Arts & Life, Features, Fine & Performing Arts

CSULB artist paints a social and political message

Growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, Narsiso Martinez helped his father work in the fields. For Martinez, this was just part of his family duties, but little did he know it would become the center of his personal and professional work.

At the age of 20, Martinez moved to the United States to pursue better opportunities, as most immigrants do. Now at 39, Martinez is a drawing and painting major showcasing his art throughout the Cal State University Long Beach campus and the country.

“I grew up poor in Oaxaca. [My family’s] goal was to have enough to eat,” said Martinez. “We didn’t really have time to dream.”

Martinez’s artwork is a collection of portraits of agricultural workers painted or drawn on recycled produce boxes he collects from grocery stores who have thrown the boxes away. The majority of his pieces are done in charcoal pencils, ink wash, and oil paints.

From the University Art Museum and the National Immigration Law Center in Koreatown to the Firehouse Gallery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Martinez is now making his dreams a reality, displaying his art, most recently at the Sustainability Showcase on Oct. 24 at the Speaker’s Platform.

“Before I decided to be political in my art, I would get critiques about how I was making statements that were too social and political, so I decided to embrace it,” said Martinez.

After graduating from Los Angeles City College in 2009, Martinez took a couple of years off to save money and worked in various fields and orchards. Last year, Martinez transferred to CSULB and delved deep into his research of the lives of field workers.

“I started to notice a lot of inequalities in the fields, like a few Porta Potties to every hundred workers,” said Martinez. “We shouldn’t be going through this in [this day and age.]”

Every summer, Martinez works in fields across Washington while also documenting the lives and struggles of agricultural workers. Although many of these workers are undocumented and would reasonably decline to the subject of such public work, Martinez says that the workers feel comfortable with him and most asked to be painted.

Martinez says that not all of his family is on board with his decision to pursue art, but a few of them are supportive and even help him financially. He has found reinforcement, however, in his professors and academic life.

Professor Marie Thibeault recognizes Martinez’s skill and passion to provide a compelling subject matter.

“Narsiso has a great talent and exceptional depth and life experience,” said Thibeault. “He is dedicated to a personal narrative that functions universally, and has a curious and inventive approach to process and materials.”

Martinez says his art is an outlet for him to share stories people wouldn’t otherwise know.

“I’m shy and not that talkative, so art is a way to express myself and tell stories through my art,” said Martinez.

With each piece, he hopes to raise awareness of the workers who pick the food people buy and eat.

“My main goal right now is not to sell [my work] since I’m still experimenting,” said Martinez. “But showcasing gives me the chance to expose important issues.”

Martinez maintains his optimism for the future. He says he hopes to someday travel the world after he graduates and explore the lives of agricultural workers, especially in South America to learn about the cultivation of bananas.

As for now, Martinez is currently showcasing his work at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park for the exhibit “S/election,” and will be running through Jan. 8.

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