Ruben Hernandez

In living color

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James Covarrubias is an Arizona artist whose career has spanned three decades. In 1978, he was involved in the creation of El Movimiento del Rio Salado (MARS), a collective of Latino artists. He was also a co-founder of Ariztlan, Inc., a multi-disciplinary coalition of Latino artists. Covarrubias’ special expertise is his “live performances,” in which he creates a painting in hours before an audience or crowd.

Tell us about your beginnings as artist, and about your early influences.

I was born and raised in Kingman. And Kingman, for being a small town, really was a strong influence artistically. We had good teachers there in high school. But even before that even I wanted to be an artist. I did a mural in the 5th grade. I painted Santa Claus and reindeer and all that across the grammar school. I liked the attention and I liked the fact that I could share with a lot of people. Early on I was a great fan of Picasso. I loved the way he was so free about making art. That became my goal – to make art where I’m living it, where I’m feeling it.

What was it like starting MARS and Ariztlan? These were seminal organizations for Latino artists in that period, and for Arizona art history.

It was a real goal of mine to try to create art for the community, and I knew we needed an alternative gallery space. Two of my mentors in that sense were Miguel Covarrubias, and Rosa Rolanda, two artists that in Mexico had these tallers (workshops) and helped artists like Cuevas and Tamayo develop their art. And I sensed that was the potential here, so it became my goal to bring together artists from the community, and get them into doing great art, and having some major influence on our community here.

Not too many visual artists complete a painting in front of an audience. But performed with the Phoenix Symphony, among others. How did you evolve this very public technique?

I always wanted to create some kind of excitement about art. I had a television program where I’d interview different artists, and I would see them work their techniques. Robert McCall, John Henry Waddell. But then I realized, I could add those elements together with an audience, and came up with a live painting performance.

And then there is this kind of rock-star mentality to it that I love. I love to perform, and you really do make contact with the audience. And I see that when you do go into a museum and a gallery, the art is there, it’s static, nothing very exciting. But to see it happen, and to share that, was really the thing that I wanted to do. Now my favorite way to make art is to do it live, right here, right now.

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