The Color of Freedom
Artist Feature, Omar D’Leon
By Amy Jones
Photos by Dina Pielaet
“You with the machine gun in your hands;
you are the poet of life and death. Before you kill me, let me tell
you who I am. I am an artist who does good things for my country.
We believe in art. We believe in love. We believe in truth and beauty.”
These words closed the Nicaraguan chapter of Omar
D’Leon’s life. And now, even years later, he hears them
when he wakes in the stillness of early morning to smell the blossoms
in his Camarillo, California garden and remember that he is safe.
But, in Omar's studio, there is no dark cloud of
past sufferings, no doubt of ripe possibilities for the day. Quite
the contrary, it is a cheerful quiet oasis with gentle light and
a view of the garden. Tubes of paint and well worn artist's tools
still warm from the hand seem to relax contentedly beneath several
paintings in various stages on easels. The sound of classical music
mixes with Omar's lyrical voice thickly accented by his native tongue.
And, white-haired Omar, excited at the opportunity for cultural
communion welcomes with open arms and large brown happy, gentle
eyes. Youthful exuberance animates his limbs now pushing seven decades
in the world.
D'Leon's work is imbued with a mystical quality,
one that knows abundance in paradise and the anguish of losing it,
one that held the light of grace to find a way through fear and
torture to be rewarded with pure vision and the ability to record
it on canvas. He infuses echoes of the frescoes in Pompeii and classical
Grecian ideas of philosophy, community and beauty. He imprints European
Impressionistic painting imported to his country by his mentor with
magical realism qualities that are essentially Nicaraguan.
And, Nicaragua is a culture like many in Central
and South America wrapped around the Catholic Church but rooted
in far older creation stories. Omar's Madonna and Child might be
joined by creatures of his own design that merge human with bird,
lizard or beast. His work remembers groups of Greek women living
in safe seclusion inspired by the company of muses and graces and
cultural tranquility. But, their skin is brown and their hips and
breasts round and plentiful. Fruits are ripe and trees shimmer,
their flora caught on warm ocean breezes scented with tropical jasmine
But in some works, lurking among crowds of busy
market goers is a crude man wearing sunglasses and a mustache. Omar
has called him and others that take life from his brush, “monsters
who live in the house of Nicaragua.” He is tyranny, ignorance,
brutality, the one who comes in the night to steal your life. Other
Central American histories are couched safely in layers and layers
of oil paint and wax silently mourning the endless cycle of violence
there or praising the passion and generosity of the people who like
Omar see spirits and omens every time they step outdoors. And always,
life in Nicaragua revolves against a backdrop of exquisite tropical
Omar uses brush and knife, oil and wax on canvas.
His initial drawing is done in Crayola on gesso. Then a wax medium
is applied over a first transparent layer of magenta. An opposite
color is applied next, and so it follows with colors and wax sometimes
20 layers deep - dark to light, transparent to opaque. Each layer
dries for 24-hours. Omar scores and cross-hatches the pigment, carefully
applying pressure to achieve precise depths that expose one or more
color layers. And in this way the textured paintings absorb light
appearing very kinetic and mesmerizing.
With the hands of a surgeon, Omar moves through the process, which
is fairly unforgiving to composition glitches. Rather than blending
and rebuilding aspects of the image he may not like, he will photograph
the work in process to rework the composition off-canvas and then
execute his solution perfectly to the actual painting.
To keep his hand refined, Omar sketches constantly.
Dozens of art books stack the shelves in his studio and home. On
their own, they constitute a significant body of work, and flipping
through them is an intimate journey through Omar’s thoughts,
moods and ideas. Some captivating themes have not yet made it to
the canvas but are complimented with bits of Omar’s poetry.
As volumes are added to the canons of 20th and
21st century art history, Omar D’Leon’s name will be
among them. A remarkable human being and prolific master painter,
Omar D'Leon has been one of the most renowned Nicaraguan painters
for over fifty years and one of few truly internationally acclaimed
Ventura County artists.
He belongs to the first generation of modern artists
to emerge from Bellas Artes, the Nicaraguan national academy of
fine arts. There he studied for nine years under the direction of
Rodrigo Penalba, called the "father" of Nicaraguan modern
Penalba and many of his students, including Omar also produced within
the Praxis group. This artistic circle sought to engage new postmodern
ideas while confronting social realities which in Nicaragua before
1979 were marked by a right-wing dictatorship and after 1979 by
Today, D'Leon's work can be found worldwide in
many public collections including the museum of Modern Art of Latin
America in Washington D.C., the National Bank of Nicaragua, Duke
University, the Ponce Museum of Puerto Rico, The Museum of Latin
American Art in Long Beach, Chicago Art Institute and the Cuevas
Museum in Mexico City. His paintings have been reproduced on his
country's postage stamps and appear regularly in Sotheby's and Christie's
Born in 1939, Omar D’Leon Lacayo Estrada
received a classical education at a military school. It was there
that he discovered art, and to his family's dismay irreconcilably
envisioned his life path. Omar recalls, "They called me the
black pup...My family wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer."
But, Omar received critical acclaim at every step of his career
and by 1950, had already received international recognition. He
toured the U.S., France, Italy, Denmark and Germany visiting all
of the great art centers, broadening his perspective and technique
to fruitfully manifest his work.
In 1970 Omar founded and largely funded Museo-Galeria
904, which became a bustling cultural hub for Nicaragua's best painters,
sculptors, poets and patrons. The exhibitions and archaeological
collection that Omar amassed represented a unique cross-section
of Nicaragua's antiquity to contemporary cultural works and included
pre-Hispanic artifacts. Museo-Galeria 904 was considered to house
one of the most complete collections in the country.
The disastrous earthquake that destroyed the city
of Managua in December 1972 inflicted damage to Omar’s studio
and Museo-Galeria 904. Then, during the revolution, many of the
treasures were stolen or vandalized. Perhaps 20% of the irreplaceable
objects were recovered. Omar's studio which was part of the museum
was also ransacked. The theft resulted in the loss of Omar D’Leon’s
personal artistic archives and documentation.
Considering that a major portion of Omar’s
work was stolen or lost when he escaped Nicaragua, the bulk of his
production today is staggering. Several lifetimes of work have been
created in his small Camarillo studio - dozens of books of drawings,
paintings and manuscripts ready for publishing.
Omar lives in an extended moment of inspiration,
religiously painting and writing every day. He waits for dreams
as if they were little creatures at the bottom of a lake who swim
to the surface delivering parcels of truth mined from the Earth's
core. Having worked his family's land as a farmer, his grandmother
tutoring him about the properties of hundreds of plants, much of
his art resonates with the vitality of growing things in harmony
with the elements. As he says, “How can one say how inspiration
comes into the mind? I love to see how color comes into flowers,
and then I paint the feeling, the vitality, and the beauty from
memory. You do the idea with love and passion, with some of the
past, some of the present, and at night when you have the dreams
you can find the veritas – truth."
And one of the truths about Omar is that Nicaragua
broke his heart. It was his first love, one that introduced him
to the poetry of mangos and war, and it is always present in his
work. Nicaragua is a beautiful tropical country situated on an isthmus
between the Caribbean and the Pacific. D'Leon is an old and respected
name of a prominent family there. Omar was well educated and enjoyed
a relative paradise on his family's farm with sprawling grounds
dotted with immaculately manicured gardens wrapping around a pool,
several houses and cottages. While Omar's family had many workers,
he was proud of the life he helped to create for them with nice
cottages, a school, health care and higher wages. But, Nicaragua
was also fraught with greed and corruption that weighed heavily
on the backs of the poor majority. For decades, civil unrest simmered
and was violently repressed by a tyrannical dictator and unyielding
The Sandinista Revolution of 1979 overthrew the
government. While the revolution had high ideals for improving the
lives of the people through Socialist Democracy, those ideas were
quickly abandoned to a new form of rule by the few. The Sandinistas
nationalized privately held lands by forceful confiscation. The
aristocracy fled and regrouped to form its own militias - the Contras,
which were bolstered by American trained death squads organized
in Honduras. Ongoing fighting between the two factions resulted
in the deaths of over 100,000 people. U.S. President Ronald Regan,
bent on snuffing the spread of Communism in Central America sought
to crush the Nicaraguan economy through embargos and covert military
action eventually chronicled in world news when the Iran-Contra
affair was discovered. It was during these events that Omar and
his family found themselves in the cross-hairs of enraged Sandinista
militants who arrived at his home under cover of darkness.
On that evening, Omar said that a friend was staying
over. The two planned to go to the ocean the next morning to picnic
and write. When the two heard commotion outside Omar's studio, his
friend went out to see what was happening. Omar remembers his friend
returned quickly and said, "The Sandinistas are here. They
are going to kill us."
Omar detailed the events of that night, how they
fired machine guns at the property, blasting away the door to his
studio. They gathered Omar, his friend, Omar's sister and her American
husband who worked at the U.S. Embassy. He said, "They made
us lie on the floor and kept guns to our backs while they screamed
at us to tell them where to find our gold and money. I said, 'Please,
we are people of peace. We are artists. You are my brothers.' They
did to me like a small animal. They hit me in the ribs, back, legs.
They broke my glasses and put the machine gun in my mouth. I told
them we had the money to pay our workers in the main house, and
they made me get up and walk outside. I took them to the money and
told them to take whatever they want."
But when the gunman was finished ransacking the
main house, he walked Omar back outside and putting a gun to his
head, told him that he was going to die. That was when Omar said,
"You with the machine gun in your hands; you are the poet of
life and death. Before you kill me, let me tell you who I am. I
am an artist..."
The gunmen decided not to kill that night. They
left. Omar said that he and the others, beaten and traumatized,
were overcome by sleep and when they awoke, his brother-in-law urged
them to seek protection at the U.S. embassy, that they must leave
the country while there was still time. He believed that the Sandinistas
would definitely return.
Omar said, "Before we left from the embassy,
we slept in a secret place, and I remember waking up and feeling
such fear and I felt like I was floating in the air and I repeated
a mantra, ‘Holy Mother Christ, Holy Mother Christ.’
The most terrible thing is when you are feeling completely alone
and with no harmony, with panic… I didn’t want to leave.
But when that thing happened, I thought that God was pushing me
to destiny. The land was beautiful. It had been in my family for
over a hundred years, and it was gone. After that I was in the position
to make a choice to leave that country from my heart. I trusted
to art and beauty - my Exodus.
'I was never with the Revolution. I was never with
the dictator Somoza. I didn’t believe in nationalism or capitalism
or communism, or any ism. Communist and non-communist came to my
studio to see the beautiful art. But, during the revolution they
said art is for prostitutes and degenerates, but I know the truth.
I saw the hypocrisy and corruption. When the Sandinistas come, they
want artists to paint propaganda…That is not freedom. Nicaragua
for me is finished; I have a new motherland, but I will always paint
the beautiful mystery of Nicaragua, and I write its laments.”
'When I came here with all of my nerves completely
destroyed, with no money. My mind was blind. My body was painful.
I had only my family and one connection with a museum in Washington
DC. I couldn’t paint. I had to start over with one mark on
the paper, very simple and primitive. But beauty is one of the strongest
forces in the universe. What saved me in the end was the power of
'After living here, I have a little garden, I paint.
If I did not paint or write, I think I would be dead very soon.
And I have to hurry. This is the last chance to make a mark in this
time, to leave footprints.
'I try to live with freedom inside and to find
the inspiration of humanity…I never smoked marijuana, or drank
alcohol or did anything to cloud my person or to forget. If you
camouflage your reality, you will never find the paradise inside
you. The thing that doesn’t destroy you, gives to you more
force, more vision more capacity to love."
Omar D'Leon fled Nicaragua more than 25 years ago.
In a bit of irony, through the Salinas Gallery in Beverley Hills,
his work was recently selected for the U.S. Art in Embassies Program.
Two paintings, “The Poet Contemplating the Lakes” and
“The Still Life of Fruit” will hang in the U.S. Embassy
in Managua, Nicaragua.
When U.S. embassy officials asked Omar the cause
of his injuries, he told them he’d fallen from a mango tree.
It would be years before he would feel comfortable discussing the
truth about what happened to him. He arrived in California with
a portrait of his grandmother, one of his paintings and a book of
poetry. He has never left his sister, who he escaped with along
with her husband Robert, who died ten years ago. They still live
off Appian Way, a street which takes its name from the highway of
martyrs in Rome, a road Jesus is said to have traveled. A small
sapling mango tree grows in Omar’s yard in Camarillo. Its
narrow trunk and frail branches appear too tiny to bear mature fruit,
yet after Omar shared his story and goodbyes were said on the lawn,
he proudly pointed to the lone fruit on the tree - a massive mango
flushed with crimson and purple suspended from a delicate limb,
leaves fluttering around it like paper-thin gold coins. Nicaragua
lost one of its national treasures, and the mangoes know.