The exhibit “Luis ‘Chispas’ Guerrero: Metal to the Pedal” opened on June 2, 2023 at the Centro Cultural Aztlan in San Antonio. The exhibition represents the first occasion
for Guerrero to have a solo show dedicated to his metal sculptures, his paintings, and his stone art. “Metal to the Pedal” also represents the first occasion for the Cento to feature metal sculptures.
Malena Gonzalez-Cid, long-time Centro Director and show curator, placed two of Guerrero’s musical series near the center of the spacious gallery. Among Guerrero’s best-known pieces are his renderings of the metal musicos that he titled “Los Padrinos,” two larger-than-life figures. The art pieces were inspired by real-life conjunto musicos, cousins of artist Joe Lopez, who played the background music for a YouTube video documentary of Guerrero’s work. “Juan,” the metal guitarist, is the tallest sculpture with a boom box for a head. For “Martin,” the accordion player, Guerrero found a round cover once part of a small barbecue cooking unit. Guerrero explained that the accordion in the arms of the musico “Martin” once belonged to South Texas legend Valerio Longoria.
Guerrero grew up on the Eastside of San Antonio, an area largely composed of Latino and Black working-class families. As a young boy, Guerrero developed an interest in welding, a skill he learned from his stepfather. He loved working on old cars, and welding was often an important function for keeping older cars running. The Eastside is popular today as the home of the San Antonio Spurs
As a teen, Guerrero’s interest outside of school, after working part-time at a large chain grocery, centered around automobiles. He loved cars and hoped to study auto mechanics at San Antonio Technical and Vocational High School, Fox Tech. Full disclosure, Fox Tech was my high school as well. But Guerrero had long hair and the shop teacher had a strict and irrational rule–short hair only. Disappointed, Guerrero enrolled in engineering drafting classes, a major that he disliked, but he accepted that as
his fate. Ironically, after high school graduation, Guerrero found a job in an auto shop installing automobile brakes and pursuing his love of auto mechanics.
Guerrero is a self-taught artist. He found his passion for metal art in the mid-1980s when he began constructing sculptured pieces from discarded or found objects. After two years as a brake mechanic, Guerrero landed a job as a mechanic with M&D Distributors, a company that specialed in diesel fuel injection pumps. He was 22 years old. His work with metal pumps would eventually lead him
to his art.
Artists working with found objects often find these objects in second-hand stores, junk yards, and garage sales. Numerous San Antonio artists worked with found objects. These artists principally joined or combined the found objects, often in creative panels hung on a wall. Guerrero worked differently with discarded objects. He constructed small sculptured pieces which principally stand alone. In 1986, he discovered the joy of making art when he created a fish from metal objects, using ball bearings for the eyes of the fish.
As an artist, Guerrero considers himself a late-bloomer. When he decided to become an artist in the mid-1980s, he had not met any of the many artists who lived and worked in San Antonio. A Blue Star Gallery sold his work which varied from gothic-looking altars to religious crosses. He manufactured metal masks from discarded shovels. Today Guerrero works with an electric welder known as a plasma or laser metal cutter. Unlike gas cutters, these tools cut metal in clean precision fashions. Over the next years, 1990-2000, he sold his metal art without ever having a show and without the San Antonio art community knowing much about him.
A meeting with artist and studio owner Joe Lopez was transformational for Guerrero. Initially, Guerrero joined
Lopez at his small Alamo gallery and studio. In 2001, when Lopez opened the Gallista Gallery, a compound that included studio space for artists, Guerrero jumped at the opportunity to work in his own studio. At the gallery, he established strong friendships with Latino artists Rubio, Luis Valderas, and Xavier Garza. Lopez encouraged Guerrero to continue working with the metal objects he twisted and welded into sculptures. Ironically, Guerrero did not have to go far to find the perfect items for his art fabrications–he gathered discarded parts from his workplace.
Joe Lopez’s encouragement, plus a show with Lopez at Gallista Gallery, vastly improved Guerrero’s art outlook. When Dr. Gary Keller, a Distinquished Professor of Literature and art collector, came to San Antonio to identify artists for the monumental three-volume publication, Triumph of Our Communities: Four Decades of Mexican American Art, he visited Gallista Gallery and discovered Joe Lopez, Xavier Garza, and ”Chispa” Guerrero. Guerrero’s work is featured in a full page in one of the volumes.
My wife Harriett and I visited Gallista Gallery often over a 15-year period. On one visit, I found Guerrero working in his studio designing a metal abstract figure from discarded automobile mufflers. I was serving as President of UTSA at the time and had committed to adding art to the campus, which before my arrival in 1999 had little Mexican American art. Guerrero agreed to construct four large sculptures that we placed at the UTSA Downtown campus.
Guerrero is known by his nickname “Chispas” which means sparks. On many weekends and some evenings, the Gallista artists who rented from Joe Lopez would fire up the barbecue grill and ice down some beers. They gathered on the patio outside in front of Guerrero’s studio. Guerrero worked full-time as a mechanic, so he valued his
evenings and weekends when he could devote his time to making art. The small fiestas had to go on without him. But as he worked, he cautioned the party group to be careful not to get too close to his studio. Guerrero warned the guests to be careful of the “chispas” or sparks. Thus his friends began to call him “Chispas,” and the name stuck.
Visitors to the Centro exhibit opening were impressed with the variety of Guerrero’s creative pieces. The metal diesel sculptures constituted only part of his art. He also does paintings. For constructing the metal duo conjunto players, one with a guitar and another with an accordion, he chose to locate real instruments.
If Guerrero has any regrets, it is not having discovered art earlier in his life. He was in his early 30s when he began to create small sculptures to sell locally. Guerrero retired recently, after working nearly forty years at the same job as a diesel fuel technician, and now he is able to spend more time on his art.
Today Guerrero is working with new mediums, including painting on canvas and stone carving. As a self-taught artist, Guerrero was initially intimidated to work with oils and acrylics, but, as he worked on his canvas paintings, he received positive feedback from two close friends,
Xavier Garza and Joe Lopez. For the current Centro exhibit, he added several new paintings, framed metal portraits, and stone carvings. His auto mobile paintings demonstrate a strong understanding of design, dimensions, and color. Guerrero is never short of ideas, and he looks forward to many more years of creative innovations.