Published on July 5th, 2013 | by Edgardo Cervano-Soto0
Profile of a Prominent Printmaker
|About the Author|
|Edgardo Cervano-Soto is a freelance journalist, filmmaker, and photographer. He prepared this profile of Xavier Viramontes based on several conversations with the artist, complemented by independent research.|
Xavier Viramontes is not a household name. He is not wealthy, he is not flashy. You do not see him on talk shows or in commercials. He is not frequently interviewed, nor is his art widely recognized.
And yet Xavier Viramontes’ artwork has been exhibited across the nation and the world. In October of this year, his work will be featured in Our America: Latino Presence in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Although most people would not recognize his prints as Viramontes work , many have probably seen some of the posters he has created. His “Boycott Grapes” print, for example, was created in the 1970s and remains an emblematic image of the United Farm Workers.
Xavier Viramontes is an unassuming, mild-mannered 70-year old Mexican-American artist. He has been an artist since he was a teenager growing up in the factory towns of San Francisco’s East Bay in the 1940s and 50s. He remembers being awed by The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, not so much the movies, but the incredible posters used to advertise them. Xavier was raised in a multigenerational Mexican-American and Catholic household. Although his parents were supportive of his artistic inclinations, it was clear to Xavier that they would not be able to finance art studies, nor were they in a position to support him beyond his high school years.
Curiously it was the Army that helped him, indirectly, to pursue his art. He was drafted in 1967, during the Vietnam years, and stationed in Germany, at a missile base in the countryside. Enlisted men were allowed to fly for free on military flights, on a standby basis, and Xavier took advantage of the free transportation to travel throughout Europe. He visited Madrid’s El Prado museum and was overwhelmed by the works of Velazquez and Goya. At the Louvre he spent several days just absorbing the beauty and power of the innumerable paintings and sculptures. In Rome he was mesmerized by Michelangelo’s sculptures and Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light, which would inspire many of his own pieces later on.
When he returned home Xavier took advantage of military benefits to enroll at the San Francisco Art Institute. He moved to San Francisco’s bustling Mission District, a Latino enclave in those years. It was then, in the early 1970s, that he found his calling. He first tried painting, but found he got too attached to his pieces and was not able to give them away or sell them. He searched for a medium that would make his art accessible, and he found printmaking.
Xavier enrolled in the Master’s program for Printmaking at San Francisco State University. About that time he also began his involvement with Galeria de la Raza, a Latino arts collective in the Mission District that was producing and supporting the exhibition of work by Latino artists.
“I wanted it to be a history of a people” says Viramontes. He chose an Aztec character with full headdress as a stand-in for the farm workers. The brown hands smashing grapes became an iconic print for the UFW (and one from which Xavier never made any money). For five years, the United Farm Workers utilized the image for their campaigns. The print has been featured in numerous exhibitions and will soon be featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Xavier favors etchings over silkscreens and woodcuts. His prints are made on plates of zinc. He first creates the drawing and then burns the etching onto the zinc plate. Xavier remarks that etching allows him to create detailed prints and emphasize heavy lines. The themes of family, immigrant roots, religion and labor are themes that resonate throughout Viramontes’ art.
“Painting is not so much line work, it is more rendering, softer. Etching could use all these lines and make them pronounced, if you want.”
Xavier began to teach printmaking at San Francisco City College soon after graduating from San Francisco State University. He remained a committed educator for 36 years, until his recent retirement “Art has to be taught; at least some of the techniques have to be taught. After you master the techniques then you can let your creativity lose.”
Xavier notes that making it in the art world is becoming increasingly difficult, due both to decreased funding of art education and to technological advances. “Advances in duplication technology make it harder to sell prints because people can’t tell the difference between an original and a duplicate. A copy of an etching is almost identical to an original etching.”
Xavier Viramontes continues to enjoy painting and printmaking in his retirement. His advice for aspiring artists: “Make art that makes you happy. The public may or may not like it. Artists have an inner energy, an inner voice that tells them what to do; listen to it. You can’t satisfy everybody so why try?”