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DocuChronicles – Elsa Almaraz Flores on Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire

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DocuChronicles is a blog dedicated to independent documentary cinema by filmmaker Marjorie Sturm. It includes a mix of reviews, interviews, and longer pieces. 

By Marjorie Sturm.

The 2019 documentary Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire portrays the dramatic life of an artist. Co-directors/artists Elsa Almaraz Flores (whose late husband is the subject) and Richard Montoya (a co-founder of San Francisco’s Culture Clash) traverse a lot of psychological and historical ground as they trace Carlos Almaraz’s journey – a Mexican-born, bisexual, Chicano activist and practicing artist who died of HIV after starting a family and having a child.

I was aware of Carlos Almaraz as I saw one of his paintings at the DeYoung Museum’s Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, a 2006 collection of painting by Cheech Marin (who also participates in this documentary). Later in 2007, I saw another work of his in an exhibition in Madrid, Painters of Aztlán, a survey of contemporary Chicano painting which my own partner, composer/musician Ernesto Diaz-Infante, opened up with a musical performance. So when I saw that there was a documentary on his life, I was naturally curious. The film is open and brave, one I believe would be pleasurable to even those who had no recognition or previous interest in his work. As well, the synergy of the paintings, sometimes animated, with the music and musical direction of Louie Pérez (of Los Lobos) is mesmerizing and emotionally moving unto itself.

There’s a solid archival interview with Carlos Almaraz that flows through the film, and the viewer gets a strong sense of his articulate and inspired spirit. Co-director Elsa Almaraz Flores is also a captivating presence in the documentary, where she generously shares her intimate perspective. She did so in this interview with me from her home in Kauai:

Do you want to tell us when you first got inspired to create this documentary? What was the genesis?

When I fell in love with Carlos and realized he would be leaving the planet, we had a talk shortly before his death (fall of 1989). I asked him what he wanted me to do with the art. He said that I would know what to do. That put a big responsibility on my shoulders. I realized that he was on the precipice of making it nationally and internationally when he left us prematurely to this insidious disease. So along with my grieving and now having to run the business (which was now booming with all the sharks in the water after his death) as well as being a single mom all at once I was overwhelmed but dedicated to him. I took it on to keep him in the public eye, I knew that I needed to and wanted to keep his legacy alive so I spent most of my professional life tending to his ongoing career and meeting curators and collectors and mounting exhibitions.

I made 3 devotional promised to myself that I wanted to complete for him: complete a book, a major museum retrospective, and a movie. All three were completed this past year, 30 years after his transitioning! Now I can get back to my work as a painter.

The movie idea actually came via a message I received from Carlos at his gravesite about 15 years ago. At that time I was focused with writing and publishing a book on his life and work. I was hitting some dead ends so I sat by his grave on Kauai one day and asked “What now Carlos?,” as clear as day I heard his voice in my ear saying, “Start the screenplay.” HA! It was brilliant, Carlos knew that more people would see a movie than pick up a book. And for me it was a no brainer, I am a visual artist, not a writer. I would really enjoy this work! So began the work on the doc.

I had worked on the movie for 10 years, spent a lot of my money in research and development and hiring assistants. I amassed lots of materials and knew nothing about making a film except trusting my instincts. I lost a key collaborator and put the project on the shelf until a new team came to me 3 years ago and we were able to use all those research materials to put together his film. I know Carlos is happy.

It seems that Carlos’ journey is one of healing, even if HIV got him (and many others of his generation) at the end of his life. Was art and expression his healer? Professional help that he found? Your love as a healer? A mix? Your thoughts?

Screen Shot 2019-05-19 at 11.36.02 AMYES! All of the above~ I always called Carlos an urban shaman and we still affectionally call him “Merlin.” His work was transformational, not only for himself, but for his viewers and they did indeed serve as healing modalities. The work continues to change lives as I hear testimonials all the time.

Mostly his life’s work was the vehicle for healing himself through his own hero’s journey as you witnessed in the film—all his crashes and burns, the demons he grappled with, his return to his community with new gifts to offer and the redemption he received, creating the family he had always wanted. All of these were his healing process.

Consciously, he was a seeker and consistently studied and worked towards his own self realization. He was a voracious reader and studied everything! He was very interested in psychology and earned an additional Bachelors Degree in Psychology. He was a Jungian, loved that Jung appreciated art in his epic work “Man and His Symbols,” and of course Carlos loved the work of Joseph Campbell with his intense interest in cultural mythology.

He was in therapy for over 20 years of his life when I met him and his LA shrink encouraged a slow courtship for us. That went out the window when John Lennon died and he moved in with me that day. “Life is too short,” he said. After our union he was complete. He did not journal or do anymore therapy, but continued his spiritual explorations.

The work itself is imbued by this underlying quality and iconic imagery. The viewer often feels but does not realize the depth of what is below the surface of his works. They often seem whimsical, but the shadows are juxtaposed within that whimsey. There are profound messages within that whimsey. That is the medicine he provided for himself and for us. He was also an amazing tarot card reader!

Whatever he was facing during his life was worked out through the work.

I loved the part in the documentary where you elaborate on Carlos’ experience of feeling repressed by the minimalist art movement. I think it’s something many artists can relate to in the sense of feeling out of sync with a trend or aesthetic. And/or how it relates to their identity or gender-that they can’t fake something that isn’t intrinsic for them despite wanting access or opportunity. Do you have suggestions for other Chicano artists or artists today who are trying to get their voice out there but feel like they just aren’t being heard?

That’s a tough one. My own experience has been quite difficult to be acknowledged as a strong artist in my own right and even as filmmaker. I had and continue to be dismissed as an artist and often seen only as “the wife of Almaraz…”

Carlos would also say that art trends always circle back so if you are a certain kind of artist (abstract, imagist, surrealist…) and you are feeling out of the “trend” that you should keep doing your work and not try to “fit into the market” because those styles will eventually return. Just do your work everyday.

Carlos broke many barriers for other artist in the Chicano community. We didn’t elaborate as much as I would have liked in the film but he was given a very hard time when he chose to leave the movement for his personal studio work. He was called a sell-out and coconut. Articles by Chicanos were published that bashed him. Yet after his entering the mainstream gallery circuit, many artists followed suit and new opportunities were created for future generations. Carlos enjoyed creating this dialogue in the community and in the press so that we would evolve out of our limited thinking.

I feel that it was harder back then because Chicano iconography was being born or reborn and if you didn’t make the kind of imagery you were excluded from “Chicano” exhibits. Today it’s easier to compete in the art market because the marginalization, although still existing, is not as focused on being “Chicano” or “gay” or “feminist.” Those labels are still out there, but back in the 80’s the cultural renaissance was so new and so strong that it was much more black and white and harder to cross over.

This was my experience. My work was much more autobiographical, and I did not produce stereotypical Chicano imagery so I was excluded for many important exhibits that launched many young Chicano art careers. The times back then were also very sexist (still is in the art world), and it felt like a “boys club.” The Chicano community was especially macho and more exclusively “a boys club” than the mainstream art world, so much so that I retreated and did not engage with the Chicano art collectives. I had battled machismo all my life. It did not support most women, especially if you were talented.

Carlos was always very inclusive and mentored countless young artists. Yet he did have problems with my own talent, which many say was stronger than most Chicano painters that were receiving acknowledgment. It was rumored that I painted like a man, and Carlos joked that I should use a fake male name. The ONLY fight we would ever have is when curators from around the world would come to Carlos (the ambassador of Chicano Art) to ask him to recommend other Chicano artists for important shows. He would recommend every Juan, Fulano y Mengano (Tom, Dick and Harry) but would always ignore me. When I called him on it he would say, “It’s a conflict of interest, you’re my wife.” I got into it with him and argued that we were peers first. It was disheartening to me and really derailed my painting career. Shortly before his transition he confessed that he was afraid the I “would become more famous” than him, and our joke was from A Star is Born. He’d quote the line, “Mr Lester, Mr Lester!” and he would be reduced to being “Mr. Flores.” There was nothing I could say to convince him that that would never happen. He was 14 years older than I was and already famous. It was a demon he was not ever able to shake. I wish we could have had a sequence in the film that talked about women artists and partnerships with their mates and the “K Complex” which I coined in the writing below. Here is an excerpt from “Domestic Reflections,” an essay written during a recent two person show during his retrospective run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Elsa shared that one of the most difficult parts of living and working alongside Carlos was that she was often not “fully seen” as an artist in her own right by curators or critics. In an art review in the Los Angeles Times for a two person exhibit Carlos and Elsa had on view the critic dismissed her work and swooned over Almaraz singling out one piece in particular and writing how the large painting demonstrated Almaraz’s “mastery of painterly exaggeration…”, it turned out it was Elsa’s painting.

As a feminist this is something Elsa has coined as “The K Complex”, referring to Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning among other women artists who lived in the shadows of their famous husbands in what was then, and still is, a predominately male dominated art world, sometimes women only receiving acknowledgment for their work posthumously, if lucky.”

You clearly expressed a deep and full picture of Carlos, not just as an artist but as a human being. His paintings are mesmerizing, but his spirit and soul equally moving. Were there particular events that triggered his activism that you stumbled along within his journals? Or the zeitgeist with Cesar Chavez? Thoughts?

DSCN9554Yes, what triggered him the most was his near death experience 20 years prior his actual death. That changed him in many ways that we discussed in the film. That along with the immediate death of his little brother Ricky made him reevaluate his old life as a depressed alcoholic and he was reborn. I like saying he became a “Born Again Chicano.” Chicanismo (the ideology behind the Chicano movement which is based on a number of important factors that helped shape a social uprising in order to fight for the liberties of Mexican-Americans) was rising with our cultural resurgence and Gilbert Lujan, aka Magu, tried hard to indoctrinate him into becoming a Chicano artist. Carlos wanted nothing to do with it but instead went straight into the trenches alongside Cesar Chavez. As he gained recognition as a leader (a very well spoken, well-traveled, well read and charismatic) he gave in and began organizing Chicano artists and making political art, murals and periodicals (Con Safos and Chismearte) until he was ready to transform again. He only identified as a Chicano artist for 7 years. Chicanos will hold him there forever I think, and that’s okay as long as Carlos is also recognized as the American Artist he had always intended to become. Now the LGBTQ community have discovered his sexual past and they, too, are laying claim to Carlos. That’s awesome. I believe he belongs to the world.

Carlos would alway say that he would completely transform into something else every 7 to 10 years. In tracking his timeline, it was on the dime!

The straw that broke the camel back came through the grapevine when he had heard a rumor about his friend, mentor and well respected LA curator Josine Ianco Starrels. Josine was putting together a group show, and when Carlos was mentioned, she said, “He doesn’t make art anymore, he makes magazines.” That reality hit him like a ton of bricks, and he realized that she was right. That comment, along with the synchronicity of Luis Valdez telling him he should leave the movement and do his own work, was his call to action. The last 10 years of his work are the works we all know him for. His mastery, iconography and personal trajectory produced 1000’s of masterworks. He was one of the most prolific artists I knew, and one can only imagine where he would be right now.

Regarding his journals, they are both prophetic and profoundly revealing. I donated them to the Archives of American Art and they can be accessed online. Somehow some of the entries were as if he was speaking to us directly, as if he had known we would be reading them one day. He was one of the most open people I had ever met, freely sharing about his life and challenges. I knew the journals were a way to have Carlos tell his story since our live footage of Carlos was limited. During the early development for the film I knew we needed Zack de la Rocha to do the reading, not only because he was internationally known, but because Carlos knew him as a child (Zack’s dad was one of Los Four, Beto de la Rocha). As well, the timber in Zack’s voice was similar to Carlos.’ It was again “no accident” as Carlos liked to say, that I ran into the reclusive rock star on the street the very next day. When I asked him if he would help, he broke down in tears saying how much Carlos meant to him. It was beautiful and magical. When Zack read Carlos’ manifesto, “An Aesthetic Alternative” (his masters thesis at Otis Art Institute), we asked Zack to “rage it” as he was known for in his former band “Rage Against The Machine.” It was a match made in heaven.

I know that it can be challenging (slightly painful?) to have to leave out important, fascinating, or just quirky footage and information from a documentary, particularly when you are as close to a subject as your are. Is there something that you want to share that you feel like you didn’t get to express?

I think I expressed some of those things in the answers above- mostly his fear that he would become “Mr Lester” and the difficulties and community criticism that he experienced when he left his Chicano movement art. I really wished we could have covered the incredible humor that Carlos possessed. I was a painter and fine art photographer during the time I had with Carlos, so many of the stills that depict his humor are being used in the film. I wish it was modern times, as I would have had a ton of iPhone videos to help tell the story as there was in the Amy Winehouse documentary. My co-director Richard Montoya is a playwright and comic with a longtime collective called “Culture Clash” which was born in the Bay Area. I wanted Richard to build a sequence on Carlos as the tragic comic and use the theme of “il buffo” which was a recurring figure that Carlos played with in his work.

Carlos felt that he was that tragic comic, and that artists were the court jesters for society. In life he always had us laughing out loud and would break out into song or would dance a little jig. That is missing and many other pieces were left on the cutting room floor because we ran out of time. The producers were pressuring us to keep it short.

Can you talk about how Carlos’ death from HIV and how his susbsequent death affected the community in regards to his sexuality? How do you contextualize this with today’s more accepted notions of queerness with the Latinx generation?

Carlos was stricken with AIDS early on in the history of the disease. It was taboo and there was much fear and misinformation surrounding the disease. Carlos now was married with a child, and his concern was first and foremost for his daughter Maya. We did not want her ostracized by rumor and innuendo. We have many gay friends and we were guided by some to seek support in the gay community of West Los Angeles. So we went to the Louise Hay’s “Hayrides” on Thursday nights where there were healers and meditations for those suffering from a disease that had no cure – that was then a death sentence. We participated in AIDS art auctions and events. We spent much support times with other friends and artists who were diagnosed at the same time as Carlos, all of whom died. We kept it on the downlow because we also had a few public art commissions that would have been threatened. It was a complicated and fragile time. As far as treatment, all that existed was AZT, which we now know was poisoning an already weak immune system. I had done some research and followed leads to find underground experimental drugs that helped for short periods before he would wind up in the hospital again. If he had only lived for another 2 years he would have been alive to receive the “cocktail” that allows people with AIDS to live a long healthy life. Carlos knew that the abuse he had given his body as a young man is what also compromised his immunity. He said that his body had been so beat up that it wasn’t strong enough to battle this insidious disease. He went quick, within 2 years of his diagnosis.

The way it effected his community, at that time within the circle of artists and friends in Los Angeles, was one of complete shock and bewilderment. Most did not know of his public persona as one identifying as bisexual. So they all assumed that he was a needle user, which he wasn’t. This film will further surprise those who still do not know how he contracted AIDS.

Howard Fox, the curator of the recent LACMA exhibit of Carlos’ work, often asked why his sexual preference was never discussed in the community or by critics in Carlos’ lifetime. My only answer was that “no one asked,” and I would add “does it matter?” In my opinion, it’s all about the work. The political answer would be that Carlos was so immersed in his renewed cultural identity in the 70’s that the sexual conversation had little room in that context. He would not have shied away from those questions but they never came up. He was a hardcore Chicano activist in those 7 years and the gay component of his life wasn’t important at that time. He wrote extensively about his sexual development in his journals and anyone close to him knew about his sexual explorations, but it didn’t seem to matter. His energy was all that mattered and it was formidable. He swept you up in it. It was all about art and politics of that present moment in time – the personal transformation and self-awareness he was committed to in those days.

Some ask if we were trying to “reform” Carlos from gay to straight and the answer is absolutely not. No one who knew us would ever question this. Carlos knew well what he wanted in every step of his life experience. Sometimes there was “youthful folly” (he loved the I Ching), and as in every hero’s journey, he repeatedly crashed and burned. As I expressed earlier, he had a fearless and insatiable curiosity that catapulted him forward in every period of his life.

I knew that Carlos was bi-sexual when I began to date him. A few Chicano friends would approach me to “warn me,” assuming that I did not know. The bottom line is that I fell in love and knowingly and willingly married a bi-sexual man in the time of AIDS. It was a tragic and unexpected ending to a charmed life we shared but I would do it all over again to have had those 10 years with him.

I am happy that more communities like the Dreamers/LatinX and the LBGTQ+ communities around the world can now rediscover him. In a bigger sense, Carlos WAS a Dreamer, one of the first. He came to this country as a Mexican immigrant and Dreamed to become an American Artist. This is the storyline we are projecting in his memory.

Do you plan to continue festivals screenings and then distribute online? Theatres?

Screen Shot 2019-05-19 at 11.36.24 AMYes currently we are doing film festivals, we had our World Premier in January at the Palm Springs International Film Festival which was great, we got “Best of Fest.” We will continue our festival run this year and hope that we make a splash so that someone like HBO, Amazon, Netflix would buy the film We would like international distribution as well, and this film which encompasses SO MUCH (AIDS,LGBTQ, Child molestation, Art, addiction, mental health…) needs to be in Universities everywhere.

I would love to sell the movie to a cable company and do a 3 part mini series. There is SO MUCH MORE to his story that was not told. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

On that subject, part of my devotional work for Carlos’s legacy was to try and rebrand him into what he aspired to be for most of his life – an “American Artist.” Unfortunately, we have not had much luck being selected for mainstream film festivals. Interest from the Latino subsidiaries of companies like Netfilx want to include him into their “Latino programming.” No one talks about Basquiat as a Latino artist. This was always a dilemma for Carlos (except during his Chicano Art days) but I would love nothing more than have him represented in mainstream programming so people of every ethnic persuasion would be able to see this film.

Anything else you want to share? Something else you are working on?

Thank you for asking, right now I am still working for Carlos (LOL!). I am refining the film, raising finishing funds and creating new music for it. I worked so hard for the past 2 years, 22 hour days (you know how that goes) so I am finally enjoying some time without deadlines. My entire nervous system needs to be reset.

I have also been very involved with a neighborhood disaster this entire year where a 500 storm flooded my neighborhood on Kauai and closed our roads (50 inches of rain in 24 hours). I had a lake house, so recovery has taken a lot of my time as well. My community service involves becoming the social media director of my hood. Our road is still not fixed, but the last year has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that tourists cannot come to our neighborhood, so we are enjoying a sleepy Old Hawaii phase with empty roads and beaches. We have strongly bonded as a community. It’s been very beautiful and gratifying.

The last thing I did while finishing the repairs on my house last month was to build myself a small painting studio in my screened-in lanai here. So should I get a big show somewhere I can create small works here in Kauai and larger works in my studio in Los Angeles. This next phase really excites me as I can finally get back to myself as a painter. It was always my first love and probably what I am best at. I don’t know what the new work will look like, but I’m super excited to see what is conjured from my life experiences. After all, I’m turning 64 years young next month!

Marjorie Sturm is an award-winning filmmaker whose films span a broad perspective: narrative, documentary, and experimental. Her documentary The Cult of JT LeRoy won two prizes and five nominations for best feature documentary in 2015. Sturm works as a professor of digital story-telling and has created social activism videos for Consumers Union. She lives in San Francisco with composer Ernesto Diaz-Infante and their two children.

Read also:

I Made the Documentary The Cult of JT LeRoy, and I Must Discuss Savannah Knoop’s New Film

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