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Luis Fitch's mixed-media pieces are haunting reminders of life and death

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Tijuana might not seem like a logical starting point for outstanding artwork, but the infamous border town was where Luis Fitch, one of Minnesota's most innovative artists and graphic designers, grew up. The violence he witnessed there, and the brutal legacy that continues today in the states of Michoacan and Chiapas, feed the disquieting undercurrent of his neo-Mexicanism work, pieces of which will be included in the "City Spit" group exhibition opening at City Wide Artists on Friday.

Fitch's mixed-media piece Forty-Three, for example, serves as a visual tribute to the 43 Ayotzinapa Normal School students who went missing in Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014. A mantilla veiled, maternal skeleton crosses bony arms across her chest, teeth gritted, eyes wide, a heart-shaped emblem inscribed with "43" dangling from a chain. She is surrounded by a flowered border dotted with butterflies. It's lovely, but also haunting.

Imagery reminiscent of Day of the Dead is evident in Fitch's "Day of the Souls" series, which features ominous skulls set against pink, purple, yellow, and turquoise backgrounds. Titles like Grow or Die and Peace and Death taunt the viewer to look deeper than the aesthetically pleasing, almost celebratory surfaces of the images. "They're easy on the eye, they're very friendly, but they have a lot of meaning behind them," he says.

Similar Mexican iconography, along with vivid colors and bilingual titles, are represented in everything from Fitch's papel picado (a form of Mexican folk art in which paper is cut into intricate, decorative designs) to commercial posters for entities like Mercado Central on Lake Street. Fitch, who holds a BFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, also works with traditional and digital illustration, silkscreen, wheat paste, and stencils. 

In addition to his personal artwork, Fitch rallies his talents for UNO Branding, a Minneapolis-based design agency he founded in 1999. The company has been sought out by brands and businesses of all sizes for bilingual packaging, product development, logos, and licensing.

"I'm lucky that we tend to use illustration or design that is very artistic or expressive," he says of the company's portfolio. In the same way a gallery calls for a certain type of art while an urban art setting requires a different style, his clients provide him with opportunities to use a wide variety of skills.

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That the award-winning Fitch has been so successful targeting the rapidly-expanding Hispanic demographic isn't because of his heritage, however.

"I know a lot of graphic designers who are Mexican, and they will not know how to approach the Latino market," he says. "What you really need to understand is marketing and strategy. I've worked with Japanese or American designers that do beautiful things for our culture because they understand the strategy."

Fitch is equally challenged and fulfilled focusing on strategic communications at UNO's East Franklin Avenue office or experimenting in his basement work space on a Saturday morning.

"To me, there's no difference other than one pays you and the other one doesn't or one has deadlines and the other one doesn't," he says.

Whether the result of his experimentation is gallery work, fine art for a museum, the basis for a street mural, or a textile design sold on housewares at Wal-Mart, it's all part of the creative process. "It's a lifestyle." he says. "It's a 24-hour thing."

IF YOU GO:

"City Spit"

City Wide Artists

March 4-25

Free

All Ages

There will be an opening reception Friday, March 4, from 6 p.m. to midnight.