Born in La Paz, Bolivia and having emigrated to the United States at the age of seven, artist Hugo Medina depicts themes of family, childhood, hard work, and his origin story throughout his art. Although he is known primarily for his murals, he is also an experienced sculptor and painter.
Hugo is a father, husband, arts educator, activist. a C.W Post/Long Island University (LIU) alumnus, and a former board member of the Phoenix Arts and Cultural Commission and Artlink Phoenix. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from LIU in 1998 and a Master of Education (M.Ed.) from the University of Phoenix in 2006. Hugo hopes to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in the future.
Here’s Hugo Medina, in his own words, on his inspirations and his experiences that led him to become an artist, his preferred media, and his locally displayed artwork.
“ART IS BORN WITH ATTENTION TO DETAIL. ART MAY SEEM TO INVOLVE BROAD STROKES, GRAND SCHEMES, GREAT PLANS, BUT IT IS THE ATTENTION TO DETAIL THAT MAKES THE ART TRULY SHINE.”
Portrait of myself and 2 of my 4 kids working on the Covid mural. Photo: Kira Olsen Photography
PHXART: TELL US ABOUT WHO YOU ARE. WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INSPIRATION?
Hugo Medina: I am a father, husband, and an artist. I was born in La Paz, Bolivia, my family immigrated to New York when I was a child. I entered my first art contest when I was about five. My older sister entered a state-ran art contest and I wanted to be like her, so I threw a huge tantrum to be included. My parents lied about my age so I could enter the contest…I ended up winning, since then art is all I want to do.
My inspiration is life—everyday life—my familia, my children, my partner. I was asked once, “What is your personal mission statement.” I quickly replied, “To do what I can to make my children proud; to teach them from my experiences and help them achieve their dreams.” I want to teach my children about where I came from, who I am, and how I got to where I am. In 2010, the day Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070, I wrote:
Yes! My parents broke the law. They brought my two sisters and I to the U.S. in 1980 in search of the American dream, a better life for their children. I was around seven or eight at the time. We were illegal. My dad, a highly respected architect in Bolivia, became a dishwasher and busboy by day and cleaned office buildings with my mom at night. My mom, a schoolteacher, cleaned houses by day, came home to cook dinner, and then joined my father. I have worked consistently since 6th grade, delivering circulars, washing dishes, busing tables, cooking, or doing construction. You name it, I did it.
I remember living my childhood in fear. The oldest, my nine-year-old sister, watched over our four-year-old sister and I while our parents worked into the morning hours. They dangled the threat of deportation, robbery, and worse to make sure we didn’t open the door to strangers. When we heard a suspicious noise, we would arm ourselves with broomsticks or blunt objects, and hide. Our neighborhood wasn’t safe. Thanks to Ronald Reagan and the passage of IRCA (1986), we became legal residents in 1992, the year I finished high school. My siblings and I were lucky. Transitioning to “legal” status also gave us the opportunity to attend college. Each of us earning master’s degrees in our professions.
In 1998, the year I moved to Arizona and received my BFA, I was also sworn in as a U.S. citizen. It was one of the proudest moments in my life because of what it meant to my parents. It was a symbol of their hard work, dedication, and sacrifice—it had paid off. I share this with you today because as I sit in anticipation of Governor Jan Brewer’s decision and the outcome of SB1070, I am again in fear. I fear the ramifications this bill will have, not just on our state, but on our nation.
While completing my undergraduate studies at LIU, I volunteered to teach classes at a summer program at the Kumayya Indian reservation in California. My experience at the reservation inspired my passion to work with communities and led me to a teaching career upon my graduation from LIU.
Working as a public school art teacher, I organized and facilitated a series of field trips and off-campus programs with the Scottsdale Art District, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, Arizona State University, Nelson Fine Arts Center, and the Arcosanti Foundation, many of which were inaugural efforts that proved to be successful for all parties involved.
Hugo Medina, Highland Arts Academy Mural, 2020. Exterior latex and aerosol on wall. [3042 E Adobe St., Mesa, AZ 85213]
Later, I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching to focus on my artwork. I used the time to work on developing my skills as a designer, fabricator, project manager and estimator for art and solar divisions. In the three years I worked for Ironco Enterprises, I learned the ins-and-outs of heavy steel construction, CAD design, and solar. By 2009, I was able to pursue my dreams of becoming a full-time artist in the art industry, and this same year my artwork was displayed for the first time in Arizona.
Hugo Medina, Rickshaw driver, Image #7, 2019. Acrylic and aerosol on canvas.
PHXART: WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU NOW TO CONTINUE CREATING?
HM: With my skills in developing and organizing programs and events, and my desire to give back to my community, I co-founded the Calle 16 mural project—a non-profit grassroots project to build communities through the arts by creating community murals— alongside Chef Silvana Salcido and artist Gennaro Garcia in 2009. Within Calle 16, I utilize my abilities and experience to inspire others and organize events that support arts education in my community. With this newfound passion as a co-founder of Calle 16, I was inspired to reach out beyond the project and have since began creating, organizing, and curating other community murals throughout Arizona.
Currently I am working with the residents of the new Soluna Apartments on designing two murals as part of the $300 million transformation of the Edison-Eastlake community. Gorman & Company is partnering with the City of Phoenix Housing Department on this multi-phased project that will redefine this neighborhood for generations.
My art-focused community work landed me in a board position for Artlink—a non-profit organization supporting the arts in Phoenix since 1997—and to being appointed by the Mayor of Phoenix to sit on the board of the Phoenix Arts and Cultural Commission.
It has been and continues to be my focus to utilize my artwork and multicultural arts programing to give my community and the city of Phoenix a voice through artistic expression.
Hugo Medina, Tougher we rise, 2021. Exterior latex and aerosol on wall. [1506 E McDowell Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85006]
PHXART: WHAT ARE THE MEDIA THAT YOU PREFER TO WORK IN, AND WHY?
HM: My familia tells me a story from when we were in Bolivia. When my father built and painted our home, he designated a wall for me to do whatever I pleased so of course I covered it with art. I like to think of it as my first official mural. Metal sculpture became a passion of mine in high school and was my focus during undergrad. Though, today I am mostly known for my mural work and paintings—something I hope will change when my metal work is featured in the light rail project that I’m currently working on for Valley Metro.
Art is born with attention to detail. Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans, but it is the attention to detail that makes the art truly shine.
When I paint, I begin the process through a combination of direct painting and the use of a grisaille technique, I like to combine traditional and modern ideas, and practices. Grisaille is a monochrome technique which was first practiced by Flemish artists in the early 15th century and utilizes various shades of gray and gray washes resulting in images that give the illusion of sculpture. Direct painting is a method used to create paintings in a single application, meaning you start the piece and finish it in one sitting. It is an opaque painting technique used by Early and Abstract Impressionists and the Fauves. Direct painting relies on the planning process because artists must consider form and color simultaneously.
I begin a painting with an idea, an image, or a concept, and consider the details I want to include. Then I sit back and enjoy the process as the painting comes to life. I will pause often to stare at the canvas for hours or days, visualizing all the possibilities for the finished piece and all the different stories it could tell. Sometimes it goes fast and easy, and sometimes I must start all over again.
Hugo Medina, Who am I — immigration series, 2020. Acrylic and aerosol on canvas.
PHXART: WHAT ARE THE TOPICS OR SUBJECTS THAT YOU MOST FOCUS ON, AND HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THEM?
HM: Artists’ intrinsically political work carries a laudable responsibility for framing and shaping our shared historical narrative. My work is a reaction to current events, a social commentary that is integral to the inclusion of underrepresented perspectives. I am a natural observer of the working-class and migrant communities around the world, and I am inspired by their resilience and hardships which mirror the experiences my family endured migrating to the United States from Bolivia. My work focuses on transcending borders by capturing humanity, rendering complex and sometimes conflicting emotions of individuals striving for better lives throughout the world. I research and explore universal issues of migration and immigration with an eye toward expressing fleeting feelings, moments, and states of being that endure the journey and remain in our psyche, molding our identity and impacting generations to come. The canvas work and the mural work I do falls in line with capturing and sharing these stories.
Hugo Medina, Never Again Mural, 2021. Exterior latex and aerosol on wall. [5831 N. 46th Pl., Phoenix, AZ 85018]
PHXART: TELL US ABOUT YOUR CIVIC WORK SUPPORTING THE ARTS AND YOUR FELLOW ARTISTS. HOW DOES THIS WORK INFORM YOUR PERSONAL PRACTICE?
HM:I love doing community work and collaborating with other artists. I feel it is my responsibility to give back as much as possible by helping others achieve their dreams. Working with other artists is a great way to learn as well. The moment I stop learning is when I will stop creating.
Hugo Medina, Woman in Orange — India Series, 2019. Acrylic and aerosol on canvas.
To see more artwork by Hugo Medina, visit his website at HugosArt.com or see below for local news coverage featuring Hugo Medina.
WE’RE CURIOUS HOW CREATIVES ARE NAVIGATING THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS. HUGO MEDINA SHARES WHAT’S GIVING HIM LIFE DURING QUARANTINE.
HM: Focusing on my family and being there for my partner and kids is what has been giving me the most during the pandemic. I have started two seperate series since the beginning of the pandemic. The inspiration came from being in quarantine and focusing of what matters. The first one is an inward search of my immigration story, my past, and my upbringing. The more I learn about myself, past traumas, and social programing, ect., The better father, husband, and artist I can grow to become. The second series focuses on children and was inspired by my four kids, though the series is not limited to them. I want to capture the innocence and joy of children as they experience life, new things…etc. I am inspired by the word of Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, “When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster.“
Hugo Medina, Every blade of grass has its Angel…, 2020. Acrylic and aerosol on canvas.