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Remembering Alex Huerta

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Photograph by Lucky Wenzel

Alex Huerta in his Arts Factory studio

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and news that artist Alexander Huerta died the previous morning is spreading. The Downtown arts community is grieving over their friend and the owner of the Peace N Art Studio in the Arts Factory. People are weeping openly in conversation. They feel cheated, robbed. They share stories.

Huerta was so much more than a painter and a Downtown fixture: He was an immensely kind person, a community member operating without agenda or pretense, welcoming anyone into his studio, helping those who came into the Arts Factory and found themselves lost, encouraging and inspiring others who hadn’t seen themselves as creative people to explore that side of themselves.

To Huerta, who came to painting later in life — self-taught, he was so moved by viewing Picasso’s “La Reve” that he threw himself into painting and never stopped — art was something accessible to anyone, available at any age, and it could be life-changing. He was a testament to that, and he wanted more than anything to spread the message to others. 

He spoke about art, not through intellectual concepts but through the basic joy of discovery, of appreciating color, line, form, material, and the ability we have to create something from nothing. Every day was exciting because he had survived an imperfect life, an addiction, darkness, near-death, and was now making art and spreading the love.

His one-room, second-floor studio/gallery in the Arts Factory, with a window looking out over Main Street, was a hub of its own. Brian “Paco” Alvarez, Huerta’s friend and neighbor, recalled never seeing Huerta at home. “He would wake up in the morning, walk to the Arts Factory, and return late at night, seven days a week.”

The gallery was where Huerta spent most of his time for the 10 years leading up to his death due to complications from a health condition. He gave new artists their first shows. He gave others a place to belong when they came Downtown. His own artwork was often pop-art heavy, a compilation of images, words and text in mixed media, shown at his and other galleries around town. He worked in collage, paint, Sharpie, and just about anything else he could incorporate as material.

His passion and stayability in a community and city in constant change had earned him the unofficial title of ambassador of the Arts Factory — something his friend Dray Dizzle gets a small laugh from, even on a day of loss. Dray is an artist with shows and murals all over town, Huerta was looking for advice, and Dray, who goes by his first name, suggested visibility as a place to begin.

“He’d want to know how he could do a mural or show his art, I told him, ‘First, you gotta let people see your work.’ The next time I saw him, he was standing on Casino Center and Colorado with an easel and a couple of paintings.”

For First Friday? 

“No. That’s the thing,” Dray said. “There wasn’t a special event happening. He was just there, during the middle of day on the sidewalk, making his work seen.

“I saw him go from that to becoming a pillar in the Arts Factory. His passion was genuine, and he shared that with everybody.”

Huerta, who was born with only 20 percent of one kidney in his body, moved to Las Vegas with his family at 16 years old. After high school, he worked in the casino industry. By the time he was stopping in to get advice from Dray, he’d lost nearly everything from an addiction to alcohol — his job, his insurance, and the new kidney he’d received from a transplant a few years earlier. He was back on dialysis, broken and disillusioned. But if he was going to die, he’d say, “I’m going to do it painting every day.”

As a motivational speaker, who taught art to homeless youth at a shelter, he was raw, open and honest, admittedly a flawed human being who made huge mistakes, but had found peace, passion, love, and community anyway. He spoke in terms of epiphanies and self-love. “I’m not saying I’m great,” he said to them during a motivational talk. “I’m saying I feel my life is great. Twelve years ago, I hit rock bottom. I was really tired. My brain was tired. My soul was tired. My body was tired. I wasn’t living from the inside out.” Now, he says, “I took my pen from the world, and now I’m writing my own story.”

In one of many video interviews and features of Huerta posted on YouTube over the years, he stated, “I’m really excited and happy to be alive. And I get to make art.”

“The way he was able to handle his health was to live every day to the fullest, and to celebrate life as if it was his last day, and that’s why he was so special to the community,” Alvarez says. “His life wasn’t governed by what other people thought. He didn’t need acknowledgement. He just wanted to paint, to create, to make beautiful things.” He was also the one who coined “The World-Famous Arts Factory,” Dray said, with the theory that if you say it enough it will stick. 

Eddie E. “Cicifu” Canumay, one of Huerta’s close friends and a collaborator in the artist trio Three Baaad Sheep, with Huerta and Alexander Sky, said he first met Huerta at a First Friday fundraiser. 

“He invited me to paint in his studio. I was stuck in a rut, in an ‘artist’s block,’ so we decided to trade (work) as a way to let go of our expectations. Not knowing what he was going to paint on mine allowed me to let go of the outcome.”

From there, he says, it grew organically. “When we first started, we created individually on the pieces. As we progressed, we became one. We never talked about direction, or color palette. There were no rules. The aim was to let go of attachment and create.”

At first, they were polite and trying to give each other equal space on canvas. As time progressed, they started changing each other’s work, manipulating, and even covering it with other images. Soon, they were exhibiting and selling work by Three Baaad Sheep and had their own followings as individual artists and as a creative trio.

“We never stopped the whole time we were together,” Canumay says, adding that Huerta’s death was something they talked about when he was alive. The group decided that if something happened to Huerta, it would continue on and one year ago, Three Baaad Sheep rented the studio next to Alex’s Peace N Art in the Arts Factory. 

“We’re going to stay,” Canumay says. “It’s going to continue with Skye and myself. We’ll still include his name. We’re still going to continue the same type of work.  We’re planning on doing collaborations with his close friends. And work on some of his pieces.”

He adds, “There’s going to be a huge hole, a void. I can’t think of anyone who could fill his shoes. He taught by doing, by having the dedication to do it every single day.”

After Huerta died, Canumay says, they walked into his studio and found new works on his desk that he was in the middle of. Canumay says they will likely incorporate those pieces into new works for a February show, as well as some of Huerta’s other work. 

There are rumblings in the community of trying to find a way to pay the rent on his Peace N Art Studio so that it will serve as a memorial to Huerta and continue to inspire others. 

“He’s touched so many, Eddie says.” I’m getting calls from people I don’t even know. And then we found out he donated his body to science. Even in death, he’s helping others.”

Huerta is survived by his family; his girlfriend, Deana Khoshaba; his friends; the Downtown art community, and hundreds of others who crossed his path, then came to love him like a brother. A celebration of Life for Huerta will be held at the Arts Factory on February 14.  

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