-by Lydia Breen
Luis Villanueva holds out two crumpled figures, part of a crèche he made fifty years ago as a boy living on the outskirs of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “I wanted a crèche for Christmas,” he explained, “but my mother said we were too poor. So I decided to make one. ”
Using cotton stuffing, a burlap sack and gold paper from the inside of a cigarette box, the crèche supplied Villaneuva with his first artistic lesson: rich or poor, beautiful art can come from things – and people – that others discard.
For the past fifty years Luis Villanueva has continued to make intricate, decorous and often-humorous pieces out of recycled materials. Not content with the Spanish and Indian traditions of his childhood, he is also inspired by the pop culture of Los Angeles, where he now lives and serves as artistic director at the Day of the Dead Festival at Hollywood Forevever Memorial Park—the final resting place of Mary Pickford, Peter Lorre, Douglas Fairbanks and others.
Although Villanueva’s artistic interests range from mythical to folk, sacred and pop art, his use of found materials is constant. His atelier is filled with a seemingly endless supply of oatmeal containers, Styrofoam plates, lamp shades, tennis balls, junk jewelry, wallpaper and bits of ornaments from discarded Christmas trees.
The full range of his zany materials is difficult to appreciate because his finished pieces are covered with a layer of papier-mâché, paint, cloth jewelry and other decorations.
“To appreciate his genius, you must see him at work, ” says Yadhira De Leon, promotional director at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where Villanueva makes mythical Aztec animals in children’s workshops.
“I think twice now before putting things in the recycle bin, “ explains De Leon. “ I think Luis uses his art to show there’s something divine or godly about using recycled materials.”
Each piece is unique, employing delicate hand-painted designs. His riotously-costumed skeletons (known as “La Calavera Catrina”) have been on display at the Day of the Dead festivities for the past decade. The Catrinas recall a full range of Mexico’s traditions from its ancient, colonial and revolutionary past – traditions that both revere and mock death.
“The traditional art world can be very proscribed about the range of acceptable art materials,” says Eduardo Diaz, Director of the Latino Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“Villanueva throws that all out the window. For me, art is all about quality, relevance, diversity and accessibility. Luis’ art is all of that. There are many artists today working in found objects. But Luis is one of the best.”