Jesse Treviño is one San Antonio's greatest artists. For decades, he's celebrated everyday life on the city's West Side with photorealistic paintings and murals. He found his calling early, and by age 18 he was studying in a premier New York City art school, training for a long and successful career. But the unexpected journey Treviño endured, from young artist to the celebrated status he enjoys today, was darker and more difficult than anyone could have imagined.
In 1966, young Jesse Treviño lived in Greenwich Village, in a time when The Village seemed the epicenter for so much change in the world of art and music.
"Bob Dylan, all cafe coffee shops were there. It was incredible," he said.
Treviño sketched tourists for money and attended the art school of his dreams. The Art Students League of New York was founded in 1875 and continues training to this day.
“Jackson Pollock went there, Georgia O'Keefe," Treviño said.
But life had other plans for him, starting with a draft notice from the Army. Treviño wasn't even a U.S. citizen, and didn't have to fight. Anthony Head wrote Spirit, The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño.
"Because he was born in Mexico, he actually could just simply repatriate himself to Mexico and not have to fight in that war," he said.
Treviño says that was something he never considered. He was ready to serve.
"I come from a family that out of my nine brothers, eight — think about this — eight of us served in the military," he said.
After basic training, Treviño was sent to Vietnam. He patrolled the rice paddies south of Saigon on foot, trying to draw out enemy snipers. One day, a single step changed everything. Treviño triggered a booby trap.
"There was several explosions, and the one that hit me, it must've catapulted me about 50 feet,” he said. “I fell face down in the mud. As I looked out and I could see the water, it was like a real dark red."
Treviño’s painting arm felt like it was on fire, and his right leg was folded unnaturally over his left, an artery severed. A medic quickly arrived, tied off his bleeding leg and injected morphine to ease the pain.
“You know how people say 'My whole life passed in front of me?' When I was laying there I was thinking about art," he said.
As he lay in the mud, Treviño had a revelation about the kind of art his dying would leave unpainted.
"I started thinking, 'Wait a minute, if I had another chance, I'd know exactly what I would be painting. My mom, my brothers, my friends,'" he said.
As these thoughts raced through him the medics kept him alive and got him to a field hospital. Treviño was eventually sent to a military hospital in Japan, then weeks later was moved to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He had a long road ahead of him.
"I couldn't walk for a whole year," he said.
Even worse, repeated surgeries couldn't save his painting arm, and it had to be amputated. Armando Albarran was in Ft. Sam at the same time as Treviño was and remembers Jesse’s attitude as very dark.
"At first he didn't want talk. He was very depressed," Albarran said.
Albarran and Treviño developed a special bond, as he understood the trauma of amputation. He got his legs blown off in Vietnam by a Claymore mine.
Like Treviño, Albarran had barely survived his injury. But unlike Treviño, Albarran relied on his sense of humor to help him recover. He played practical jokes and tried to get everyone to smile.
"That's just the kind of guy he was, a really cool guy," Treviño said.
Albarran tried to pierce Treviño's sadness, but he wasn't getting anywhere. Then, he arranged for an easel, paints and brushes to appear in occupational therapy area where Jesse spent a lot of time. He urged him to paint, but Treviño refused.
“No, no, no, no. I can't do that anymore,” Albarran remembers. “I can't do that, Armando."
But Albarran realized he was on the right track, and kept pushing.
"I said, ‘Look. I'll be your model. You can paint me,’" he told his friend.
Treviño finally agreed to try. Albarran wore his uniform, and Treviño awkwardly began to paint with his left hand. The resulting portrait wasn't great, but it was a big victory. Treviño’s biographer Anthony Head said this turning point was obvious.
“He soon learned that his talent was in his head. All he needed to do was convince his left hand to do what his mind was telling him,” he said. “And he never stopped after that."
Treviño moved out of the hospital and enrolled at San Antonio College, taking art classes to train his remaining arm.
At home, he painted an enormous sheetrock wall and called it Mi Vida, which means My Life. Anthony Head describes it.
"It shows a picture of a woman dead center, as well as his Purple Heart," he said.
His car, a beer, a pain pill, his mother's sweet bread — the elements of his life. And a ghostly image of him as a soldier.
"And the soldier looks like a phantom,” Head said. “And that is something that Jesse lives with the rest of his life as a veteran — the phantom pain that he was feeling physically, but also mentally and emotionally."
Treviño eventually sold that house along with the sheetrock, but the woman who bought it had the entire Mi Vida wall removed and saved. That painting is now touring the country in the Smithsonian Museum's exhibit on Vietnam War art, and that makes Treviño feel great.
"That was probably one of the most important pieces that have all of the pieces I've ever done," he said.
Treviño continued working, producing photorealistic paintings of people from the West Side. They impressed critics and art collectors. Then Treviño began to work in tile. He produced several tile murals that give downtown San Antonio a distinctly Treviño style, but Head said one stands far taller than all the rest.
"The greatest one that everyone knows about is on is the nine-story Spirit of Healing on the side of Children's Hospital," he said.
If you're driving west on I-10 downtown, you can't possibly miss the massive tile mural by Milam Park. Spirit of Healing shows an angel looking over the shoulder of a young boy holding a dove. That boy was Treviño's son, Jesse Jr. Treviño says the mural has a message.
"And that message is that we need to pay more attention to directing and guiding our children in everything they do," he said.
And there is another interesting detail if you look closely at the angel's wings.
"He made that angel with a broken wing. And that was his little way of saying, ‘I'm here too,’" he said.
UTSA Associate Art Professor Ricky Armendariz says Treviño has chronicled South Texas life so well, and for such a long time.
"I think that that's why he's an American treasure. Not just a Latino treasure, like an American treasure," he said.
Treviño is now 73. The artist has had his share of health issues recently, but Head said retirement isn't on his mind.
"He has projects, too, for another two or three lifetimes that he's serious about," he said.
As Treviño continues to work it's clear his legacy is front of mind.
"You know, once I'm gone — what really counts is what I left behind," Treviño said.
And what he's left behind already is a lot.