For El Paso artist Jose Cisneros, art was his job and his passion

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Many people have a passion, but few are able to turn their passion into a job they love. For noted El Paso artist Jose Cisneros, whose family was devastated in the Mexican Revolution, the challenge of making his passion a reality was even greater.

“Its hard for us to imagine what a family like the Cisneros would have gone through, living down in Durango,” said local Art Historian Adair Margo.

“One day soldiers come into your little community and tell you to get out and kill your grandfather, hanging him from a tree, and you aren’t able to take anything with you;  you are just asked to leave your home,” said Margo, explaining what happened to the Cisneros family in  1910 before he and his family moved Juarez and later El Paso.

Margo is the author of Jose Cisneros Immigrant Artist, a biography that explains Cisneros’ life in detail, from childhood to  how he became a famous artist and illustrator.

Cisneros wasn’t always an artist, according to Margo. What helped him realize what he was born to do for a living was attending the Lydia Patterson Institute, a school in Segundo Barrio founded more than 100 years ago in the historic neighborhood in Downtown El Paso.

“Lydia Patterson has always been such a refuge or a place where people know there’s hope to move beyond their circumstances,” said Margo, who served as Chairperson of the Committee of the Arts and Humanities under former President George W. Bush.

When Cisneros started attending Lydia Patterson at age of 15 he spoke only Spanish. His  teachers taught him English and he learned about the United States and its history. Drawing in art classes sparked his interest and provided a focus for his passion.

It led him to save some of his lunch money to pay a street artist to help him improve his drawing skills. As he was developing his skills and learning new techniques he discovered he was colorblind, but that didn’t stop him from doing what he loves.

“He had ‘ganas.’ He had a desire,” Margo said.

As a young man Cisneros got regular work painting buses, but he spent his free time in his basement working on drawings. Because paper was expensive, he drew on the backs of discarded signs.

Also during his free time, Cisneros would watch Tom Lea, another well known El Paso artist, work. Lea was the mayor’s son and would eventually become one of El Paso’s most prominent artists. Cisneros finally got Lea to look at his work.

Margo said Cisneros was thrilled with the reaction.

“Jose Cisneros said, ‘I knew he didn’t think they were bad when he smiled,’ ” she said. “What a gesture like that could mean to someone in their career.”

Lea liked Cisneros’ work and the way he was representing his Mexican culture, which he always had an interest in, Margo said.  Lea then became Cisneros’ mentor and friend.

He wrote a note to a librarian at the University of Texas at El Paso library introducing her to Cisneros, and saying how much he liked Cisneros’ drawings.  The introduction resulted in an exhibit on campus of  Cisneros’ drawings. Soon after, Cisneros began to sell his art and became known for his artwork around El Paso.

This was a new start for Cisneros’ life as an artist.

“We hold work from Jose Cisneros on the fourth floor that shows his drawings ranging from Desert army, to Fort Bliss,” said Claudia Rivers, head of special collections at the UTEP library.  

Aside from his success as an artist, Cisneros, who died at age 99 in 2009, had five daughters who all became accomplished in their own ways.

“Some of his daughters have gone to be very well educated and I think a lot of that was that the example of their dad and his desire to learn and he always had books,” Margo said.

A granddaughter studied art history at Boston University. As a tribute to her grandfather she wrote an essay that was shown at Margo’s gallery next to Cisneros’ work.

Margo met Cisneros at an event at her former art gallery, the Adair Margo Gallery, in 1985. After meeting this iconic figure of local history she started to show his work in her gallery. She then started work on the Cisneros book with Texas Western Press that focused on his story. His career and art work are now well known outside the border region in Spain and Mexico.

One of Cisneros’ most famous pieces was of a Spanish conquistador that is displayed in several locations throughout El Paso including Lydia Patterson; his former school.

By the time Cisneros died he had illustrated more than 300 books.
“What he started doing as an illustrator was not his real job but it was his passion. It was what he loved to do,” Margo said.

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