LAUNCH Los Angeles with Bi-Cultural Artist, Antonio Pelayo

'The pencil is very simple and this is a very simple family'

By LatinoLA Contributor
Published on LatinoLA: March 22, 2012

LAUNCH Los Angeles with Bi-Cultural Artist, Antonio Pelayo

One should be forewarned not to take Antonio Pelayo entirely at his word. The subject matter of his work may be a humble but quietly proud bunch of Jehova's Witnesses, once isolated from their brethren in the Mexican countryside before migrating back to Los Angeles, but the new portrait series this multiple award-winning artist is showcasing at LAUNCH, is nothing but.

The first noticeable thing about an Antonio Pelayo exhibit, apart from the fact that, if they were not framed, the work might look from afar as if Banksy had decided to shrink his work around the inviting art walls of the LAUNCH gallery space and that it would be very hard to spot the artist in the crowd. One could easily confuse Pelayo with an art aficionado coming to study the work of a virtuoso pencil drawer. The man is tall and, despite a very mod dark Fedora, unassuming in his appearance.

LAUNCH, the non-profit supporting new local artists bravely setting shop across from the mighty LACMA, perhaps by sheer coincidence has turned this stretch of Wilshire Blvd. with Mexican art from the past and from the future; in the Shangri-La of L.A. culture, a new exhibit of Frida Kahlo's work in the context of a show dedicated to surrealists from both sides of the border, and on this other side, a bicultural Mexican-American whose family crossed the border many times, whose work may be defined as photo-realistic surreal, or surreal by subtraction, to be more precise.

Pelayo would have you believe 'Mi Familia' is simply that, a series of reproductions taken from various family photo albums, as he tells it, "I'm documenting my family's migration from Mexico." Some of them, he claims, are simply such beautiful portraits, as the one of his mother, "I just had to draw it," he explains. "Some tell a story, like that one with me with a pig. I must have been two at the time. This other one is my dad in his first job when he returned back to the States," which happened to be taking care of horses at Burbank's Pickwick stables, long ago turned into the Pickwick condos.

The fact that Pelayo states that some of the photos, "Simply impressed me with their detail," should be ironic indeed, for his painstakingly detailed pencil shading and lines are anything but tour-de-force, a level of skill that has, admittedly, drawn fans out of nowhere into his Facebook page, with many young artists clamoring for Pelayo to teach them to draw like him.

Pelayo's family left Glendale for Mexico in 1980 to return to their ancestral ranch, deep in the Mexican countryside, isolated from the world. There, young Antonio had nowhere to turn but pen and paper. Inspired only by his imagination and by the church murals and paradise illustrations of his Jehovas Witness books, his love for drawing began. "I had no friends and drawing was the only thing I could do. In Mexico I began with coloring books, using a lot of crayons."

A few years after the family returned to L.A., in the late eighties, Antonio was working at a temp job in a Disney warehouse when they were starting an inking department.

"Someone showed me what it was all about and I immediately said 'Hey, I can do that', and after testing me, I was hired".

Pelayo began doing...and still does...animation art, reproducing characters in celluloid as they were originally drawn in the 1930s, a veritable school in painstaking, character-building constancy, something that should come naturally to a son of Jehovas Witnesses.

"It is what I like about pencil drawings. I've always loved pencil. It intrigues me what you can do with it. This series goes well with it because pencil is very simple and this is a very simple family," he says, referring to the mesmerizing detail of his drawings. "What I like about pencil work, and these particular pieces, is that they are very tight. I grew up in a tight environment. As a Jehova's Witness you walk a very narrow line or you will be punished by God, so I see this work that way too. You can't steer too far. It's not loose".

Pelayo, however, easily dissuades the listener that such mastery was easy to come by.

"I went through hundreds of pencils until I settled for a Pentel point five," and thousands more hours honing his craft, he admits. "I experimented doing the eyes first, because if you don't catch the eyes, the rest of the piece doesn't look good." By his own admission, this entails a lot of patience, and changing strategies. "I started drawing two or three of them at the same time, until I wasn't getting anywhere and decided to switch and concentrate on one at a time, forcing myself to finish them before I began with the next."

Be prepared to hear a lot about the first one in the series, a honeymoon picture of his parents whose story is a wonderful fable Pelayo relishes telling with impeccable timing. "When people see my dad holding my mom's bag they think 'what a nice guy' but my father was coming from a little town to Mexico City and my grandfather told him that it was a dangerous place, so he gave my dad a gun to carry, so he had it hidden in the bag."

The best story, however, is the reason for the white background surrounding all these photo-realistic drawings. "I decided to take the background out to leave it open for the viewer." The effect is slightly eerie, and the comparisons to Bansky roll easily off the mouths of the public at the exhibit.

Questions about his culture are a given, but the white background, Pelayo explains, makes a very important point in his family's story. "These are migrants coming into an unknown land, and I feel this is how we feel when we come from somewhere else, we don't know anyone, so I use the white background to represent that".

Pelayo has garnered a few prestigious awards along the way, he doesn't talk about those but he admits, "If I hear of a competition, I want in." But it was the success of his drawings at L.A. Art at the Convention Center that convinced people to give him a solo show at LAUNCH.

The fact that Antonio Pelayo learned more about Mexican art once the family was back in L.A., or that Frida Kahlo is being exhibited across the street is but a handful of ironies underlining the importance of Latino culture in the city. Pelayo had, in fact, visited LACMA the day before his own opening and, as it happens, his art is now neighbor with that of his biggest influence, Frida Kahlo, or as Pelayo puts it, "It is so weird".

Antonio Pelayo's art can be found on his webpage: www.antoniopelayo.com

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