Mercury News (for personal use only)
Posted on Sun, Jun. 12, 2005


By Nora Villagrán

San Jose Mercury News

Reminiscent of the vibrant, bright-eyed hummingbird he painted for the collaborative mural on King Road in San Jose, Luis Cervantes lived a beautiful life of art, conversation, community and familia.

A fine-arts painter undefined by any one medium, Cervantes was also a sculptor, muralist, ceramicist and storyteller who found wonder and happiness in his everyday life.

If art made him fly, bringing art to the people was his destination. Now, his contribution to last summer's Mayfair Mural Project at the Mexican Heritage Plaza stands as his final gift to San Jose.

The spirited, soft-spoken artist, who was 81, died of cancer April 27 at his San Francisco home and studio with his wife, renowned muralist Susan Kelk Cervantes, at his side.

``We were looking at each other,'' says Kelk Cervantes, 61. ``And he started to kiss me. I said, `I love you.' He said, `I love you, too.' Then he took his last breath.''

She was 17 when they met in an art class, and they spent the next four decades together.

``It's been a beautiful experience,'' she says. ``Luis was so vital and strong; everyone remembers his great hugs. That's what I miss most.''

Memories of Cervantes' gentle wit and sparkling insights will be shared today in San Francisco at a public celebration of a spirit that soared.

The free event, expected to draw artists from the Bay Area and beyond, features slides of Cervantes' life and work, along with displays of his art and project books filled with his sketches, concepts and ruminations.

``There's a wonderful picture of him in a zoot suit, looking very dapper,'' says his daughter Lorna Dee Cervantes, who will do a poetry reading. ``He went through many eras -- beatnik, hippie, social and cultural upheavals -- but was not defined by them.''

In addition to music by his son Stephen Cervantes and friend Jorge Molina, there will be an 81-candle lighting ceremony for each year of his life and a barbecue reception celebrating the 26th birthday today of his son Suaro Cervantes.

``I can still hear his laughter,'' says Suaro Cervantes, a muralist. ``He taught me to be hands-on in life and in art. Happy, and still persevere. Playful, and still be focused.''

Amid the loss, Cervantes leaves behind his five creative offspring and his work, including abstract paintings, wood sculptures and the memoir he'd begun. He also leaves his many legacies, from blue-collar visionary to gifted mentor who brought out the artist in people.

`Food for my heart'

``I pick and choose my male figures; don Luis -- I listened to him the first day,'' says Carlos Rodriguez, 25, an emerging artist from San Jose's East Side, who met Cervantes during the Heritage Plaza's mural project. ``He talked to me about life, painting and metaphors. It was the food for my heart I'd been looking for.

``Before he died,'' says Rodriguez, ``I told him: `You will always be here. When the younger generation asks a question, I will tell them what I learned from you.' ''

A Santa Barbara native and World War II U.S. Army veteran who served at Normandy on D-Day, Cervantes believed it was good ``for life to go on,'' says Lorna Dee Cervantes, 50, who grew up in San Jose and teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

``We can talk about the past or we can go on from here,'' he once told her. She says, ``That set the tone for our visit and for my life: the gift of living in the moment, not in a past you can't change.''

Co-host of Radio Caribe on KUSP-FM 88.9 in Santa Cruz, Stephen Cervantes, 54, says his father sought to be an artist, not a celebrity. ``He wanted people to feel they could talk to artists, to see artists working on the street, to realize artists are everyday people.''

Toward this end, Cervantes and Kelk Cervantes founded the Precita Eyes Mural Center in the city's Mission District in 1977 to bring art outside -- where people lived and shopped.

But it was his longtime job at a San Francisco mattress factory that allowed Cervantes to support his family. He also served as president of the San Francisco Furniture Workers Union.

``I admire him; it took guts to be a blue-collar guy who worked a 40-hour week and be an artist,'' says his son Luz Cervantes, 35, a painter and president of Precita Eyes' board of directors.

``His life is an example for me,'' he says. ``I know guys who work for a paycheck; that's the sum of their lives. My father made the most of each day because he believed in creating meaning and sharing it with others. This is how art can change a neighborhood and a culture. This is his legacy.''

Saved for art classes

Bay Area muralist Miranda Bergman, 58, says, ``Luis showed you can be an artist no matter what. He had to save his money for art classes and save his days off to take classes. For me, that's his legacy -- his steadiness, along with the twinkle in his eye.''

The steady Cervantes went on to teach art at several locales, including San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the city's Galería de La Raza.

His sculptures have been exhibited at SFMOMA and the M.H. de Young Museum. And an abstract painting is part of the Oakland Museum of California's collection.

For Rupert Garcia, 63, professor of pictorial art at San Jose State University, ``Luis' contribution is his great sense of artistic freedom. He was a profoundly creative individual. For him, to explore art was to explore life. His diverse work reveals his belief in the interconnectedness of life. It was very exciting.''

Cervantes's joyfulness affected all who met him, says Lorna Dee Cervantes. ``He was like a Tibetan gong. He gonged people.''

Definitely struck was Juan Felipe Herrera, performance poet and the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in creative writing at the University of California-Riverside.

``Luis didn't have a tight bone in his body,'' says Herrera, 56. ``He taught us that meeting the artist is as important as meeting the artwork.

``Art is a postcard from the artist,'' he adds, ``and the artist is a postcard from the universe.''

Luis Cervantes, 1923-2005

What - Public celebration, art and performances

When - 2 p.m. today. Free; donations accepted to benefit non-profit Precita Eyes Mural Center

Where - The Precita Valley Community Center, 534 Precita Ave. (between Folsom and Harrison), San Francisco. (415) 206-2113

Info - Precita Eyes Mural Center, 2981 24th St., San Francisco. (415) 285-2287;;

Contact Nora Villagrán at or (408) 920-5909.


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