It’s less than a week to go before Willo North Gallery opens its doors for its next show as Joseph “Sentrock” Perez and Martín Moreno sit side by side.
Their art rests on the ground, canvasses lining the walls, waiting to be hung for the month long exhibit. Luis Gutierrez, the third artist in the show, has work en route from California and gallery owner Kristin Shears can be heard securing its safe arrival over the phone.
Months of preparation will soon pay off as loose ends are tied together in the final days before the opening. The show, appropriately titled, “Generations: Inspirations of Bird City”, features the three artists whose ages and experiences span decades.
For Perez and Moreno, it’s part of a story that began over twenty years ago.
Moreno, who was born in Michigan in 1950, flourished in public art communities across the country before moving to Phoenix twenty-five years ago, bringing with him a vision and intent not yet cultivated in the Valley art scene. His murals commonly depict the struggles of Latino youth as he had seen growing up—images of drugs and violence permeating his work.
He developed as an artist in the late 60s/early 70s when federal funding for arts and humanitarian purposes was abundant, opening a school in Michigan using grants from these programs. Deriving inspiration from Riviera, Orozco, and Siqueiros— “Los Tres Grandes” of the Mexican mural movement, Moreno worked with others using public art as a tool for community outreach and educational programs.
“Eventually, the money dried up, the program went away, but the movement stayed and that whole philosophy of giving back to your community and creating art, creating art in communities and poor neighborhoods—that mentality stayed,” Moreno explains.
A whole generation of artists came of age during this time, moving across the country and bringing with them brands of this mentality. When Moreno arrived in Phoenix, it was a different city, but his message remained the same.
“I’ve always advocated public art, because that’s my life—that art should be available to all people regardless of where you’re from, whether you live in the barrios or in the neighborhood. Economic or social boundaries should have no part in your access to art,” he says.
This sentiment wasn’t exactly prevalent here at the time of Moreno’s arrival. Coming from Michigan, where he enjoyed a healthy reputation as a muralist, to Phoenix, where the muralismo movement was slow to arrive, was a difficult transition.
“At that time there were like a handful of artists that were doing [murals in Phoenix]. The investment in public art was not that great. We would use cheap paint and paint any way we could, anywhere we could, but still maintain the quality of the work, the integrity of the work,” Moreno says.
Today, murals depicting issues of social and racial justice in Phoenix are abundant and Moreno can be credited with laying the foundation for the new generation creating them. While the medium has changed from paintbrushes to aerosol cans as muralists heavily adopt stylistic elements of the graffiti movement, the messages are almost unchanged.
One experience in particular stands out to Moreno and took place during those early years when he spent time working with the students at Esperanza Elementary School in West Phoenix. His lessons on art history and methods culminated at the end of the twenty-day program into a mural painting on the school’s exterior, involving the students and incorporating them into mural’s subject matter.
It was evident that one of the students was particularly talented and engaged in his lessons, although also quiet and reserved, hardly speaking throughout the entire program despite Moreno’s efforts. On the last day of painting, Moreno recalls feeling a tug at his pant leg and turning around to see this student staring up at him.
“He looks up and he says, ‘Thanks’ . . . and that’s all I heard from him”, he recounts.
It was a small accomplishment, but one Moreno took with him, as this student became an intricate part of his lecture given all over the country.
The student was Joseph Perez, an Arizona native belonging to the new generation of artists Moreno helped to inspire. At the time, there was no way of knowing how large of an impact he would have on the first grader growing up in West Phoenix, which presented little opportunity for exposure to the arts.
“I was the kid that never talked and him telling my principal that [I was] gifted . . . before that I never felt like I was gifted,” Perez says. “I’m getting choked up . . . it means that much to me.”
Perez has certainly come a long way from those days. He relocated to Chicago in the past year to pursue a Bachelors of Art and Design from Columbia College and has since been making a name for himself in the new city—winning Bucket Feet’s latest contest, where his submission was chosen from hundreds to be the design for their next shoe. This is amidst the gallery openings, commissions, and murals he’s also been busy with.
“I might never have been an artist if it wasn’t for [Martín] coming, just because of my environment and the atmosphere. Nobody in my family was into art, nobody in my neighborhood was into art,” Perez says, “Growing up, pretty much every family member was into gangs, and that environment was intense . . . I felt like I was pretty voiceless.”
Sitting inside Willo North Gallery, Moreno nods his head as Perez tells this story.
“That is the power of art, right? Ultimately, that is what it’s supposed to do—give you a voice,” Moreno adds.
Now, more than twenty years after that initial encounter, Perez is displaying his art alongside the man who inspired him to speak up as a young boy. It’s a story that shows the tremendous effects Moreno and others like him have on the communities they work in.
Perez is well aware of this too, recognizing his responsibility to helping future generations, just as Moreno helped him, because while the style of art, locations, and people may differ, the messages of giving back to your community and creating art remain intact.