Master Artist Frank Martinez Passes

A resident of Pacoima, he was often referred to as the "hidden jewel" of the San Fernando Valley

By Diana Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: August 31, 2013

Master Artist Frank Martinez Passes

"I paint what is inside of me. I paint my past and yours, my present and yours, and write our future on canvas. My art is what life has given me to give you. I hope you like it." ÔÇôFrank Martinez

The community has lost one of their most treasured and loved artists.Master artist, Frank Martinez died Saturday, August 17. He was 89.

Martinez, a resident of Pacoima, was often referred to as the "hidden jewel" of the San Fernando Valley, who quietly nurtured a nest of L.A. artists. His artwork captured the pride he felt for his Mexican American heritage, and belief that artists should challenge themselves and be an expression of their voice and life experience. Frank Alonzo Martinez was born in 1924 in Los Angeles.

His early school years were spent in the San Fernando Valley, where he first developed an interest in art and began to demonstrate his considerable talent.

In 1943 he enlisted in the United States Army, where he served honorably with the 103rd Evacuation Hospital Unit as a medic. While attached to this unit he took part in the "D-Day" landing on Normandy Beach, France. He served in four major campaigns in the European theater of operations, and received four battle stars. He was very proud of his service and noted that the contributions of World War II Chicano veterans had yet to be fully recognized.

"They [Chicanos] gave their lives and it's a shame that history has yet to record their heroic efforts and the contributions of Chicano/Hispanic/Latino GI's." Martinez often said.

He recalled seeing other Chicanos, including a group of 1,500 combat engineers from a Texas battalion during his basic training at Ft. Lewis in Washington. Later at Normandy, he saw a GI he remembered from that combat engineers' battalion, a little guy only 5-feet tall.

"I saw this group of German prisoners and walking behind them was this little guy and I asked him where the other guys were, and he told them that he was the only one left alive," Martinez said.

"I don't want society to ever forget the contribution of the Chicano GI. We gave our lives, and it's a shame that history hasn't been fit to record their heroic efforts. I'm saying it now so that people will understand how I feel."

In a previous interview, Martinez shared the moments of his service that changed his life. "In Normandy it was an important part of my life and it made me a believer. I was given the assignment of caring for an airman around the clock. The airman had lost his legs and for five days I never asked his name and he never asked for mine," Martinez said.

"He was in very bad shape. But on the fifth day, he asked me to pick him up. He said 'all my buddies are marching by and I have to join them.' I picked him up, and he looked into my eyes and he closed his eyes and he died. And that's an experience I kept inside of me for 60 years, and finally after so many years I had to do something about it.

"I created a painting about that experience. Afterward I walked into this small town and there was a little church that had been destroyed. And when I walked up the remaining steps that was an experience when I felt every emotion. I don't know why but I said, 'I am home now.' On that day I became a believer."

Martinez said it's an emotion that, "I didn't share, and we all have something locked up in our lives that no one knew. But I had to put it on canvas as the young man I was then, and the old man I am now."

Once the war ended, Martinez stayed in Europe to attend Borough Polytechnic Arts Institute in London. On his return to the United States in 1947, he continued his studies at Chouinard Institute (now CalArts) in Los Angeles until 1951 when he enrolled at Otis Art Institute. He worked as a designer for a lighting company, and many of his designs continue to be duplicated and manufactured today.

Over the years his work was noted for "constantly evolving" and was displayed in numerous shows and exhibitions. His work was also collected and appeared in a multitude of private and corporate collections including: The Smithsonian Institute, University of Southern California, Southern California Gas Company, Tamayo's Restaurant, in the private collection of Vidal Sassoon, and most recently the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Frank Martinez was also considered one of the most prolific muralists of the last three decades, painting large scale works at many locations including sites of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, the three-story mural at the East Los Angeles TELACU Industries Building, and the Phoenix International Airport.

Martinez' mural work is also scattered throughout communities in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, including a mural that tells the story of Cesar Chavez at San Fernando Middle School. He was noted as one of those artists that gave it all for the sake of art, culture and heritage and his fellow artists, but never got the full recognition he deserved. Perhaps part of that was because of his giving and modest nature. When explaining his work and the images he painted, he described his work humbly.

"I paint what is inside of me. I paint my past and yours, my present and yours, and write our future on canvas. My art is what life has given me to give you. I hope you like it."

In an interview produced for the proposed documentary, "Hero And Genius: The Hidden Master, Frank Martinez" reflected on his "calling" to paint. "I remember my father telling me, 'Hijo, as an artist you are never going to make any money. I think you should work in construction working with cement.

At least you could see it [by being paid] every Friday.' And I said, 'Pop, that's not the point. The point is that each of us is born into this world with a message that we have to ourselves to try to contribute to the next generation. One of the reasons was that art selected me; I didn't select it. Out of a million individuals, maybe one of us will make it and the art appealed to me. I thought, I want to be one of those ÔÇô one in a million.'"

Although he was diagnosed with diabetes and Parkinson's Disease, Martinez continued to paint and mentored many artists of all ages and backgrounds along the way who sought his advice and guidance.

The Parkinson's Disease became a signature of his work because he could no longer sketch on a small scale. He would start sketching directly on the canvas, his shaky lines and colors always ending up in a masterpiece. And sometimes when he picked up his paintbrush, the shaking would actually decrease and sometimes even stop altogether.

He developed new techniques for painting to compensate for the Parkinson's. The most difficult process, he said, would be at the completion of a painting when he would have to sign his name. While he considered just using his fingers to stamp the painting, he persisted despite the shaking to painstakingly, sign it. And when Martinez could no longer depend on that method of sketching, he would have to conceptualize the work in his mind and what had to be done, and how it needed to be executed.

"All of us has one limitation of one kind or another, and while my limitation is a tremendous one, I never gave it a chance to dominate me. If we persevere we can accomplish what we set out to do," he said.

When speaking of his work, Martinez made sure to reference his wife of 60 years, Esther, saying her sacrifices allowed him to become the artist he was.

At an event to honor Martinez in 2009, numerous notable artists, paid tribute including Lalo Garcia, Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, Sergio Hernandez David Botello, Joe Botello, Joe Saenz, Richardo Ortega, Xavier Montes, Oscar Castillo, Cindy Alarcon, Felix Perez, Art Gonzalez and Amanda Urzueta. While the artists thanked Martinez for helping them, Martinez was quick to tell them that he hoped that through their careers he hoped that they would climb higher than he was able to. He said he hoped his work also served as memorials fOr those friends he lost in the war.

It was noted that when you look at the artists that Martinez has mentored, you see his work in theirs. Sacred Artist Lalo Garcia was one of those artists strongly influenced by Martinez.

Visiting Martinez' studio was a regular stop for Garcia, who considered Martinez as a mentor, a confidante, and a close friend who became his "U.S. Grandfather."

"His mentorship shaped my style and philosophy about art, to always feel proud of who you are and show everyone what you can do, dream and dream big, he would say," Garcia said. 'It's time for us Mexican Americans to show the world what we can do.' That was Frank, always giving his best advice."

As artists, Garcia said, they spoke the same language and spoke of not just the desire to paint but the challenge and process to push and improve the work. "It would take my own lifetime to truly show my gratitude to him," Garcia said. "I will miss the morning talks about art, with a cup of canela and pan Mexicano.

"After our talks Frankie would leave, anxious to get back to his paintbrushes and his canvas at home. He said, 'I think I got it now, this one is going to be right!' I'm sure it is," said Garcia reflecting on his conversation, "and God will have the first pick of it."

Martinez said before his passing: "All of my goals [have been] based on one specific aim that I want to leave behind me, to let people know that this one lived. I know I just scratched the surface, but I want people to know that Frank Martinez lived. I like that."

Services for Frank Martinez were held. at the downstairs chapel at the Los Angeles Cathedral on Friday, August 30.

About Diana Martinez:
Diana Martinez is the owner of L.A. Media Group and Editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol Newspaper
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