Celebrating Ernest Garcia: Artist, Teacher, Activist

Aug 27, 2012 | 1 comment

Ernest Garcia self-portrait

Ernest Garcia self-portrait

The memorial celebration for Ernest Garcia took place at the Albuquerque Museum of Art – a place he loved to visit every week. A classical string trio played as more than 60 people gathered on Sunday afternoon to remember man of passion and intellect, an artist, a teacher and a union organizer.

His art was on display in the lobby of the museum and in the community room where the service was held. A framed self-portrait stood on the stage with several flower arrangements. Donna Swanson, a friend, colleague and 17-year president of the Central New Mexico Community College Employees Union that Ernest help start, reminded everyone to silence their cell phones before the event started.

“I suspect most of you share the knowledge that Ernest was not a religious person,” she said. “In fact, he was rather decidedly NOT a believer in a higher power, heaven, hell, and all that. Some of you, I’m sure, have this in common with him. And others of you do not share in his non-belief.”

“But, I believe what we can agree on is what a devoted, passionate, truly good life Ernest led. I am fairly certain he would be rather annoyed that we are even talking about this, but funerals and memorial services exist to not only honor the deceased, but also give comfort to those left behind.”

Ernest died on July 18, only two and a half weeks after receiving a prostate cancer diagnosis. The aggressive cancer spread quickly and he died at home on hospice. Everyone was shocked at the swiftness of his passing.

“Ernest chose a life dedicated to family, friends, students, and in his artwork, beauty. He was passionate about human rights and human dignity, for everyone,” said Donna. She shared a reading culled from Ernest’s collection of writings: “21 Suggestions for Success” by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

1.    Marry the right person. This one decision will determine 90% of your happiness or misery.
2.    Work at something you enjoy and that’s worthy of your time and talent.
3.    Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully.
4.    Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know.
5.    Be forgiving of yourself and others.
6.    Be generous.
7.    Have a grateful heart.
8.    Persistence, persistence, persistence.
9.    Discipline yourself to save money on even the most modest salary.
10.    Treat everyone you meet like you want to be treated.
11.    Commit yourself to constant improvement.
12.    Commit yourself to quality.
13.    Understand that happiness is not based on possessions, power or prestige, but on relationships with people you love and respect.
14.    Be loyal.
15.    Be honest.
16.    Be a self-starter.
17.    Be decisive even if it means you’ll sometimes be wrong.
18.    Stop blaming others. Take responsibility for every area of your life.
19.    Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.
20.    Take good care of those you love.
21.    Don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your Mom proud.

“Whatever your beliefs and spiritual system, that about covers all the bases,” she said. “The world is a better place because Ernest was born. How amazing it is and how lucky we are to have had the gift of his love, friendship and ideals.”

Then the window shades were lowered and the room darkened to show a very polished video produced by Ernest’s son David. Brother C.D. Garcia, his first art teacher Frances Heussenstamm, activist Mark Rudd, niece Elizabeth Castillo and son David all provided insights.

Ernest’s parents had moved from New Mexico to Los Angeles to find work, and that’s where he was born in 1944. He and his brother shared a bedroom growing up, and C.D. had to give Ernest his space to make art. “He was always interested in astronomy, and the way he learned to read was by reading the entire astronomy section in the Whittier, California library,” said C.D.

And Ernest was very intellectual. “He wanted to know things, and the priests and nuns in the church just couldn’t give him the answers,” said C.D. Early on, Ernest rejected the Catholic faith.

Ernest Garcia's early art

When he went to art school, Frances Heussenstamm saw the Native American-inspired work in his portfolio and saw great potential for him to make a living as an artist. She noted he was overweight and chronically late, but over time as he was increasingly respected he showed respect back. “Ernest was my favorite student,” she said. “He put a lot into the outlines for his college courses.” He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of California.

When Mary came into his life, she adored him and he adored her. They were soul mates. She handmade the embroidered dress she wore at their wedding. When son David came along, then it was all about David. Mary and Ernest have been married for 44 years.

While he was raised in California, his heart called him back to the blue skies and white clouds of New Mexico. He went to Chaco Canyon for three weeks, and as a result produced powerful, mystical images of ruined walls and windows. After many visits, he finally returned in 1989, bringing his wife and son to his ancestral homeland.

He became an art teacher at Albuquerque TVI, which later became Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). His students looked at him with affection, love and interest, even while he was a strict disciplinarian who demanded much. And he was never late to class. In the early 1990s, he organized the CNM Employees Union, a local of the AFT and the AFL-CIO. He designed the banner for the union, which bears the slogan, “The Boat Moves Faster When We All Pull Together.”

CNM Employees Union banner

Ernest’s devotion to union representation was fired up by his grandfather’s experience working at a sawmill in Albuquerque. A heavy beam fell on his grandfather, injuring him badly. However, he was not allowed to leave for nine hours, until the end of his shift, then told to “go home and sleep it off.” He went to Memorial Hospital (now the Hotel Parq Central), where the doctors discovered he had a broken back. He was in the hospital for six months.

After the video ended to applause, David spoke about his father. “The fundamental thing that is so interesting about my father is his strict adherence to the rational while at the same time he lived in awe of the mystery that he pursued in his work. You can see the cosmic contemplation in his last pieces.” These were on display to the left of the stage, different interpretations of a bevy of spiral swirls.

“As I’ve gone through my life I’ve been blessed to stop and think about what he would do. His code was based on respect and treating people with dignity,” said David. “Wherever he may or may not be, I’m thankful to have had him in my life and hope there are a lot of pretty things.”

Ernest Garcia's latest artwork

Brother C.D. noted, “Ernest did everything with passion. He was very political and non-religious. He loved politics, he loved a good debate, but he wanted to know the facts.” He also sensed that there was a part of Ernest that never left the traditions of the Catholic Church, saying how they would kneel for a blessing from their parents before setting out on a journey.

Before the open comments period, the string trio Eleganza played DeBussy’s Reverie for everyone to take a moment of contemplation. Wife Mary read a humorous poem by Ernest titled “The Sneeze and The Lecture.” Niece Elizabeth Castillo and teacher Frances Heussenstamm added to their comments in the video.

During the open comments period, others added details: At full faculty meetings, Ernest predictably would stand up and tell teacher to join the union – not very popular. He fought Atrisco Land Grant sale and was disappointed in the deal that went through. When the vote came in, he said, “Where can I go to resign from my ethnic group?” Students and fellow teachers saluted his excellence as an artist and instructor.

Mark Rudd said, “Ernest was a visual artist and a moral artist. I wish there were more people like him who could get people together and get things done.” Then he introduced the Jewish prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish. It’s over 2,000 years old, written in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke. The prayer doesn’t mention the deceased, it praises God and ends with a call for peace. All stood for the recitation of the prayer.

In closing, David said that the Albuquerque Art Museum was the closest thing to a church his father had. He came here every Sunday. Everyone was invited to a reception afterward, to enjoy some food, drink, music and Ernest’s art. A memorial fund is being established in his name at CNM.

Ernest Garcia @ ABQ Art Museum Memorial

Here is the obituary that appeared in the Albuquerque Journal:

GARCIA — ERNEST PAULO Born on January 25, 1944 in Los Angeles where his parents had moved from New Mexico to find work, Ernest succumbed to cancer July 18, 2012 at his home in Albuquerque.

A talented visual artist, he began his career as a screen printer and moved on to become an art director for one of California’s largest T-shirt companies. In the eighties, Ernest turned his attention from commercial to fine art, returning to school to pursue a Masters of Fine Art in painting.

His work in this period was largely concerned with Southwestern themes and he developed a style that synthesized a passion for abstract expressionism with the loosely representational. He culled his subject matter from amongst the abandoned ruins of the Anasazi civilizations which provided a strange geometry that was both abstractly beautiful and profoundly mystical.

After many visits to New Mexico he finally “returned” in 1989, bringing his wife and son back to his ancestral homeland. He found work as a teacher at what was then Albuquerque TVI where, in the early nineties he pioneered the studio art program instituting the school’s first studio classes. In the 22 years that followed he touched countless students’ lives in his art history and studio art classes at Central New Mexico Community College. The son of a United Rubber Workers union member, he was a founding member, strong advocate, and long-time officer of the CNM Employees Union, an AFT local.

Ernest was a loving husband and father, a committed citizen, talented artist and moved through life with a genuine sense of wonder and curiosity. He earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues both as an inspiring, caring, and effective teacher and as a dedicated union advocate for professional recognition and fairness for his fellow workers. His memory will continue to inspire the best in us.

Predeceased by loving parents Climaco Damacio and Ignacita Baldonado Garcia; an older brother William; and sister Alice. He is survived by his wife, Mary Humphreys Garcia; son David C. Garcia in Albuquerque; and brother C.D. Garcia of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. A memorial celebration will be held Sunday, August 26 at 4 pm at the Albuquerque Museum of Art. Donations can be made in his honor to a scholarship fund in his name at the CNM Foundation.

Feel free to add your own stories or memories of Ernest Garcia in the comments section!

A Good Goodbye