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Fidencio Duran

They were poor, but they had each other. No TV, no fancy toys and none of the modern things most kids take for granted. Fidencio Duran lived with his eight brothers and a sister on a tenant farm in south Texas. Dad broke his back picking cotton, corn and maize in the sticky, hot fields. Mom cooked every meal from scratch, refusing to cut corners and sang while she sewed quilts. The kids took school seriously, played sports and sat outside at night talking and watching the weather roll by. Instead of video games and cartoons, a young Fidencio learned to soak in life and appreciate what matters most – long weekends with his extended family, birthdays, church festivals and some alone time with nature. Duran’s memories are like fingerprints, and his art holds the key to his identity.

There’s a simple, yet moving serenity to Fidencio’s work… grandma giving grandpa a haircut in the driveway, friends running at night in a rose garden, brothers playing soccer or shooting bows and arrows. Fidencio’s entire body of work is made up of scenes from his childhood. The people in the paintings are elongated, the smiles bigger, their environment brighter because that’s how kids see the world. There’s an innocence and charm to Dad flying kites with his sons, uncles enjoying a game of cards and Grandma cooking corn tortillas on the woodstove. The paintings are more than moments in time; they serve as intimate portraits about living the American dream.

Fidencio Duran now lives in Austin and has earned a major following in the Southwest. He just turned 50 years old and has come a long way from the farm, but the narrative of his journey lives on in his work. That heritage is on display in museums across the state including the Grace Museum in Abilene, and is also in some major private collections. Working in Texas’s most art savvy city has provided him with some unique opportunities. Thanks to the city’s Art in Public Places initiative, where 2% of the budget for new projects goes to artwork, Duran has been able to showcase his work in a way that is completely accessible to people of all walks of life. “To me that’s what it’s all about,” Duran explains. “Art has a bigger impact if it’s public.” In fact, six major commissions are on permanent display throughout the state capitol. Two twenty-five foot tall panels grace the walls of a recreation center and tell the story of the beginnings of the Mexican-American community in Austin. His other murals at an Episcopalian mission, children’s hospital, bus station, and power plant tell stories about life and humanity. The works are for, and inspired by, every man and woman and the collective experience of growing up in a family and a community.

http://weeklywire.com/ww/01-25-99/austin_arts_feature1-1.jpgDuran’s best known work is a nine panel piece that stretches the length of the check-in counter at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It’s called The Visit and is a summation of a Sunday at his grandparent’s home after church. “It’s a place I considered to be safe and secure,” he says. “I thought that atmosphere would be great for, not only the mood of the airport, but also its purpose. In my view, the main function of an airport is for people to go visit family or friends.” The panels were painted like a movie is shot. It features one location, but from different points of view as if the director was swinging the camera around 360 degrees and zooming in on the action that afternoon – two young boys dressed in their Sunday best enjoying slices of watermelon, girls jumping high to spike a volleyball over a clothesline net, while other cousins and siblings play Frisbee, adults engage in animated conversation, and a young boy gets his first dance lesson.

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The dreamlike brushstrokes of the Surrealists influenced Duran’s work. His palette and fantastic settings are often linked to one of his artistic heroes Salvador Dali. The vivid subject matter and scale with which Fidencio works is reminiscent of the Mexican muralist of the 1930’s and 40’s. But his major influences were not painters, instead, musicians who sang about what matters in life. “I can relate to what Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are saying much more than I can with visual artists,” Duran explains. “They sing about small towns and everyday situations that transcend race or class.”

“You can tell stories in many different ways,” Fidencio explains. “My dad used to tell us little parables about what happens if you’re greedy or if you do this or that. He always wanted us to know where we came from, and all those folk stories always stuck with me.” Duran’s parents migrated from central Mexico in the late 1920’s. With little or no education of their own, they put all their energy into raising their children. While some families became migrant laborers and headed off to northern states each summer, the Durans stayed put. It meant less money for the family, but it planted roots, allowed the kids to go to one school and created a stable schedule. Mom and Dad did whatever they could to make ends meet, and because of their hard work and commitment, they watched all ten of their children earn high school diplomas – five now have college degrees.

All of the older Duran boys spent time in the fields to help put food on the table. Fidencio was lucky to be young because by the time he became old enough to pick cotton, the family’s financial pressures had eased. Therefore, his recollection may be a little more romantic than others. “My older siblings would see it very differently,” he says. “They were working. To them it was not fun and games.” Fidencio had the luxury of simply soaking in all his surroundings. “Nature offered great solace and solitude for me. Coming from a big family, sometimes you want to go out and venture on your own. I remember the color of the soil, how deep bluish black it was and all the wide open space. The native grass would grow over your head in the spring and summer. I remember listening to all the sounds – frogs, crickets, insects. The light and shadows would change from moment to moment, and then I always enjoyed the stars coming out at night.”

Fidencio kept a sketchbook in the 4th grade where he did several landscapes. The teacher let him design the classroom door at Christmas that year. As he got older, he began experimenting with acrylics, watercolors, and oils and started painting football players and other figurative work. “In 10th grade I knew I had to paint,” Fidencio recalls. “I drew pieces of other artist’s work, photographs or illustrations that I liked. After that, I started putting all those together into my own composition.” During his first year at the University of Texas, Duran crafted his signature style. But painting representational scenes from his childhood certainly was not the rave back then. “I knew there were Chicano artists in California, and of course Latin American art and Rivera, and of course you can think about the Mexican muralists, but when I was in school nobody else was really doing anything like that. There were some figurative artists, but a lot of it was very abstract or conceptual, minimal. That’s fine, but that’s not what I wanted to do.” He refused to compromise on subject or setting, and for him, it’s paid off. Duran is the only artist in the history of the Dallas Museum of Art to win all three of its coveted artistic merit awards.

Success hasn’t changed him. Fidencio is as mild-mannered as they come. He speaks softly without pretense, and lives in a modest home with Debbie, his wife of ten years. A large American flag is attached to the garage, and a 3-foot tall, white, wire longhorn with orange Christmas lights sits out in the driveway on UT football Saturdays. A piano takes up space in their living room. Fidencio just learned how to play one of his favorite songs, a version of the Cuban poem “Guantanamera” by José Martí. He spends most of his time in his studio – a converted second bedroom in the home. The paint is kept nice and neat, there are no messes. Down the hall, an overflowing jar of pennies anchors his bedroom floor. The coins are symbols that add up to so much more than money. They signify his appreciation for struggle, overcoming adversity and family sacrifice. Duran takes nothing in life for granted, “cause you never know when you might need those pennies,” he says.

The road to prosperity was never straight for Fidencio Duran. The curvy roads and driveways appear in his paintings for a reason. The tenant farms where he grew up that once dotted the countryside in south Texas don’t exist anymore. Machines now harvest the crops. While the culture has changed, life for migrant workers in Texas remains tough. Fidencio’s dad just turned 92. Grit and courage can still be seen in his eyes. Mom is in her mid-80’s and the couple has been married for more than 60 years. Duran thanks his parents everyday and has dedicated his entire body of work to the family that gave him so many great memories. “My art is really about the idea that you can find beauty everywhere,” Duran says, “that everybody’s life is significant in one form or another. You may live in a small community, yet those individuals have fascinating lives.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

One Comment

  1. Danny Camacho says:

    Thanks for the article on Duran. In a sense his art ‘speaks for itself”’ yet like produce in the supermarket, you appreciate it more when you know some back-story as to how it got to you

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