Once, the story goes, the Northwest poet and short story writer Raymond Carver told his friend Alfredo Arreguín — creator of luminous and densely patterned paintings — that he painted constantly, “like a locomotive.”
“At the time, Alfredo said, ‘Yeah, a loco with a motive,'” said his wife, Susan R. Lytle. Arreguín spent as much time as he could in front of the canvas. When he wasn’t painting, he was thinking about painting, ready to descend to his studio in the basement of his North Seattle house. “We would come home from a trip, and before he took off his hat and coat and brought in his luggage, he was at the easel,” Lytle said. “But after 60 years of nonstop locomotive painting, it was like his batteries had finally run out.”
The prolific and influential artist died Monday at 88, of complications from cancer. The longtime Seattle painter, who emigrated from Mexico in November 1956, gained wide acclaim — all the way to Spain and the Smithsonian Institution — with his vivid pattern paintings of lush fauna and flora. With his distinct blend of Pacific Northwest iconography, and Mexican and Asian influences, Arreguín became a key figure in Pacific Northwest art history and paved the way for a generation of artists of Latin American descent.
“Alfredo was a brilliant artist and a kind, generous human being. He opened doors and quietly led by example,” artist Juan Alonso-Rodríguez, who had a studio in Seattle for years, said in an email. “Many of us Latin American artists working in the PNW owe him in part for our own visibility and success.”
Born in 1935 in Morelia, a city in the Michoacán state of Mexico, to a single mother, Arreguín immigrated to the United States after a chance encounter with a Seattle family. Drafted by the U.S. Army, he spent 13 months in Korea and would later study art at the University of Washington, where mentors like Alden Mason, Norman Lundin and Michael Spafford helped hone his style.
Arreguín’s paintings reflected this mosaic of life experiences. The ornamentation echoed the patterns and vivid colors of the Michoacán pottery, jewelry, blankets and baskets he saw at the market in Morelia as a child. His portraits bore traces of the muralists of Mexico City, where he lived as a young man. The famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whom he often depicted, would remain a muse throughout his life.
His canvases were dense like the lush jungle of Guerrero, where he spent his time digging irrigation canals as a young man, according to a HistoryLink profile of the artist. Frothing waves, inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai and his time in Japan on break from the Army, would appear often. And the herons, orcas and salmon of the Pacific Northwest — inspired in part by long walks near Lake Washington or the Ravenna Ravine — would soar through his vistas, part of a lifelong preoccupation with environmental protection.
But unlike the paintings of many other Northwest artists, Arreguín’s canvases were rarely somber: They shimmered with the deepest reds and the brightest blues, azures and sunflower yellow.
“He was singular,” said Linda Hodges, the Seattle gallerist who represented him for 23 years. “He followed his own path.”
Arreguín often spent weeks on a painting and used a tiny brush for the intricate details: tiles of swirls, flowers and geometric shapes layered on top of legible scenes, like tiny paintings-within-a-painting. “Reading” his paintings is like wading through a thicket of foliage and suddenly discovering a previously camouflaged chameleon.
“My imagination helps me to discover hidden images in nature, and I include them on my canvases,” Arreguín once wrote. “Those little ghosts frequently get enhanced as I paint, and they appear and disappear on my paintings.”
These paintings were crowd-pleasers — Hodges said sales of Arreguín’s work often supported less commercially successful artists in her gallery — and gained institutional acclaim, too. During his lifetime, he had solo shows and retrospectives at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and North Dakota Museum of Art, as well as in Mexico and Spain, and most recently, at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Skagit County. He also received myriad awards, including the Washington state Governor's Arts and Heritage Award in 1986 and the Ohtli Award, a recognition given by the Mexican government to people promoting Mexican culture abroad.
His paintings are also in the permanent collections of major museums like the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Seattle Art Museum. He also painted portraits of three Washington state Supreme Court justices, and other paintings are scattered across the campus of his alma mater, the University of Washington, where a scholarship is named in his honor.
One painting hangs in the office of UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “Las Garzas” depicts herons flying across a starry mosaic sky and wading through seemingly bioluminescent water. Arreguín, proud of a Latina being university president, gifted it to Cauce, an admirer of his work.
“Alfredo Arreguín filled the world with beauty,” Cauce said in a statement. “His legacy is all around us in his art. He made my spirit soar like the breaching orcas in his paintings.”
While Arreguín was proud of his culture, he was wary of being pigeonholed, too. “I’m tired of the trend of Hispanic artists painting the Mexican revolution — it's boring to me by now,” he told The Seattle Times in 1979.
Still, Arreguín’s mainstream success gave visibility to other artists of Latin American descent, said Jake Prendez, a local Chicano artist. “Seattle has this Latino amnesia,” Prendez said. “Definitely within the art scene, we’re kind of an afterthought when we are included, or tokenized. Having a giant like Alfredo always gave us this air of grandeur. Like: ‘You can’t write us off.’”
As a personality, Arreguín — gregarious and sociable — was also impossible to write off. “When you met him in person, it was like wrestling with lightning,” said his son, Ivan Arreguín-Toft. “He whirled around the room … His laugh would just echo through almost any size room.”
In the telling of friends and family, Arreguín lived and painted passionately. “He took really big bites out of life,” Arreguín-Toft said. “For a famous artist, he never slowed down and never stopped. He loved, he lived, he ate, he laughed all at the highest level of … creativity, energy, passion.”
He was also generous, and often donated prints and paintings to charities and local groups like the community organization El Centro de la Raza. Lauro H. Flores, a longtime friend and UW professor, who also wrote books about the artist, recalls how, when Flores’ mother died, Arreguín painted a portrait of her as a surprise. “And then he came to my house and delivered the portrait because he was very, very worried that I was very depressed,” Flores said.
He also once gifted a painting he made to Raymond Carver and his partner, Tess Gallagher, shortly after Carver was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The painting, “A Hero’s Journey,” shows salmon, having spawned and left their forever mark on the world, leaping out of the water and onto another world.
“The idea was that now the salmon have ceased the struggle and they're free,” Arreguín told The Seattle Times in 1989. “They may dwell in another dimension, but they're much happier.”
In addition to his wife, Lytle, and son, Arreguín-Toft, Arreguín is survived by his daughters Kristine Arreguín and Lesley Rialto Lytle-Arreguín, and three grandchildren and one great-grandson. A public celebration of his life is tentatively planned for this summer.
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