by Jennifer Smart
A series of self-portraits greets visitors entering Deep Ellum’s Umbrella Gallery, a solo presentation of the work of Dallas-based artist Nicolás González. The images display a range of emotions, moving from aggressive to ambiguous to pensive, a metaphor, perhaps, for the evolution of González as an artist.
The show, A Path Less Taken or El Camino Menos Tomado, is the first one-person exhibit for the Dallas native, Meadows grad (B.F.A. Art ’16), and inaugural recipient of the Mary Vernon Painting Prize. It represents the culmination of the young artist’s journey of self-realization, and ranges from drawings and paintings to design-influenced works created while studying at Brookhaven College and then at SMU. The show offers a look at where González has been, and where he’s going next.
Although his father initially discouraged him from pursuing an art degree, in 2009 González enrolled in his first art class at Brookhaven College just to see what would happen. “When I got there I really butted heads with my very first art professor – and now mentor – Chong Chu, who also happens to be an SMU alum,” he says. “I really wasn’t that interested in fine art and had never stepped foot in a museum. Chong encouraged me to take one of his painting courses. There, I discovered I was a natural painter and fell in love with the medium. One semester turned quickly into three years.”
Gonzalez spent that time taking three to four art courses each semester. His professors came to realize that he wasn’t taking any other subjects and had no intention of pursuing a degree. “Every professor that I’d studied with at Brookhaven pulled me aside and expressed their opinion about my drive and potential within the arts,” he said. “They told me to either take care of my academics, or they would ban me from taking any more art courses. So, in 2012, I dove deeply into my basic academics, and by 2014 I had earned my associate’s degree and was ready to apply to a four-year institution as a transfer student.” In fall 2014, as the recipient of a full scholarship, González began his studies at Meadows School of the Arts.
The intimacy of SMU’s program allowed González to work closely with a number of the program’s faculty, who encouraged him to take his painting in new directions. From Philip Van Keuren, González learned to transform narrative and poetry into painting; from Mary Vernon and Barnaby Fitzgerald, to think about why and what he was painting; from Michael Corris, to understand Systemic works of art; and from Mary Blackburn and Beatriz Balanta, to make his work political, and to consider how his life and background could enrich his work.
While at SMU González also began to pursue work in the community through an Engaged Learning Fellowship and a Maguire Public Service Fellowship. In 2015, he collaborated with Professor of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton to create and manage a summer program for children at Pike Park Rec Center, now named Santos Rodriguez Center. Pike Park, established in 1913, remains amidst the burgeoning commercial development on the western edge of downtown, in a neighborhood still referred to as “Little Mexico,” a reference to a history of Hispanic and Latinx residents over recent decades.
During the course of the summer program, which aimed to preserve the area’s cultural heritage and reconnect its residents to the area’s past, González worked with 40 children on completing a large collaborative painting. He taught them design principles by overlapping visual elements of Pike Park Rec Center and of Little Mexico, incorporating the children’s mark-making, simplified shapes and use of primary colors while talking to them about gentrification and change. The painting now hangs in the show at Umbrella Gallery.
Since his experience at Pike Park, González has gone on to teach at Dallas Can Academy (Texans Can Academy at Ross Ave.), Junior Players, Lumin Education, and in the Creative Solutions program run by Big Thought, working with students from elementary to high school. Although not currently teaching, he says it’s rewarding to watch the thrill students experience when they discover how to draw or paint. “To them it’s like magic in their hands, having the ability to create with their own imagination in a way that is influenced by their own reality. In turn, it makes my heart overwhelmingly happy to be able to empower them. There is no greater feeling than giving back to my own community.” Over the course of the next year he plans to work on obtaining his teaching certificate.
González is also currently working on creating and submitting an idea to the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs for a public artwork focused on the memory of Santos Rodriguez, a young boy shot and killed by a Dallas police officer in 1973. The project would be a collaboration between González and three additional artists/fraternity brothers of Sigma Lambda Beta, with whom he co-owns the online Gallery 86.
González’s paintings are highly symbolic, incorporating many images and motifs that represent influences in his life and choices he has made. A painting that, on first glance, seems to lack a decipherable logic becomes much more complex when the viewer learns of González’s past and his stories. Recent work has also become more political, something he credits to the influence of SMU faculty as well as the mission of his co-owned gallery. “I do see my work as having moved from more aggressive, to having a lighter touch,” he says. A Path Less Taken charts that journey while hinting at a growing career.
NOTE: A Path Less Taken will be on exhibit through June 2 at the Umbrella Gallery, 2803 Taylor Street in Deep Ellum. See more info.