Local Phoenix Artist: Hugo Medina

In a room filled with jazz and smoke, two eyes stood out as a man painted them to life, brushstroke by brushstroke. Around him were canvases that held portraits of older men with hands that spoke of experience and beautiful smiles on children living impoverished lives.

Photo by: Angel Jimenez

Phoenix artist Hugo Medina stood in the middle of the room that serves as his home studio.

Well-known for his murals around Phoenix in which greatly depict the reality of immigrant lives and the feelings swirling inside a human mind, Medina, who was born in La Paz, Bolivia, has been painting his whole life. He recalled an art contest in which he originally wasn’t allowed to participate because he was too young to enter. He said he threw a “huge temper tantrum.” The result: his parents lied about his age and he was able to enter the contest alongside his older sister.

He ended up winning the contest.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for my parents encouraging me and pushing me,” said Medina. He remembered how his architect father built his family’s house in Bolivia and left him a blank wall to create on. “That was my wall,” he said. “I can do whatever I want to do to that wall, so I didn’t paint all over the rest of the house.

“So technically that was my first mural.”

However, when his family moved to the U.S., life became frightening. Due to his family’s illegal status in the country, Medina and his two other siblings had to learn early in life to hide when someone knocked on their Long Island apartment door.

“So, every time there was a knock on the door we had to literally hide or arm ourselves because we didn’t know if we were going to get robbed or if it was la migra [immigration police].”

Medina recalled a moment when he was clearly reminded of his illegal situation.

When he won a national contest in sixth grade, his principal offered to take him down to the bank to open a savings account with the check he won, but Medina had to decline.

He couldn’t say he didn’t have a social security number, so he lied and said he was going to make his account with his parents instead. “I couldn’t open a bank account. So, there was always that.”

Medina and his family were granted amnesty by President Ronald Reagan, allowing him to visit Bolivia before starting high school in 1992.

At times Medina has made immigration the focus of his art, making public art statements through murals like the one located on 377 North 2nd Avenue.

Called the Dreamer’s Mural, Medina worked with two other artists to create it. The painting depicts a deteriorating Statue of Liberty with two dreamers smiling up at the shining island of New York City.

Medina explained it’s supposed to represent how the values of the country are falling apart but the colors represent the possibility of a better future. “I have two dreamers looking up at it,” he said, “because there’s still hope.”

In high school, Medina wasn’t expected to graduate. His guidance counselors believed it was better if he focused on his then-current job as a restaurant cook.

However, he applied to three colleges that all offered him scholarships. He ended up going to Long Island University since the administrators there doubled his scholarship.

Medina remembers his college experience as “amazing.”

He had a studio and a lot of equipment to use, so he did everything he could. He made sure to have an art show every semester he could. “You’re in charge of your future,” he said. “So you’ll get out of it what you put in.”

In 2006, he graduated with a master’s in education.

“I went for fine arts but kind of fell into education,” he said. “And it became something I loved to do and something I needed to do.”

Medina said he’ll eventually have his master’s in fine arts once he goes back to school in the Fall of 2020.

Currently, he teaches part-time at Phoenix College and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University.

In OLLI, he teaches students that are 50 and over. The program specialist there, Abby Baker, can attest to how popular his classes are.

She discovered him from a West Campus ASU coordinator and reached out to him soon after. They’ve been working together for over 2 years now.

 

Abby Baker. Photo by: Angel Jimenez

“His class is one of the first to fill up every semester when we open up our registration. There’s always a really long wait list to get in. And I have—several times—heard people humble bragging about how they got to go to his class to somebody who was waitlisted,” said Baker.

She describes Medina as a very casual man. When she first saw him in a coffeeshop where they planned to meet, he was “chilling with paint all over his shoulders, just like sippin’ a coffee.” As Baker chuckled, she said she thought at that moment, “Yeah, I’m gonna be friends with him.”

Medina’s most popular class is a street walk tour where he has a lecture and then takes groups of 20 members around Downtown Phoenix to show off murals and talk about them.

“It’s really really fun,” said Baker. “They eat it up, they love it, and they all love saying like ‘I have an artist friend.’”

Baker said Medina has a way of making information understandable for everyone, making it easy and fun to interact with him.

Medina works hard to try and connect to people through himself and his art, especially when he’s creating.

He compares his process to a scientist. “We have a destination, a thesis, something that we want to finish and to get there we’re analyzing, breaking down, using the tools we have in our knowledge to kind of solve that problem that’ll get us to an end product which is the finished painting.”

The same could be said about his paintings as two women became interested and stopped to look at one of Medina’s murals, Sign of the Times, on First Friday.

 

Sign of the Times. Image from: Wescover.com

First Friday is an event that gets artists, vendors, and all kinds of people to get together to sell, share, and eat on the first Friday of each month in Downtown Phoenix.

The mural, located on the side of a gallery called Modified Arts, is of a girl coated in paint crying with her hands against her face.

Angela Whalen and Reilley Moran stopped to take a better look at it.

Whalen said her interest was piqued because, “It shows what grief or what sorrow looks like to the normal person behind closed doors. It reminded me of my own sorrow because we all experience sorrow, we’re all human beings.”

Moran shared the same feeling of relating to the mural. “I felt that before, I seen that a lot in other people.”

Medina is able to depict such feelings because he reflects how he feels inside through his art.

It takes him a lifetime to paint, he said. “Because what goes into it, it’s not just that moment, what goes into it is everything that’s inside you, everything that you are, everything that you’ve experienced.”

His skills don’t just stop at painting, he also enjoys welding and sculpting. “I’m always going to try new things, challenge myself and playing with different mediums and push the envelope,” said Medina. “So, I don’t get stuck just doing the same thing over and over again.”

When he was asked what he was, Medina ultimately said, “I’m just an artist.”

Baker described him as a “man covered in paint.” She had a long list of positives of who Medina is including a father, a community creator, and a life-long learner.

It echoes to what he believes to be the journey of art. “I always say the moment I stop learning is the moment I’ll put my brush down.”

Hugo Medina. Photo by: Angel Jimenez

For more information on Hugo check out the YouTube video below on him and his work:

https://youtu.be/6IpoD8thbnY