In the decade since local artist Jaime Salazar began exploring the mysteries of color and light he has transformed a restaurant wall, captured the essence of Voorhees Circle’s neighborhood squirrel (all teeth and bright eyes), created several ironic T-shirt designs including two of over-the-shoulder munitions belts holding either microphones or lipsticks, and re-imagined noted Mexican muralist and painter Diego Rivera in the 21st century.
Salazar also spent two years painting “live” with numerous other artists at twice-monthly art and music events in San Francisco sponsored by ArtNowSF, even during a period when he had a broken wrist.
“I didn’t let it stop me,” he said recently as he was finishing three entries for a Dia de los Muertos exhibit in Oakland. “I painted left-handed and had a crowd around me. Believe it or not, there were people cheering.”
The 24-year-old artist’s compact home studio overlooking green lawns and trees sporting autumn foliage is packed with canvases and books.
On an easel is a painting of a vaquero on a red-eyed steed sliding to a halt in a cloud of dust. A closer look and it’s clear the “vaquero” is a skeleton returning on the Day of the Dead for one last ride.
Leaning next to it are a painting of two skeletal, dressed-to-the-nines dancers, and a black and white painting of artist Frida Kahlo sitting at the edge of a cobblestone street, next to a gleaming, low-rider bicycle.
It should be mentioned that Salazar has a sense of humor. Take, for instance, the painting of a symphony conductor “in the zone,” as Salazar describes him. In front of the maestro is not an orchestra but a set of turntables. Then there’s the painting on Salazar’s wall that began as a woman playing the piano but took on a hip-hop feel when he turned the piano into an electronic beat machine.
Or “Diego Graffera,” a take on Rivera’s iconic painting of a flower seller bending under the weight of a basket of calla lilies to which Salazar has added the portly artist standing nearby, wielding a can of spray paint.
Even the stylized magazine advertisements of the late 1940s and early ‘50s come in for the Salazar treatment. Smiling families or happy couples of the period are juxtaposed with modern images unimagined half a century ago.
Salazar’s artistic life got its start when he was a sophomore at St. Helena High School taking an art class taught by Greg Marvin.
“He was my favorite art teacher,“ Salazar said. “He said, ‘Try this, try that.” I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘blend, get loose with it.’ So I started and I’ve been painting ever since.”
Painting, Salazar said, has opened up a world of adventure, including, but not limited to, Joseph Gross’ ArtNowSF multi-room events — live music and art shows and art receptions — in San Francisco.
For the self-described “small town boy” finding his way to the event venues, mostly south of Market, had its harrowing moments.
“My first art show was really crazy,” Salazar recalled. “I didn’t know how to get to certain streets or what to show so I just showed what I had. After that, they kept calling and I kept going.”
It was a hectic two years, he admits. He would leave the quiet of St. Helena, taking with him several completed paintings as well as a clean canvas and an idea and arrive in the City around 8 p.m. to paint until 1 a.m. when the canvases were raffled off.
“There was so much chaos there ... You have loud music and you have to paint with it, you have to master it,” he said. “It’s like playing the flute in a war.”
It was an eye-opener in other ways as well.
“Sometimes I’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Hey, I really like that painting. Can I buy it?’ And they were really younger guys so it was weird for me. Here in St. Helena you don’t see 21-year-olds going into an art gallery to look at paintings.”
As the years pass, Salazar turns more and more to painting in black and white. He enjoys the challenge of finding ways to create the sense of color through shading and tone.
“It’s all about the light,” he said.
Salazar has had several showings close to home. He was one of the artists in September’s Mexican Independence Day celebration at Lyman Park and he currently has some of his work at Daryl Cicle’s gallery, the Scattered Light, on Main Street.
And while he wants to show his work in more galleries, he also wants to continue working on T-shirt designs and would like to try his hand at skateboard graphics.
The San Francisco shows were fun at the time, he said, but eventually he tired of the party scene. “Although I’m glad I had that experience, otherwise I wouldn’t know how I’d do in those tight situations.”
Now he looks forward to taking his time, developing an idea, working out the details, then having at least a week to look over the piece to ensure it’s done.
“That way I can look back at a painting I did 10 years ago and love it just as much as I did when I finished it,’ Salazar said.
“You never know if you are going to run into it again. You don’t want to be embarrassed.”