Back in July when we thought the worst of the pandemic was over, I walked from my longtime home on Willow Street over to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center to see an exhibition by Amado Castillo III, “Colores de Mi Alma.”
Colors exploded off the canvases with expressionistic but recognizable figures placed upon dynamic, abstract backgrounds. Abstract realism or figurative expressionism — no matter the label, Castillo has presented Austin with a gallery full of wondrous creations.
The first image to pin my feet to the floor was his acrylic painting of an eagle swooping down from the sky, its talons extended, its piercing eyes locked on its prey. Castillo explains that this is the eagle that caught a snake and flew over to a nopal cactus to begin its feast, thereby providing the wandering Mexica/Azteca people the prophetic sign of where to create Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) in 1325 C.E. That legend is so powerful that its image graces the flag of Mexico. The flag of his ancestors and the resonant legend led Castillo to create his own version of “The Eagle,” which he alternately titles “The Moment Before ….”
A third generation Austinite, the artist is proud of his family’s origins in Mexico and equally proud of his father’s contributions to the United States as a Marine and as a pastor.
Born in 1976, Amado has spent most of his life on the eastside. Living with his parents and two older siblings on Prado Street, Amado’s artistic interests appeared early.
“I was left alone a lot. That’s why I started drawing,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money. So, I would draw with pencil, pen, and paper.”
He focused on “basic things like bikes and cars.” Drawing people was initially too hard and discouraging.
His first exposure to other artists who could teach him new methods and materials came at Brooke Elementary School, less than a mile’s walk from his home. There his fourth-grade teacher saw Amado’s natural talent. With the class’s unanimous approval, she selected the ten-year-old to work with Austin’s pre-eminent muralist of the 1970s and 1980s, Raul Valdéz. With guidance from Valdéz, Castillo started learning about paint and its application. “When I tapped into the paint, (I realized) it’s so much more interesting than just drawing,” Castillo says. “The colors really took effect on me, shifting my artistic abilities.”
Middle school brought some real dilemmas into his life. Gang activity was rampant throughout Austin in the mid-to-late 1980s, North Austin schools offering no exception. Amado attributes his escape from gang activity to a near-tragedy. As his mother was carrying a bucket of boiling water to the bathtub, the teenager accidentally ran into her and suffered burns on 75 percent of his body. He was in the hospital for a month.
“Maybe it was a spanking from God (that) made me get back, align myself not to go the route (of gang activity),” Castillo says.
As the graffiti scene spread throughout Austin at that time, he felt little inclination to do the elaborate lettering but he did enjoy creating cartoon-style characters often found accompanying mural-sized “burners.”
Instead of putting his characters on walls in the night for free, Castillo made some money painting little characters on classmates’ t-shirts and jackets. By the time he was 15, he was commissioned to create a sign featuring a lively green chile for Porfirio’s Tacos on Holly Street. It wouldn’t be the last sign he would create.
It was at Johnston High School (later renamed Eastside Memorial High School) that his talent blossomed, thanks to two women. Castillo’s art teacher, Judy Dillon, truly inspired him and recognized his abilities. “She was almost like a sister, the mother-like type, not just treating me like a number,” Castillo recalls.
Dillon gave him a broader knowledge of the different kinds of paint and the freedom to paint whatever he wished.
She also introduced him to Southwest Art magazine. Never having been out of Texas, Castillo was blown away by that publication’s depictions of Southwestern deserts and mountains. He began painting his own landscapes based on the images he saw.
“Mentally, maybe even a little emotionally, I’ve taken trips. I would see these paintings and (realize), Arizona is so beautiful, California is so beautiful. And I would paint them.”
Some of his landscapes later made their way to commissioned murals inside various Austin restaurants.
Sports had always been an important part of Castillo’s life, so with his new-found ability with painting, he began creating portraits of famous athletes. Teachers started buying his paintings, one of which sold for $300. Castillo remembers thinking: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Deborah Roberts was the other artist at Johnston High School who greatly influenced Castillo. Before she achieved the international recognition she enjoys today, Roberts conducted a summer art program for eight years called “Success Comes in Cans, Not in Can’ts.” Castillo was selected for the program and learned not only about painting from her, but also about the business side of art.
“I remember one time she was on the phone, and she was trying to sell some art. She was on a roll,” Castillo says. “I was just like ‘I want to be that brave one of these days’.”
Studying Castillo’s sports portraits, Roberts wisely connected him with sports portraitist Robert Hurst, official artist of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
With his dynamic portraits of athletes placed over colorful, abstract backgrounds, Hurst obviously had a profound effect on Castillo’s approach to his own portraits of athletes, musicians, and other cultural icons.
Apparently having picked up some of Robert’s fearlessness, Castillo contacted Hurst and offered to pay for a couple of hours’ worth of observing how the older artist painted. Once Hurst saw Castillo’s portfolio, he liked what he saw and charged the young artist nothing for their time together.
“We painted for a few hours, and he showed me what he had, how he did stuff.” From then on, they were friends until Hurst’s death earlier this year.
After high school, Castillo worked on the assembly line and in software installation at Dell Computer Corporation for nearly eight years. Next he worked for two Austin sign companies and learned about creating signs from all kinds of materials. By 2002 he was ready to start his own business, AC3 Signs which he has successfully run ever since.
During that time he also married and had four children. Although he rightly considers the creation of signs and logos an art, Castillo’s true passion is painting. So, he painted whenever time permitted. And now comes his first major solo exhibition, co-curated by the artist with Monica Maldonado and Monse Alvarado Ruiz at the MACC.
There are about 20 paintings in the show, mainly acrylic with the occasional one made in aerosol spray. During a two-and-one-half-hour conversation with Castillo in my home, I enjoyed learning how some of those paintings came to be and what they mean to Castillo.
I initially thought “The Brawl” was a cockfight, with men just outside the frame betting on their favorite rooster. But Castillo pointed out that without steel blades attached to their legs, they are simply roosters acting naturally. “I would rather illustrate these roosters squabbling and fighting, brawling rather than humans.”
“Music in the Blood” is his tribute to the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Castillo has been playing drums since he was nine years old. At one time he might have been tempted to pursue music full time, but with a wife and four children Castillo decided against it. Instead, he plays drums in his father’s church and paints canvases conveying his love of music.
Because of his long association with many Austin musicians, Castillo loves to paint portraits of the musicians he admires, such as Bobby Domínguez, Gilbert Velásquez, and Johnny Degollado.
My favorite of his musical paintings is the exuberant portrait of Joel Guzmán, “Squeeze Box Man.” The multitude of colors seem to explode from his accordion, a perfect visualization of what he does with his instrument and his voice.
There are several depictions of hands in Castillo’s exhibition. One is a fist separately framed but accompanying a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This particular power sign has been remarkably softened with graffiti tags saying Paz, Amor, Goodness, and ATX for his hometown.
His portrait of César Chávez, “El Luchador,” presents another freedom fighter important to Castillo. He purposely did not emphasize a particular flesh tone on Chavez’s face, “so he can be almost universal, almost like not so racial. He fought for many, not only for the brown race, specifically.”
Another fighter that Amado has honored is US Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén, who was murdered at Ft. Hood last year. In the MACC show he displays a print of the mural he painted on a restaurant wall in San Marcos.
Castillo has also painted an ancestral warrior. What at first may seem like a traditional Aztec portrait masterfully rendered turns out to be a powerful synthesis of Castillo’s blended identity as Chicano, Tejano, and a proud descendent of indigenous people of Mexico. The significantly titled “AzteCano” features the warrior sporting a bandana under his elaborate headdress, the lone star of Texas on a pendant, and the United Farm Workers eagle on his shield. Castillo points out the significance of the bandana: “This has always been influential in the gang scene. But if you’re a worker, you wear this. Even going back to the 60s, I see pictures of my father working. He has that bandana there to stop all the sweat going in his eyes. So, I threw that in there just to show hard work.”
Likewise, persistence and hard work have gotten Amado Castillo III to this point in his artistic journey. As he says, “I think talent is not given, it’s earned.”
Amado Castillo III will give a gallery talk 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St. The exhibition “Colores de Mi Alma” continues through Sept. 4. More information at spark.adobe.com/page/ywj5v0H1IF74q/