In my experience, there are really only two kinds of artists in the word. There are those mediocre practitioners who strut through life, exerting a sort of precious choreographed outrageousness upon the world. And then there are the humble gifted, like Vicente Telles—driven creators who, no matter how successful they become, never seem to believe or understand why anyone noticed them at all.
Telles, 35, is a visionary; an exceptionally talented painter with a little studio above Brixens bar and grill on Central, Downtown. A rising star in the national post-modern Chicano art scene, his work is currently being featured in a show at La Bodega Gallery, ranked the best art gallery in San Diego, Calif. His pieces there are selling out, but you’d never know this from talking to him. Telles is soft-spoken, quick to listen and loathe to brag, a man whose every word and gesture betray his working-class roots in Albuquerque’s South Valley. When you call him an artist, in fact, he seems surprised that anyone would place this word upon him, even though he makes a good living doing nothing but painting.
“I don’t think I’m an artist, really,” he says. “I just like to paint.”
When Telles first began to paint, he says, he hid this fact from his parents. “I knew it wasn’t something they’d support or understand,” he says. “When you grow up in the South Valley, or poor minority communities like that, you’re inundated with messages about all the things you can never be. Every message we got, from the mainstream culture and from this city, was about how worthless we were. A lot of people internalize that, and even start to think of their limitations as their identity. My parents were cool with college and a job, but they would have thought art was pointless and weird.”
Telles went to the University of New Mexico, for a while. But after hearing a Chicano studies professor joke in class that “we’re not all santeros,” everything changed.
“I didn’t know what a santero was,” says Telles. Too shy to ask, he looked it up later, and found out santeros were practitioners of a Spanish colonial art form, who made retablos, icons of saints painted on wood. “Here were all these incredible works of art, paintings of saints done on wood, and this long history here in New Mexico of this tradition just being passed down, generation to generation, the focus being on the spirituality of it, the tradition, the community. It was art made for the people, to give the people hope and meaning, not for the glorification of the artist. That resonates with me.”
Telles dropped out of college to secretly become an artist, he says, “because it was time to do something for me.”
After a brief move to Los Angeles, where he worked building sculptures for a commercial producer, Telles returned to New Mexico and began to apprentice with established santeros. “It was great to live elsewhere, to learn about the different Latino cultures out there, but this place is my home. My muse lives here.”
Soon, Telles began displaying and selling his own retablos at Spanish Market in Santa Fe. He is now regarded as one of the top santeros in New Mexico.
In recent years, Telles has begun to branch out into more self-expression, through his own paintings. Driven by anger at the discrimination and injustices suffered by undocumented immigrants in the United States, his work seeks to describe their experience as a parallel to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. An example of this is a painting of a plastic water bottle against a colorful backdrop of a sarape blanket, with the bottle slumped to one side the way Jesus is in many depictions of him upon the cross, and the bottle slashed and bleeding.
“This is my way of describing my outrage at the way border patrol destroy or dump out bottles of water left for migrants by religious groups,” says Telles. “There is just this incredible lack of empathy in our society right now that is dangerous. I feel a need to tell that story.”
Telles keeps the two sides of his artistry separate. When he paints retablos, he does so with the utmost respect for the tradition. When he paints for self-expression, it is with a nod to the traditions. This is absolutely natural for a man who describes his identity as “pure New Mexican,” one foot in the deep history of this place, and another in the contemporary world in which he lives.
Moving forward, Telles is starting to cobble together a group of artists of color with the idea of growing a more powerful cross-cultural local space for them all to gather and show their work and educate others. As it is, he says, the art of Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans in Albuquerque is “still just very siloed by an outside establishment that likes to put us in these convenient categories so they can understand us. We need to break those barriers down, and share dialogues and narratives and spaces, and help nurture young artists from working class backgrounds, on our own terms.”