Frank Martinez dies at 89; noted L.A. artist
Frank Martinez laid his shaking hands on the surface of the blank canvas. As before every painting, he said a prayer.
Then the artist began his work. He applied acrylic paint and, with a rag, wiped it away. Shapes began to form and colors blended into one another.
He used a piece of wood to draw straight lines, a task complicated by Parkinson’s disease. Slowly, the mural took form, a layered portrait of early 18th century life, mission-building and Catholic faith in California.
The mural, painted in 2003, hangs in the south ambulatory of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles — one of a number of public art pieces created by Martinez, a Pacoima muralist and painter whose humility and quiet style escaped widespread recognition but whose work was revered by a generation of Chicano artists in Los Angeles.
Martinez died Aug. 17 at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center of complications from diabetes and end-stage renal disease, said his son, Frank Martinez. He was 89.
Born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants, Martinez infused his art with the pride he felt in his Mexican American heritage.
His paintings sold to collectors in Europe and Australia, and he created murals for the East Los Angeles Community Union, the 1984 Summer Olympics, the Smithsonian Institution and Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. His style, described as contemporary, was characterized by simplicity, texture and images of indigenous and Mexican American culture.
One mural scaling a wall at San Fernando Middle School depicted Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez surrounded by farmworkers in the fields. Before the dedication ceremony in 1996, an emotional Martinez fretted over his speech — and later explained that speaking wasn’t his strong suit.
“It’s very hard for me to put into words,” he told the audience, “because one of the things I do best is to express things visually.”
Lalo Garcia, an artist based in the San Fernando Valley who viewed Martinez as an adopted grandfather, described him as a quiet man who spent more time encouraging young artists than promoting his own work.
“He motivated us to be the best we could, to try to make statements with every piece you created,” said Garcia, who credited Martinez with the development of his own artistic style.
Francisco Alonzo Martinez was born in the Palo Verde neighborhood of Los Angeles on Aug. 9, 1924. His parents, both Mexican immigrants, worked as migrant farmworkers. As a child, Martinez traveled with his parents and worked in the fields, picking cotton, onions and lettuce, among other crops. At the same time, he began affirming his desire to be an artist.
Martinez enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served as a medic in Europe during World War II. In a 2009 interview for the nonprofit organization StoryCorps, he recalled participating in the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
After the war, Martinez traveled to London to study at the Borough Polytechnic Arts Institute. Returning to Los Angeles a year and a half later, he met and married Esther Silva, whose parents owned a grocery store in Chavez Ravine.
He continued his studies at the Chouinard Art Institute, a precursor of CalArts, and then the Otis College of Art and Design. But with his family growing, he never earned a degree, and in 1956, he began working as a lamp designer for the Van Nuys-based Lavery & Co., a job he held for three decades.
In 1976, Martinez was one of five California artists commissioned to paint a mural for the Smithsonian Institution for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. He traveled to Washington to complete his portion of the canvas, which depicted the early years of the pueblo of Los Angeles.
His murals and easel paintings often focused thematically on regional history as well as pre-Hispanic and Mexican American history.
The onset of Parkinson’s disease eventually meant Martinez could no longer hold a brush without shaking. But he refused to let the disease overcome him — he continued to sketch almost until the day he died, keeping charcoals and a sketchbook at his bedside.
Martinez is survived by his wife of 67 years, Esther; sons Joe Silva and Frank Martinez; a daughter, Sylvia Alvarado; seven grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Son Ricardo died in 2007, and son Alfredo died in 2009.
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