Famed San Antonio artist Jesse Treviño dies at 76

After a wound serving in Vietnam led to his right arm being amputated, Treviño learned to paint with his left in a road to recovery that saw his work immortalized in the character of the city.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioFebruary 16, 2023 10:54 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Jesse Treviño, one of San Antonio’s most accomplished and prolific artists, has died.

Our Lady of the Lake University said in a statement that the painter, muralist and tile artist died on Monday morning. He was 76.

Treviño was born in Mexico but moved to San Antonio with his family when he was just two years old. He grew up on the city’s West Side and took an early interest in art.

By the age of 6 Treviño had already won his first drawing contest, and by 18 he accepted a scholarship at a New York City art school. “Jackson Pollock went there, Georgia O’Keefe,” he recalled in an interview with TPR.

In his free time, Treviño sketched tourists in Greenwich Village. By the mid-1960s, he considered moving to Paris to continue his art.

But war interfered. All young men in 1966 had to register for the draft, and Treviño’s number came up. He wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and he didn’t have to go into the army, but he felt an obligation to do so.

» MAP: Visit Jesse Treviño’s artwork throughout San Antonio

“I come from a family that out of my nine brothers, eight — think about this — eight of us served in the military,” Treviño explained.

After basic training he was sent to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Two months later, he suffered a near fatal injury when he tripped a trap set by Viet Cong.

“There was several explosions, and the one that hit me, it must’ve catapulted me about 50 feet,” Treviño recalled.

As he lay there waiting for a chopper to pick him up, he realized what he would do if he survived: “Then all of a sudden I started thinking, ‘wait a minute, if I had another chance, I’d know exactly what I would be painting. My mom, my brothers, my parents.'”

Chris Eudaily / TPR

But Treviño’s wounded right arm — his painting arm — had to be amputated. He was brought to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston to recover.

There, he met Armando Albarran, a double amputee who liked Treviño and sympathized with his despair. Albarran arranged for an easel, paints and brushes to appear in occupational therapy area. He urged Treviño to paint with his left arm, but Treviño refused.

“‘No, no, no, no. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t do that, Armando,’ ” Treviño remembered saying.

But Albarran finally convinced Treviño, and the artist painted his first new work. That first painting was a bit rough, but it helped him see the possibilities.

“He soon learned that his talent was in his head,” explained Anthony Head, a Treviño biographer. “All he needed to do was convince his left hand to do what his mind was telling him.”

Treviño was on a long but steady road to recovery. He started by painting photorealistic paintings of his family, his neighborhood, and his mother.

» SEE MORE: How Jesse Treviño created so much of San Antonio’s public art

They impressed critics and art collectors. Then Treviño began to work in tile. He produced several tile murals that give downtown San Antonio a distinctly Treviño style.

“The greatest one that everyone knows about is on is the nine-story Spirit of Healing on the side of Children’s Hospital,” Head explained.

That massive tile mural by Milam Park shows an angel looking over the shoulder of a young boy holding a dove. That boy was Treviño’s son, Jesse Jr.

A man faces the camera holding a painting showing the portrait of a military serviceman.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Head

Jesse Treviño's first left-handed painting of Armando Albarran.

Treviño said the mural has a message: “We need to pay more attention to directing and guiding our children in everything they do.”

Recently, the artist had hoped to make his mark on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project with a tile mural on the east side wall of the Alameda Theater.

“Treviño was hoping to to continue with his with his dream for the work that he had for the Alameda,” Head explained. “And he and I had just talked about the creation of a prototype for the for the veterans monument.”

Treviño admitted in an interview with TPR that he hadn’t yet painted his metaphorical Sistene Chapel, comparing himself to Michelangelo. That said, he was cognizant of his output and what it means to San Antonio.

“Once I’m gone,” he said, “what really counts is what I left behind.”

Treviño’s spokesperson Gabriel Quintero Velasquez explained that Trevino never fully recovered from his war wounds. “Jesse did not die of cancer,” he said. “There were complications that were created by the cancer, but it’s not the cancer itself.”

He called Treviño’s death the result of natural causes.

Services were pending.

Reaction to his death came quickly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called him “an American hero.” He credited the artist for using Vietnam’s “scars to bring healing to millions of people. … His kindness and courage will live forever in our hearts.”

State Rep. Diego Bernal tweeted that “Jesse revealed the beauty in our everyday lives, our struggles. He held up a mirror and wouldn’t let us look away until we saw what he did: dignity, grace, and our common humanity.”

Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery lauded him as “a visionary who created many of San Antonio’s most iconic and important public art pieces that are now woven into the fabric of our city’s cultural landscape.”

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