Larry Portillo, a talented San Antonio artist, has worked as an art framer for most of his life. Like many Latino artists, Portillo has never been able to earn enough money as a full-time artist, but he considers himself fortunate to work in an art supply and framing store where he is around art materials and interacts with art folks who bring paintings, prints, and photographs to be framed. “Day Jobs,” a Blanton Museum exhibit at The University of Texas at Austin, examines how many famous American artists relied on work related to art to earn a living. The Blanton “Day Jobs” curators noted, “Other employment, however, isn’t always an obstacle to an artist’s career. It can provide artists with unexpected materials and methods, working knowledge of an industry, or a predictable structure that enables unpredictable ideas.”
Portillo had connections to Texas early in life but grew up in New Mexico. His father Simon Portillo, a New Mexico native, served in the U.S. Army and met his wife Isabel in El Paso while stationed at Fort Bliss. After Larry Portillo’s birth, the family moved to Chamberino, a small agricultural community in the Upper Valley of New Mexico. As a young boy, Portillo spent his summers picking crops, principally onions and chiles. Portillo always liked to draw and paint. His second-grade teacher recognized his creative talents and entered him in a school art contest
where his painting of the Harlem Globetrotters won first place.
During Portillo’s senior year at his high school in Gadsden, New Mexico, his art teacher invited El Paso artist Luis Jimenez to speak to the class. Jimenez was
well-known locally, but not yet famous. A Texas native, Jimenez had been living in New York earning a living as an art teacher in the Bronx. Jimenez left his “day job” after receiving a commission for his construction of “Sod Buster,” a gigantic fiberglass structure for the Main Plaza of Fargo, North Dakota. Portillo was inspired by the work of Jimenez as he learned more about the artist and his sculptures.
Following graduation from high school, Portillo considered enrolling in art programs in California or New York. His father’s death that year led him to pass up those dreams and remain in New Mexico to be close to his grieving mother. In place of formal art education, Portillo took evening classes to learn to paint with an airbrush. He later enrolled in evening classes at El Paso Tech, a vocational school, that taught students how to paint automobiles. He considered working in commercial art but instead applied his expertise in art framing. However, his former high school teacher continued to look after Portillo’s artistic interests and arranged for the young man to visit Luis Jimenez at the Jimenez Sign shop in El Paso where he saw the skilled way the Jimenez family blended art and commercial ventures.
Portillo’s first art break came in 1991 when Leo Tanguma, a Colorado artist, hired him to help paint a mural in the New Mexico Art Museum in Santa Fe. The mural project gave Portillo added confidence in his artistic ability, and he learned from Tanguma, a seasoned muralist, how to paint larger-than-life portraits.
Over the next five years, Portillo received invitations to exhibit in numerous El Paso art galleries. He earned a commission to paint a mural in his hometown’s San Luis Church in Chamberino, New Mexico. At the end of 1997, Portillo and his wife Maria Elena began making plans to move to San Antonio, a larger city that offered expanded art opportunities. San Antonio had dozens of art framing stores where he might find work, and his wife, with a teaching certificate, knew that many school districts in the city had job openings.
Two decades ago, my wife Harriett and I first met Portillo when he exhibited at Joe Lopez’s Gallista Gallery. We bought a delightful painting of his titled “Red Rooster Cafe” portraying a favorite eating place in Southtown San
Antonio. In the painting, Portillo placed two low-rider vehicles in front of a night diner that hosted a lively social scene.
We were drawn to Portillo’s work by his excellent layering of basic colors. His paintings glow with reds, blues, and yellows. His paintings are all the more remarkable because he is largely self-taught. It is obvious though that he has studied great paintings. In a conversation with Portillo about which artists inspired him, I learned that we shared a common favorite artist, Vincent
Van Gogh. Portillo agreed that in several of his paintings, including the “Red Rooster Cafe,” he painted a Southwestern version of what could be considered the famed sky of Van Gogh’s stunning “Starry Night,” and he often applies thick swirls of paint similar to Van Gogh’s style.
Portillo’s new exhibit at the Blue Star Brewing Company is breathtaking and colorful. Curated by Jane Bishop of Mockingbird Handprints, the paintings feature San Antonio’s iconic locations, including the Alamo, the
Riverwalk, Southtown, an evening walk downtown facing the Tower Life Building, and a taco truck. The painting “Los Flying Tacos” includes a truck the color of a bright green nopal parked under a brilliant blue starry sky.
A painting not to miss in the Blue Star Brewing Company exhibit is his vibrant San Antonio “Riverwalk” where the reds of the restaurant buildings and sidewalk
umbrellas appear adjacent to a majestic blue river. Portillo paints a grey-blue sky with no stars in this night Riverwalk painting, but the artist manages to add several tall trees that have twisted branches common to Van Gogh’s cypress paintings.
A favorite among customers at Blue Star Brewing Company is Portillo’s downtown scene with the Transit Life Tower Building in the background. Vivid green trees are lined up on both sides of what appears to be St. Mary’s Street identifiable with the Greyhound Bus sign on the left. Portillo includes a night sky in this painting devoid of stars since the bright lights of the city prevent downtown evening visitors from seeing stars.
In the Blue Star Brewing Company exhibit, Portillo includes a striking portrait of Willie Nelson featured on a light yellow background. Nelson wears his trademark bandana headband. In a painting titled “Blue Star Brewing Company,” Portillo presents a yellow sky with a yellow sidewalk leading to the entrance of the restaurant. The sky’s bright glow suggests a hot Texas summer day. The artist blends green plants and tree branches in front of the red brick wall that serves as the entryway to the brewery. There are few blue colors, but the white-grey railings give the painting a geometric form and 3-D appearance.
Joey and Maggie Villarreal, owners of the Blue Star Brewing Company, are to be commended for including the work of Larry Portillo on the walls in the dining areas of their Southtown bar and restaurant. Portillo is a highly talented artist with creative ideas and an imagination inspired by borderland culture. His paintings in this exhibit capture and celebrate the many sparkling sites of San Antonio.