Documentary puts legendary artist Jesse Treviño into focus

Former WOAI TV anchor has completed a documentary on San Antonio artist Jesse Treviño.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioJuly 17, 2023 9:20 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Jesse Treviño, the artist who many San Antonians regard as the city’s greatest, died in February.

When Treviño died, former WOAI TV anchor Randy Beamer was already assembling interviews to create a documentary about the artist. Now that film is out.

Jesse Treviño

Jesse Treviño: The Artist, The Man lives up to its expansive title, showing lots of art, and it also does a deep dive into the man who created it.

Beamer said Treviño’s life is a great example of overcoming odds.

“He is born in Mexico into poverty, one of 12 children. Moves to San Antonio with his family when he is four, is a child prodigy in arts and is going to do great things,” Beamer said. “He won all kinds of contests, grade school and high school, and then he won scholarships to both the Art Students League of New York and the Chicago Art Institute. [He] chose New York because he had a family member living in Brooklyn.”

Treviño moved to New York’s pre-hippie enclave of Greenwich Village, and after much success at school, was contemplating a move to Paris. Treviño said that move would never happen because of the Vietnam War.

“That’s when I got drafted, and I ended up in Vietnam,” Treviño said. “I got blown up by a booby trap and got shot into my leg at the same time. I didn’t think I was ever going to make it.”

In fact, he barely did. Beamer’s documentary weaves stories from Treviño himself, and friends and family to tell one of the city’s most amazing stories.

Henry Cisneros, for San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary in the Clinton administration, did his interview in a car while he was driving down the street both he and Jesse were raised on.

“This is the block on which Jesse lived, and I lived down the street, Cisneros said. “This was sort of our bicycle raceway, right here. I could tell you every square footage of this space.”

Randy Beamer

Jesse sketching out projects at his art table.

Henry’s brother George spoke about the era, long before the internet, and before most families even had a TV. He said there was plenty to do.

“Constant Baseball, football, kickball. There was a stretch of four blocks of people who were always hanging out. The whole street was kids,” George said.

This is also where Treviño learned to draw. But what did he draw on when his family couldn’t afford paper? Turns out, George and Henry’s uncle Ruben had a print shop.

“They would come over to get paper. And Jessie always said if it hadn’t been for your uncle Ruben, I would not have had paper to draw,” George said.

Vietnam and Treviño’s eventual loss of his painting arm put a hard stop to his artwork, and that near-fatal injury left him hopeless. He returned to San Antonio and was undergoing surgeries and therapies at BAMC, where he met Vietnam vet and double amputee Armando Albarran.

Jesse Treviño doing maintenance on La Veladora. Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

“He was in a very dark place. He was very depressed. He didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Albarran recalled. So he secured an easel, canvas, brush and paints.

“I would tell him every day, ‘Jesse, look — there’s a canvas, an easel, paint. You can’t paint again,’” Albarran said. “And he would say ‘no, I can’t paint. I lost my painting arm.’ And I would say ‘Jesse, you lost a painting arm, but you’ve got another one. You can paint. You don’t lose that talent.’ ”

Eventually, Jesse picked up that brush and began to learn painting with his non-dominant arm. While hardly instantaneous, over time his mind taught his left arm to paint, and exceedingly well. Trevino went on to find national accolades and to paint what came to him in Vietnam, lying in a muddy rice paddy.

I was thinking about paintings I’d never done. Painting my mother, my brothers … and how important that was!” Treviño said.

And that’s exactly what he did. Beamer said the era when Treviño started out painting, Mexican-American artists just weren’t featured in museum exhibits.

“They were not part of the mainstream America, they were not part of museums, and he wanted to change, that,” Beamer said. “He wanted people to see themselves in an image as important as a canvas that would be in a museum.”

Trevino continued painting and stretched his range into tile murals. He went on to create the massive La Veladora outside of the Guadalupe Theater, and the 9-story tile mural The Spirit of Healing on the Children’s Hospital downtown. In the course of doing those and dozens of other paintings, the cultural landscape slowly began changing. Trevino got exhibited, as did many other Latino artists.

Every artist hopes to change the world, and Beamer said Treviño did.

“It’s really this remarkable story that goes through surprising twists and turns in different chapters and different eras. And I think by the end, you’ll see what he means to San Antonio and what he means to the art world in general,” he said.

Beamer’s hour-long KLRN documentary on Treviño tells that story with deep context, giving an unflinching look at the artist who made himself an international icon of determination and incredible talent.

Viewers may watch the documentary here.

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