A marriage as a work of art

Times Staff Writer

From a distance it all seems so wildly romantic: the life of a roving mural painter and his devoted soul mate, the bohemian swirl of hip parties, high-profile commissions and proletarian politics. Makes you long for the open road and the scent of turpentine, doesn't it, like a sepia-tinted photo of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, effortlessly glamorous, traipsing across North America, trampling bourgeois respectability and each other's hearts ...

Well, so much for drama. Here's the daily grind:

It's a blistering afternoon at the intersection of Highland and Selma avenues in Hollywood. Stepping gingerly across a clattering cat's cradle of ropes and platforms rising three stories above the street, Eloy Torrez and Margarita Guzman are crafting an Imax-size gallery of pop-culture immortals -- Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, Ricky Nelson, Dolores Del Rio -- on the eastern facade of the Hollywood High School auditorium.

Coated in sweat, paint and a layer of fine, chalky dust, the couple plan to work until nightfall, taking advantage of the deepening shade. But as the 5 o'clock sun slides toward the Pacific, it's still so hot that you swear Dandridge is going to reach up at any moment and wipe a giant hand across her long, mocha-colored neck.

Torrez isn't looking at Dandridge, though. It's Del Rio who's been driving him nuts. In the eight months since he started the mural, he says, he has worked and reworked the figure of the Mexican matinee idol and still he's not satisfied. "The hand ... it looks a little clumsy to me," he says. "You get on a rhythm and everything just flows. And then sometimes you just can't figure it out."

It's days like this when Torrez, a congenital perfectionist who happens to be one of Southern California's most accomplished and in-demand muralists, wishes he were back in his cluttered studio in an old redbrick building east of the Los Angeles River, making art for himself rather than the masses. It's days like this when he struggles to bear in mind his wife's constant admonition: Have faith, Guzman tells her husband of eight years, things will work out, they always have. "And Eloy," she adds gently, "it's not the Sistine Chapel."

Not that you've got to be Michelangelo to experience the ecstasy and the agony of mural painting, a discipline that arose among the prehistoric cave dwellers of Altamira in Northern Spain, reached its apex in Renaissance Italy, memorialized the Mexican Revolution, and is today the one art form that no Angeleno can fail to encounter while casually strolling a downtown street or cruising the Hollywood Freeway.

For many years after he graduated from Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in 1983, Torrez labored to make a name for himself as a painter. His magical-surrealist portraits established him as a rising talent, and his serigraph prints are well-regarded enough to have been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and what is now the UCLA Hammer Museum.

But it wasn't until he was hired by the owners of the Victor Clothing Co. to paint "The Pope of Broadway" in 1985 that his reputation as a popular artist took off. Rising like a Technicolor tsunami over the intersection of Broadway and 3rd Street in downtown Los Angeles, the 72-foot-tall mural depicts actor Anthony Quinn dancing against the interior of the Bradley Building, his arms raised as if bestowing a benediction on the city's lost souls. "I grew up very Catholic as a kid and my first exposure to art was the Stations of the Cross, and I think I was somehow influenced by that when I did 'The Pope,' " Torrez says.

"The Pope" proved to be a blessing for his career, and more mural commissions quickly followed. Besides "Legends of Hollywood" at Hollywood High, completed last spring, his best-known public artworks include a dream-like civic allegory in the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Water District building and a pantheon of Latin American cultural heroes at the Ramona Gardens public housing project, a frequent first stop for Spanish-speaking immigrants trying to gain a foothold in El Norte.

But mural painting is a demanding, paradoxical profession that requires its practitioners to be both conspicuous and anonymous, highly public yet self-effacingly submerged in their creations. It is art conceived on a brash, epic scale, but its subject matter is usually scripted by committee rather than dictated by personal vision. It serves as a shrine to communal memory, but it seldom lasts more than a decade or two before sunlight, rain and graffiti render it a faded relic. It is an art that belongs to everyone and no one.

His awareness of his work's ambiguous provenance, its creeping mortality, may help explain why Torrez, at 49, is finally beginning to take his wife's advice to heart. "You know how sometimes you're looking for something that's right there?" he says, reflecting on his career's trajectory. "Sometimes you're so concerned with moving forward that you miss the whole point."

Ultimately, it took cheating death to make the muralist and his muse see what the whole point really was.

ARTISTS'BOND

Togetherness can mean different things to different couples at different times in their lives: thrashing around at a rave party, buying a starter tract home in the Valley, hunkering down on a Saturday night with good red wine, vintage John Coltrane and the kids stashed away at Grandma's.

Now imagine -- if you dare -- a scenario in which togetherness means spending virtually every waking hour, from sunup to sundown, in the presence of your significant other. Imagine it means wielding gooey paintbrushes under a pounding sun until your arms sag and your back throbs, the rush-hour traffic roaring in your ears as you hang from a scaffold six stories up, praying those scalding blasts of wind aren't the start of a full-blown Santa Ana.

Then imagine that you and your partner are doing all these things while one of you is in remission from stage-four breast cancer.

Basically, you've imagined a day in the life of Torrez and Guzman, who must tread a delicate line between coziness and claustrophobia, like every couple who spend their working hours together. Or like every couple, period. "She absorbs a lot of my stress. It gets a little intense," Torrez says. Meaning that he gets a little intense? "Little bit," he admits, lowering his gaze. Guzman throws her husband a Mona Lisa smile, somewhere between amusement and affection. "All the time!" she says, laughing.

They met 18 years ago when Torrez was an up-and-coming painter and Guzman was growing bored with her job hand-coloring tiles in an East L.A. factory. She'd seen a newspaper ad for watercolor classes at Self-Help Graphics, where Torrez was artist-in-residence, teaching acrylic painting. "I would see him there, but he was like a recluse," Guzman recalls. "He was always in the studio. He never came out."

Occasionally, Guzman would also see Torrez playing guitar and singing in one of several rock bands he has belonged to over the years -- the Rentz, the Western Heroes, Lost Soul Rebels, Los Curiosos. Music, like painting, provided a means of finding his identity, Torrez says, while growing up in the desert town of Barstow with a strict father who never embraced his son's artistic bent. "Barstow, you're either into motorcycles or sports," he says. "I was trying to find a niche."

Like her future husband, Guzman, who is two years older, had grown up in a bilingual Mexican American family that moved from the Arizona frontera to Boyle Heights when she was a child. She'd always liked to draw, she says, but finding the time and space to make serious art was another matter entirely.

Then she met Torrez, who began introducing her to his artist and musician pals. Suddenly, Self-Help became the epicenter of her social life. "That's where I met almost all my friends that I have now," she says. It was like discovering a new way of living, an existence devoted to provocative conversations, stimulating colleagues and, above all, to making art. The couple began dating, started working together on murals in 1991 and were married in 1995. "She's the other side of my brain," Torrez says of his wife. "I don't really know how to describe our relationship. She's just like this spirit that's in my life."

To watch the two of them on the job, side by side, is to appreciate how they function as a single synchronized unit. Torrez does the painting while Guzman helps mix the colors and keeps track of the dizzying array of brushes, paint cans, solvents, dropcloths, sketchbooks, Polaroid snapshots of models and other paraphernalia that must be packed, unloaded, used and reloaded into their red '85 Honda Civic.

Sometimes passersby ask Guzman what she does. "I'm the roadie," she tells them modestly. "I guess, in reality, her biggest contribution is the moral support," Torrez says. "She brings a calming effect about the whole process."

Guzman always downplays her talents compared with her husband's. "My art is nothing like his. My art is like Casper," she'll say, referring to the comic-book ghost. But friends of the couple credit her with keeping the family business chugging forward.

"She's really a super-strong individual, and I think that strength has obviously contributed to Eloy's success," says Clea Jones, an assistant professor of art and design at Marymount College who has known the couple for more than a dozen years. "She's been a muse for him, a muse and a partner."

At home, a two-bedroom house in Silver Lake, Guzman handles the family paperwork and keeps her spouse's resume updated. She also orchestrates their active social life. "They're always having opportunities for people to hang out and bring food, and all these artists and poets would congregate there," Jones says.

Professionally, Jones continues, Torrez always has been a man in a hurry. "He's super career-oriented, and he's had to be, almost to the point of boring friends with 'I've got to do this, I've got to do that,' " she says. Torrez himself would probably agree. "The art world, it's so political," he says, "it's such a game, like anything else. If people don't know you, you're forgotten."

While he appreciates the steady work that mural painting provides, Torrez can't help fretting about how much time these projects eat up. Even a relatively modest-size mural, like the one he and Guzman completed this summer depicting the Latino heritage of the rural farming town of Santa Paula, an hour northwest of Los Angeles, consumed the better part of three months. "It just takes so long to do these things, and you're in the middle of it and you forget the initial vision," Torrez says with some exasperation.

"He drives himself crazy because he wants everything to be perfect," Guzman says. "I tell him, 'Eloy, you need to slow down and enjoy what you're doing! Do you know how many people would love to be in your shoes?' He'll say, 'I don't want to be in these shoes! I don't want to be doing these murals!' I go, 'Eloy, do you want to be digging ditches? Do you want to be doing paperwork?'

"He's always, like, Mr. Ideas, 'I should do this, I should do that,' so I've learned just to say, 'Sure.' Because if I say, 'Well

Despite his frustrations, Torrez knows that good mural commissions don't come easily in Los Angeles, a city that's blessed (some might say saturated) with superlative open-air paintings by the likes of Frank Romero and Kent Twitchell, a classmate of Torrez's at Otis. Though he often wishes he had more time to work on his studio projects, he's pragmatic enough to know that "as an artist it's better if you have three or four potential sources of income." Besides, he says, the older he gets, the more he's begun to feel that murals are what he was put on Earth to do. His wife agrees.

"He doesn't see it as a plus," she says, "but I think he's able to use his skills and his knowledge and his education to communicate to masses of people without them stepping into a gallery. They're able to look [at his murals] and say, 'That's us, that's la raza.' "

MURALS CROSS LINES

La raza -- literally "the race," but with a subtler connotation of spiritual and cultural solidarity. For years, Torrez says, Mexican American colleagues told him he should do more Chicano-themed work, but he was always leery of what he calls "fist-in-the-air" art. Lately, though, he has come to appreciate how much his Mexican American heritage has shaped his artistic consciousness.

Murals, he believes, don't have to be strident. Because of their size and prominence, he says, murals can speak to large numbers of people across class and ethnic borders, can transport people into new cultures, new perspectives, new identities. "Being a Latino, I couldn't live in just one environment, one nationality," he says. "It's boring."

This sense of fluidity also shaped Guzman's cultural perspective growing up on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border, and later in polyglot Boyle Heights. Among her strongest memories is of her Mexican great-grandmother, a curandera, or traditional healer. When Guzman was a young girl, she recalls, her bis-abuela once cured a headache just by placing her wrinkled hands on her great-granddaughter's head.

Even Guzman's father, a lifelong skeptic, believed in the old woman's metaphysical talents, which Guzman always suspected she might have inherited. But she'd never really tested them. Then one day in the mid-1990s she woke up and found a small lump under her left breast.

At first Guzman put off going to the doctor. "It was really crazy at work, and I was just trying to keep everything going," she says. But the lump kept growing. The treatment itself was predictably grueling. The cancer had spread to Guzman's lungs and even her liver. A bone-marrow transplant sent her into a coma for eight days.

On the Sunday afternoon before Guzman was to start her first round of chemotherapy, the couple invited a group of close family friends to their home for a prayer vigil. Some brought charms and talismans. Others burned sage and decorated a makeshift altar with flowers. Then they visualized themselves as warriors storming into Guzman's body to fight the disease.

Clea Jones was there that night. "I'm not the type that runs out to prayer circles every weekend," she says, "but this was a really moving experience, and there was a lot of love, and there was a lot of intense energy at that time, for her to fight.... With Margaret there's definitely a strength that I think amazed all of us."

Throughout her treatment, Guzman says, she kept accentuating the positive, believing that she would be cured. "I guess I was in a lot of denial, but I didn't really like to dwell there," she says. "I was trying to find people to make me laugh." When the doctors checked her out before her last round of chemo, the couple say, they were stunned to find the cancer had gone. Guzman has now been in remission for 7 1/2 years and adamantly refuses to see any more doctors, though she still has a nagging cough that worries her husband.

When Torrez speaks of the ordeals his wife has endured, a tone of awe steals over his voice. Even in the darkest moments, it was as if she was able to tap into some primal reservoir of power. "I don't know how you say this without sounding a little corny," he says, "but I would observe her when she'd be zoning into prayer, and tears would always come out. And I'd think, 'Wow, she's zoning into something.' "

HONORING HIS WIFE

In the city of Vernon, on Downey Road, stands a concrete building belonging to the Sunlaw Energy Corporation. It's a nondescript, utilitarian structure, except for one of its outer walls, which bears an image of a beautiful woman with long, floating hair and colorful robes. Her bare feet rest on the Earth's blue-green sphere, and she clutches a palm frond, lifting it toward the sky.

It is an image of Guzman, depicted by her husband as a benevolent Earth Mother, combining the features of an Aztec princess, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Statue of Liberty. "It's kind of weird," Guzman says of posing as a demi-goddess. "I like the idea of the mural, Mother Earth looking down on the planet with concern, because people don't care for their environment, don't treat it properly."

Seeing this image, you begin to understand when Torrez confesses that "in a subconscious way" he's "kind of glad" that Guzman had to quit her job at the tile factory when she got sick and now spends her working days by his side.

After wrapping up the "Legends of Hollywood" project, the couple nosed their old Honda up the 5 Freeway so they could add the final touches to the Santa Paula mural. They were scrambling to finish the job in time for a weekend dedication ceremony and already looking ahead to their next project. And as usual, Torrez wanted every last detail to be perfect.

But -- and here was the unusual thing -- he seemed to be taking the whole weird, miraculous process more or less in stride. "Margaret says you have to have faith and believe good things will come out of the work that you've done," he says. "I think a lot of it is visualizing that and believing it can happen."

Guzman, who's been listening quietly, suddenly pipes up. "It could happen!"

"Oh, I know," Torrez says in a voice edged with hope. "I think I've got to think that it will happen, that I can throw it out to the universe and it will come back to me."

His wife smiles her Mona Lisa smile, never lifting her eyes from her husband's face.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°