Esperanza was born in Mexico City in 1933. At the age of three, she began to have an interest in drawing, and her grandfather gave her art lessons. She would cut hair from her dog to make her own paint brushes. At age seven she began her formal training when she attracted the attention of an art teacher, Francisco Ruiz Tamayo, who taught her to love the old masters.
Esperanza's teacher introduced her to his agent, Jose Contreras, and through his connections, at twelve years old, she sold her first painting and started receiving commissions from the United States. The money she got from the commissions allowed her to help her family. Her first mural was done at the age of thirteen at her elementary school. She began to do Mexican themes with watercolors, and later decided to do paintings of Mexican subjects. During junior high school, she gave drawing classes to 8th grade students, and continued to pursue painting classes. Esperanza's high school classmates would say that she would rather paint than eat.
Female artists in Mexico in the 1930's and 1940's were not highly regarded, she often recalled. Even her family declined to promote her studies because female artists of those days - such as Frida Kahlo, who lived with Diego Rivera openly before they were married - were considered loose women. "There were times when I wanted to be like her, as free-spirited as her," Esperanza told me, "but I am simply the way I am."
In 1948, Tamayo suggested she attend Mexico City's renowned school of art, Académia de San Carlos. Her parents said it was impossible for her to go, as they couldn't afford the tuition, it was ridiculous, and she would be exposing herself to men. Back then only men were artists. "At the age of fifteen Esperanza left home. Tamayo paid her way, with the agreement that she would earn her tuition for the remainder of her stay. To pay for her tuition, she worked two jobs and painted commissions six hours a day, after school.
Diego Rivera was one of the Directors at the Academy, and took her on as one of his few private pupils. The deep reds, oranges and purples of her work, her depiction of full-figured women and her sweeping landscapes echo the murals of her famous teacher. "The Mexican school of art is a lot of colors, and a very strong political message. The Directors were all muralists who used political statements," Esperanza told me. "We had to study their styles, their colors, their message, and their political views. I was not very happy to take it. I was against all that, but I went along when I was studying it because I was so anxious to know more and more about painting and to have live models. I'm not a muralist.. I'm an easel painter. It was Diego who taught me to believe in myself, who kept my spirit strong when at times I wanted to quit." Graduating at age twenty, Esperanza continued to work with her agent, Contreras, but began to think about coming to the United States.
"A collector of my paintings who lived in the U.S. was insistent with my agent. He said, 'I have to know her. He finally found me and told me anytime you want to go, just let me know. I was wondering what was happening in the United States. I was falling in love with a country I never saw. "
Esperanza married Domingo Martinez in 1958. Due to demand, she resumed mixed media paintings of Mexican people for her agent. Her paintings were sold in the Department of Tourism in Cueravaca, and were arriving in the United States. Her first exhibition "Ethnic Faces and Figures" was inaugurated by the governor and was a success.
After a twelve year association with her agent, she split from him n 1959. The next year, an agent from La Paseo de la Reforma began to represent her. Mexican Airlines exhibited fifteen crayola drawings in central offices for months, promoting different cities throughout Mexico. Through La Paseo de la Reforma, the Chamber of Commerce ordered a portrait of Mrs. John F. Kennedy for the Arts and Treasures of Mexico’s Museum of Antropología, and in 1963, she received an important commission of a portrait of Connoisseur Gonzales Cazorey Kitty de Hojas.
In 1963, Esperanza and her husband arrived in the United States and settled in Los Angeles. She worked for the Los Angeles Frame Co. "Soon the galleries started to know where I was and they contacted me. I began to know more people and sometimes my name appeared in Calendar Magazine." At that time, her paintings hung in the Galleries of Jane Freeman, and the Fisher Galleries. For two years, until the birth of her son, Ollin,in 1966, she traveled throughout Mexico and Central America to study and paint native Latin Americans. She visited small villages and the tribes of Indians that few people ever get to see, recording them faithfully, including unusual costumes and traditions.
A year later, Esperanza had her first exhibition in Pasadena. From 1968 through 1972, she contracted exclusively for Upstairs Gallery. Esperanza did First Edition Graphics in the Gallery of Morseburg. She also did a variety of graphics for a tour to the Pushkin Museum in Russia. She received a commission for La Fonda Restaurant, showed in the Gallery of Maria Luisa, and did paintings for Casa de Adobe Museum and the Chevron Corporation. Working with the galleries for about fifteen years, one day she just quit.
Esperanza explained, "I quit the galleries because I thought I could do it more my way, maybe through some clients, and the clients started to pour into my studio." Esperanza's clients included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Clint Eastwood, Red Skelton, and some important Mexican American businessmen .In 1983, Esperanza received recognition from Caminos Magazine for the "Outstanding Artist of the Year."
She continued with private commissions, and her paintings went on tour throughout the United States to El Museo de Barrio of New York, San Antonio Museum in Texas. Her work appeared at an exhibition entitled "Mira" at the Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles, from which she was acclaimed in a Los Angeles Times article, "Esperanza Martinez stands alone as she glorifies the dignity of old age in a glossy, meticulously realistic portrait of a village patriarch."
On September 11, 1985, the Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, honored Esperanza, saying, "Esperanza has decided to bring her works out from the isolation of private exhibits and private collectors so that more people can view and appreciate her artistry." He went on to say, "She is a living symbol of survival against racial and gender discrimination; and through her works of art has kept alive the rich heritage of Mexico for our enjoyment and that of future generations. "The National Network of Hispanic Women granted her recognition saying, "Esperanza captures and faithfully records the rich heritage of Mexico, including its indigenous costumes and traditions. In 1986, Budweiser commissioned Esperanza for two works.
Then, on March 5, 1988, the Comision Femenil de Los Angeles recognized her in their Salute to Latino Artists at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and her name was placed in the Congressional Records. In August, 1989, the United States Secretary of Education inaugurated a painting in Washington, D.C., which had been commissioned and donated by The Coca-Cola Company. Esperanza had had a change of heart. She said, "I know I need the galleries. I want to be exposed to people. I want to know what the client thinks about my art. It's very important; it's not just the money. The collectors have their collections in their homes. But who is going to see my paintings?"
Accepting her life as fated, Esperanza said, "I did everything like a dream. I didn't plan it like a normal life. I just want to paint. For me, it's the most important thing in my life. I missed a lot of my childhood, my youth, but I don't mind, because I was doing what I love to do." During a talk before art students at Santa Ana High School in Los Angeles in 1996, Esperanza said, "To be an artist is hard work. You must be trained, you must be dedicated, you must pour your heart into it and open your eyes to the world around you to convert it on canvas for all the world to see."
Esperanza overcame sex discrimination to place her vibrant, sweeping paintings in museums and collections around the world. She created hundreds of canvases of life and Hispanic Heritage, with great depths of feeling and mood in her portraits, and captured the colorful and picturesque spirit of every region of Mexico, from major city to remote hamlet. She inspired many with the cultural themes of her work, depicting the dignity, simplicity and traditions of the Mexican people.
Esperanza was dedicated to her craft and her culture. She said, "I was always so caught up in my art, in my world, in the past, but I want to leave a legacy to these new artists. I want to tell them they can overcome obstacles and stereotypes and be true artists. You just have to be dedicated and work very hard and believe." Esperanza died of breast cancer in January, 1998, at age 64.
Bio written by Ramona Walker
- In 1983, Caminos Magazine voted Esperanza "Outstanding Artist of the Year
- September 1985 California Legislature Senate, "In honor of outstanding contributions to the arts" City of Los Angeles commendation by Mayor Tom Bradley.
- February 24, 1988, Salute to Latina Artists by Hon. Esteban Edward Torres, Calif.
- March 5, 1988, Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional, Congressional Record, 100th Congress, Second Session
- August 24, 1989, the Secretary of Education of the United States, Mr. Cabazos, by the theme Stay in School, accepted from The Coca-Cola Company a commissioned painting entitled "Learning from the Master."
- The National Network of Hispanic Women, "An Evening of Art Under the Stars."
Locations where Esperanza's work was displayed
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- El Museo de Barrio, New York
- San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas
- Casa del Adobe Museum, Los Angeles
- Pushkin Museum, Russia
- Jane Freeman Galleries
- Fisher Galleries
- Carl Frye Gallery
- Bullock's, Los Angeles
- Upstairs Gallery
- The Art House Gallery
- Delphi Galleries
- Gallery Unlimited
- Pomeroy Art Gallery
- The Galleries of Howard E. Morseburg
(A Poem Written For Esperanza)
The womb of distant dreams
Gives birth upon this day.
The setting sun, it seems,
Parts for the artist's way.
Every painted masterpiece
Pays homage to the skill.
Each brushstroke ever laid
Reverberates the will
Of those whose life and death
Did rainbows wish to be
Embraced with colors of our lives
Painted for the world to see.
Sweet children eating colored ice,
Old Piñata Man so grand,
Our families stand in dignity
Made by your loving hand.
On palette where your colors mixed,
Hopes, smiles and tears fell inside
And blended with your life's passion
Where you shall always reside.
For when death comes to one as you,
Your body shall depart
But rests the meaning of your life
Within your sacred heart.
The art that goes beyond the canvas
And sketches which you held
Is that which lives within the love
For all who knew you well.
For on this day an artist is born
Somewhere upon this earth,
And in the hand which guides the hand
So marks today your birth.Alejandro Martin Lopez