Emigdio Vasquez, a renowned Orange County Chicano muralist and painter whose pieces captured the reality and grittiness of everyday life, has died. He was 75.
Vasquez died Saturday of pneumonia at an assisted living facility in Newport Beach, his daughter Rosemary Vasquez-Tuthill said. He also had Alzheimer’s disease.
Known as Orange County’s Godfather of Chicano Art, Vasquez created more than 400 paintings and 22 murals throughout the county. The “Legacy of Cesar Chavez” at Santa Ana College is one of his most well-known works.
“My dad liked the gritty subjects, old people’s skins and the grittiness of the city,” his daughter said.
In an artist statement posted on UC Santa Barbara’s library website, Vasquez wrote that he considered his art to be part of the working-class experience that surrounded his life.
“This environment holds inspiring visions of human warmth and cultural heritage,” Vasquez wrote. “I want to convey to the viewer the intense reality which people experience. Art must be more than aesthetic or decoration. Art creates an environment which enlarges humanity.”
Vasquez was born May 25, 1939, in the mining town of Jerome, Ariz. The family moved to Orange in the early 1940s when the mine closed, Vasquez-Tuthill said. As a child, Vasquez would sit and quietly draw, a characteristic he carried into adulthood.
“He was a very quiet observer,” Vasquez-Tuthill said. “Unless he was around his friends.”
Vasquez-Tuthill’s earliest memory of her father was of him cooking menudo or leaning over a pressboard, a paintbrush in hand.
“In those days he couldn’t afford canvases,” she said. “He was always painting.”
She once asked Vasquez what else he would have done if he wasn’t an artist. He couldn’t answer her, she said.
He earned an associate’s degree from Santa Ana College before transferring to Cal State Fullerton, where he received his bachelor’s degree and a master’s in fine arts.
For his master’s thesis, Vasquez painted an 85-by-64-foot mural in Orange as a tribute to the Chicano working class. A miner was modeled after his father, and other relatives and friends were the inspiration for laborers.
The Orange County district attorney’s office associated the mural, “Tribute to the Chicano Working Class,” with gang culture when it sought an injunction against a local crew. It upset Vasquez that prosecutors associated it with gangs, Vasquez-Tuthill said.
“Toward the end, a lot of gangs were hanging out there, but he did not like the fact that his murals were thought of as gang-related,” Vasquez-Tuthill said.
Mike McGee, director of the Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton, went to college with Vasquez and admired his ability to capture his subjects’ facial expressions and characteristics.
“He had such an emphasis for people,” McGee said. “Emigdio was very soft-spoken, but his paintings spoke volumes.”
Heavily influenced by Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Vasquez felt a responsibility to document his community for posterity, McGee said.
Vasquez “wanted to make sure the people who lived in the community had a certain kind of dignity in the way they were portrayed,” McGee said. “And that there would be documentation and evidence of their lives and existence.”
His work has been displayed at Anaheim City Hall, in the 1975 “Chicanarte” exhibit at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and in UCLA’s “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation” in 1990.
“He put Chicano art onto a whole new level,” said Abe Moya, an Orange County artist and friend of Vasquez. “He opened the door for people like myself and other Chicano artists.”
A few years ago, Vasquez was considering restoring some of his deteriorating murals in Orange County, Moya said. But his plans were crushed when Alzheimer’s disease set in.
Moya hopes the murals will be restored now.
“They capture the historic value of the community and the area he grew up in,” Moya said. “He was a legend when he was alive, and he’ll always be a legend.”
In addition to Vasquez-Tuthill, Vasquez is survived by his five other children, Adolph Vasquez, Dora Asher, Emigdio “Higgy” Vasquez Jr., Sarah Acosta, Vera Perez; and his siblings Gilberto Vasquez, Javier Vasquez, Santiago Vasquez and Licinia Blue.
A funeral service will be held at 8:15 a.m. Saturday at Holy Family Cathedral, 566 S. Glassell St., Orange.