Name: Carlos Callejo
City of origin: I was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1951.
How did you find yourself in the arts? People often ask whether you were born as an artist, or did you learn to be an artist, that kind of thing. I think for me, it was an innate feature of my personality; of my being. When I was in High School, there were these learning disabilities that are now diagnosed, like A.D.D. Well, I’m pretty sure I had A.D.D. or one of those. I had a different way of learning, and one of them was very visual. As I was growing up, I had a speech impediment that I used to be ashamed of and my self-esteem went down. I was not very articulate. So I used to overcompensate by drawing and reflecting or representing my thoughts through visuals. I have always been an artist. I was one of those kids who would day dream a lot. My grades weren’t up to par. I used to doodle a lot. So, those things, early on, were attributes of artistic expression.
How did you get involved in the Estrada Courts murals? I was teaching silk screening workshops to youngsters right out of college. I went to Cal State L.A. from 1969-72. In 1972 I broke my leg, so I never went back. I was working with a gentleman from Estrada Courts, who was very instrumental. His name was Smiley (Ismael Cazares). The main people that were kind of heading this, besides Charles ‘Cat’ Felix, were Oscar Eagle, Ismael, Whitey, and there was one other guy whose name I cannot remember.
How many murals have you painted? Throughout my life, over one hundred. I have more murals than any other muralist in Los Angeles that you could name off the top of your head. I have twice as many as anyone you could pick off the top of your head, and I can prove it.
Describe yourself in 5 words: Compassionate, Artistic, Passionate, Emotional, and Practical.
What was the most memorable response to your work? Oh, there is just so many of them. I really wouldn’t be able to pin one down. My art is not for ego feeding purposes, even though sometimes it helps, but I think my art serves a higher purpose for making some positive changes towards the new generation, towards my community, towards my family. I think the best responses I get are what it does to some youth. I wish there was a way to measure some of the success’s of some of the past works I have been involved in, because I have been involved in some projects that I could consider some of the participants miracle cases. They go on and it completely changes their lives towards a positive end where it was negative before. Those are the moments that really make me proud now; that I was able to change some youth’s life. They’re more rewarding. Two or three, off the top of my head, that to this day they still contact me to kind of thank me. At the time I didn’t know that I was making that much of an impact, but over time their persistence in communicating with me and still giving me thank you’s; I’m really proud of those moments.
When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing? I like cooking. I like to cook for people. It’s kind of an artistic trait too.
Who were some of your mentors? Once I started coming right out of high school, and actually during high school, I was being exposed to your Tres Grandes; Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera. I was growing up with a lot of other artists. I started being influenced by other artists. Some of them would be considered my peers, so in some ways we were feeding off each other. The Streetscapers, David Botello, Wayne Healey, Judy Baca, Willie Herrón; we were sort of learning off of each other. Some of them may be more my maestros, but no I think they were more my peers because we were learning off of each other.
What are you current/future projects? I have a lot of them in the pot. Recently, I haven’t been too lucky. This past year, I have made the finalists for two public art commissions, and both of them I didn’t get. I got the thanks but no thanks letter. Its been a little slow, but Willie Herrón and I will be cleaning and restoring two murals at Estrada Courts.
Which of your murals is your favorite? Why? I don’t think I have a favorite, because they all tend to manifest a little bit differently. I tend to be proud that I use different styles. Even though, right now, especially in L.A., I haven’t had the opportunity to practice some of my styles, because the money is not available, but I wish I would get a commission where I could actually showcase some of my capabilities. It’s almost like being typecast, where people familiarize themselves with a certain style or a certain color palette, so they expect that from you. In a way, to me, that’s boring, you know? I want new challenges. I want new opportunities to really show my capabilities. Getting back to the original question, I would have to say that the El Paso County Courthouse Mural is probably my favorite or the one that I am most proud of. The budget I had for that particular project allowed me the luxury of really being picky. If I didn’t like something, I could completely whitewash it and start over again. Today, you can’t really do that because it’s not practical. I was able to really experiment on certain things. Its one where you have two dilemmas: what’s more important- the historical data that you’re trying to portray or your esthetics. Obviously, when you’re doing a historical piece you have to include a lot of things. I literally did so many sketches that half of the imagery never even got included in the mural, because I had to make it work. Sometimes, you even fall in love with the imagery that you’re doing at the time, but if you’re trying to force it into the overall composition, but sometimes you may fall in love with it but if it just doesn’t fit, its like trying to put a hand in a glove that’s not your size. So you kind of have to bite your tongue and put it away and maybe use it in some other opportunity. But, when you have a project like that, you have the luxury and time, because that was a $150,000 commission, so I was able to use my discretion of what works best. You can actually, take a virtual tour of the mural and see the whole piece and it tells who it represents, what landmark, what event, what key person, and it explains the whole thing. You can see this mural at http://www.epcounty.com/mural/
What themes/messages do you convey through your work? Early on, my messages and themes that I was utilizing were more for personal self-expression, not necessarily reflecting what was going on around me. One of my very first paintings that I did, basically related how I was dealing with the whole thought or idea about how the United States kind of indoctrinates a Chicano kid growing up in East L.A. The painting was about a young man, wrapped up in the Mexican flag, from his waist down, and had a lot of iconic symbolism that represents the Mexican culture. This kid was real frustrated, trying to maneuver his way out of it, and on top, you see a history book of the Americas and a television with eyes and arms, sort of controlling his brain. It was my own way of interpreting the indoctrination that was going on at the time, because the Chicano Movement wasn’t about just suffering; what I call the physical exploitation, the bad working conditions, bad health care, and bad housing, but also the psychological suffering that was brought to us by the media and the education system. All the images of Chicanos that were portrayed at the time were very negative imagery, so it was a way for me to express my frustration. It was very personal themes that I was drawing, but later on it became more political; it became more expressive to the general audience, because it was a way of teaching.
Who is your favorite muralist and why? I guess I would definitely have to say David Alfaro Siqueiros. I like his work because of his dynamic imagery. He was a master of using perspective towards making a big impact. He is the one that also conquered what they call the punto de oro; everything ended some place. Sometimes, when I am asked about my influences in my styles, I tend to think I have a lot of Siqueiros and Paul Rubens. Paul Rubens was not a muralist, but as an artist, he was the master of movement. In some ways I like those triangular, cubist styles of Siqueiros, and in other ways I like the round shapes and forms of Rubens.
What is your experience painting in Los Angeles as opposed to El Paso? L.A. is saturated. It’s a little bit harder. In all fairness, I think even though I had a lot more success outside of L.A., but right before coming back to L.A. it was dwindling down. I think it’s almost generational. I have such an abundance of public artworks under my belt, so you would think that is something that certain commissions are looking for, but I kind of think that is not necessarily true. I don’t know if I should be revealing this, but I think I get a double whammy, because of my past experience as a public artist who sometimes dwells in controversial themes and subject matters, but also being a public art advocate and sort of being a troublemaker, in the lack of better words, I get kind of the shaft from the powers that be. But then on the other hand, the new up and coming artists feel threatened because of my experience, that somehow that gives me an advantage in the selection process of commissions. Many of these commissions are political, depending on who the selection committee is. Usually there is a lot of self-interest and a little bias that goes into the selection process. In the past, I always hope that my applications would be judged based on merit and not on political connections.