Trejo, Ruben (1937-2009)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/09/2018
  • Essay 20556
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Ruben Trejo was a nationally known sculptor and artist who taught at Eastern Washington University for 30 years and lived for most of his career in Spokane. His parents were Mexican immigrants and he was born in a boxcar in Minnesota. He worked as a migrant farm worker as a child, but in school developed a love and aptitude for art. He was the first member of his family to go to college, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1973, he was hired to teach art at what was then known as Eastern Washington State College. In 1987, he won the school's highest faculty honor, the Trustee's Medal. He was also one of the founders of the university's Chicano and Chicana Studies Program, and was a mentor to many Latino students. Trejo's art was featured in many national exhibits, and two of his pieces are part of the Smithsonian's collection.

Memories of Onion Fields

Ruben Trejo was born inside a boxcar, on a rail siding near a fish hatchery in St. Paul, Minnesota, on January 7, 1937. His parents were Eugenio José Trejo and Esperanza Trejo (née Jiménez), both from the Mexican state of Michoacán. His father, like thousands of other Mexicans, had immigrated to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and his mother immigrated later, probably in the 1930s. Eugenio Trejo eventually found work laying track for the rail line commonly known as the Burlington. The boxcar was the Burlington's version of inexpensive worker housing.

However, young Ruben did not stay long in the boxcar. The family already had four young sons and the couple, already stretched, decided to send Ruben to live with his godparents, Jesus and Josefina Lopez, in Chicago. The Lopezes, like many other Mexican immigrants, were seasonal farm laborers. They took little Ruben along with them as they planted, hoed, and picked. One of his first memories was of a cold day in the autumn onion fields:

"When I was about two or three years old, I had my first experience of feeling the earth and sensing its mystery. It was September and I was looking up at a gray sky and I was cold. And so my godparents came over and put gunny sacks over me and eventually what they did was put me into this Model A Ford so I could get warm ... But I stood there looking up at the gray sky in Minnesota. It was so beautiful because the smell of the onions mixed with the smell of the earth" (Beyond Boundaries, 18).

Many decades later, when Trejo was a mature artist, this memory would inspire one of his most acclaimed works, The Onion Fields. The mixed media sculpture "is a lyrical evocation of the wind flowing across a luminous landscape" (Beyond Boundaries, 18).

When Ruben was 6, the Lopezes decided to return to Mexico, so he went back to his family in St. Paul. His father continued to work on the railroad, but his mother and his brothers traveled throughout the upper Midwest picking seasonal crops. He recalled, "We would pick cherries in ... Wisconsin; we actually picked tomatoes in Kokomo, Indiana, and corn in ... Minnesota, as well as sugar beets in North Dakota" (Beyond Boundaries, 18). During the evenings, the workers would gather to tell Mexican folk stories and sing songs, including one song about a mysterious and dangerous woman, "La Llorona," which would later inspire one of Trejo's finest sculptures, with the same title.

In 1948, Ruben was sent to live for two years with his grandmother in Ixtlan, Michoacán, Mexico. In 1950, he returned to the boxcar home at the Burlington rail yards in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood of southeast St. Paul. "The winters were horrible," he said, "We tried to keep warm by burning coal in a pot-bellied stove" (Guilfoil). He entered seventh grade at a Catholic school, where a teaching nun encouraged his interest in music and art. He created his first big art project, "a large mural of St. Joseph for the saint's feast day" (Beyond Boundaries, 130).

Experimenting with Cultural Fusion

Like many rail-yard neighborhoods, Dayton's Bluff held a mix of immigrants -- Italians, French, Germans, Syrians -- and the city at large also had a significant Mexican immigrant community. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, in a biographical essay of Trejo, wrote that "St. Paul provided a social environment where the adolescent Ruben Trejo could begin to experiment with cultural fusion" (Beyond Boundaries, 20). Trejo attended Mechanic Arts High School and demonstrated a flair for music. He played tenor saxophone for an orchestra called Las Siete Notas (The Seven Notes), which played jazz, mambos, polkas and Mexican popular music for community dances. He also became enthralled with movies, especially the Mexican movies shown every month in a St. Paul theater. He worked part-time at the Minnesota Historical Society to help contribute to his family's support. He was also fascinated with Mexican art and culture, and was still trying to decide how to express his own artistic impulses.

After he graduated from high school in 1956, Trejo worked full time at the historical society and began to take evening art classes. For the next three years, he enrolled intermittently in classes at the University of Minnesota. In 1959 he enrolled full-time, with help from a small scholarship, and became the first member of his family to attend college full-time. Yet college remained a financial struggle, as evidenced by the fact that he still had to take occasional time off to earn money.

Trejo enrolled in the university's College of Liberal Arts in 1962 and declared a major in Studio Art and a minor in Spanish literature. He eagerly absorbed the canons of Western art history, but he sometimes felt out of place at the overwhelmingly white school -- "una mosca en leche," a fly in the buttermilk (Beyond Boundaries, 21). He counteracted this feeling of isolation by engaging in a "personal quest" to learn everything he could about Latin American and Mexican artists, including such giants as Diego Rivera (Beyond Boundaries, 21). He also became immersed in the study of the pre-Columbian civilizations and art of Mexico and Central America.

In the university's art school, "Trejo discovered he had an innate ability to make sculpture ... he worked with a wide variety of materials and methods, from clay to wood and welding to bronze casting" (Beyond Boundaries, 21). In 1964, he started work on sculptures at the Mendota Foundry near St. Paul and began his Bronze Bag Series. That same year, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in art and Spanish literature from the University of Minnesota.

He began work on a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture at the university in 1966 and completed it in 1968. His master's thesis was titled "Amorphic and Bimorphic Shapes in Contemporary Art." During that time, he met Joanne Hammes, a former nun and his niece's teacher at a nearby elementary school. Hammes would become Trejo's lifetime partner and the mother of his children.

In 1969, Trejo traveled back to Ixtlan, Mexico, to visit his grandmother and soak up more of the Michoacán culture. When he returned to Minnesota, he landed a full-time teaching position at the College of St. Teresa, in Winona, where he had been teaching part-time while earning his master's degree. He taught sculpture, color theory, drawing, and art history. Around this time, he also began to embrace his Chicano heritage. "Sometime in the late '60s and early '70s, the idea of being a Chicano hit me like a Red River Valley potato" (Beyond Boundaries, 22). He began his attempt to formulate a juxtaposition between Mexican art and traditional European art. With his characteristic humor he said, "Such insanity is like trying to formulate a style somewhat between Caravaggio and Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts" (Beyond Boundaries, 22).

In 1970, two momentous events rocked his personal life: His father Eugenio Jose Trejo died in Mexico at the age of 93, and within a month, Hammes gave birth to a son, also named Eugenio José Trejo, on February 5, 1970. Three years later, on July 5, 1973, Hammes would give birth to twin daughters, Sonya Maria Trejo and Tanya Maria Trejo.

Move to Cheney

Another transition loomed on the horizon. In the summer of 1973, Trejo was hired by Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, near Spokane. It was a good job for a young art professor -- he would be teaching art design, art history, and other classes -- yet it was a venture into unknown territory. Just the drive to Cheney was an adventure. Hammes recalled, "We crossed the U.S. in a red VW bug ... [We'd] shipped one seat ahead to make room for the buggy for our month-old twins; our three-year-old son slept in the back seat. Ruben drove the whole way" (Beyond Boundaries, 22-23).

Even more daunting was Trejo's sense of exile from his family and his culture. Cheney was a small town in Eastern Washington with minimal minority presence. Trejo was leaving behind his mother, all of his friends, and a vibrant Mexican community in St. Paul. "Now, coming to the state of Washington, and particularly Cheney, there was next to nothing, so I was horrified ... What was I doing? What could I bring to my family in terms of Chicano?" (Beyond Boundaries, 4).

Yet he would come to embrace Eastern Washington State College, Cheney, and nearby Spokane, where he would later buy a house and studio. He would spend the rest of his career at Eastern, bolstering both the school's reputation for art and its reputation as a welcoming place for Chicano students. His class load was demanding, but he immediately established a habit of working on his own art in his studio every day. He remained prodigiously productive through the next three decades. John Keeble, one of his university colleagues, would later write that "he is the most prolific artist I've ever encountered" (Beyond Boundaries, 121) The Spokane-Cheney area was conducive to his productivity, Trejo once said, because "there are not a lot of distractions" (Kelly).

A year into his Eastern Washington career, Trejo went to Los Angeles to see an exhibition that would change his life. It was called Los Four, and it was "arguably the first Chicano art exhibition in a major American art museum" (Beyond Boundaries, 25). It included traditional altar installations alongside urban-barrio images -- including low-rider cars. To Trejo, it was a revelation and "a turning point that held deep resonance for his subsequent art-making" (Beyond Boundaries, 26). Los Four's "effort to expand the boundaries and taxonomies of American art with levity and humor ... aligned with his personal orientations," wrote Ybarra-Frausto (Beyond Boundaries, 27). Trejo returned to Cheney with a new commitment to cultural reclamation through his art, which he accomplished by using common Mexican motifs such as cigars, jalapeno peppers and masks in his work. He said:

"In all of my works I feel like I am trying to be conscious of history, of our multiple histories, where they intersect and where they divide ... I am acutely aware of how language, quite literally, shapes who we are" (Crane).

Building a Reputation

Trejo's art reputation in the region continued to grow. In 1976, he won the David W. Gaiser Award for Sculpture at the region's leading art and history museum, the Cheney Cowles Museum, for a wood piece titled Exit.

He also made a concerted effort to establish a more accommodating atmosphere for Chicano students at the school. While Cheney itself had little Chicano presence, the university drew upon parts of Eastern and Central Washington with large Hispanic and Chicano populations, such as Yakima, the Tri-Cities, and Brewster. In spring 1977, Trejo and several students proposed the formation of a Chicano studies program. Trejo and the students staged an informational sit-in for several days on the steps of the office of the university president. They were so persuasive that in the autumn of that same year the administration established the university's Chicano Education Program. Later renamed the Chicana and Chicano Studies Program, it remains today a vital part of the university and has made a difference in the lives of many students, some of whom -- like Trejo -- were the first in their families to attend college. "He nurtured a lot of those kids along," said a faculty colleague (Prager).

Trejo was building a reputation as a teacher and professor. In 1987, he won Eastern Washington University's Trustee's Medal, the institution's highest award. The award, presented during the 1987 graduation ceremonies, was given for "faculty achievement and teaching excellence" (Sparks). He took a sabbatical that year in California and began working on a series of new works.

And recognition for his art was extending far outside the region. In an interview he gave just after winning the Trustee's Medal, he said, "When you work in any regional area, your appeal is limited. Working here has forced me to explore other areas for gallery space" (Kelly). He noted that he had patrons in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

His work was often abstract, but he liked to use familiar objects -- rakes, shovels -- because he wanted people to enjoy his art, not be confused by it. "I hate that attitude, the brat mentality of some artists who insist they're creating only to satisfy themselves and then curse the world for not understanding them" (Kelly). His choice of genre and materials evolved constantly. He worked mainly in bronze at first and then switched mostly to wood. But he didn't use wood alone. "You need a contrast to the wood ... you get tired of seeing wood and wood and wood -- it begins to look like a furniture store" (Gilbert). When he got tired of sculpture, he would switch to paintings and sketches. Trejo, a skilled and enthusiastic cook, compared it to cooking:

"When you get to a certain level with one material, you can't help but get bored. It's part of being human. It's like when you have a hungering for Italian food. Well, there's only so many ways you can make pasta. That's why I'm always trying to challenge myself, because if you're bored, it's going to come through in your work" (Kelly).

Shown Across the Continent

Trejo's work was increasingly featured in national art exhibitions. In 1990, he had works in CARA: Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, a traveling exhibition that went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 1992, his work was part of Chicano Codices at the National Mexican Museum in San Francisco. In 1993, it was included in Arte de Orto Mexico, which traveled to Mexico City and the Museo del Barrio in New York City. In 2000, the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque purchased one of Trejo's major works, Joaquin/Walking Sticks, and put it on permanent public display.

In 2000 his piece Codex for the 21st Century, made of bent and welded nails, was selected to be part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection. Curator Andrew Connors said:

"As a contemporary artist, Ruben's work exists in the realm of conceptual art, but it is also extremely beautiful ... When we acquired his piece at the Smithsonian there was not the slightest hesitation of anyone on the selection committee about the visually aesthetic significance of his work" (Crane).

The same work was subsequently chosen in 2001 to be part of Arte Latino, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition. The Chicago preview of Arte Latino was attended by U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and Mexican First Lady Marta Sahugan de Fox. "I was asked to talk about my work to the First Ladies," said Trejo. "It was quite an honor" (Crane). After Trejo's death, the Smithsonian acquired another piece, Mandalas.

Trejo was a serious artist, yet a streak of humor ran through both his everyday conversation and his art. He once brought a show to a Spokane gallery featuring dancing bananas, and titled it Banana Republic. In an essay titled "Chicano Humor in Art: For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls," he wrote:

"Americans will assume that the pepper, like the banana, is a phallic object, and I have exploited this misconception in a series of works entitled A Jalapeno Impersonating a Sex Symbol. Obviously, the title is intended to be humorous and to inflict guilt on the Anglo viewer -- Freudian guilt. ... In a sense, I try to translate a bilingual joke into visual form, and in translating it, it becomes very funny" (Beyond Boundaries, 40-41).

In 2003, 30 years after that cross-country trek in a VW bug, Trejo retired from Eastern Washington University. He certainly did not retire from making art. Besides the formal art he made in his studio, he also used his Spokane home as a canvas, painting his kitchen "into what he refers to as a codex, after the Mayan practice of record keeping ... that includes elaborate musical notations, caricatures of his children, the names of his siblings, Mayan starships, and pictures of the CB & Q boxcar where he grew up" (Beyond Boundaries, 125).

Leaving the World a Better Place

In 2007, the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture's senior art curator, Ben Mitchell, began making plans for a major one-person show. Unfortunately, Trejo's health was already in decline. He had suffered from heart-related issues for several years and then contracted myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder.

Ruben Trejo died of that disease on July 10, 2009. "A major American artist is gone," said art scholar Ybarra-Frausto, quoted in a front-page obituary in Spokane's Spokesman-Review, while Mitchell added, "We have lost a real lion" (Prager).

The one-person show, titled Beyond Boundaries/Aztlán y Más Allá, went on as scheduled in April 2010, now as a posthumous retrospective. "It's a very tragic thing that Ruben died last July. Many of us are still in mourning. ... I was working with him for three years on this," said Mitchell at the show's opening (Kershner). Yet the show, and its accompanying book, accomplished Mitchell's goal of demonstrating why Trejo was one of the most influential artists ever to work in the region. It included 50 works, among them The Onion Fields, which hearkened back to Trejo's earliest memories in the migrant fields. The art community mourned Trejo, but a full range of his artwork, spanning 45 years, filled the gallery.

"That's what I'm going to leave the day I die," he once said. "I'd like to think that something I've done will make the world a better place than when I came in. That's what every artist wants" (Kelly).


Ruben Trejo, Ben Mitchell, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, and John Keeble, Ruben Trejo: Beyond Boundaries/Aztlán y Más Allá (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010); Michael Guilfoil, "A Surprise Around Every Corner in Trejo's Home," Spokesman-Review, June 7, 2002, p. D-1; Mike Prager, "Nationally Admired Artist Ruben Trejo Dies," Spokesman-Review, July 22, 2009, p. A-1; Julianne Crane, "Progressive, Proficient Ruben Trejo Quietly Leaves His Mark on Local and National Art Worlds," Spokesman-Review, October 25, 2001, p. D-1; Leslie Kelly, "Ruben Trejo, Artist and Teacher," Spokesman-Review, October 22, 1987, p. N-5; O. J. Parsons, "Cheney Artist Wins Sculpture Award," Spokesman-Review, June 20, 1976, p. C-5; Jim Sparks, "EWU Pleased With New State Budget," Spokesman-Review, May 22, 1987, p. 25; Jim Kershner, "Remembering Ruben," Spokesman-Review, April 29, 2010, p. C-1; Cynthia Gilbert, "Dimension '76," Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 10, 1976, p. 73.

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