Wednesday, September 27, 2023

"Nortesur" Artist Swinging Through Burque

Luis Fitch's work will be displayed at the South Broadway Cultural Center


Luis Fitch’s life has all the drama and romance of an 18th century novel: It’s really a tale of two cities - Not set in France, but Tijuana and Pasadena.

“I grew up in a multi-cultural place most didn’t see,” he says.

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, Tijuana was a border town for tourists, sailors and displaced immigrants: Indigenous people from central Mexico, Salvadorans, Russians, Haitians, – some fleeing civil war and waiting to cross into the US, others who were denied entry but set up their homes and businesses as close to the States as they could.

“It wasn’t connected to Mexico City,” Fitch says. “Tijuana was influenced by the US. Being right next to California, we were influenced by entertainment. There was one Mexican TV channel and six from the US – I grew up watching Sesame Street, The Electric Company, everything at the forefront of US pop culture.”

He was 10 when he saw a glimpse of his future: anonymous wheat paste drawings on a wall in his neighborhood.

“The drawings would change every two months,” Fitch says. “Big, beautiful sketches done by a famous local artist. It was the first time I saw work outside of an art gallery – real art, not political, just studies of beautiful things.”

It also influenced Luis – soon his world became all about art. It was what he called ‘The Great Equalizer’ – his art won fans from working class and country club clients and mentors, who taught Luis two important things: Go to Mexico City, and go to Art School.

“I went to New York City to visit museums before Mexico City. I loved the US until I discovered Mexico City… I was blown away with the history, the rich cultures... It was the best of both worlds.”

Luis learned English and attended Community College in San Diego, where he competed in and won a poster design contest. His mentors at the college encouraged him to go big – apply to the ArtCenter College of Design School in Pasadena.

“I knew I couldn’t afford it. So, I had to be technically rich with talent.”

His portfolio earned him a partial scholarship, but his after school education was priceless.

“All the teachers worked – not just in academics, but they had their own businesses. One teacher was working on the latest Star Wars film – in the middle of Hollywood.”

Classmates were also hustling work: "A guy in the film department was doing videos for REM – he hadn’t graduated, and he won MTV’s Best Video for the year.”

Singh’s video contained a lot of symbolism - “He came from a little town in India where the people took care of elephants,” says Fitch. “He said Mexican donkeys were revered like elephants as humble laborers, essential to lives of Mexican farmers in small towns.”

It struck a nerve with Luis.

“What we related to was being very poor, but not hiding it. We utilize it and educate people to understand it. So now I never start a project without some sort of cultural understanding, or demographics in the market. We’re selling the commonality between the people buying the product or service, not the differences. I could help corporations understand the socio-economics of working with the Latino community.”

Luis continued to design many projects with small border town businesses. Being in Tijuana fed him professionally and creatively. It kept his passion for fine art alive, but a particular type of art that straddled multiple worlds – cultural, corporate and political.

“I discovered Alexander Girard, and his work reinforced what I wanted to do. He was influenced by Mexican color, texture, patterns. And without saying ‘corporate’, he filtered in folk patterns and color.”

But it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy that captured him – good design should bring what’s outside in. That’s when Luis started experimenting with wheat pasting. “You’re not relying on your art being inside those gallery walls. You want to work with something more creative – more freeing and that can transfer to different mediums.” Soon, Luis’ famous sugar skulls were on the street.

“The Day of the Dead didn’t exist in Tijuana in the ‘80’s,” he revealed. “I discovered it in San Diego’s Chicano neighborhoods. People who came from Oaxaca or Chiapas – migrants – brought it to Tijuana, San Diego, and L.A., and second and third generation Mexicans brought it back.”

Luis’ revolutionary ideas about design, branding and cultural art took a new route in 2000, about the same time the US Census was published. It showed 35 million or 12.5 percent of people living in the country are Hispanic – a nearly 60% jump since 1990. Fitch knew major US corporations would now be eager to tap that market they were once uncertain of. He decided he needed to branch out on his own and created UNO, a Latino Branding and Marketing company based in Minneapolis. Major Fortune 500 companies like Target, 3M and General Mills instantly became Fitch’s clients - so did small Mexican restaurants, local microbreweries, and museums. Soon Luis was designing branding for the Smithsonian He was even asked to create Day of the Dead stamps for the US Post Office. But at night, Luis ditched the corporate life to anonymously wheat paste his art skulls all over the Twin Cities or whatever city he found himself in.

He strategically set up his company on Lake Street in the heart of the city’s Hispanic community. But in 2020, Fitch found himself at the flashpoint of the riots following George Floyd’s murder by police. The volatile protests and destruction swept two miles across Lake Street, charring corporate and small businesses of all kinds by people of every color. Activists and community turned to well-known alternative artists like Luis for help diffusing anger and promote healing. His blazing pink and black skulls with the powerful words in large block letters “RACISM KILLS” were seen on commercial billboards topping buildings all the city.

“If you have a racist view, food, art and music are an introduction to culture. It’s not a one-way thing. We have to understand both cultures. Our commonalities.”

Fitch is in town for his exhibit “Nortesur”, which examines the socio-economic, political and environmental interchange between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s the completion of a Public Art project with the City of Albuquerque and The Tamarind Institute. Fitch was a guest at a weeklong printmaking workshop at the Institute in May, with three local artists selected to apprentice with him: Dora ‘Raiz’ Chavarria, Lena Kassicieh and Julianna Kirwin. Luis also hosted a free community wheat paste workshop for Albuquerque artists and printmakers. Artwork from the Tamarind workshop – as well as Fitch’s limited-edition prints - will be part of the month-long exhibit at the South Broadway Cultural Center

“I feel incredibly grateful to have been given this opportunity to create a piece of art at the same place where other famous artists such as Rufino Tamayo, José Luis Cuevas, Frank Romero and José Bedia have printed their work is an incredible privilege... Overall, it’s a tremendous honor and a dream come true.” He paused, and became philosophical. “The universe connects all these things.”

The Albuquerque Public Art and Urban Enhancement Division is an initiative of Art in Municipal Places Ordinance, set aside 1% of City construction funds derived from the general obligation bond program and certain revenue bonds for the purchase or commission of works of art. 


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