La Vida Bonita

It's been months since the prolific Chicano artist has put a paint brush in his hand, but that doesn't mean David Tineo has quit fighting for art, life or Tucson

If art is a mirror, a reflection of ourselves, our culture, our society ... then David Tineo's murals and paintings must be our desert universe in acrylic-paint glory. Tineo's mujeres—our mothers, abuelas, lovers, sisters, friends. His Day of the Dead images—our ancestor's dancing and laughing with us as we wander our city delicately biking over street-car tracks, maneuvering small-town politics in this dusty town. The Aztec imagery, the symbols, the passionate lovers, the tears, the history. These are reminders that if we follow our corazón, life will offer us great adventures and we'll never stray from what's important.

Even among Queen Donut's glazed creations, fritters and other fried goodness covered in icing and sprinkles near Grande Avenue and St. Mary's Road, that heart exists where Tineo sits in a booth with a cup of coffee and a sentimental smile across his face as he recalls the images of women he's painted over the years with crowns of corn, chilies and nopal.

Besides the paintings, the murals and the hundreds of Tucson school kids he's worked with for almost four decades, Tineo's seen all the hands that life deals to artists—what Tineo also refers to as "transitions."

There's his 2004 diagnosis of a form of macular degeneration that continues to eat away at his vision, but Tineo laments that really, almost too much has been written about his visual impairment, as if that's all that defines him as an artist. Right now, however, his body offers him more challenges, such as a recent stroke that's done what many Tineo devotees thought impossible—kept the prolific artist from painting.

There's a canvas at his apartment, however, waiting to be stretched and prepped for another reflection of this world we live in, specifically for the annual monsoon show at Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery and Workshop. The stroke temporarily kept him from working and now he's regained more feeling on the right side of his body with therapy and help from a neurological team.

It's turned into a battle of sorts, but that's not an unusual position for Tineo who continues to see himself as an activist, which took root when he first participated in student-walkouts at Tucson High School. He's taken his place in Chicano history through his work in the community, but also his muralismo, the murals he's painted, such as the one in the former union hall in Clifton, Arizona depicting the contentious mine strike and the Aztec and Chicano imagery at the El Rio Neighborhood Center in Barrio Hollywood.

The black U.S. Army Special Forces beret he wears during the first interview at Queen Donut represents the latest challenges he takes on—Veterans Affairs.

"I am being more an advocate for blind veterans of America. This is really a condition that needs to be taken seriously and there are others. I guess I'm always going to be an activist in one form or another," he says, a cane resting against the booth and a collapsible white cane folded up on the table to help him navigate the streets if needed. "We must compensate those who served their country and always acknowledge the arts. It's important to continue funding arts. It's a responsibility each of us has to take."

At 7 a.m. Queen Donut is part of an almost daily routine that brings the artist back to his old Barrio Hollywood neighborhood. A Sun Tran van picks him up from his cottage apartment in midtown, drops him off at the doughnut shop and on this particular day, he'll be picked up by the VA for a monthly meeting he goes to with other visually impaired veterans.

When he thinks about his family he recognizes longevity is on his side, good genes, but service in the U.S. Army during the Cold War left his immune system compromised. The loss of his vision and issues with joints and his teeth—Tineo links them to the use of a first generation night vision scope he and other soldiers used at that time that were like looking through x-rays. There were other things too, and some trauma he experienced during his service that went from 1976 to 1979, and then service in the reserves, but much of that, he says, remains classified.

"I wanted to see the world and it was a good experience," Tineo says, explaining why he went into the Army. "I tested very high; I understand most creative people do and it isn't unusual to get assigned to special ops."

But that all came with a price, and now Tineo takes on the VA to accept his paperwork and recognize health ailments he claims stem from his military stint. But before the stroke there were other transitions—the January closure of Galleria Mistica, his gallery and studio space owned by his manager Gene Edwards. It was a difficult decision, but the economy had a big effect on the sales of his work and his manager was going through his own health and economic challenges.

"It made sense for us to pack it up," Tineo says.

More than 100 of Tineo's paintings from the gallery were catalogued and packed, and then taken to Austin, Texas where Edwards has relocated in an attempt to bring Tineo to a new market.

"There just isn't a market here in Tucson," Tineo says.

This transition period has also included a marriage and separation—albeit Tineo has gone through two other marriages and divorces, both with a level of heartbreak that surely made it into his work on canvas over the years. But this is the first time he's gone this long without painting and creating, and he's hopeful that's about to change.

"I think I will always create, but that may change. Sure physically I've slowed down. But what I still have is my brain and my heart and advice and encouragement for the younger generation," he says.

"I've never gone beyond a month of not painting. I was always on this mission, this momentum, this drive. I got attacked with conditions beyond my control and even the loss of sight was devastating, but I kept trying. But this stroke and everything, when you get to start something and can't finish or get off the ground, I had to ask, 'Creator, you gave me this gift. You either take me or you allow me to continue. I can't be who I am if I am not doing something.'"

His friend and neighbor Angela Soto has seen him go through these most difficult months. Soto, a filmmaker, first met Tineo in 2010 through a mutual friend who introduced her to the artist when he was looking for someone to put together a film about his work to go with a retrospective at the Tucson Museum of Art. That show, Tineo says, was full of drama and at times difficult, but an opportunity to allow him to property catalogue and show his work.

Soto says the other challenge was that Tineo had to share the museum with a large Warhol show, and the video she did ended up not being screened because Warhol videos took up the space and time. But as a result of the initial meeting and filming, she and Tineo are friends and she continues to help document his work, and hopefully will complete a documentary she began on the Tucson artist.

In the living room of her midtown house, she points out different Tineo paintings she owns, including a panel from a Tucson Museum of Art mural that was taken down and dismantled a year after the retrospective when museum administration determined the mural was falling apart. In her den is a princessa with a crown of nopal and chilies and several Day of the Dead works. In her study, a retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus in one of Tineo's more abstract styles.

Soto isn't just a friend, but a supporter and a fan.

"I wasn't always a fan of his abstract work, but the more I've grown to love it and this painting," she says, pointing out the five faces.

She and her wife have traveled to Cancun with Tineo and his manager to see the Aztec ruins and symbols the artists hold dear in his work. "I wanted to see where his passion comes from, but a lot of that passion comes from Chicano rights.

"I liked his Day of the Dead stuff and the symbols in his paintings and the colors—symbols that over time I've come to understand. Like, when he uses a butterfly, that's sort of a self-portrait for him. Once you understand what these mean, it makes his work even more meaningful. At least that's the way it was for me."

And the transitions that Tineo speaks of, Soto says she's come to understand those in his work, too—heartbreak, love and even a series he did of Frida Kahlo's and the red tears streaming down her face. "I've always wondered about those. But they all speak to me. He does a lot of paintings of women, mujeres, and hardly ever any men."

While the Tucson Museum of Art retrospective was a challenge and the dismantling of his mural there a loss, he felt he was able to change it around when he and Edwards figured out a way to cut the mural into pieces and sell those pieces to raise money for school art programs. Edwards, he says, covered the costs to turn the panels into individual work to sell—prepped and framed.

It's now one of only a few that are no longer up—while others continue, although some are fading and could use a touch-up, Tineo says, in particular the murals at El Rio and El Pueblo Neighborhood Center.

The legacy, he says, isn't as much the murals that remain or the paintings sold and unsold, but the students he's worked with at area schools. One particular example he thinks of is Tucson artist Ruben Urrea Moreno, a painter and muralist, who like Tineo, doesn't shy away from Chicano and Aztec symbols and iconography in his work.

It was in 6th grade at Mission View Elementary that Urrea Moreno first met Tineo, who came to the school to work with two classes to put up a mural.

"I had never met an artist, a real artist before, and David comes to the school with all his paint clothes on and a beret," Urrea Moreno says. "It was the first time I got my hands wet with paint and worked on a wall. I realized that I wanted to do more."

Urrea Moreno says he already knew he wanted to be an artist—his nana was his champion and provider of art materials, and after his experience with Tineo, his nana's walls came next. "It was about having art in school and meeting a real artist. I know I wouldn't be where I am today. It pulled me through a lot of bad stuff. I saw a lot of my friends who didn't go the artists way growing up in South Tucson, and got into a lot of trouble and went the other way."

Urrea Moreno, self-taught, has a three-man show coming up in October or November—the theme growing up Mexican-American. But recently, Urrea Moreno got to relive his Tineo experience by doing his own mural project with students this past year.

"David, he likes to talk, he's always been like that. And when he worked with my friend and me he talked about the stuff he paints. Those were ideas I never explored, but it opened my mind to the community and the political topics, but also the earth. He's very much into honoring the mother earth," he says.

"Now, almost all my paintings have some of that, something to mother earth. I can't let go of that. David's visit to my school was nurturing and planted seeds."

With his own students, Urrea Moreno says he learned from David—"He was kind of a mad man mixing the colors and bringing us together to tell us how it was going down. We surrounded him eager to do something. Then he'd go around and dab all the colors to show us where they go and we'd start. In no time it was done."

Learning about the challenges Tineo faces, Urrea Moreno says he worries about the local art scene, thinking eventually it will get worse downtown before it finally gives up and moves south—"it's already starting to happen. The nicer downtown gets the harder it is to do murals downtown and the harder it is to have space."

It's also hard to be a full-time artist in Tucson and make a living. "I hate to say that out loud. I want to continue to paint. It's what my heart wants, but I know if I stopped working a regular 9 to 5, I know my work will change and turn kitschy, turn into something that's more about the buyer of art. There's enough decorative art out there."

That's part of Tineo's values, too—not one to take commissions based on the color schemes of a potential client's living room. And connecting to community. Tineo says he remembers being offered a federal job or two after his time in the Army, but he always said no and decided to paint and work with kids in the community instead.

Those values are what brought Tineo together with artist Mel "Melo" Dominguez—both were recognized by PanLeft Productions in 2012 for their inter-generational work. And obviously Dominguez's insistence to meet at Queen Donut in Barrio Hollywood is an example of Tineo's influence, as well as her sincere love for doughnuts—in particular pink icing and sprinkles.

Cultivating relationships with kids is natural for both artists, and Dominguez describes her and her friend as "time travelers."

"If you're awake this is a beautiful time to be alive," she says. "We are time traveling him and me, we're speaking to the future. He's a scribe. We're all scribes. For me I've always been a guerrilla, infiltrate another generation. You have to do that if you want to see change. You are responsible for your neighborhood."

They are superheroes with doughnuts, Dominguez offers.

Dominguez and her wife, Melissa Brown-Dominguez, moved to Tucson from Los Angeles several years ago, and as she networked in the community she was told over and over again to talk to Tineo—it wasn't until a meeting at Raices Taller that they finally connected.

"Here he was finally and he was so chill, and then talked about doing some yoga. My imagination had started taking over, but he was the most approachable artist," Dominguez says.

"We can be different—artists. We can be elitist, but he wasn't. He was an instant friend. I am glad he is one of the top known artists of Tucson—every community needs someone like that."

Dominguez's work has taken her back to her hometown for a recent show dedicated to Dolores Huerta in which she had several paintings. She's been to Uruguay and took part in an international show that started at Biosphere 2. She's worked with kids at many area schools, including Utterback Middle School and Apollo in Sunnyside. And right now she's working on a mural at Manzo Elementary in Barrio Hollywood.

Community is important to Dominguez, and sometimes beyond art—she and her wife were honored by the Mayor's office for work distributing trees with Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

Tineo says he's inspired by this new generation of artists and happy to help them in whatever way he can, but he also declares the secret he can share with them is that there are no secrets, and instead finds that most of them are on the right track to begin with; they know what to do.

"A mature artist knows when to step back and let this next group take it to the next level," he says, adding that he wants the public to support them more—"when you see someone working outside on their art, stop and tell them how beautiful it is, give them a couple of bucks or buy them some hamburgers."

Perhaps this is the wrong time to ask Tineo for advice, after all life is providing one transition after another for the artist—but he jokes that while some may use the word legacy to describe him, he wants to remind those same people that he's not done yet and he still has the need to create.

The younger artists, however, need to not be afraid and they need to make mistakes. "Sometimes this older generation, we fear in aging and maybe being forgotten, but I hope I always have the hunger to create no matter what my situation. I also want people to see themselves in my work. See their reflection, and whatever that means."

Back at Queen Donut, Tineo is there making calls, talking to the owner during the early morning rush—folks coming in or using the drive-thru to take a baker's dozen to the office—and next to him sits a stapler for stretching the canvas that he needs for his new work, this anticipated return to the paint.

He needs new staples and he's going to head over to the Ace Hardware just west of Grande Avenue. He puts his cane in one hand to give himself support and holds the stapler in the other to shower the store clerk when he gets there.

And off he goes ... a slow neighborhood walk. He'll be back, he tells the shop owner. He'll be back.