Sand Painter D. Villasenor Is Dead at 74


David Villasenor, a self-described delinquent youth who mastered the ancient art of sand painting and lived to see his work permanently on display at museums throughout the West, died Monday in Los Alamos, N.M., where he had lived since leaving Los Angeles three years ago.

He was 74 and death was attributed to a long illness.

Born in Guadalajara to Indian and Spanish parents, he spent his early and troubled years in a Boy’s Town-type school in Sonora. When he was 16 he came to the United States, where he lived with the Navajos in Santa Fe, N.M. There he learned the mechanics and spiritual symbolism of sand painting.

His work was seen by Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist and artist who helped found the Boy Scouts of America. Seton asked if Villasenor would help teach other boys to design in the sand. Seton placed the young Villasenor in his College of Indian Wisdom in Santa Fe, where the young artist taught in exchange for room and board.


Drafted into the Army in World War II, Villasenor was used to make medical sculptures and moulages--direct impressions from living tissue.

After the war the Natural History Museum of New York gave him a commission for 20 sand paintings, a ritual art traditionally done on the ground with most lasting but a single day. Villasenor learned to mount them permanently and 10 of the 20 were later purchased by the Southwest Museum near downtown Los Angeles. The rest were sold to the Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas.

His later work was displayed throughout the West, while two of his 12-foot, 600-pound Aztec calendars are shown permanently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and the Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park. One of his last works was a 10-foot-high figure of the Indian Chief Sequoyah, which he gave to the Cherokee Nation.

Villasenor is survived by his wife, Jean, a brother and two sisters.