Oaxacan Artist Enrique Flores Shines with Philanthropy

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 12.59.10 PMBy Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

Enrique Flores is one of the most prolific Mexican artists of his generation. Of course having been mentored by the late great master of Mexican art, Rodolfo Morales, hasn’t hurt; nor has the fact some of Oaxaca’s most prominent art galleries have served as his patrons for many years. But there’s no substitute for hard work, talent, vision and philanthropy.

Flores has been exhibiting his work throughout Mexico and the United States since 1985. By the early 1990s he was receiving global recognition as a significant force on the Latin American art scene, with exhibits in Japan in 1992 and Holland in 1993. Heineken commissioned him to paint two murals for a US promotional campaign aimed at attracting Mexican-American consumers. His stylizing of indigenous Mexican women, as well as the distinctiveness of his work, were brought to the attention of art aficionados through the 1994 publication, Arte y Alma de Oaxaca, supported by the Fine Art Gallery of New York; and in the 1998 landmark book, Imagenes y Colores de Oaxaca. He illustrated a well-received bilingual children’s book, Pájaros de la Cosecha.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 12.59.19 PM Flores hails from the Mixteca district of Oaxaca. He started painting during his high school years in the late 1970s. By 1980 his formal training had begun, studying drawing with Jesús Vásquez in Oaxaca while still attending school. In 1981 he entered Oaxaca’s School of Fine Arts. The following year he attended an art college in Mexico City. “But my goal had been to get into La Escuela de Pintura y Escultura,” Flores recounts. “Even though I had a recommendation from Rufino Tamayo, I wasn’t accepted because I didn’t have all my high school credits; but all worked out for the best because a friend introduced me to Rodolfo Morales.”

Flores and Morales developed a close relationship. Flores would regularly go to Morales’ studio in Coyoacán to chat and watch him at work, while Morales was pleased to have a protégé to whom he was able to impart technical advice.

Flores then enrolled in Oaxaca’s Taller Rufino Tamayo, where he lived in a studio apartment while in a two-year apprenticeship program. He studied under the tutelage of the late maestro Juan Alcazár. Not wanting to commute between hometown Huitzo and Oaxaca, he found a flat in downtown Oaxaca. In 1988 he returned to Huitzo, and has remained there ever since. When Morales moved back to his hometown of Ocotlán in the late 1980s, the friendship was rekindled.

“Sure Morales was my primary mentor,” Flores acknowledges, “but his work has provided a significant stimulus for over half of Oaxaca’s artists. However if you examine my work carefully, it should become apparent that I’m a student of a number of the impressionists, in particular Monet and Gaugín; look at my use of color.”   Ask Flores for a single name, and enigmatic Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516) readily rolls off his tongue. Enrique’s extraordinary melding of influences becomes apparent.

Despite elements and styles which some of his works have in common with those of Morales, as a student of the human condition Flores derives his inspiration from a broader array of sources. He studies both contemporary and traditional cultures both in his homeland and abroad. While in Japan he experimented with oriental forms and indicia of culture such as Eastern deities. He incorporated this knowledge and his continuous personal growth into his Oaxacan works:

“I did a fair bit of pencil and watercolor sketches in my notebooks during that era. And even today I still occasionally refer back to those drawings when looking for something a bit different or while I’m struggling with how to express myself in a particular work. At times I’ve juxtaposed constituents of Japanese society with Mexican themes and traditions.”

For over a decade Flores spent two or three months annually in Montana, using the break from his home environment as a means of both rejuvenating and advancing his creativity. But it’s been his constant presence in the Mixteca which has been his most significant ongoing inspiration. He explains:

“Huitzo was historically the frontier between the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, so we have at least three distinct groups, the Mixtec, the Zapotec and right here in Huitzo there’s a combination of the two.”

The implications? In this basket of cultures there is the richness of three worldviews, customs including dress, dance and other manifestations of culture, and perhaps more importantly for an artist such as Flores, differences in physique — facial structure, stature, hair texture and comport.

Flores recognizes the debt of gratitude owed to those who have shaped his creativity and success. It’s shown in how he returns to the community all that he has received, and more, through philanthropy. He regularly donates art to benefit auctions.

In acknowledging his profound indebtedness to the likes of Morales, Alcazár and others who have generously provided their time and counsel, Flores responds in kind, giving of himself in whatever way he can to the younger generation of Oaxacan artists. There are regularly between four and six students from the School of Fine Arts working and studying with him in his workshop:

“They’re welcome to come to my facility to work on their own projects, ask my advice, and observe my technique. In many cases since there’s insufficient equipment at the university relative to the number of students enrolled, and since most of the students are of modest means and don’t own what they need, I let them use anything I have. My only stipulation is that at the end of the work week my shop is left clean and orderly, and that my equipment is kept in good condition.”

While Flores’ water colors and oils don’t generally require high end or expensive tools of the trade, the same does not hold true of the costly machinery and other products needed to produce lithographs and engravings.

The Flores golden touch is more than the exposure he’s received through art books and in excess of 100 gallery exhibitions, and his knack for producing art accessible in price to the public; Enrique Flores has always had a clear vision for himself.

In his early 50s, much of Flores’ career has yet to unfold. His workshop has been a long-term project since its 1998 inception. Construction has progressed in phases.   But he’s already managed to build a modern, high-ceilinged domed complex where most of his work is carried out. Although larger and better equipped than most workshops in the state, Flores plans on further expansion, including a building exclusively for ceramics. While a gifted ceramicist in his own right, without a kiln and other equipment he must travel to Oaxaca to use a colleague’s facility.

But it will be two additional projects which will set Flores apart from the rest and contribute to the legacy he will leave to the next generation of Oaxacan artists. He proposes to build small apartment units to house art students; and to open a gallery on the premises showcasing his own, but more importantly the works of talented and promising young artists struggling for exposure … once again giving back in the same way he received.

Alvin Starkman has been a patron of Oaxacan art since the early 1990s. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).