In death, a touch of life

John S. Huerta

photo by Christopher Whang

See John S. Huerta's paintings by at The California Museum at 1020 O Street. Museum admission is $9 for adults, $7.50 for college students and seniors, $6.50 for kids 6 to 17, and free for those 5 and younger. Through January 5. Visit for more info on the artist.

Whenever John S. Huerta starts another painting, he concentrates on the eyes of his subjects first. His reason: Their unwavering glares demand him to finish. The rest of the paintings are similarly arresting. In his piece “Carmen Maria,” for example, vibrant red roses contrast with jet-black hair, but are softened with complementary shades of green that radiate a lively glow. Most of Huerta's acrylic works center on Day of the Dead-styled renditions of celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. Or sometimes Huerta honors family and friends who are still among the living. Huerta works are currently on display at The California Museum as part of its Day of the Dead: Art of Día de los Muertos exhibit, and Huerta dedicated his pieces in the show to the memory of his late grandmother, Carmen. SN&R sat down with Huerta to talk about snakes, his use of color and why, ultimately, death should be celebrated through art.

What works are featured in the current exhibit?

Four or five originals and an altar, which is an ode to Frida Kahlo, with candles. The altar wall is … an original rendition of Frida, but it's called “Carmen Maria.” It's called that because it's basically [about] the two people in my life who made a big impact, Carmen, my grandmother, and Maria, my aunt, who both raised me and my sister.

Who else have you painted a tribute to?

My sister Rosemary passed away in 1999, she had Down syndrome and it was so unexpected. I've done a painting … (starts to cry)—I'm sorry—in memory of her. My mother died when I was 4, and then my grandfather died six or seven months later. I always make sure to put a touch of them in my work. It doesn't matter if it's a whole painting or a touch of color.

You have a painting called “Snake Charmer”—what is it about?

I did “Snake Charmer” to remember my grandfather. I remember vaguely when I was 3 or 4 [years old], my sister was standing right in front of me, and I heard a [rattle sound]. I didn't know what it was. All of a sudden, I see my grandfather run from around the corner of the house, he went down and grabbed what I thought was a belt, but it was a snake. He grabbed it by the rattle-end and he slammed it against a stone. It was right by my sister. He actually took the skin off and made it into a hatband. That's the only memory of my grandfather that I have.

Did painting help you through rough moments when you were young?

I noticed [I started] painting more after [members of my family] died. It was my outlet. [Painting] was a joy, and it was like a state of nirvana. You're so sucked into it that you don't hear anything or see anything else.

What reaction do the paintings receive from those unfamiliar with Día de los Muertos?

Some people say [the holiday] looks kind of scary and gory, but it's not. In my work, I purposely make the flower petals around the eyes very attractive-looking, so that way, it gets people's attention. Then … I can explain that it's not just about death.

Are you afraid of death?

Death is not a bad thing. I remember at one point in life, I was scared of death, and now, I'm not. I became more understanding of death, especially with my mom and my sister passing. I celebrate their spirit, I celebrate how they impacted my life and I express it in my paintings. Every single brushstroke, every single color that I use is in memory of not only them, but everybody else. Like my two uncles that passed away from cancer, [and] friends and family that passed away when I was in college or not too long ago.

What do you want people to recognize about your work?

The beauty—and that death is not as scary as people think. And the color; just absorb yourself in the colors I use.

What are your favorite colors to use?

My favorite colors are … red, blue, green—um, basically everything. Oh, [and] pink.

Even though all these things happen in life, I love making people laugh. I try to paint myself as a colorful person, and I try to keep happy and stay positive. That's why I keep those colors in mind.