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article imageRudy Gutierrez paints the stories behind the music Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 28, 2012 in Entertainment
Hip hop artist K'naan and jazz legend John Coltrane are generations apart, but two new children's books, with work by the acclaimed American artist Rudy Gutierrez, draw them closer together under an umbrella of vibrant visuals.
The Bronx-born artist originally started out working in an illustration studio, where he stayed for five years, working on advertising campaigns for large corporate clients. The redundant nature of the work provided the wake-up call he needed.
“I found myself becoming a pair of hands,” Gutierrez recalls, “and I had to execute whatever the art directors were asking. So it might be Wonder Bread or KFC one day, Citibank the next day, and I was like, “Whoah I have no put at all! I gotta make some changes and get back to being myself!” At that point I started looking at myself culturally, socially, even in terms of what music I liked. I had to ask myself, is this the music I like? The art? My culture?”
Gutierrez is of Puerto Rican descent; the inspiration he gets from his culture is evident in his work. “I wanted all of that in the art,” he says of his cultural background. “I really checked out a lot of indigenous art, so that's what you're seeing.”
His work, which combines photo-realism, surrealism, and vibrant colors, patterns, and designs that recall native and Latin art, has been seen in Rolling Stone, Playboy, the New York Times, and Ms. Magazine. He’s also done extensive album art for labels like Verve Records, Arista Records, and Sony, and, notably, did the eye-catching cover art for Santana’s celebrated 2002 release, Shaman. The Pura Belpre Award-winning artist has also exhibited internationally, at the Conference Against Racism in South Africa, and was a part of the first annual Anti-Apartheid show at the United Nations. In 2001 he co-curated The Prevailing Human Spirit Exhibition for the victims of the of 9/11 tragedy. His process, of working from photographs and moving on to the landscape of imagination, is one born of time, patience, and a deep, abiding respect for the demands of his craft.
“l use layers of reality and that's where the face comes in, then I start to break that down, so it’s layers of reality, layers of spirit,” he explains. “That all manifests itself with the kind of language I’m using via the paint, and sometimes it’s abstract, sometimes it’s real, sometimes it’s graphic… or linear… it all kind of comes together in a gumbo.”
Currently teaching at the prestigious Pratt Institute, Gutierrez has been awarded the Dean Cornwell Hall of Fame Recognition Award, Distinguished Educator in the Arts Award (in 2005), and a Gold Medal from the New York Society of Illustrators. He’s also been featured in numerous respected illustration publications, and guest lectured at various institutions including the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
The opportunity to help tell the story of “Wavin’ Flag” fit perfectly into his artistic ethos -one that combines culture, humanity, humility, and morality.
"I was honored to be asked to do it, actually," Gutierrez says of the opportunity to contribute.
When I Get Older- The Story Behind "Wavin' Flag" (Tundra) traces the inspiration behind K’naan’s moving song, from his childhood in Somalia to his experiences as an immigrant in the United States and then Canada. The original song, tracing the refugee experience from a war-torn homeland, appeared on K’Naan’s 2009 album Troubadour, though it was later used by Coca-Cola as their promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, with rewritten lyrics, where it became a worldwide sensation.
Gutierrez began work on When I Get Older by using photos of the musician (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) and his family in Somalia, and building up each piece, bit by bit. The photos themselves were tiny, presenting a bit of a challenge initially. Gutierrez says he tried to capture the “vibe” of each individual, but still, drawings based on someone’s family members can be intimidating, can’t they?
“You know they're going to see it, you wonder how they'll react,” Gutierrez says nervously.
Though the two didn’t work together directly, Gutierrez says he’s heard the musician liked the book. Even without knowing K’naan’s song, much less its history, one gets the feeling, looking at the book, that Gutierrez's artwork could stand on its own, outside its immediate source.
"That's important to me," Gutierrez notes, "I’m not just doing this literal thing… it's about the feeling of it all, and symbolic imagery as well."
Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey (Clarion), is similar to When I Get Older, in that it visually captures both the feeling of the music and the artist’s love of the twin media -music and painting -that is so central to his creative inspiration. Written by celebrated children's author Gary Golio, the book has won high praise from a variety of sources, including the New York Times, with Pamela Paul noting that "Gutierrez’s wildly kinetic and occasionally fantastical paintings are appropriately heartfelt and groovy."
Gutierrez  who is a big fan of Coltrane s work  says doing the artwork for Spirit Seeker   was a dre...
Gutierrez, who is a big fan of Coltrane's work, says doing the artwork for Spirit Seeker "was a dream to do... it really was."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
It was an interesting piece of timing for the artist, who tries to infuse his art, life, and teaching profession with his own strong sense of morality. Gutierrez had turned down repeated offers to do creative work for the N.R.A. before the opportunity to illustrate Spirit Seeker appeared.
“I turned (the N.R.A.) down one month, and a couple months later, they offered more money for another job,” he recalls. “I turned it down again, and I was sitting here thinking, “Am I being tested here or what?” They can look at my work and know I’m not in that vein -not solely dealing with guns but their political angle, which I didn't agree with -but within a few days (of) turning it down for second time, I got an email from the editor at Clarion asking if I would be interested in doing a John Coltrane book called 'Spirit Seeker'...”
He laughs, recalling the happy memory.
“Maybe I passed the test! My God, it was amazing.”
That key moment informed Gutierrez’s life as a teacher.
“No doubt about it, (teaching) keeps you on your toes,” he says, “and you are forced to evolve as well and live a certain way... I thought about my class and how I go in there every day; I tell (students) the work I do is an extension of who I am, and how can I possibly say that if I'm taking things I don't believe in?”
A still from Spirit Seeker. Gutierrez listened to Coltrane’s work repeatedly while working on the ...
A still from Spirit Seeker. Gutierrez listened to Coltrane’s work repeatedly while working on the book. “Non-stop,” he confirms. For part of the time, he even meditated, which lead to a clarified approach to his own art-making.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Rudy Gutierrez
“I sat a couple weeks towards the end, and listened,” he remembers. “I was listening to music, to interviews. It was an incredible time actually." He pauses, considering the continued resonance of the experience on his creative path.
"What tends to happen is, when you're doing art and you’re reaching a certain skill level, then it becomes about choice: am I making the right choice? I can do anything I want to do, but am I picking the right route? With the meditating and fasting I didn't doubt myself: “Oh this is right, I’m just going to do it” -and that’s it, I found it. It was amazing... really amazing. I wasn't questioning myself as much.”
As in When I Get Older, Gutierrez based the drawings in Spirit Seeker on photographs of the renowned jazz musician.
“You want that likeness and feel,” he says of his process, “but then I run from there -it’s my own point of departure.”
The place he works and grows from is one he sees as continually expanding, in artistic, social, and human terms.
“That never stops, that evolving -it goes on forever. Hopefully, if you’re true to yourself, you’re growing as a person.”
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