Personal Revolution. What does that mean? Ironically “Personal Revolution", a Ziggy Marley song, popped up on my iPod right after I left Iconink Studio and Gallery. Those words, “personal revolution”, resonated with me and with the story of Eric Christo Martinez.
Eric Christo Martinez is an artist in the absolute sense of the word. His paintings are, quite simply, stunning. I had the honor of sitting and talking with him in his studio about art, prison, symbolism, metaphors and Albuquerque.
The first thing you will sense when talking to Eric is his passion; passion for his art, passion for Albuquerque, passion for helping others. It makes complete sense that his most well-known work of art is called “The Passion of Christo.” It is a work so powerful, that it now resides at the Albuquerque Museum. It is a self-portrait, a painting of re-birth, a painting of an incredible journey. How did a man who served ten years in prison for a first time drug offense end up having a painting in a museum?
Much has already been written about Eric Christo Martinez, his time in prison, his artistic influences and mentors, and finding his gift as an artist in prison. I sense that his conviction, literally and metaphorically, defines who he is as an artist and defines who he has become as someone on the outside. But who he is on the inside, again both literally and metaphorically, is reflected strongly in his work.
The “The Passion of Christo” painting was a defining moment for Eric. It was the first piece he did after his mentor, fellow inmate and painter Hendrick Gil, was released from prison. He had been under his instruction for ten months while in a Pennsylvania prison. Gil encouraged him to do self portraits saying it would help him grow as a painter. I asked if he had a sense of how powerful this piece was. He said, yes, he felt it. It was also an affirmation for Gil’s suggestion he should sign his work Christo - short for his middle name of Christopher; also giving reference to God because his art is a gift, as he said, “It is God’s doing.”
Eric wants to take prison art in a direction that it has never really gone - a fine arts direction. Prison art is not just about paños and tattoos. His “Conviction Series” is so much more. As we discussed in his studio, everyone in prison has a story, a talent, a passion. If he succeeds, others like him can succeed. He carries the hopes of others with him with every success he has. He recently had his first "Conviction Series" exhibition at the National Hispanic Cultural Center which highlighted his work amongst the work of currently and formerly incarcerated artists. It was a proud moment for Martinez.
A big part of his “Conviction Series” revolves around the theme that every negative has a positive; a conviction or belief that you can turn something from a negative situation into something positive and productive. The logo for the series is a spade, which has many meanings. Considered the black heart, the spade has many ties to prison art. Playing the game of spades is a common past time in prison. In the logo it also symbolizes the game of selling drugs. Turning it around it symbolizes the heart. The journey is what the “Conviction Series” is all about, the journey of self reflection, the journey of personal revolution. He is hoping to create a documentary around the series.
Located in the North Valley in the neighborhood of Las Candelarias, Eric’s studio is a hidden treasure. It is a place to create his art as well as a place to create custom tattoos. As he said, the art market is a tough one in this economy. Tattooing pays the bills. And he let it be known that his space is not a street shop for tattoos, but rather a place for custom work. It is also a place to showcase up and coming urban, graffiti and fine artists. The gallery is all about young, fresh art not necessarily shown in traditional galleries. It is a place to give those artists a voice, advice and a platform for their work to be shown.
With so much positive response from the art community about his work, he says he feels like he’s on the inside looking out when it comes to the buzz about him. Metaphors and symbolism are not only a recurring theme in his art, but in his conversation as well. We talked about time as a subject matter in his work as well as what doing time meant. In prison he had the time to search for and find his talent. In his case, I think it was time well spent.
One of the last things we talked about was his love of Albuquerque. After being gone for so long, he's been out now for two years, he has an appreciation and sense of pride for Burque. He loves the rich culture of our city and what it means to be a part of it. It is the place he calls home and the place that offers so much inspiration for him.
It occurred to me that while writing this piece, I had many more questions for and hope to have many more conversations with Eric. He is a deep thinker, thoughtful about his outlook on life and his craft. I look forward to watching his growth as an artist and seeing where his next personal revolution leads him.