As a child in Oaxaca, Mexico, Narsiso Martinez loved drawing, but he never thought that he would one day become a professional artist. And he almost didn’t. The 43-year-old worked as a farm laborer for years to finance his education and pursue an artistic career. Today he is a celebrated artist from Long Beach, California, and his impressive portraits of farm workers have largely led him to success.
Filled with mixed media works with farm workers, fruit crates, and farm landscapes, Martinez’s portfolio has earned comparisons with the social realism movement of the 1930s. The artist also feels a connection to the painters of the 19th century, such as Vincent van Gogh and Jean-François Millet, who both painted peasants and rural landscapes. But Martinez’s greatest influence remains his experience as a farm laborer in Washington state, a job that exposed him to the grueling work farm laborers do – usually without recognition or health and safety – since so many are undocumented.
Born in 1977 to the son of Zapotec parents, Martinez moved to the USA at the age of 20 without a high school diploma. Over the next two decades, he earned a high school diploma, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and finally a master’s degree in fine arts from California State University, Long Beach in 2018. That year he had his first solo exhibition, “Farm Fresh”, held at the Long Beach Museum of Art. The next year the museum showed his “Friends in Freshness” exhibition, which included three-dimensional depictions of his former colleagues.
Today, Martinez’s work has been exhibited by institutions and organizations around the world, including the National Center for Immigration Law; the Mexican Center for Culture and Cinematography of the Mexican Consulate General; Art Space Purl Gallery in Daegu, South Korea; the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; and the CSULB University Art Museum. Ultimately, he wants to initiate a dialogue about the relationship between sales representatives and the agricultural industry.
Most recently, Martinez’s work was featured in Billboard Creative’s Spring Exhibition, which featured works by 30 artists on billboards across Los Angeles. In July, he will be participating in an outdoor exhibit organized by the Torrance Art Museum in Southern California.
Martinez spoke to Civil Eats about his art, education, career, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn unprecedented media attention to the contributions of food and farm workers.
Your determination to get an apprenticeship is incredibly inspiring. What made you decide to continue your training despite the challenges?
It was really about setting goals. When I was growing up, I had no role models. My father had a fourth grade education. I got kicked out of high school in ninth grade for failing too many grades. When I came to the United States, I wanted to go to school and learn the language because I wanted to know what the songs are about. At ESL school, my teachers were really encouraging. I realized I was able to get the job done, so I signed up for the high school program and it took a long time because no one funded it. I did it on my own. and sometimes my schedule changed. But I never stopped and I graduated from high school in 2006. I wanted to break the cycle in my family. At one point it became not just for me, but for everyone else – my family, my nieces and nephews.
Three years later you graduated from Los Angeles City College (LACC). There you attended a course in art history in which you studied Vincent van Gogh. How did he inspire you to center the farm workers in your art?
When I was taking an art history course at LACC, I came across these Van Gogh paintings. Of course the colors were very attractive, but I also learned that he was inspired by Millet who painted peasants and it really reminded me of growing up in my community. And I thought, “Okay, I want to go to graduate school and paint pictures like this.” That was the beginning.
The rural setting that van Gogh and Millet captured wasn’t just a memory of your childhood, because as an adult you worked in the fields.
We worked from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I was annoyed at getting a paycheck at the end of the week that was only a few hundred dollars. I thought, “Really? I don’t think his money will make enough to pay for college.