Jesse Trevino, painter who persevered after Vietnam War injuries, dies at 76

Jesse Trevino, a prominent Mexican American artist who learned to paint with his left hand after his dominant right arm was rendered lifeless by an explosive booby trap he stepped on while fighting in the Vietnam War, died Feb. 13 at a hospice center in San Antonio. He was 76.

The specific cause was not known, said his biographer Anthony Head. Mr. Trevino had recently been ill with covid-19 and pneumonia.

In photorealistic style, Mr. Trevino painted portraits of Chicano life in San Antonio that have been exhibited across the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His towering murals on prominent city buildings are reflections of the city in which they hang.

“The thing about Jesse is that he captures the heart of his family and his communities,” Ellen Riojas Clark, professor emerita of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the Express-News in 2017. “So his work is very, very introspective, but yet resonates with everybody’s spirit.”

Mr. Trevino was taking art classes in New York, painting tourists and Greenwich Village characters, when he was drafted in the war in late-1966. A few months later, racing to board a helicopter amid sniper fire, an explosion launched him 50 feet into a rice paddy.

Laying facedown in the mud, Mr. Trevino thought about what he might do if he survived. An idea quickly came to him: Instead of people he didn’t know, he’d paint his mother, his brothers, and his neighborhood back home on the West Side of San Antonio, where he grew up after his family moved from Mexico when he was 4.

“I wanted to paint who I was,” Mr. Trevino said in an interview years later. “Who my family was. Who my community was.”

Mr. Trevino was sent to a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. His painting hand was paralyzed by the blast, and the arm would eventually need to be amputated up to the elbow. He grew bitter and depressed.

“The chaplains,” he recalled to his biographer, “would come and pray and try to say something, and I was like, ‘Please, just leave me alone. I never did anything wrong. I feel like I’m being punished. I thought God gave me all this ability to paint and all that. Now I can’t do anything.’”

One day another wounded soldier dropped by his room. His name was Armando Albarran. Like Mr. Trevino, he grew up on San Antonio’s West Side. He lost both of his legs in Vietnam. After learning Mr. Trevino was an artist, he began prodding him to paint again.

“No. I’m not going to paint anymore,” he told Albarran, according to Head’s biography, “Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Trevino.” “I can’t paint anymore. I’m not going to do it again.”

Albarran requested that the occupational therapy center acquire paints, canvasses and an easel. Mr. Trevino ignored the materials.

“Finally, one of the times we were both at occupational therapy, I was doing my routine over here, and I saw him get up and go over there and just look at the [art] supplies,” Albarran told Head. “Then he came back and sat down.”

“And yet some remnant of his artistic spirit still smoldered,” Head wrote. “One afternoon, after staring at the box of brushes and canvases for what might have been hours, and when no one was watching, Jesse took hold of a paintbrush with his left hand. It didn’t feel natural. It didn’t feel right. He felt hopeless as the colors drained from his ambitions.”

Albarran offered to be his model.

Mr. Trevino refused, then relented a few days later.

“Albarran wore his uniform at his sitting,” Head wrote. “He watched the young artist concentrate with his left hand and get angry and frustrated, with only brief, fleeting moments of satisfaction. Jesse worked admirably to capture his subject’s resemblance, but the composition remained crude, lacking complexity, depth, and bravura.”

Still, it was something — a new beginning.

Jesus Trevino, the ninth of 12 siblings, was born in Monterrey, Mexico, on Dec. 24, 1946. His father worked as a mechanic, drove trucks and delivered milk, and his mother was a homemaker.

He was 4 when the family resettled in San Antonio. He drew cartoons on the walls of his home, and his mother made him wipe them away with soap and water.

At age 6, he entered an art contest sponsored by the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He won first place with a drawing of doves.

“They had it on a little easel, and I remember going up to the podium and the people were clapping,” he told the News-Express. “I was nervous looking up, and I was taking in all the excitement of what was happening. What was happening is that I was getting compensated, recognized. It was such a great feeling that I said, ‘If I can do this for the rest of my life, this is what I want to do.’”

He continued winning contests in high school. After graduating in 1965, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York. Mr. Trevino was drafted less than a year later.

As a Mexican citizen, he had options. He could repatriate and avoid Vietnam. Or he could fight. Feeling as American as “any other son of San Antonio,” his biographer wrote, Mr. Trevino chose to fight.

After his discharge from the Army in 1968, Mr. Trevino took art classes at San Antonio College, continuing to perfect his strokes with his left hand. He also returned to using his walls as a canvas.

On his bedroom wall, he painted an 8-by-14-foot mural titled “Mi Vida.” Vestiges of his life float over a self-portrait: a Purple Heart hanging off a prosthetic hand, a painkiller pill, a Ford Mustang.

The painting was eventually extracted and showcased at the Smithsonian. Mr. Trevino’s other major works include his tile murals, which hang around San Antonio and include the nine-story “Spirit of Healing” depicting an angel shielding a boy holding a dove.

Mr. Trevino was married several times and had children, but a complete list of survivors was not available.

One of Mr. Trevino’s most celebrated works is “Senora Dolores Treviño,” a portrait of his mother holding a laundry basket that Texas Monthly magazine called “one of the best paintings of an artist’s mother since Whistler’s.”

“When I was in the hospital after Vietnam,” he told the Institute of Texan Cultures, “my mother used to come every day — take the bus, go downtown, take another bus.”

“I didn’t want to talk anyway. And what I’m saying is she was there for me, all the time, every single day. And the strength that that lady has is incredible,” he said. “So, for me to paint her, it just came so natural.”

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