Wednesday, Jun 26 2013 10:27 AM

Eye Gallery Chapter Four: Al Mendez's new way of telling a story

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    Al Mendez is the manager of Icehouse Framing & Gallery, which recently relocated from Chester Avenue to 19th Street.

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    Al Mendez's piece for Eye Gallery.

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BY STEFANI DIAS Californian assistant lifestyles editor sdias@bakersfield.com

When invited to contribute as both a storyteller and artist to Eye Gallery 2013, Al Mendez immediately knew what he would find most challenging.

"The hardest thing I had to do with this piece was the writing itself. ... I'm a voracious reader, but I'm not a writer. I tell my stories differently."

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About Eye Gallery

The annual art series is a partnership between The Californian and the Bakersfield Museum of Art whose purpose is to put the work of local artists in the spotlight. This year we asked 10 artists to collaborate on a story, in words and pictures. Each was given 96 hours, a canvas and all the work that had been produced to that point. The story will unfold in Eye Street every Thursday through June 27, when the museum will host a reception for the artists and unveil other exhibitions.

CHAPTER FOUR: Sound waves

I want to follow him but I'm afraid if I move the music will stop.

It's nagging me; I can't quite place the melody and yet it is so familiar.

I allow myself to drift off and the music envelopes me ... sounding more and more familiar.

Soon it is crashing over me like an ocean wave, building to a crescendo before drifting away. I'm not even sure if I'm awake or not and I can still sense the figure's presence.

And he was no help when discussing the story with Sebastian Muralles, his friend and the last artist in the series.

"Sebastian, he called me and said, 'Hey, what's the story?' and I said, 'By the time it gets to you it could be about catching dogs.'"

Mendez and Muralles have a close artistic relationship, having collaborated on a guitar mural at Front Porch Music, which Mendez, 54, considers his best work.

"I'm proudest of the Front Porch Music (mural) project because of the positive impact it's had on the community.

"We did really good detail on the guitars because we knew there would be some guitar aficionados looking at it. I said we can get abstract with the background but with the guitars 'do it right.' I've been contacted by a few of them, saying, 'You captured that really well.'"

Mendez works close to his most recent mural as the manager of Icehouse Framing & Gallery, which recently relocated from Chester Avenue to 19th Street.

Of course, Mendez isn't far from his art anywhere in town, having work up at Harris Elementary, Bessie Owens Primary, Jefferson Middle School, the electrical boxes along 21st Street as well as Carnitas Uruapan in Lamont. Seasonally, the artist, who works primarily with airbrushes, displays his work at BARC's Magic Forest and The Chamber Haunted Attraction, which is set to return to town this fall.

Mendez brought his colorful style to his Eye Gallery contribution: a bold ocean wave.

"I was hoping to convey that the power of music can physically manifest with memories, literally like a wave."

His departure from the more abstract look of the first three works was intentional.

"My work is generally pretty literal because that is my background in art, product illustration. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of my art is that literal. That's what I do. I'm not comfortable in abstract."

Mendez had a strong vision but still revised his work during the 96 hours allotted to him.

"In my original concept, I was going to form musical notes in the wave. I sketched it out and it looked kind of hokey. Too forced. In the previous piece (a photo by Kristopher Stallworth), nothing was forced on you. The musical notes in the wave would have done that, and I didn't want to do that. I painted the wave and left it."

How long have you been an artist:

I've been drawing since I was a kid. I was a professional illustrator right out of school. I worked in the advertising department at Brocks Department Store.

I didn't know I wanted to pursue art as a career until I got up to BC when I started taking classes that were geared more toward careers in art. Technical drawing illustration, that's the direction I want to go. Opposed to high school when you take art just to take art. I actually got an F in high school. I said, 'This is stupid,' (but) it was me being stupid looking back.

Memory of the first time you sold a piece of work:

My earliest memory of getting paid for my art was junior high and a local merchant paid me to design his restaurant menu. It (the restaurant) no longer exists. It was on Brundage and Union, El Papa Gallo. Fighting roosters at the top, their tails came down and intertwined around the menu. He paid me $25 and I was in heaven.

Favorite artist:

Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth.

Explain your process:

I usually start with a sketch then using some photo references, I start building up layer by layer, then I'll start detailing and fine-tuning 'til I'm happy with it. There was some airbrushing in the shadows (on the Eye Gallery piece).

Were you worried that artists after you might have a difficult time picking up the narrative?

I never really thought they would. It was pretty obvious in the first few pieces that everyone was doing their thing.

Since you often work on large-scale projects, is it tougher to create smaller works like this one?

It is for me because with the smaller pieces I feel like I have to do more detail -- I will really try to go out of my way to add detail. A person is really going to come up and look at it. Whereas with the larger pieces, they'll glance at a distance.

Do you get many commissions?

I get a lot of commissions all year long. ... It's actually 50-50 (from businesses and individuals). I'm working with the Bakersfield City School District. I just got contacted by a church. And an individual wants me to paint a table for him. Skateboard graphic on the top of it, flames and skulls on the bottom of it. Then I might be painting some skateboards for him. It goes back to the airbrushing, which is my strong suit.

What are some other non-art passions?

Reading history, movies and the Dallas Cowboys. I love reading U.S. history. It goes back to high school. I had this teacher; he had this way of making history come alive that I appreciate. Even now I have a library that would be comparable (to any history buff). My favorite author is Stephen Ambrose.

How to learn more about my work:

I always post my latest work on Facebook (facebook.com/airbrushnaj).

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