Local Artist Norzagaray Keeps Southwestern Folklore Humming
May 23, 2016
by Mariana Colín
If you’ve been to Borderlands recently and you’re in the habit of scanning the local art rotation while you sip your Noche Dulce, your eye may have been caught by artist Francisco Norzagaray’s latest project: small ink and colored pencil drawings of hummingbirds dressed as people. Comical as they are charming, they are the result of Francisco’s long relationship with art and the Southwest.
Consistent from the beginning of Francisco Norzagaray’s sometimes chaotic life has been his love of art. Born in Sonora, his family immigrated to East Los Angeles when he was a child, where he says he regularly got in trouble for doodling too much in class. His jobs ranged from maintenance to school board supervisor, but after a severe back injury put him out of work, he decided it was finally time to let his passion support him.
Completely self-taught, Francisco’s works vary from huge acrylic paintings to pen sketches on napkins, in every style from graphic, almost comic book-style Western imagery to a Native American influence which, along with his tendency to blend English and Spanish in conversation, switching to whichever language best expresses his thought in the moment, reflects the impressions his thoroughly Southwestern life has left on him.
“I’m actually painting what I am,” says Francisco. And when he begins to point out the personal symbolism in the details of his paintings (patterns of four, a tribute to his four sons, are hidden in most of his art) the degree to which his art is an extension of himself becomes clear.
“Being an artist, it’s a little bit of a lonely road,” he says. “But it has to be that way because when I’m creating I can’t sleep. I’m like an assembly line. I paint on everything, rocks, cans. It’s a lot of work.” He says he has put his work above money, even above housing. He has many memories of sketching under a flashlight in the van he used to sleep in.
Over his years in Tucson, Francisco’s work has appeared in venues across the city and beyond, including a long stay at DeGrazia Gallery in the foothills, shows in Tubac and California, and his current presence at Borderlands, where right now the ever-increasing awareness of Francisco’s work is enjoyed mostly by his charismatic little hummingbirds.
Though he takes inspiration from any human persona that speaks to him (a Sgt. Peppers-era quartet of Beatles hummingbirds and a Jimi Hendrix hummingbird jamming on a tiny guitar each grace the walls of Borderlands), he returns time and again to drawing inspiration from Mexican history.
A row of hummingbirds in sombreros and bullet belts and a smaller bird in a shawl with a tiny basket slung over the end of the branch look out at their audience. They bring to mind vintage photos of Mexican bandoleros and rebel soldiers posing defiantly in their common man’s military uniforms. The immediate reaction looking at these tiny, serious birds is to laugh, but Francisco say that while they’re certainly meant to be comical, his repeated use of hummingbirds is no mistake.
“The hummingbird is an Aztec god,” says Francisco. He says that after observing their territoriality and aggressiveness as a species, it only made sense to put them in a revolutionary setting. “It’s a touch of Mexicanisimo.”
Though the idea behind his most recent project is simple, the work behind it is anything but. “You have to watch your subject,” he says. “I photograph them, study them, how their head is, the way they fly. They’re all different colors, not just one. Every hummingbird has its own personality.” He has always been interested in fragile, small subjects (butterflies are a common feature in his work), and the intricate anatomy of hummingbirds is perfect for his practiced hand.
“I do have my side that really likes portraying the revolutionaries,” he says. “Nothing vicious, nothing ugly, just what they did, the daily life of them. We paint Zapata and the glory, but what about the people behind him, who died?” Looking at the hummingbird through Francisco’s eyes, there’s no creature that better represents the spirit of Mexican history and culture, which he captures through them with equal parts humor, beauty, and romanticism.
Despite the sometimes-rough artist’s life he’s lived, over the years Francisco has remained as industrious and busy as his tiny subjects. DeGrazia and Borderlands have gained him a lot of well-deserved attention, but while a larger demand for work might induce some stage-fright in some artists, the concept of artists’ block is completely foreign to him.
“As you go through the process of being creative, something new comes up, or somebody says something, you have an idea, it’s always changing,” he says. In fact, rather than worrying about running out of inspiration, Francisco worries a lot more about not having enough time to tackle all the ideas he already has. “I’m always uncovering something,” he says. “I dream about it. There’s always something new to try.”
For more information about Francisco’s art, email firstname.lastname@example.org.