Video Produced by Oliver I. Shipley
In February 2010, LA-Artist went to visit Heriberto F. Luna in his studio space, shared with Pola Lopez, at the 2 Tracks/Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park.
A canvas is spread across the wall of his studio. In its beginning stages, it is a representation of “The Universal Game,” a Mayan story about the elevation of human consciousness in the astral world. “The Universal Game” represents the evolution of the soul to a balance of the polar opposites, light (love, joy) and dark (fear, pain).
H. Luna’s work is finely detailed, with renderings of Mayan hieroglyphs, human eyes, and geometric shapes. The canvases emanate what Luna calls the “energy” of the colors with which he works. You can see them rippling rhythmically into space, like a stone dropping into water, or a beating heart. He uses few toxic materials, choosing instead an organic, citrus-based linseed oil as paint thinner. Luna works mainly in acrylic as a base, and oil over-laid onto the acrylic. “I like the texture of the oil,” he tells us. “I like it when someone wants to touch my work. Most of the time they don’t ask, but it would be okay if they did.” His use of color and texture is unique, and teacher that he is, Luna shows us how he does what he does. His paintings lift off the canvas. The colors have depth and dimensionality. They take on a vibrant life, one that viewers not only see, but can hear, feel, and smell.
Outside Luna’s studio door are gallery rooms exhibiting work created mostly by Latino artists. The Ave 50 Studio (also home of Luna’s work space, 2 Tracks Studio) is the kind of place that I feel at home inside. It hosts poetry open mics, art classes for youth of migrant workers, and donation-based classes for the public. In a city that is predominantly Latino, but where Latino/Chicano work is still marginalized by many LA curators and galleries, Ave 50 Studio is critical for its exhibition of and commitment to the Latino community: you go into this gallery and you can see your history on the walls; you can feel your cultural legacy bouncing in the room.
Luna spoke candidly about growing up in the avenues of Highland Park and the choice to become an artist: an opportunity and a decision that literally saved his life. “It was hard,” he says, “because I had the influence of gang members walking up and down the street. The influence was strong.” Luna described the ways that La Tierra de la Culebra (The Snake’s Earth) Art Park on Avenue 57 reached out to him when he was just a teenager. One woman named Tricia Ward followed him around for six months. He had to walk by the park on his way home. To avoid the outreach of Arts Corps LA, Luna would walk the five or six blocks around the Art Park to get home so that he could evade Tricia Ward’s invitations to come make and learn art. “I just wanted to kick it with my friends,” he told us, “but the Art Park was doing their outreach because they knew the community was dying.” Little more than a decade later Luna has triumphed in the LA art world. He has shown in countless galleries and he sells much of his work to collectors. Still, he is remarkably humble. He lives to give back to his community. His artists’ life began at La Culebra, and Luna has continued to have an ongoing presence with youth in Highland Park and around LA, teaching art to at-risk youth.
Today, Luna has serpent tattoos on the insides of each of his forearms. The ink went into his skin in one sitting, twice, so that the serpents were dark enough. Snakes are symbols of transformation in many cultures, and I am reminded of the ways that Luna himself had undergone a transformation because of a place named after a snake (La Tierra de La Culebra). “It changed me,” he told us, “It saved my life.”
After spending two hours in his studio, I feel a sense of admiration and love for H. Luna and his work in the world. It is amazing to see an artist so deeply felt by his community, where kids he teaches walk by his studio and yell “Luna!” at all hours of the day, knowing that a trusted friend and teacher is just inside, smiling, painting, inviting them in. In the middle of our interview, a boy and a man sat down in the door shaft and began to sing a Spanish song and play guitar. It was pouring rain. We all laughed and listened for a little while, until we realized we couldn’t proceed with the interview while the song was sung. A few minutes passed when we heard yet another knock at the door. A friend of Luna’s stopped by with another friend. Luna invited them in.
If there is any doubt that the arts are vibrant and collective in Los Angeles, H. Luna is a testament to the existence of a community here. Certainly, many artists in Los Angeles struggle with feelings of isolation; LA can be a lonely and difficult place. But there are people, like Luna, who continue to give back to the communities that made them who they are. There are artists, like Luna, who can sit and have a real conversation where at some points we are all nearing tears, an itchy lump in our throats, knowing that art really can save a life, make a neighborhood, and tell a history.
Article by Sofia Rose Smith, sofiarosesmith.com