He's proud, prolific, and public. And at 71, Jesse Treviño may be San Antonio's most prominent artist ever.
"It doesn't make any sense to be somewhere else,” Treviño says. “This is where I feel comfortable, being in San Antonio."
We caught up with him recently at his downtown studio, apartment, and warehouse on Roosevelt. It’s a place crowded with a lifetime of work and creativity.
“Each piece has a story behind it,” he said.
The story behind "the Spirit of Healing," his signature work, is incredible. It’s the story of the women in his life who acted as his guardian angels.
He created a nine-story tiled mural 20 years ago on the south-facing exterior wall of Christus Santa Rosa Children's Hospital. It depicts a boy holding a white dove, protected by a female guardian angel standing behind him.
Today, it's become iconic to the hospital and the city’s horizon.
"You just drive by, and you see it,” Treviño said. "You don't have to go inside a building and see it.”
Treviño’s entire life reads like a screenplay. His family immigrated from Monterrey to San Antonio. As a student, he won scholarships to prestigious art schools.
Then, in Vietnam, a sniper's bullet and a booby trap sent him home, literally, a broken man. He suffered from multiple wounds and PTSD. Eventually, he lost his right arm, his painting arm. But he calls the experience transformative.
"What happened to me in the Vietnam War, it woke me up," he recalled.
In the 1970’s, he had to start over, learning to paint with his left arm, and he applied to the MFA program at UTSA. He was told it would be a difficult process. But none of it stopped him.
"I had to find ways of doing something, a little unorthodox. But the bottom line, you get it done!" Treviño said.
By now, he's done a tremendous amount, winning national awards, earning a place in the Smithsonian as well as the esteem of Presidents, all by representing the people of San Antonio.
"I wanted to raise their dignity, the guy who worked at Kelly Field or the guy who sold raspas, to lift all of them up,” he said.
Another landmark piece of his art is La Veladora, Treviño’s 40-foot tall 3-D mosaic mural of a votive candle outside the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. He created it to brighten up his old neighborhood and, in a way, save lives.
"It'll literally light up the neighborhood,” he said. “And this corner, where you could get stabbed, well no one will ever get stabbed here again because, not in front of her!"
And he's not done yet. Throat cancer and knee replacements have slowed him down slightly. But his next project will be another giant, a 100-foot tall steel tower honoring veterans at Elmendorf Lake. The city commissioned it, he’s already designed it, and now the fundraising is underway.
He has soaring ambition and an ego to match.
"You tell me, who else has painted San Antonio like Jesse Treviño? Do you know? I don't know," he said.
We don't know, either. That's why he's one of the people who make San Antonio great.
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