Archived Story

Artist paints a path — his way

Published 5:21pm Thursday, December 1, 2011

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, Rodolfo Zarate Guzman is descended from a Native American and Mexican/Basque father, and a mother who was descended from a very old Spanish family.

“My father was an orphan, his father having died from the Spanish influenza. His parents and my

Rodolfo Zarate Guzman is largely a self-trained artist.

mother’s grandparents died in that epidemic, too. Father was a bodyguard to the governor. My mother’s parents were very young when she was born,” Zarate Guzman said.

I asked Zarate Guzman if there were other members of the family who were artists.

“My mother did needlework from her freehand drawings, and others in the family made pottery and leather goods like sandals. I always felt that I was an artist.”

Guzman started drawing while still in school, and the principal, who he says did not like him, used to rip up his drawings as punishment.

Asked when he decided to pursue formal training in art, he told me, “One day when I was little, my mother took us into Guadalajara where they were giving away Indian blankets for Christmas. We stopped at the Governor’s Palace where I first saw the murals by José Clemente Orozco. I was overwhelmed and knew then that when I grew up, that was the kind of work I wanted to do.”

His mother was supportive, and he remembers her helping him prepare canvases using rabbit skin glue when he was 12 or 13.

When he was about 16, Zarate Guzman was hired as studio assistant to Xicotencal Padilla Gutierez, who was the assistant to artist Guillermo Chavez-Vega. He was put to work cleaning brushes and filling in acrylic colors on murals.

He worked with them for about four years on various murals outside the palace, watching how symbols and colors were used by the artist.

During this time, Chavez-Vega was constantly coming and going back and forth to Europe, where he was doing other murals.
For a year, Zarate Guzman attended the University of Mexico’s National School of Expressive Arts, but got thrown out for belonging to what was considered a radical group. He continued to work on his own.

After coming to the United States, he took a few classes at Indiana University South Bend, but mostly worked on his own year after year, painting canvas after canvas.

Not initially well received, Guzman eventually developed his own style of painting that has garnered some critical attention.

Besides Chavez-Vega, his biggest influence was the dynamic painter Gabriel Flores Garcia.

Many pieces that Zarate Guzman paints, especially some portraits, are done for their sentimental value.

Portraits of his mother and his grandchildren hang on the walls of his studio, a cozy log cabin in New Carlisle, Ind. That is the work that I find most appealing, with their lovely colors and personal symbolism.

One can imagine the painter smiling as he paints these beautiful tributes. He met his wife, Annie, while studying to get his GED at Central High School in South Bend, after learning to read and write in English. Many years later, they reconnected and started dating. They have been together for 23 years and Annie is his biggest supporter, helping with receptions, marketing and communication.
Zarate Guzman began by painting the usual things in school: still life, portraits and landscapes; but he has always inserted symbolism into his work and has often made fun of politics and religion. He possesses a vibrant imagination and used to “watch” the radio, practicing seeing the pictures in his mind’s eye. Mysteries especially, were his favorites.

He started using oil because he could not afford the acrylic paints he had learned to paint with. He painted a mural at his parent’s house combining Elmer’s glue and raw powdered pigment — it has lasted 50 years.

“Mixing pigment, linseed oil and turpentine is another technique I have used to paint murals. I prefer Mexican pigments, which are more vibrant and alive,” he said.

Asked what he wants people to remember about his work, he said he hopes people know that the thoughts and ideas he transfers to canvas are entirely original; he has always tried not to repeat what someone else has already done.

I asked Zarate Guzman what he hopes to do in the future with his work. He said he intends to do more sculpture and oils, but also intends to do encaustic paintings.

You can see his work at the Scarlet Macaw Community Art Center in Sawyer. Reach him at

Kathee Kiesselbach loves to hear from people about this column, and you can reach her at

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