Hugo Medina: Phoenix Muralist and ASU Art Faculty

Hugo Medina, Phoenix artist, in front of his acrylic and aerosol on canvas, 'The Westward Ho,' at MonOrchid in Phoenix, photographed by Nicki Escudero

Hugo Medina, Phoenix artist, photographed in front of his acrylic and aerosol on canvas, ‘The Westward Ho,’ at MonOrchid in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

Hugo Medina

Hugo Medina‘s art is seen all over the Valley, as the painter and custom metal fabricator has more than 30 murals up throughout the Phoenix area, from a 300-foot-long mural at Fountain Hill’s Fountain Park, to more than five in the downtown Phoenix area.

The 41-year-old Bolivia-born Phoenix resident is heavily involved in the Phoenix arts community, serving as an adjunct art faculty member at ASU teaching a community mural course, as co-founder for the Calle 16 mural project, and as board member for Artlink, Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission and Arizona Artists Coalition. He won the Phoenix Public Art award in 2012 and is currently planning for the Phoenix Festival for the Arts and Art Detour. He’s also working on a new installation for Cycle 5 of IN FLUX, a public art installation program.

Medina works as a custom metal fabricator and on his own paintings, the latest of which can be seen at his Home exhibit at MonOrchid in Phoenix through Friday, November 28. Join him this Friday, November 21, for the free artist reception at the gallery, from 6-10 p.m. Medina will talk about his collection at 7:45 p.m.

Medina talked about where his passion for art comes from, and you can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video below.

What brought you to Arizona?

I was chasing my heart. My sophomore year, I taught at a vacation Bible school at a Native American reservation in San Diego and fell in love with the Southwest. I moved to Arizona in 1998 after I graduated college.

I was born in Bolivia and moved to New York with my family when I was 7. We were chasing the American dream.

When did you become a full-time artist?

I went to Long Island University CW Post for college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a teaching certificate. When I came out to Arizona, I was focused on teaching, until I became Mr. Mom to take care of my kids. I got my master’s in education during that time, as well.

When I finished with my master’s, I quit teaching because my heart wasn’t into it anymore. I worked for a steel manufacturing company called Ironco in their arts/special projects division, and then their solar division for a bit and waited tables. In 2009, I decided to just focus on my artwork.

What’s your first memory of being interested in art?

I have stories my family tells me. For example, my first mural was when I was 5 years old. My dad was an architect and built this dream home and left one wall blank. He said, “This is for you to paint on, but don’t touch the rest of the house.”

Another story they tell me is that my older sister was doing a nationwide contest in Bolivia. I wanted to be in it, so I threw a huge fit for my parents to get me in it. They lied about my age, got me in it, and I ended up winning an honorable mention. I’ve been doing it all my life.

What made you want to make a career as a professional artist?

My whole life, that’s the one thing I had that was me. I played lots of sports, and I had a lot of different interests and jobs. I have not been out of a job since 6th grade, doing everything from washing dishes to cooking to construction, but I couldn’t imagine not doing art. I’ve been creating art my whole life. I remember being a 10-year-old kid and selling my drawings door to door.

What mediums have you been interested in?

My main medium in high school was metalwork and sculpture, and it’s what I focused on in college. Painting to me was more personal, though, and I’ve always done murals. My first paid commission mural was in high school at a bartender’s house.

As an artist, you always find different tools to express yourself, whether it’s painting, drawing, doing murals, or doing canvas work. It’s all just a language for a story you’re telling. All the different tools we play with are just the ways to tell that story.

What makes you passionate about doing murals?

I love the size and the danger of being up 20 or 30 feet in a lift. I love the fact it’s art for everybody. It’s not just for the people who can make it to the art museum or galleries, it’s art for the people, by the people. You can love it, or you can hate it, but it doesn’t matter because it stirs emotions and creates ideas and beautifies the surroundings. I love murals because everyday people are exposed to a world of art, and don’t have to be in a gallery or museum to experience it.

When I was teaching, I used to take kids to museums for field trips. For a lot of those kids, it was their first time seeing artwork. By doing it in the streets you walk on and are a part of every day, they’re exposed to it.

What is your ASU course on murals like?

The students learn a lot of art history focused on murals, from the first cave painting, which is the first mural, to contemporary murals and modern art. They learn a little bit about public art, then write a proposal, create a budget and create a design for our client. The client’s committee picks the design, and then we paint it.

In one semester, they go through what I go through every week when I’m applying for a job. It’s fun because it’s not just theory.

What types of projects are involved in your custom metal fabrication work?

For me to be able to do sculptures, I need to be able to have a shop and equipment, which I don’t have. My friend, Dean, who I worked with at Ironco, has all that equipment, so together, we create sculptures. He is also teaching me blacksmithing.

We’ve made chandeliers, done a lot of the metal work at the Crescent Ballroom, and done metal stairs, signs and host stands. We can do anything that combines art with metal.

How did Calle 16 come about?

Silvana Salcido Esparza, Gennaro Garcia and myself founded it after (anti-illegal immigration bill) SB-1070 got signed. I was serving tables at Barrio Café, which Silvana owns and is the chef at, and I started showing my artwork. I had my first show there in 2009. Silvana had the idea to get more murals up around Phoenix, and the three of us got together, we put out a call to artists to donate art to raise money for the project, and we started painting walls. Now, there are probably 30 walls painted in on 16th Street.

What inspired your Home exhibit?

There were a lot of different elements that played into it. When I do murals, I’m always above the city, and I love the view from up top. With each show and series, I try to do something different and push myself further. My last show was a figurative show, and past work mainly dealt with portraits, so I wanted this to be focused on landscapes within the city.

I got the show last summer and have been thinking about it for a year. When my girls were back in Arizona visiting from Chicago for the summer, I knew I was going to focus on the city, and paintings were starting to come along. We were driving to my house, and I said, “Let’s go home and figure out what we want to do for dinner.” One of them asked, “What home? Your home? Our new home? What is home?”

I started thinking about that, and the more I thought, the series started to come together. I grew up in a tight-knit family, and everyone was near each other. We live in a world now where everyone is scattered. I have family in Spain, Argentina, Bolivia, Virginia, New York and El Paso. We’re all family, and we’re all still connected because of the modern age and technology. Our meaning of home is spread out. Phoenix has been my home for the past 15 years, so it inspired this series.

What do you hope people take away from seeing your paintings?

If you hear a specific song or eat a specific food, it takes you to a memory and stirs an emotion. I’m hoping my paintings do that and give viewers an idea or emotion or something to take back with them. You hear a song, and it makes you happy or makes you cry or takes you back to a moment in time. For me, painting is very much an emotional release, almost like a diary. As long as it makes a connection with people, I’m happy.

Tell me about your installation for IN FLUX Cycle 5.

My wife and I are working on it together, and it’s our first official joint project. We have a 14-window storefront in the Tempe Marketplace. We’ll be installing this month. Her main medium is photography, and we plan to pay homage to the Baseline Gardens. They were very beautiful, and I’m sad they are no longer there.

The installation will change between day and night. It’ll be up for a year. We are both very excited to see what we are planning come to life.

What are your goals as an artist?

My mission statement is to make my children proud, as an artist, father, husband and person. I want to do as much as I can, so when I pass, they still have something they can be proud of. I want to keep growing as a person and artist, and mainly keep creating.

What advice would you have for an aspiring artist?

Keep painting, keep working, and always challenge yourself. Don’t get caught in a rut, where you keep producing the same thing over and over again once you find something that sells or that people want. Keep creating, but keep moving forward. Don’t just make the same thing over and over again. Change it up, both as an artist and as individual. Don’t box yourself in a box you get stuck in, and have fun, and take risks.

What advice do you have for mural painters?

Do not work for free. Murals are so popular now, so a lot of businesses will say, “Paint on my wall,” but won’t even pay for your supplies. Artists need to get paid for their work, or else they are getting exploited.

A lot of businesses do that because murals are great for businesses. They increase foot traffic 20 to 30 percent, they deter graffiti and vandalism, and they makes places with murals destinations, so it benefits business owners to have murals on the walls. The artist should be compensated for it.

A lot of artists are so eager to get their work out there, they’re willing to do work for free, which makes it harder for us to make a living as a whole. Get paid for it, even if it’s minimal.

Also, summers are very hard to paint during because of the heat.

How would you characterize the Valley’s art scene?

We have amazingly talented artists. Ten to 15 years ago, Downtown Phoenix didn’t exist. It was here, but people didn’t know it. It shut down after 5 p.m. Thanks to the hard work of the artists before us and residents who fought to make downtown a destination, we have an amazing downtown now. We wouldn’t have downtown as it is today if it wasn’t for the artists who were here when no one else was here. That’s what brought people downtown and helped create this amazing downtown we now have, and it’s just going to keep growing.

The more artists get recognized and get exposed, the bigger our Phoenix art scene is going to become. The amazing talent in Phoenix, and how the artists are becoming more professional, is breathtaking to watch and an inspiration to be a part off. It just takes time and a lot of hard work. Our artists need to keep perfecting their craft and pushing forward. The more they do that and the more support we get from the local community and people who come here to buy artwork and commissions, the more we as a community can grow and develop. Phoenix right now is a canvas we’re all creating together.

Why would you encourage people to come to your show?

The paintings, to me, tell a story. A lot of the artwork has old buildings and new buildings. As Phoenix changes and grows, we’re losing a lot of our history we need to keep. The James Madison Hotel is featured in the painting They Tore Down History and Put Up a Parking Lot. The photo for that painting was taken right before it was torn down and turned into a parking lot.

We have a lot of beauty and history in Phoenix, and we need to make sure we keep that and honor that so we do keep growing and building, and remember who we were.

Learn about other Valley arts professionals:

Learn more about IN FLUX founder Kirstin Van Cleef here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Steam Crow artist Daniel Davis here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Sebastien Millon here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Alexi DeVilliers here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Nicole Royse here on Phoenix People.

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