LA CONNER — While the art of Jesus Guillén isn’t completely unknown to those in Skagit County, a new exhibit at the Skagit County Historical Museum gives the late Guillén a show as striking as his life.
Guillén, who was born in Texas and spent much of his early life in Mexico where he was steeped in that country’s art and culture, moved to Skagit County in 1961 to pick strawberries and stayed for the valley’s splendor and thriving art scene.
For a time, he and his family lived in a farmworkers camp before settling in the La Conner area. In the years before his death in 1994, Guillén created art that reflected his life, passions and influences, including the beauty of the Skagit Valley and the culture of Mexico.
Now the museum is showing 36 of his pieces. Museum Director Jo Wolfe said she is thrilled the museum was chosen by the Guillén family for the solo show.
“I consider it a real honor,” she said, adding that the exhibit has drawn visitors from as far away as Olympia. “It’s something beautiful to celebrate.”
For Guillén’s son Miguel, the exhibit is recognition for an artist he says was a contemporary of the region’s more famed artists — Jesus Guillén was friendly with Northwest School luminary Guy Anderson — but not always recognized as one of them.
“He was never really acknowledged as contributing to the Northwest scene, which was always confounding to me,” Miguel Guillén said. “What this show represents is saying, finally, that he should be considered a Northwest artist.”
Miguel Guillén said his father lost confidence because of difficulty getting his work exhibited.
“I see that in his work. That’s why it’s complex. I see him trying to maintain his vision and heart,” he said.
That vision and heart is reflected in the pieces curated for the exhibit by local artist and family friend Kris Ekstrand.
Ekstrand was granted access to Jesus Guillén’s studio, which has been kept intact and brims with work across a variety of mediums.
“He was a very imaginative artist. He didn’t hesitate to take on new media. He was a wonderful painter but experimented with clay, wood sculpture, stone,” Ekstrand said. “He became interested in gold leaf and experimented with that ... He seemed to have a great deal of skill with whatever he picked up and experimented with. But painting and drawing were his first love.”
The exhibit includes a diorama Ekstrand made of Jesus Guillén’s studio. It also includes dozens of Guillén’s work ranging from paintings to pastel drawings to a portrait on burlap.
One colorful work shows workers in the tulip fields, with Rainbow Bridge arched in the background. One worker’s hat is nearly the same color as the flowers she picks, and far in the background mountains fade from green to white.
“He never quit making art despite an arduous working life,” Ekstrand said. “He maintained a discipline he sustained throughout his life. It’s remarkable.”
Ekstrand said one particularly touching work is an unfinished mural she encountered while combing through Jesus Guillén’s studio.
“It’s basically the charcoal sketch for the mural he was working on when he died. A visitor will have to look closely to understand what it is. It tells the story of the bulb harvest from the early planting through the winter, through the blossom and harvest season. And the workers and the packing,” she said. “To think of an artist getting that far on a work ... It needed to be included.”