‘A Gift From the Gods’ : A MacArthur ‘genius’ grant helps Amalia Mesa-Bains refocus her energies on her artwork even as she recovers from a brush with death

<i> Victoria Alba is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco</i>

It was an unbearably warm and muggy day, which made the steep climb up the hill that led to the hospital all the more difficult for Amalia Mesa-Bains, renowned Chicana artist and art scholar. On her way to sit with a dying friend who had lapsed into a coma, she ignored her own symptoms: Her throat was constricting; her head was pounding; her chest felt the pressure of a very heavy weight.

“Stress,” says the artist, looking back at that menacing day in May, 1991. “That’s all I thought it was. I’d been feeling terrible, but I didn’t want to see a doctor or tell anyone. I was afraid it might be serious, that I’d go into the hospital and not come out. I didn’t want my life to stop--I had so many things to do.”

Mesa-Bains, 48, has spent years on the fast track--lecturing, curating exhibits, displaying her artwork in galleries and museums from Santa Fe to Stockholm. She earned a doctorate in psychology, was host of her own TV talk show, sat on National Endowment for the Arts review panels and was the first Latina to serve on the San Francisco Arts Commission. As an activist, she’s helped other women and minorities get ahead in the art world.

“If we had a category of national treasures, like Japan, for instance, Amalia Mesa-Bains would be one of them,” says former Stanford professor Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, now associate director for the arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation. “She is a wonderful example of an ‘organic intellectual,’ one who negotiates community and communal concerns with personal acts of the imagination.”

Indeed, Mesa-Bains has surfaced as a possible candidate to head the NEA, and in June she was chosen as one of 33 MacArthur Foundation grant recipients. The “genius” award will give her $295,000 to spend as she pleases over the next five years.


But her greatest triumph was overcoming a close brush with death that landed her in the hospital for two weeks and on a slow road to recovery.

“I was killing myself,” says Mesa-Bains, seated in the airy and bright art-filled living room of her San Francisco home. Erudite yet down to earth and affable, she easily breaks into a smile. But as she tells of last year’s events, her mood is subdued.

“I couldn’t say no to anyone or anything. I had to do it all, even if it meant going without eating, staying up all night, jumping on a thousand planes,” she says.

She had developed primary pulmonary hypertension, a rare disorder of unknown cause that affects the lungs and heart. The crisis forced her to slow down, take stock of her life and set new priorities. “A gift from the gods,” she says of the MacArthur money, which couldn’t have come at a better time. She has cut down on her hours as a consultant at an educational think tank where she has been compiling a teachers’ manual on cultural diversity. The extra time will go toward her artwork and completion of a book on Chicana artists.

Mesa-Bains was one of 27 artists commissioned by the Mexican Museum in San Francisco for its exhibition “The Chicano Codices: Encountering Art of the Americas,” which features contemporary interpretations of the pre-Columbian picture books destroyed by Spanish colonialists. (The show closes next Sunday; an L.A. venue is in the planning stages.) Made of bark or deerskin, the original codices illustrated religious myths, political histories, scientific and medical knowledge and social practices. Some counseled girls as they made the transition to adulthood.

Mesa-Bains’ piece is based on one of these “girls’ guides.” For “Codex Amalia, Venus Envy” she created a fold-out tablet with images from her First Communion and of her spiritual mentors: Santa Teresa de Avila, Frida Kahlo, Dolores del Rio and Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.

She is best known, however, for her three-dimensional installations, such as the one she recently exhibited at a biennial exhibition in Istanbul, Turkey. Room-size, its basic elements are a suitcase, a chair, a dresser topped by a religious shrine, and a videotape, which intercuts footage of the U.S. Border Patrol with the story of her own family’s migration to the United States from Mexico.

The Whitney Museum’s branch gallery at Philip Morris’ corporate headquarters will present a solo show of her work in January. Her installations also will be included in a group show in Madrid in September and at Cornell University in October.

Mesa-Bains has been working in this medium for more than 20 years, her first pieces being community altars for events such as Dia de los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo. Later, she used the form to pay homage to her ancestors and several women from Mexican history whose lives mirrored her own development. Much of her recent work explores more personal themes concerning her relationship with life, death and memory, and incorporates the use of written texts, soundtracks, music and videotapes.

Her interest in altars or installations is an extension of something she knew as a child growing up in Northern California, she says. Mesa-Bains remembers being fascinated with the delicately arranged Catholic shrines in the homes of various relatives.

She was born in San Jose and raised in nearby “pre-Lockheed” Sunnyvale. Her parents are from Mexico--both brought in “without papers” when they were children. They became legal residents when they were in their 50s, but they have yet to become citizens, or to relinquish a strong pride in their Mexican heritage.

“My parents--their food, music, friends, everything is Mexican. But I knew I wasn’t Mexican and I wasn’t American, either--if you weren’t white and growing up as a teen-ager in the 1950s, you figured that out very quickly,” she says, running her fingers through her thick, straight black hair. “You just didn’t fit, you wouldn’t match, you could never be the things that, back then, were the symbols of being an American.”

Like other young Mexican-Americans, she found a sense of belonging and identification in the Chicano movement of the 1960s, which she first encountered while studying art at San Jose State. The movement rallied around political and social causes, but also provided a forum for cultural reclamation and expression. The experience, she says, “marked her for life.”

The 1960s brought other great changes. She met and married Richard Bains, then an aspiring rock musician and housing activist with the Congress on Racial Equality. He is now the San Francisco Symphony’s education director, and they have been together for 26 years.

Shortly after marrying, they moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a bilingual teacher in a public school. Her exposure to children’s learning problems compelled her to pursue a master’s degree in education at San Francisco State, followed by another master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology at Berkeley’s Wright Institute.

Also held over from those days are the strong ties she formed with other Chicano artists and Latino arts institutions. She still sits on the boards of San Francisco’s Galeria de la Raza and the Mexican Museum, both organizations that helped support her through the years. She plans to increase her involvement, she says.

“Economically, our organizations are suffering--the decline of the overall economy, the shrinking portfolios of foundations, have come to impact us,” she complains.

The era of “multiculturalism” has hurt too. Government and private foundations have designated more funds for culturally diverse projects, but Latino arts groups are having to compete harder for this money.

Says Alba: “The major institutions are now trying to do us better than we do ourselves. The irony is that they have been forced to do it and they already have the structures to do it well, in ways we cannot. They have the grant writers, the connections, the legitimacy. If funders have money to put into some Latino project and they can get their name on something at the Met or Modern, then they’ll do that.

“Smaller, white-run, alternative galleries have taken funds away too. Everybody is tripping over themselves to do multicultural programming, and the institutions that are suffering the most are the ones who have done it all along.”

To survive, she says, Latino arts organizations must seek more corporate and business funding. They must share staff and resources, where possible, and engage in joint projects among themselves and with Asian-American and African-American groups. Finally, they must stress education, perhaps through partnerships with schools.

“It’s about solving the problems around you, putting your energies into something bigger than yourself, working collectively, building a network,” she says. “Those are the things that are part of being an artist in the 21st Century. It’s not about being a white man, alone in a studio, making objects that can be overpriced and sold to people who don’t even respect you. Because that’s what happens, they want your objects, but they don’t want you. So, I think for artists of color--or any artist of good conscience--it’s a different road.”

These issues crossed her mind frequently when she was ill and forced to confront what really mattered, she says.

She thought about her artwork, which is ephemeral. She had no objects to hold onto. She had never sold anything, wasn’t a part of any collections. All it amounted to was a box of slides. “Is this all there is, and, if so, is this enough?” she often asked herself. She questioned her direction in life. Had she been wrong about herself?

But throughout her illness, the community of friends she nurtured over the years stayed by her side, kept up her spirits and helped nurse her back to health. She got better. Then--almost a year to the day after she got out of the hospital--she received the MacArthur.

“You know, people spend their lives looking for meaning,” she says, eyes moist. “They think it’s about making money, or gaining power, or about finding that one right relationship. I really think it’s all about belonging.”