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Vc Life and Style

Omer D'Leon

Omar D'Leon's Painting

Omar D'Leon

Omar D'Leon's Painting

Omar D'Leon

Omar D'Leon Painting

Omar D'Leon

Omar D'Leon's Painting

Omar D'Leon Painting

Omar D'Leon

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 and orchids.

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 lushness.

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 art.

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 left-wing rebels.

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 auction catalogs.

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 aristocracy.

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 art.

'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.






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