"Free your mind and your nalgas will follow."
A few weeks ago I had the honor to catch up with an amazing person down here in the border of El Paso and Juárez. Zeke Peña's art has become emblematic here in la frontera. He is one of the many painters and illustrators here that uses the art of story telling in order to reflect on culture, issues, people, events and much more. Zeke has done a lot of commission work across the U.S. He recently had a few of his paintings at the Rubin Center of the University of Texas at El Paso.
He recently published a book along side Isabel Quintero called Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Zeke is currently working on several projects so keep an eye out for more fantastic illustrations. I welcome who ever is reading this to get to know a little bit of Zeke, how he started, and some of his thoughts on art. Throughout the article, I will refer to Zeke as a story-teller or as an illustrator due to the fact that we had a conversation in which he mentioned that he does not consider himself an artist for many reasons. One of them being "capital A art" and how art now is seen as such a commercial commodity that it looses it's meaning in the process.
"In some languages there is no name for art. When people think of art now, they think of something they can buy. It makes no sense to me. I am being critical there and thinking critically of the work art and the practice of making it."
Zeke has been illustrating for quite a while now. It all began from his love of comic books when he was little. He told me that it started out as him trying to re-draw comic book characters, but then it developed into something more.
"For me as a young kid, my first encounter with being intentional with drawing was around comics. My dad got me into comic books and I also grew up in the Simpsons era where there were some really good cartoons. I gravitated towards those things. I come from a family where we like to joke around with each other and you know with cartoons it's also that dynamic. As a kid you start out with crayons and draw things that comes to mind, but once you reach a certain age you are expected to draw more intentionally and direct. That's when I started trying to recreate comic book characters."
Zeke added that in high school he had a great art teacher that encouraged him to be in AP Art. He mentioned that thanks to his teacher, he learned to paint and draw and use certain techniques that he continued to use throughout his art. During high school he also took a Journalism class and he mentioned that those two things led him to become an illustrator and cartoonist.
However, he didn't know that was what he was going to end up doing in life. "Most of us from this area come from families that want us to make a good living and have a family. I come from a working class family so, you know, my dad always knew I was good at drawing but he also wanted me to earn a good living. He wanted me to be an architect or an engineer. So after high school I went to go study architecture."
Zeke then started talking about how he studied at Texas Tech for a while, but did not like Lubbock at all. Not to mention, he encountered a lot of racism which did not help at all. That's when he decided to come back to El Paso and study art at UTEP. "I had a really good art teacher. I went to UTEP for three semesters and then I finished at UT Austin. I originally applied to do graphic design, you know, keeping my dad in mind to get a career. To me graphic design was a good choice, but I was put on the wait list for graphic design and I had to pick a major so I ended up picking Art History. It's funny because in my head, it was never an option to get a B.F.A and study for art. As a young person, I never thought that one could make a living off of illustrations and photography."
Zeke continued on telling me that those were basically his formative years and that after graduating from UT, he came back to El Paso.
"When I came back there were a lot of friends doing DIY shows, so we would look for raw spaces and we would clean them up and set them up and have one-night shows. "
He added that that was some of the experimental stuff he was doing and then he did some film and photography as well. "I worked int the film industry for about six years. Learning about the film industry was great. After that, I went into graphic design and started a small business. It was three of us. I forgot to mention that when I was in Austin, I did a lot of community organizing. My work in graphic design has always been a mixture of community work and commercial work. The community work is something I will always do." Zeke mentioned that he did not continue graphic design for so long because he was not too happy with it. He said that was when he decided to follow his instinct and take a leap of faith and do painting. That decision led him to do what he does now which is free lance work, cartooning, book work, illustration, storytelling and much more!
He and I talked some more and he brought up wanting to paint again with a child-like innocence. Not approaching it so direct per say. He also mentioned that "capital A art" is not all there is. He said he learned most of his techniques from his high school art teacher and from watching Youtube and seeing tutorials. He said that during the past two years he has been trying to really focus on what his style is and trying to revert to a more child-like approach. Not everything has to be so direct.
To follow up that comment, I asked him whether he always wanted to make art based on la frontera and whether that has anything to do with the political undertones in his work and if so, whether it is intentional given his history in community organizing. His face lit up when I asked this and said, "my mom is where that all comes from. The community organizing. As a kid, my mom always told me, "You always help the underdog." Try to help people in need. Pretty simple. That's fundamental and it's very cultural. My mom, specifically, her first teaching job was in New Mexico and it involved working with migrant students. She continues to do that. She helps high need students. I think that that is where a lot of it comes from, seeing it from my mom. It's always been with me since I was a kid."
Zeke is clearly a very caring spirit and he is very involved and the community and does what he can to help. His work showcases much of the community whether it's an issue or an observation. He is passionate in his story telling and he is all about helping and servicing his fellow citizens. After telling me about the influence his mother had, he added that during high school he started politicizing his work. "I went to Coronado High School and it's a very white school and my sister and I have always been on the darker side. As you get older, you look back on those things and think, "oh wow, I was probably treated differently in a lot of places."" As a side note to that comment, Zeke mentioned that Hip Hop has always been a big part of his life growing up. It allowed him to radicalize and express himself.
"The thing that really radicalized me was reading Malcom X's autobiography as cliché as it sounds. This was in 1998. I was like "oh shit, this is heavy". This was a formative experience because I was looking on my own and looking for answers." From that, he mentioned that it led to himself questioning several things like "where am I and who am I?" He mentioned that years after high school he worked with Resistencia in Austin, Texas and he has had several mentors throughout the years, which have shaped him even further. "I feel like everyone has their role in their community. A lot of us who are de-tribalized and have been assimilated, we don't have as strong of a sense of our place in our community. Many times it is handed down. I think, me, identifying myself and going through the process of making the graphics, it helped me identify my place and realize I can help people with that. Helping get the word out and helping to story tell. It's what I can do it's what I can provide just like I can pick up a shovel and help as well. With the organizing I do now in the community, that's what I find the most need for. People need help getting the message out and branding events."
It's this type of compassion for his community and his willingness to help, that has allowed Zeke to be recognized in the border community and across the U.S. I really hope that anyone reading this article has the opportunity to look at Zeke's work and understand the story he is trying to tell. His work runs deeper than just a simple picture. It reflects upon life and a culture. It's an observation and trying to convey it.
A big thank you to Zeke Peña for his time and service in the community. For more updates, follow his Instagram @zpvisual or check out his site: zpvisual.com