The Magic Realist, Part Two

'Fish Out of Water' Finds a Vision

With the help of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, '29, Arreguin got his papers and moved to the Northwest. He wasn't allowed to begin at the UW right away as the admissions office told him he needed to get his high school education in order. So off he went to Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College) for two years. Once that was behind him, he hit another detour when he was drafted by the Army and sent to Korea, where he spent 13 months "trying to convince them I wasn't the enemy." He struggled to learn English, combating blatant discrimination and getting used to life in the military, while fully taking advantage to explore Asian culture every chance he got. It, too, would have a profound effect on his later works.

'Madona Afro Latina,' 1994. Photo by Rob Vinnedge. Click the image to see a larger view of the complete work.

Detail of "Madona Afro Latina," 1994. Photo by Rob Vinnedge. Click the image to see a larger view of the complete work.

When he returned to the States in 1961 with the backing of the GI bill, he dove back into campus life. He took classes during the day while working nights at Campos, a local Mexican restaurant, living in a small room above the kitchen. He also worked as a part-time janitor at Bethany Community Church near Green Lake for $100 a month. Arreguin first studied architecture, a profession backed by his domineering father, then gave interior design a try before switching to painting.

But settling on a subject wasn't his only problem. He was also having a hard time in Seattle, not exactly a mecca for Hispanic culture. "It was very strange when I first arrived here," he says. "I was so happy when I finally met another Chicano student here. There just weren't many of us." He joined a UW club for foreign students, the Cosmos Club, and got involved in student protests that later engulfed the campus. But it only helped a little.

"He was like a fish out of water," recalls Michael Spafford, a retired UW art professor who taught painting and drawing. But in the classroom, Arreguin "stood out as a student and as a person because he was very intense," Spafford says. "He had a very big ego, he was stubborn—like all good students. He was very focused on being an artist. If you gave him an assignment, he would do more than you assigned."

Like many painters at the time, Arreguin churned out abstract expressionist works, squishing thick paint out of tubes and mashing it onto large pieces of canvas.

Bird detail from 'Perico's Bay' by Alfredo Arreguin.

"They were large, broadly painted, with lots of emotion," says Alden Mason, a retired UW painting professor who was one of Arreguin's mentors. "Very passionate and intense." Arreguin also painted personal subjects, such as people, taverns and scenes from daily life. Interestingly, like another of Mason's celebrated students, Chuck Close, '62, (see "Close Call," Columns June 1997) Arreguin would later change his style 180 degrees to what it is today—exquisitely lush jungle scenes, colorful in their detail, focusing primarily on images from the environment. He employed extravagant patterns and colors, drawn from many cultures, mostly pre-Columbian, but also from Japanese woodblock prints, Islamic tiles and Pacific Northwest formline drawings.

What helped him find his intensely personal vision was a meeting during his time as a UW student with Elmer Bischoff, a well-known American figurative painter. Bischoff saw Arreguin's early, abstract works and told him to forget about being an artist. "Do what you are good at!" he scolded Arreguin. "Do what you believe in."

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