Sunday, October 21, 2007

Warrior art

Artist, activist looks to homeland Mexico for inspiration By MARYALICE BITTS, Correspondent Sunday News

Published: Oct 21, 2007 12:03 AM EST

MILLERSVILLE, Pa - For Calixto Robles, creating art is more than a means of personal expression; it's an opportunity to change the world. Robles' mission as an artist began more than 20 years ago, when, in his mid-20s, he moved from his native Mexico to San Francisco. There he began to do some cultural soul-searching. "I didn't know many people in California. I was mostly by myself," Robles recalled in a recent telephone interview. "So, I went to the library, and I started reading books about my roots." In those books, he learned about the culture, traditions and myths of the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient civilizations that lived in Mexico centuries ago. Between working several jobs and taking English classes at night, he found time to express in paintings what he'd learned. Living in a humble room with little ventilation and several roommates, he started small, using only acrylics and watercolors, which don't give off strong fumes. Three years later, his artistic world blossomed when he discovered a community center in his largely Latino neighborhood where he could paint freely and experiment with other artistic techniques, such as silk-screening and clay sculpture. He was hooked, and he was not surprised. "In [the Mexican state of] Oaxaca, there were many great artists who built cities in the mountains and painted murals on houses," he said. "I think all of these things are in my genes, in the genes of all of the Oaxacan peoples." Robles drew on that history, producing a series of dreamlike paintings, silk screens and pre-Colombianlike clay sculptures that combine magical and spiritual elements, such as angels and traditional mythical creatures, with ancient symbols to create a joyous celebration of the land of his birth. In time, he attracted the attention of art experts in Mexico, America and France, and, according to Millersville University gallery director Jessica Hill, it's easy to see why. "It's very exciting, intricate and multilayered work," Hill said. "There's a lot of movement and symbolism, and the colors are so vibrant." "Calixto Robles: Colors of the Wind," an exhibit of 21 Robles pieces, will be on display at Millersville University from Monday, Oct. 29, through Dec. 14. as part of the university's yearlong celebration of Latino culture. While his pieces are richly textured and highly emotive, Robles is more likely to point out the functionality of his work. For more than 20 years, Robles and other artists in his community have used artwork to raise awareness about issues impacting the greater Latino community. "We did posters about the revolution in Nicaragua, and to protest against the governments in El Salvador, Chile and Cuba," he said. "Lately, we've been doing posters against the gentrification of neighborhoods in San Francisco because a lot of people are being displaced." Other topics of concern to Robles are the recent debate over U.S. immigration laws and the continuing struggles in Oaxaca, which has been a hotbed of political strife for more than a year. A prominent player in the Mexican Revolution and in the resistance to French intervention, Oaxaca also is the historic home of the pre-Colombian Zapotec and Mixtec peoples, and is reputed to house more speakers of indigenous languages than any other Mexican region. Because of its rich history and culture, as well as its architectural attractions, year-round springlike weather and well-known archaeological digs, Oaxaca is popular with international tourists. That changed in spring 2006, when teachers and revolutionaries in Oaxaca city protested against what they deemed to be a repressive, corrupt regime overseen by the state governor. Federal police intervened last October, using force to restore order in the city. "It's very depressing. Last year, there were 21 people killed by the police," said Robles, who organized an educational exhibit about the protests and raised funds for the families of people who died in the struggle. "We do what we can do. We keep hope." Accordingly, Robles often uses culturally significant images of the jaguar in his works. "For me, the jaguar represents the resistance of my country," he said. "The jaguar is like a warrior, ready to defend our ancient culture against globalization and commercialism." Robles hopes his pieces will move others to reflect on Latino current events and culture, as he was first inspired to do when he emigrated to America. "I am told that there are a number of Latinos in the [Lancaster County] community," Robles said. "Maybe this exhibit will inspire them to celebrate their roots." "Calixto Robles: Colors of the Wind" will be on display in Millersville University's Ganser Library gallery, with an artist's reception and lecture from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5.

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