Jesus Rivera is a painter and sculptor whose work can be seen at St. Louis Catholic Church and in various buildings on the Baylor University campus. He works mostly out of the Art Forum, at 1826 Morrow Avenue, but he does other kinds of art at a couple of other nearby studios. In addition to locations in Waco, he has art in collections all over the world, and he and his work have received prestigious awards in his home country of Mexico.
Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met recently with Rivera in the light-filled front room of the Art Forum, where Rivera was working on a large piece that features — among many other depictions — images of a U.S. president, a Mexican artist and the star of Saturday Night Fever.
WACOAN: What are you working on here?
Rivera: This is just a picture that I’m working on from different ideas. You can see here, Abraham Lincoln. This is a soldier, American soldier. I think he’s ready to leave, and the woman and children [are] crying. And we got right here John Travolta dancing, and then on top of him is Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter. And Maria Felix is an actress. Actually, I started this painting years ago.
WACOAN: Yeah, it says down there July of 2013.
Rivera: And I put that I’m finished, but I’m not finished. [Laughs.]
I started painting the McLane Stadium.
WACOAN: So, you’ve got the Suspension Bridge. You’ve got McLane Stadium. It’s kind of all over the place.
Rivera: It’s kind of all over the place. And this like, it can be a man, it can be a lady. It’s just a Mother Earth to me.
I’m very persistent with my green leaves [in paintings]. I always paint those. You can see that always happens. [Rivera points out a self-portrait of himself, wearing a crown.]
Read this story [in the painting].
WACOAN: ‘I left behind being the prince for many in order to become the king of my own story.’
Rivera: Of my own story. Just me. You know, [at] my age — I’m 45, and I feel like I have control of my life. It’s just the perception that I have of myself.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your own story. Do you tell your story through your paintings?
Rivera: I tell my stories through my paintings and through poems.
WACOAN: Through poems?
Rivera: Uh huh. I started fine arts in Mexico, and I got so many disciplines in the arts. The first one was acting. Escuela Estatal de Artes [Plasticas], the School of [Fine Arts], from the state of San Luis Potosi, [where] I spent most of my childhood, most of my life.
I got my bachelor’s degree in [acting] and then in dancing in 2005 and then, well, before in fine arts. I transferred to the University of New Mexico to continue with my fine arts.
The only one discipline that I really don’t [do] is music. I don’t sing. I don’t play any instrument.
WACOAN: But you do everything else?
Rivera: I do everything else. It’s what I have done all my life. And I enjoy it.
WACOAN: When you left Mexico, you went to Albuquerque. What led you to come to Waco?
Rivera: Well, the opportunity to be in a better, tranquil place. I have been in different cities, in Mexico City, New York City, Dallas and in [Los Angeles], and I said I think it’s time to settle down.
So I’m not the kind [of artist] — and I respect everyone that go out and have dreams and social life, [but] it’s not me. I concentrate my whole life to the arts. And for me, just to be in a place that gave me the opportunity to move faster than the bigger cities. Waco is the right place.
WACOAN: Waco has allowed you to move faster in your career than the bigger cities?
Rivera: I say that Waco is just the right place for me as an artist. I don’t have as much distraction as the bigger cities.
WACOAN: You’ve lived in many places. Where is your art displayed?
Rivera: Here in Waco, I got art in St. Louis Catholic Church, a sculpture, “Vision of Guadalupe.” I have art in Baylor. I have art in the capitol in Austin and Washington, D.C.
I have art all over the world, in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Italy, India.
I have [been] doing this all my life. I have been very happy to be close to the arts and study. For example, before I started this composition, I like to research first. Always, I go back to my books and [am] looking for the right colors, the light in the background. Like for example, that one? [Points out a 9-foot-tall wing that he’s working on.] This is going to be a sculpture for Waco. It’s a bronze wing. A bronze sculpture. There will be two wings, and people are going to stand [between the wings] and going to be part of the sculpture.
WACOAN: And where will that be? Do you know yet?
Rivera: I know it’s going to be in the Indian Spring [Park]. Who has this project is Hispanic Waco Chamber of Commerce. They are the ones raising the money because bronze, it’s a lot of money. And they’re 9 feet tall. It is incredible.
WACOAN: So when did you come to Waco?
Rivera: I come to Waco in 2007. My first exhibition here was in the Chamber of Commerce of Waco. I have several paintings right now in so many places. I got three studios.
WACOAN: You have three studios?
Rivera: I got one here [at the Art Forum], one in my house and the other one is in the annex building.
Rivera: Annex building is next to [Columbus Avenue] Church of Christ, 16th [Street] and Columbus [Avenue].
WACOAN: Why do you have a need for three studios?
Rivera: I need three studios because I have to organize myself. In one, I make my plans and I paint. And the other one, I do sculpture. In the other one, I’m drawing.
So I have different spots and different techniques in each studio. Like in here, Art Forum, I like to plan. I like to plan my projects. The light, and it’s tranquil in this place. There’s a lot of light. In my house, actually, I painted the whole floor. [Shows photos of his studio.]
WACOAN: So, it looks like clouds on the floor?
Rivera: It is clouds.
WACOAN: Why did you paint clouds on the floor instead of the ceiling?
Rivera: That’s a good question. I like to feel clean in my space, and because it was easier. And I feel like a walk in the clouds is just a mentality that I have. Walk in the clouds. So I just painted it.
I [didn’t] like the floors. In my studios, I have to make everything on my own arrangements. I have to feel it, anywhere I know that I have to work.
WACOAN: I noticed that here, aside from the floor in your studio there, everything is white. Why do you like the white walls?
Rivera: When we have white walls, your ideas are more fluid. You have colors you connect with different feelings. Because when you have dark green, your mood [changes]. Definitely, colors make a lot of impact in people. And other colors — red is for me kind of beautiful, but it feels too bloody, too aggressive. I cannot imagine working in red walls or other color. And white just helps me to have my ideas more fully and thinking with tranquility.
WACOAN: Are your three studios close to each other?
Rivera: I live two or three blocks from here. The Art Forum is here. My house is three blocks. The annex building is next to my house. So when I get bored, I just walk down and go to my studio, and, then, ‘Oh, I’m going to the Art Forum.’ And I just enjoy my life being here in Waco. I feel part of this community, very strong. I’m very emotional, and I like being in Waco.
WACOAN: What is it that you like about Waco?
Rivera: About Waco, the people. La gente. My people. My whites, my Mexicans, my black people, my Chinese. I’m a people person. I have respect for all my community. And sometimes I like to see the dogs in the streets and the homeless and say hello to everybody. I have to feel alive and feel the air in my face. I’m enjoying life like crazy.
WACOAN: When did you open the Art Forum?
Rivera: We opened the Art Forum in 2012 for the community, for the people. And we have exhibitions here frequently. Like right now, we have some of my paintings. We’re going to have the Waco ISD exhibition in May, and the students are going to showcase their art.
WACOAN: So how do you decide what you’re going to paint next? If you’re not doing a piece for somebody, just something you want to paint, does that just kind of come to you or what?
Rivera: It just comes to me. Most of my paintings are compositions that have the reflection of life, and some of them are kind of spiritual. Some of them, the paintings are historical, have to do with the past of our countries. For me, it is something to do with Mexico, with USA, with America.
I never paint something abstract. It has to be a painting or a composition or object that I feel it first. It comes to me naturally.
WACOAN: So it comes to you naturally. Then when you’re hired to paint something, can you kind of turn it on and off when somebody says, ‘OK, I want a painting of this,’ and they’re paying you?
Rivera: Yes, when somebody asks me to do a painting, most of their paintings are portraits. And I use my own [technique]. I tell them, I don’t like to paint photographs. I’m a painter; I’m not a photographer. And of course, I will paint the closest I can, and I paint it with my own technique.
Most people, they like my art.
WACOAN: So you said you don’t like painting from photographs?
Rivera: Yes, I do.
WACOAN: Oh, you do paint from photographs?
Rivera: Yeah. They give me the photograph. But what I tell them is, you know some artists paint very realistic like a photograph. Personally, I don’t like that. See, if you want a photograph, go ahead and take a picture. I’m a painter. You will see some of my brush strokes, like here.
WACOAN: That’s part of the beauty of painting though.
Rivera: Correct. And I respect other artists and other techniques, but it’s not my technique.
WACOAN: You had a piece in the Waco 52 last year?
WACOAN: What was your painting?
Rivera: “La Dama de Waco.” Because what I’m talking about when you ask me what I like to paint on my own, something that I have be related to historically. The “La Dama de Waco,” she has a look, can pass as an American or a Mexican. I work on her look to be like a general perspective for everybody [to] have the connection. Behind is the Chamber of Commerce, and this is La Pila. Are you from Waco?
Rivera: Did you hear about La Pila, where the Mexicans come here, back in the ’60s? [Editor’s note: The fountain La Pila was a gathering place for Hispanics in the 1960s, near the current Indian Spring Middle School.] So I put La Pila behind the “La Dama de Waco.”
WACOAN: Whose art do you like? What artist inspired you?
Rivera: Good question. I got several artists. Michelangelo and Frida Kahlo.
WACOAN: What about Michelangelo do you like?
Rivera: Michelangelo, I like his spiritual paintings in the Sistine Chapel in Italy. And I said, one day I think I want to paint like him.
And Rodolfo Razo. He’s from El Paso. He [has made] a lot of impact in my life. And you know, I have my own technique, but Razo, he was very persistent to work with him in El Paso in 2009.
He said, ‘Jesus, I want you to make faces faster than you’re doing, so you’re going to come to my studio.’ Look, Rodolfo was a big master of the arts. And I say, ‘OK.’ He says, ‘Tomorrow you come to my house, you have to be here 5:45 [a.m.], before 6.’ It was in summer, 5:45 in the morning? Yes. Why? ‘Because, Jesus, the sunlight. The first sunlight is the best one, so we have to be prepared before the sunlight come in.’
I went back there in 2010. And I went to his classes, you know, to work on painting faces and to work with the right light. Yeah, Rodolfo Razo make a lot of impact on my life. Frida Kahlo and Michelangelo.
WACOAN: What about Frida Kahlo inspires you?
Rivera: She paints what she feels. Frida Kahlo paints — her most important subject was herself. She said, ‘I paint myself because it’s a subject that I know more.’ Sometimes I like to paint my reality and how I feel, and I paint myself all the time.
WACOAN: When you paint in here, what time of day is it the best light, with all these windows?
Rivera: In the morning. I start around 7:30 or 8 [and work] all the way through 1 or 2 [p.m.]. Cannot stop this whole time. I get all my energy. I feel like after Razo gave me the advice, the daylight is very important. Sometimes [I paint] in the night, not frequently.
WACOAN: When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
Rivera: I like to go to the gym. I like to read. Always busy. But just my own time, my private time, I like to read. I like to research for the next paintings that I have. I like to travel. I like to be peaceful in everything around me and concentrate and discipline in everything I do.
WACOAN: When you’re not reading for research, what do you like to read?
Rivera: I like to read the Bible. It gives me a balance in my life. I like to be close with nature all the time, especially in my free time. So I’m always with nature.
But I like to be sharp right here. I always like to be prepared in any case in my life. That’s why I like doing research, [reading] the Bible. Because then you’ve got the opportunity to be more generous with life. Maybe my body will be weak, but not here. I want God [to] give me the ability to be prepared all the time right here. Even before I die, two or three hours before I die, I want to go out of the world thinking with my five senses.
Anywhere I go, other places, even in Mexico, other countries, I always say I’m from Waco. I’m from Mexico, I’m from Waco. I like to put Waco in that place. I like to put Waco always in the best place. I love this city a lot, and I’m so proud of Waco.
Even when I receive awards or recognition in the state or Mexico or other places, I never feel that it’s my recognition because of my own strengths. There’s a lot of people behind [me]. My friends from the church. My teachers in Waco. The children, they teach me.
WACOAN: What have you learned from children?
Rivera: I learn from them. They’re inspired. They’re free spirits. They [are] hungry to learn. They ask a lot of questions. They have a lot of life. And they always have this vulnerability to work. And they never say no. They always want to do something.
WACOAN: The little free libraries. You were part of getting that started.
Rivera: Actually, the first library in Waco is that one [in the front of the Art Forum]. Gabriela Gatlin approached me. And we came here and we start building the little free libraries back in 2013 or 2014.
WACOAN: Why was that important to you?
Rivera: That is important to me because it’s about education. You know, people came here, and put books and take [books] back. And I put some books. And then it is helped to be close to the community. And sometimes I put some news about the arts. And it’s, for me, important because books help us to do more and have ambition in life. When people are reading, we are more open.
WACOAN: In the last few years the arts have grown quite a bit in Waco.
WACOAN: What do you like about that?
Rivera: For me, to grow the arts in Waco helps culturally. It helps with the truth and the children to have better ambitions in life. Art helps [us] always to respect each other in different ways, because an artist have different mentality and different perspective of their art. And I think that helps the whole community. Also, more tourists can come to Waco. Art I think is important for Waco — socially, cultural, economically, across the whole aspect.