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Eduardo Carrillo: Within a Cultural Context

August 22 - November 22, 2009

MAH Catalog Articles:


Eduardo Carrillo

"Oh my gosh" was the phrase emitted when I walked into the studio of Eduardo Carrillo.  It was evening, dark and new, and I was alone with the brilliant color, strange and strong images, of large scale paintings by an incredible artist. Hidden in the in foothills of the coastal range of Santa Cruz, the Carrillo residence of Alison and Eduardo is a magical place. Discovery, celebration and astonishment continued to surface during my visits. Initially to meet his widow Alison and then an invitation to join others  -- curators, artists, patrons and friends and the Carrillo family -- in a birthday celebration of Eduardo's life and for me an introduction to the vision for Museo Eduardo Carrillo. Recently arrived from Charleston, South Carolina, and a museum career at one of the South's oldest and most distinguished art museums,  I was keenly aware of the importance of place in an artist's works and a museum's role to clearly define and shape a collection reflecting its constituencies.

Since these initial visits, I have learned more and more about Eduardo Carrillo's life and career. At the Museo it was my good fortune to meet John Fitz Gibbon, art historian, professor and collector.  That evening he presented an illustrated lecture highlighting California art and Eduardo's place and contributions at the end of the 20th century.  There is, to me, a superb example from his talk - "Down the Lane" - a museum quality work resonating with the lifestyle and spirit of California. The composition filled with action and figures skillfully executed by the artist and directly from his experiences in this special place, California. In fact this piece refers to a mecca for the surf culture in Santa Cruz, Steamer's Lane.  Additional knowledge surfaced through his contributions to Santa Cruz during his tenure at UCSC. With Alison and Betsy Andersen I was introduced to a large scale, spiritual mural filled with passion and executed with an amazing technique. The outstretched arms and enormous torso once filled the entire passageway of a breezeway in a building along the Pacific Garden mall in downtown Santa Cruz. Many have shared their experience of the mural with me. From photographs and standing in the space, my mind recreated the emotional impact upon viewers produced by the imagination and skills of Eduardo.

Finally, a visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas presented a glimpse into the artists' heritage, his ancestral land of San Ignacio in the Baja region of Mexico. Here was a unique geographic area visited by John Steinbeck and many other 20th century residents of California.  Here was Eduardo's family and culture depicted in numerous intimate studies and spontaneous watercolors.  Several paintings depicted his friends and relatives. The locale is brought to life through paintings like "Tio Beto on The Wall".  Not only was this a private glimpse into the background of this painter but an awakening to Eduardo's role as a teacher, providing services and encouragement for careers and success in his mother's  land.  A devotion and leadership exemplified by his passion and career in Santa Cruz.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and staff at the Museum it is our pleasure to showcase this Santa Cruz treasure and significant California artist by organizing Eduardo Carrillo: Within a Cultural Context. The accompanying educational programs and publication will share with a wider audience the life and impact of Eduardo Carrillo, an internationally renowned painter and muralist.  We are most grateful for the interest and generosity of many collectors who have shared Eduardo's work and to the many donors who generously provided resources to accomplish our goal through the efforts of Susan Hillhouse, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Museum and Betsy Andersen at Museo Eduardo Carrillo. And thank you Alison, so very much, for sharing the legacy of an amazing artist and vibrant person, Eduardo Carrillo. 


Paul Figueroa, Executive Director

The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center, Santa Cruz 


This conversation between Alison Carrillo and Susan Hillhouse took place at the MAH on May 1, 2009.

 Please describe the first time you were aware of Eduardo Carrillo. When and where did you meet him?

I first time I laid eyes on Ed Carrillo I was not impressed. He looked unkempt and unwell. The year was 1983, and he was a speaker at a relationship seminar that addressed the differences between men and women. I did not know who he was or anything about him. While he had the audience in stitches, I remember thinking he seemed troubled.


When did your courtship begin?

"This is Ed Carrillo," he said when I answered the telephone. It was 1987. I did not remember him and still did not know who he was, but he was amusing and charming and we talked on the phone every few days for many weeks. I began to look forward to his calls. He told me his name was Eduardo Leonardo Antonio Sanchez Zuniga Carrillo Leree.


You had bright and soulful telephone conversations.

Yes, we told our life stories. He was funny and musical and silly. I laughed my head off!  Who was this guy? He wooed me with the Latin Mass. In high school I had studied Latin, and read Virgil and Cicero. I had been raised in a devout Anglican household and the prayers and plainsong of the old Roman Mass meant something to me. He had been an altar boy at St. Michael's Church in L.A.  Epistles and missels, matins and lauds, he knew them all. In his rich warm voice Ed intoned the ancient sounds, and I drew closer. I had spent years practicing yoga and meditation. I was totally keyed into the spiritual and this was seductive. I learned that he loved and respected his mother. That meant everything to me. 


In June of 1987, you accepted his invitation for dinner. What did you think this time when you saw him? Were you impressed?

I caught a glimpse of him through the screen, dark, masculine, spent.

NO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O! I ignored it. Our lives would never be the same. 

After twenty two years of marriage, he and Sheila were split up and he was living in town. I knew nothing about his prowess as a painter; our conversations went elsewhere. But he made me feel comfortable. His humor was subtle and hilarious at the same time. He said things like, "What's good about me is I know what's good."  Or, "There isn't anything I can't do, it's just a matter of if I want to." I would soon learn that this was not mere bombast, but the truth. He was a humble fellow with a strong ego, tremendously aware.


 What was it like being married to an artist? The day-to-dayness of it?

When I think about my life with Ed I remember the deep peace and pleasure of our days. He so much loved the things he was doing; he loved the home life. He loved being loved.  The mood around the house was mirthful.

It meant a lot to him for us to have time together, and he took as many sabbaticals from the University as he could. Sometimes he was able to string two together, and with summers off, he would have months to paint, to travel to his studio in Baja, to work in his garden, to unwind and enjoy a simple life at home.

He was always learning something new. His willingness to not know, to be imperfect, to not have it all together, wielded a powerful influence on me. He was non-judgmental and gave me space to be fully who I am. Naturally, that inspired me to give him the same courtesy. 


What were Eduardo's work habits? Did he have a routine in the studio? Did he invite you in to work sometimes?

He was project oriented, and he always had things going on. But he didn't talk about his projects until he was doing them. One day he said, "I'm going to make some stools," and I said, "Oh! Stools, that's a great idea," thinking they were maybe someday. You know, he would just make things out of odd materials, totally made up design, so it was interesting, whatever he did, to see how he did it. And then at the end of the day, he walked into the house with a couple of stools, and I said "Oh, you made stoolstoday?!" He was like that, he didn't tell you if he was thinking about something or, you know, getting excited about something. But then when he was doing it, or had just done it, he would show it to you.

He crafted a series of music boxes for his family, beautiful, strong, wooden boxes, lined them with felt and put in little motors for music. And then he painted them with pastoral scenes in subtle muted tones.

He took a lot of pleasure in the things that he did everyday. He was always trying something new and different. He enjoyed being in the unknown and having to solve problems. That's what the canvas represented to him, infinite problems, decisions, resolutions.

Ed always had at least one oil in process in his studio. He would paint to a certain point and then settle into his big comfy chair and just look at it for the longest time, squinting and contemplating the work.

I took food to him in his studio. He was starting to pay attention to his diabetes so we did a lot of good eating. I modeled for him as much as I could. That was really some of our most fun days: modeling and eating and playing music. Ed was a natural musician. Very bold and rhythmic, completely untrained. He played his mandolin every day and sang the old love songs, Los Panchos, from the '40s. If there were any children or dogs around, they were welcome. His studio was a place he spent a lot of time and the door was always open. He often played Gershwin or Beethoven or Coltrane loudly while he painted. He didn't need to have outer silence necessarily; he could create an inner silence.   He was able to focus and concentrate.

I loved modeling for Ed. He was a rigorous observer. I liked looking at him looking at me. At first I was a bit intimidated. While he was taking my body apart with his eyes, what was he seeing? He was in his world of light and dark, warm and cool, space and depth ­ things I knew nothing about. I was in my meditation feeling the intimacy, feeling known. His concentration precluded conversation.

I was challenged to settle into a pose I could keep. An unaligned pose quickly turns to agony.  He was always protective of me and would call a break every 15 minutes. The earliest stages of a painting invariably looked horrible to me, very crude, amateurish, embarrassing even. He said, "painting is moulding," as he added another layer. He had confidence in his process and never worried about what it looked like.

He just went into beginner's mind and painted. When it was at a certain point he would bring it into the house, hang it in the living room and sit and look at it a long time.


Was the time spent working on watercolors his reflective time? Time for getting centered?  

Sure, the watercolors were a meditation in the morning. They did center him, and they got him focused where he wanted to be. He would wake up by 5 am, make a cup of coffee and sit down in the kitchen with his watercolors. Before breakfast, he would have completed two or three. I would come downstairs and find him warm, soft and quiet.


 So, he was an easy-going person with a sweet personality?

Yes, he wasn't a person who blamed others or had grudges or axes to grind, he didn't carry around stuff that interfered with his upbeat temperament. There were endless spontaneous moments of pure hilarity.

All he ever gave me was positive, kind appreciation. In the ten years I knew him, he never criticized me once. I never heard a single thoughtless remark come out of his mouth about me or anyone, really. He was a great listener and could always offer helpful insights. Our communication was loving and safe. That's how it felt with Ed, very emotionally safe. For me it was heaven.  


Did teaching sustain him emotionally and creatively as well as financially?

He enjoyed teaching; he enjoyed the students, and he was a very good teacher. He had a way of making simple and concise observations that were liberating to the students. He could see their strengths and was able to help them build on those strengths. He was positive and kind with them. Students are just out of the cradle, so to speak, and he understood that their egos were fragile, and he wanted to inspire them to paint.


As a serious painter, was he patient and open to having students who were non-art majors in his class?

He didn't think art was just for serious, good painters. He really felt that everyone has creativity and lots to give.  I know he respected and genuinely liked students. There was a lot of warmth both ways; he invited them to our home and made sure they always felt welcome and special. It was really lovely. 


What did he not enjoy about teaching?

One thing he didn't like about the University was the committees, and all the politicking. That was not his cup of tea; but after twenty-five years he got quite good at it, he got good at carrying the load lightly, so that he didn't let the pressures that built up there weigh him down too much. At the end of the day he could leave them behind.

I know he was disturbed at some of the changes that occurred over the years and angered at persistent efforts to take away funding for drawing and painting. There were other programs coming in at the time. He thought students needed to know how to draw and paint, no matter what area of art they wanted to focus on. And, overwhelmingly, the students wanted the basic courses. But he had to struggle against the forces to keep the meager funding allotted to his field.  

He was always eager to come home. He'd come rolling in before 5 o'clock, take off his school clothes, put on his painting clothes, kiss me hello, share a little something, then go out to his studio and paint before dinner.

When he was offered early retirement, he did not accept.  At that point he entered into a really rewarding phase; the last five years with his students were the best, very special. 


What else would you like people to know about Ed?

Eduardo was not only a great painter, but a great man. He loved painting, his family, San Ignacio. He spent no time promoting himself. During his dying days he said that he figured the most important thing is to help people. Well, he helped me and just about everyone else he knew, in one way or another. He was a unique blend of discipline and commitment with an unrelenting humorous view of the world. As Francisco Alarcon said so perfectly, "un verdadero caballero con la locura que cura", a true gentleman with the madness that heals. I miss him. 


Susan Hillhouse

Curator of Exhibitions and Collections

The Museum of Art & History



People's actions often draw our attention.

Eduardo was one such person, so filled with attentiveness and flights of fancy.

His art and company compelled not only me, as his student and later his friend, but all those with whom he came into contact.   

We wanted these exhibitions to convey his majestic vision and the fullness of his companionship.   I feel so gratified by its realization.

And so again, I am reminded of how the actions of individuals have so much to do with this coming about.  

Alison Carrillo's vision and that of our Board, especially John FitzGibbon, gave structure to Museo Eduardo Carrillo and defined its goal of bringing Eduardo's art and generous legacy into the world.   Without reservation, I have only heard affirmation from people when they hear about these plans.   Artists, writers, curators, friends and family stand together in the belief that it is a right and fitting endeavor.

We have to thank Paul Figueroa, Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center, for initiating this exhibition and  Susan Hillhouse, Curator of  Exhibitions and Collections, for giving it life.  Thanks to the whole staff at MAH, especially Paula Kenyon for their seamless work on this project.  

A meeting at Alison's with Robert Poplack, Stephanie Sanchez and Deborah Kirklin initiated exhibition plans at their college galleries and so we are delighted to share Eduardo's art with the visitors to the Weigand Gallery, College of Notre Dame de Namur, Belmont, California  and the Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery at  Santa Rosa, California.  

We wish to thank  the Boards of  the  Museum of Art & History @ the Mc Pherson Center,  the Weigand Gallery and Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery, for their behind the scene commitment, service and vision which shapes our public faces.  In particular, we pause to remember Zeb Stewart  (1942  - 2009), painter and advocate for the arts, whose extensive Board service, (1990-2009),  to the Weigand Gallery ended all too soon.

Thank you to the donors of art and resources for their tangible support.  To our designer Marc D'Estout and photographer RR Jones who were delightful to work with and always provided a hearty laugh.

To the writers and poets, whose creativity gave us a lens through which to enjoy the work with our other senses.   They offer a pathway for our contemplation.  

To Alison, whose ease and insight always is expansive.

And to my family, John and Kyra, and Wendy and Donald. 


Betsy Andersen


Museo Eduardo Carrillo

Santa Cruz, California


(above:  Eduardo Carrillo, Leda, 1996, Oil on canvas. Collection of Alison Carrillo)



(above:  Eduardo Carrillo, Two Brothers Fighting, 1986, Oil on canvas)


(above:  Eduardo Carrillo, Los Tropicanas, 1972-3, Oil on canvas)

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