The Sauna School


The International Bazaar, located on a busy corner on Lake Street a block east of Interstate 35W, hides a dirty little secret in its basement. Outwardly, the complex of twin two-story brown-brick buildings is fairly unexceptional. Decorated with a smart green awning, the Bazaar hosts a number of shops doing brisk business on a Friday afternoon. In one building, several people mill about the Photo Estudio Chicago, or peek in the windows at a hat and boot shop advertising "Texanos y sombreros." In the second, a complex of small vendors sell sundry items--household goods, piñatas, spangled clothing, saints candles, "botanicas," music, gold jewelry--and families wander through the narrow aisles as Rosalinda flitters on the screen of the small TV behind the counters.

But back to the secret--which is not the "sauna" that once operated out of the basement of this edifice. The secret hidden in the basement of the International Bazaar is a bit messier than that, though a mite more legitimate, and open to wholesome visitors. A wide stairwell right in the middle of the booths of trinkets and sundry goods leads down into the basement space, where Alejandro Trujillo has set up, of all things, his ArTrujillo Studio Gallery.

A visit to ArTrujillo is a kind of subterranean discovery. From the halls of commerce in the bazaar, you descend into a sudden explosion of light and color--an archaeologist stumbling upon a sealed Egyptian tomb. Wild jazz music plays over a stereo system. Self-possessed people walk about and apply themselves to various tasks. Footsteps creak across the low ceiling overhead.

Trujillo greets visitors warmly: "How do you like the space?" He is in his early 30s, has a warm, friendly round face and dark, uncombed hair. He is quick to mention, as if to put things in perspective, that the building used to be "a whorehouse," and he gives some quick data before starting a tour. He first rented an upstairs studio from the owner of the International Bazaar a few years ago, after he was commissioned to paint a mural on the building's outer wall as part of its reconstruction. Then, last year, Trujillo asked the owner if he could move into the larger basement space, offering to clean up the area in return for its use. The cleanup, begun in May 2000, was completed by June, and by August ArTrujillo had its first opening. Now, his artistic co-op is booming modestly--there are 17 members in all, and 7 of them share the studio.

A quick survey of the Studio Gallery reveals a surprisingly large space, 3,500 square feet in all, partitioned by particleboard walls to make three or four separate galleries. Along the concrete floors and cinderblock walls are brightly painted figures, blocks of color, and swirling lines.

"For us, even the floor is a canvas," Trujillo says, waving his hand. "Every month the space is completely different. We break it apart and repaint it. Here we do everything ourselves. This chair, we found in the street. Everybody is an artist here. Freedom, life, beauty...we are all trying to create that."

Paintings and drawings of various sorts hang in each partitioned segment of the room. Mostly they are inexpertly done, though here and there you can find a touch of craft or an image of some interest. Taken in sum, these pieces display lots of vibrant colors, expressionistic brushstrokes, abstracted figures, and surrealistic dream images. And, perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the gallery's former occupant, you come across erotic drawings of the rawest kind.

One area, tucked back around the corner from the stairway, is a gallery for solo exhibitions. Currently on display are works by Ray Roybal, a Chicano activist and political cartoonist for such local newspapers as Latino Midwest and Insight. Called "Santeros," the show consists of 30-odd small devotional icons, so crudely rendered that they look old and faded with time. They are flat-footed in their religious aesthetic--painted on rough burlap surfaces in intense church reds, cerulean blues, and stained-glass yellows and greens, and given titles such as "Saint Veronica con el Divino Rostro" and "Orpheo." This last, on closer look, is revealed to be a small figure dressed in armor and holding a sword, fighting a serpent that winds around his legs. On the table, meanwhile, rests a stack of original political cartoons by the artist--simple line drawings engaging such hot-button issues as race, AIDS, the drug war, and so on.

Out in the main part of the gallery, the scent of fresh paint is everywhere, as there are no windows and seemingly scant ventilation. The sickly bitter-chemical smell of spray-paint mixes with the sweet smell of latex house paint. Following the scent takes one to yet another section of the room, which spills over with the implements of the trade: brushes, easels, cans of paint. Several eye-catching works are stacked here and there--a batch of vaguely Pollockesque paintings done in a sophisticated palette of Day-Glo colors; a series of mostly ocean-blue paintings that are filled with hairy brushstrokes of rainbow-colored amoebas, which appear to float as if lit up by phosphorus; a handful of images of militaristic violence painted in a naive style. How is it that so many different schools of work could be springing up from this sprawling cellar? What holds this collection of artists together?

"We only have three rules here," Trujillo says as the tour concludes. "First, that you are creative. Second, that you help out in the gallery. And third, that you keep the refrigerator stocked."


In the popular imagination--in movies, plays, novels, and so on--artists are almost always portrayed as somehow flawed. In recent depictions of van Gogh, Gauguin, Warhol, and Pollock, for instance, the artist is seen either as one step away from the loony bin or as a child-molesting sex maniac, a wacked-out charlatan or a demonic hard-drinking genius. Even granting that such depictions help make these artists' stories more interesting, it is odd that very little hint of the actual work of an artist--the tedious hours of practice and study, the dull labor, the nagging doubts, the minor epiphanies, the disappointments, and above all the ups and downs of the creative process itself--ever makes its way into such depictions. In reality, making art with success is like working at any other job: It requires fortitude, the forbearance of loved ones (because it rarely pays like a job), several strokes of luck, and endless amounts of time in which to create--certainly not the stuff of great entertainment.

Artists come to their calling for various reasons, and they approach this job in various ways. Among the Friday-evening crew at ArTrujillo, one can find perhaps every possible artist archetype. Three women gathered in the solo gallery sit at a small table and talk quietly about the Peace Corps and about the women's artist group they are trying to found. One of the women, Meg Novak, is in a show of female artists at Gus Lucky's Gallery just down Lake Street; she makes sure to mention it boldly and to hand me a flyer. Her work involves colorful and expressive abstraction--angry-looking, and violent almost.

Trujillo introduces the rest of the artists one by one: James Grafsgaard, whom he calls his "right-hand man," is the painter of the blue underwater paintings, a result of his having spent several years living in the South Pacific. Quiet and possessed of a halting voice, Grafsgaard laughs at himself easily, and looks not unlike Vincent van Gogh. He is also the creator of much of the gallery's erotic art.

Chobi Noe Rivera, meanwhile, is smallish and dark, a young Pablo Picasso. He is the painter of the violent naive-style scenes. Trujillo explains that Rivera, who is from El Salvador, saw his family and entire village killed in front of him during the revolution there when he was four years old. Rivera later was shot six times in the chest when he was sixteen years old. "He's only one of a handful of people left who still speaks the Pipil language," says Trujillo. Having come to the States just a few years before, Rivera speaks only hesitantly in English.

We travel across the gallery to the main office--a space with a desk, a table and chairs, a computer for press releases, and the refrigerator--and there meet the resident poet of ArTrujillo, a man perhaps in his 50s named Pee-AIRE. "Are you looking for truth?" he asks directly upon being introduced. His face is red and animated, and he wears a full white beard, curly and fluffy like a mass of tangled pussy willows. Strumming a guitar, and making eerie feedback noises, he begins a bizarre riffing performance. The nails of his left hand are short and trimmed, the better to finger frets; the strumming nails on his right hand are long and painted sparkly baby blue, like a 1966 Corvette Stingray.

"Everyone came to earth to make something absolutely unique," says Pee-AIRE, eyes fixed, face ever more rapturous, hand moving up and down in space like a showroom model's. Then, suddenly, he rattles off a lot of stuff too quickly to be written down. A sheet of his poetry, titled "La Leche," circulates the room. It is illustrated with pen-and-watercolor portrayals of cartoony men and women copulating, and includes punctuation-free passages such as: "A belief system of limits is only a whore-riffic hallucination of personality. Your personality is wretched miserable needy niggardly and whining/What are you snarling about...the DIFFERENCE? There is no difference/When you know you don't know is when you know the knower within...." and so on.

This is not significantly different from the manner in which Pee-AIRE speaks. Chobi Rivera enters the space as Pee-AIRE says: "I play angel jazz to women who don't know what they want...I can do this for hours. Just put me on the fucking radio!" And even though Rivera speaks little English, he knows enough, or has already heard enough, to cut his studio-mate off without ceremony.

"Okay-okay-okay-okay," Rivera says impatiently, then picks up a drum and ocarina and begins playing along to Pee-AIRE's spacey guitar chords. Another person brings a recorder, and a spontaneous jam session begins. Soon it is too loud to remain in the room.

There is still something nagging at me as the music swells to fill the gallery space. The musicians are shrieking now, laughing wildly at their creation. An unnoticed family of four wanders into the center of the gallery and huddles together, looking at the musicians with wide eyes.

"Why," I ask Trujillo, "did you start this place?"

There is a pause, which is so long that I begin to wonder if Trujillo has even heard the question--the noise being so great now. Then he launches into an explanation. Over the past several years, he says, painting murals has become his usual artistic gig--he's done 22 of them across the state of Minnesota. As Trujillo readily admits, these are not the most challenging works. Mostly nostalgic views of idyllic Mexican villagers and street scenes, they are vaguely reminiscent of the style of Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros, but without much social commentary. The murals are colorful and attractive and tend to warm up the spaces of such locales as Me Gusta Mexican Cuisine in Minneapolis and No Name Pizza in St. Louis Park. "People ask me to paint commercially," Trujillo says. "Murals are my commercial work. But I find freedom in my own kind of work."

He points to the drip paintings stacked on the floor of the studio, and talks about how Siqueiros, his artistic hero, lived in New York in the 1930s and was the teacher of a young art student named Jackson Pollock. "A Mexican taught Jackson Pollock. Now I'm taking that back."

I ask Trujillo if he will demonstrate his painting methods, something most artists refuse to do--being oddly secretive as a general rule. Trujillo seems surprised, then he becomes excited and starts talking rapidly and moving around the studio. "Okay. But first I insist you take a beer. It's cheap beer, but at least it's cold..."

Trujillo goes into the studio space and begins rummaging around, pulling out square plywood panels about two feet tall by two feet wide. "I like mass production," he says, spreading six of the panels across the studio floor. He begins speaking rapidly. "I had not planned to do any more paintings," he says of the show that opens in a week's time. "But oh well...." He laughs.

"My favorite color is yellow. Everything has yellow in it--the sun, beauty, light." At this, Trujillo takes a bucket of yellow paint, dips a four-inch-wide paintbrush into it, and splashes strokes of yellow here and there onto each of the panels, going at it in order down the row. "On the first strokes," he says, "I have no idea what it is going to be. Later, it will start to take shape....I always use very bright colors."

He moves continually, using different hues of paint in succession--baby blue, rose, lavender, forest green. The shapes are jagged, like a crazy interlocking puzzle. He never stops moving, dripping and sloshing color back and forth along the row. When he is finished with the brush, he takes a spray can of neon-pink paint and begins filling in the spaces between the jagged shapes, overlapping in spots, creating an organic topography.

"The rules say not to mix water with oils, but Picasso once said, uh..." Trujillo pauses. "He said something like, 'I don't search for things, I find things.' So I'm finding here."

He follows the pink with a can of kelly-green spray paint, then a can of metallic gold. Meanwhile, the jam session across the gallery has broken into a version of "La Bamba." By now, the wide-eyed family has left. The music grows ever louder. "They're crazy," Trujillo says, laughing, but not stopping his task. I wonder if he feels lightheaded from the spray-paint fumes.

"When I start dripping, that's when it starts to come together," he says. As if to prove his point, he grabs a can of lemon-yellow paint, pulls out a mixing stick from the can, and begins dripping spaghettilike lines atop the jagged colors. He moves his hands quickly and naturally, as if conducting a very fast symphony. He does this with several more pigments--bright red, dark brown.

These are by no means masterpieces, but there is something fresh and alive about Trujillo's approach to the work. The aesthetic is pure and honest, full of vibrancy in its application and its color palette.

"This is easy--everybody can do this," he says, ending his paintings with a flourish and a that's-all-folks kind of smile. There are no secrets here, he seems to say; what you see is what you get. "This is what I love. This is what I do. I'm painting my country like Rivera did. But I'm doing the action-painting thing, with my own Mexican traditions."

As I make my way upstairs and out to the street, I gaze at the flattened expressions of the passersby on the sidewalk--all the people who have no idea of the fantastic racket that is going on underground.