Although eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, renowned El Paso artist Gaspar Enriquez believes they open the door to much more.
“I’m inspired by people’s eyes and I try to use them to communicate the heart, soul and spirit of my subjects,” Enriquez said about his acclaimed acrylic, air-brushed portraits and paintings. “I want people to look in their eyes and be curious about understanding their story, their experiences.”
At 81, Enriquez has told countless stories through his lifetime of work, which has been displayed nationwide — including the El Paso Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside, California, Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, and many places in between. Born and raised in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, the former Bowie High School art teacher has long had a studio in San Elizario, the historic town in far east El Paso County.
Enriquez is now partnering with the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso and the Paso del Norte Community Foundation to create the Gaspar Enriquez Cultural Center at 1456 Main Street in San Elizario.
The center will be housed at Mi Casa Gallery, two adjoining adobe buildings totaling some 7,000-square-feet that Enriquez meticulously restored over the years, complete with a patio and garden. The center and buildings will be stewarded by the Rubin Center in perpetuity.
“I’m doing this for the community,” Enriquez said, adding that at his age, he’s had to think about what will happen to his gallery and life’s work after he dies. “This building has been years of my blood, sweat and tears. It’s a big deal to me to share it with the community.”
The Gaspar Enriquez Cultural Center will launch to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 with the opening of the “Collidoscope: De La Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective” exhibit. Einar and Jamex de la Torre are siblings from Guadalajara, Mexico, whose border and Chicano art using blown glass and mixed media has been internationally exhibited and recognized – including at the Cheech Center alongside Enriquez’s work.
The 40-piece exhibit will be installed between the Rubin Center and Mi Casa Gallery and will be open to the public through Jan. 7 in both spaces. It is being organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino and the Cheech Center.
“We’re really starting to look at the roles that artists play in the community and we have a great example in Gaspar and the role he had in teaching and inspiring so many young people through his work not just as a teacher but as an artist,” Rubin Center Director Kerry Doyle said.
Doyle said the Rubin Center has been exploring how to “engage student artists in activities that help them become working artists when they leave college.” She said that encompasses how to display, exhibit and sell their work, but also how to give back to the community as artist educators – all things that the Gaspar Enriquez center will embody.
The Enriquez center will feature programming and outreach initiatives spearheaded by UTEP students and will provide hands-on learning in studio arts, museum studies, art education, public history and environmental humanities. It will launch a series of exhibitions, youth projects and outreach initiatives with the San Elizario community over at least the next five years.
An endowment to support the center has been set up, starting with a $25,000 donation from the estate of Marfa, Texas, art collector Linnaeus H. Lorette, who died in 2020. Said to be appreciative of Mexican culture, Lorette left some of his estate to El Paso art institutions.
“This has a lot of meaning to me and I want to help more Chicanos along the way for them to succeed in what they’re doing,” Enriquez said. “It’s pretty difficult to get into the mainstream as a Chicano or Mexican American artist and I hope this opens some doors.”
Enriquez left El Paso after graduating from Ysleta High School (he also attended Jefferson High School), working as a dishwasher and machinist in Los Angeles and taking classes at East L.A. Junior College. He returned to El Paso a decade later, earning a bachelor’s in art from UTEP and a master’s in metals from New Mexico State University. He taught at Bowie for more than 30 years, retiring in 2002.
He was named a 2023 Texas State Visual Artist by the Texas Commission on the Arts and was honored as the 2016 Father Rahm Segundo Barrio Person of the Year. In 2015, he was named a Distinguished Alumnus at UTEP.
Enriquez’s first subjects included his Bowie students. He wanted others to see them beyond their appearance – often cholos who weren’t considered part of the American mainstream.
“That’s why I started doing their portraits and depicting their souls through their eyes,” he said. “I wanted people to explore who they really were, where they came from, what their stories were.”
Aside from his students, his favorite pieces include portraits of other renowned artists, including El Paso sculptor Luis Jiménez and California muralist John Valadez. He said he has a special affinity for a portrait of “Bless Me Ultima” author Rudolfo Anaya. Enriquez created images of civil rights and farm labor leader César Chávez, farm workers, fields of grapes and more for Anaya’s book, “Elegy on the Death of César Chavéz.”
One of his other notables? A portrait of longtime UTEP President Diana Natalicio, who died in 2021.
But the piece closest to his heart is “La Rosa Dolorosa de Mi Vida Loca,” a 10-foot tall installation depicting a Mexican American girl holding her dying boyfriend on the ground as the Virgen de Guadalupe looks over them. Enriquez said it depicts the violence and hardships of the barrio where he grew up.
His work often reflects what he calls a “politically-charged lifestyle” that spans generations of Mexican Americans surviving poverty, prison and internal strife – but also embracing pride of place, language, culture and history.
“Not a lot has changed,” Enriquez said, “so I hope younger generations are inspired to explore their own stories through art – through their own eyes – and allow others to see them.”
Save the Dates
‘Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective’
Exhibition Opening: 5-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at UTEP; walkthrough with the artists at 4 p.m.
Artist Talk and Documentary Screening: 10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 20, Rubin Center.
Exhibition Opening: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, Mi Casa Gallery, 1456 &1498 Main Street in San Elizario, with the de la Torre brothers and Gaspar Enriquez.
Private Dinner: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21. Dinner and fundraiser with special guests de la Torre brothers and Gaspar Enriquez. Tickets are limited and can be reserved HERE.
Smithsonian Family Days: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Rubin Center; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19 in San Elizario featuring food, music, mural painting, glass artist demonstrations, scavenger hunts and more.