Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Art the light of his life

The Arizona Republic


The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – David Tineo leans over the workbench in his cramped artist’s studio in Tucson, searching for a tube of black paint. He cups a tube of brown acrylic inches from his eyes, squints, then drops it in frustration. He grabs a handful of brushes and feels the dry bristles, selecting one by touch.

Tineo, a locally famous muralist and former art instructor, is going blind. He sees a white haze over his canvas, a foggy blur with points of light. Now, he paints from a mixture of memory and instinct, his coffee-colored eyes swimming out of focus.

“In my blindness,” he said, “I’m really beginning to see. I am no longer distracted by sight. I can see inside myself and truly express what needs to be said.

“And that’s how my world is beginning to change.”

Tineo, 50, painted more than 200 murals in Tucson before his eyesight started to deteriorate in fall 2004. He was restoring one of his early works, a set of three murals at El Rio Neighborhood Center on Tucson’s West Side, when he noticed his vision was blurring. He grew increasingly sensitive to the daylight and started seeing a glaring, white haze. He couldn’t retrace the brush strokes. He lost his balance standing on the ladder because he couldn’t focus.

Tineo started to panic.

He went to the veterans hospital, where doctors did eye tests, then MRIs and EKGs. In November, after nearly a year, Tineo had a diagnosis. The doctors wanted more tests but wrote in his medical file that it was possibly related to congenital muscular dystrophy. He had 20/400 vision in his right eye and 20/200 in his left. Within the span of a year, Tineo was legally blind.

He can’t read. He can’t drive. He quit teaching art at Pima Community College, the job he held for 20 years.

On some days, Tineo – a burly man at 5 feet 8 inches and more than 200 pounds – is afraid to leave the studio. Each morning, he retreats inside and paints two or three works in a day, all before noon, when the natural light through the only window gets too bright and he loses all ability to focus on the canvas.

The unsold paintings clutter Tineo’s studio behind his mother’s house in Barrio Anita, off Interstate 10 just west of downtown Tucson. They hang on the walls and are stacked two deep by the door. One depicts two skeletons typical of Mexican folk art, merrily embracing, as symbolic of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. A painting with an Aztec-style head uplifted toward the sky, its legs severed below, has Spanish words painted on its borders. It reads: “Tengo Alas. Libre estoy. Ando libre.” (“I have wings. I am free. I walk freely.”)

“I’m painting more now,” Tineo said, “because I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and it will all be gone.”

Tineo moved to Tucson’s West Side as a child in 1959 from the small border town of Douglas. He struggled in elementary school until he had a second-grade teacher named Dorothy Clark. She saw something special in Tineo, an asthmatic boy who spoke only Spanish.

“She worked with me through art,” he said, “having me do paintings and watercolors and things like that. It’s how I got involved.”

She told him over and over, he remembered, until he believed it: “You’re going to be well known. You’re going to do good things. You’re a good artist.”

When he won one of his first art awards in the early 1980s, she was there, and presented him a watercolor he painted in second grade. He keeps it in his studio. He says she inspired him to be a mentor.

Until he lost his sight, Tineo worked with children in after-school programs, painting the walls of youth centers, schools and hospitals. He saw it as a way to help Hispanic children appreciate their heritage, to empower them through art and help revitalize some of Tucson’s poorest neighborhoods.

“We must remember where we came from,” Tineo said, “and remember to give back. That’s how we nourish future generations. It’s not (about) me. It’s what I’ve been given the opportunity to give, and I’m very happy I’ve done that.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Tineo was part of a small group of artists who helped pioneer the Chicano muralist movement in Tucson.

He took work where he could find it, painting murals in Tucson restaurants, including El Charro, one of the oldest Mexican-food restaurants in the country, and El Parador, the most popular salsa dancing bar in town. His works are preserved in businesses across the city, on murals at Pima Community College and the University of Arizona.

Tineo’s masterwork, Raices, a sprawling painting in the Tucson Museum of Art courtyard done with collaborator Antonio Passos, was a major breakthrough for the mural genre, bringing it from folk art into the mainstream. Painted in 1992, it was supposed to be on display for a short stint as part of a Chicano exhibition. It still hangs there today, its vibrant colors fading in the Arizona sun.

By the late ’90s, his fame was peaking. In 1998, Tineo was named the most popular local artist by voters in the Tucson Weekly’s annual Best of Tucson poll. In 1999, he was the first Latino awarded the prestigious Robert Rauschenberg Award, named after the Texas-born pop artist.

Despite professional success, he struggled in his personal life, marrying and divorcing twice. He keeps framed photos of his two children, now 21 and 15, in his studio, directly behind the easel.

He likens painting to “a very jealous woman,” demanding of his time and attention.

“She’s very possessive of me,” he said. “She demands everything but yet has taken care of me. You have many muses, but your true commitment is to what you believe needs to be done and accomplished.

“Why am I here? I believe that I’m here to make a difference, and this is my tool: my brush.”

In a classroom on Tucson’s south side, Tanya Alvarez, 34, one of the artists Tineo mentored, is giving her high school students finals.

She has her own work up in the corner of the room, a large canvas with elements of Tineo’s signature style: strong women, chains, Aztec gods, the sun, the moon. She remembers calling him for the first time, asking him to look at her work. She was a young single mom, struggling to get by, and found that despite her talent, it was a competitive, sometimes cutthroat business.

But not with Tineo, she said. He kept saying, “You go get them! Paint!,” she said. “Paint! Paint! Paint!”

“He’ll stick his neck out for artists like me,” she said. “That’s why I hold him in such high esteem. I think he’s underappreciated. You see his work through the community, and you take it for granted. You don’t realize what you have until you’ve lost it.

“And I’m afraid we’re losing it.”

She has noticed changes in his painting style. It’s more symbolic, she said, with less fine detail.

“He apologizes for losing his eyesight. He shouldn’t,” she said. “God gives us a gift, and sometimes it’s only temporary, but he’s using it for good.”

Tineo pushes play on the CD player, and the Carlos Santana song “Smooth” fills the tiny room.

He settles into a folding chair in front of a blank canvas and dips his brush in the black. The first brush stroke goes on the canvas smoothly, a line of black that curves gently, the outline of a woman’s jaw.

He works confidently, with bold brush strokes, sketching with paint like some do with pencil. A woman takes shape on the canvas.

She has textured umber hair, with highlights of vibrant red, golden yellow and shades in between with no names. Her wings are silver, with white highlights, and touches of red and green for highlights. Her eyes, a golden color, have flecks of blue.

Tineo struggles with details in the eye.

His depth perception is off, and the paintbrush leaves a thick dab of blue on her upper cheek, like a tear drop.

He leaves it as part of the painting. The angel is crying. He paints his signature in the corner, in capital letters: TINEO.

He has little hope that doctors will be able to restore his vision, but he is trying to keep what little he has left.

Tineo says he is down to the last of his visions. He talks about painting one more mural.

“I just want to paint one huge piece again,” he said. “I want to be able to fly again.”

Our Digital Archive

This blog page archives the entire digital archive of the Tucson Citizen from 1993 to 2009. It was gleaned from a database that was not intended to be displayed as a public web archive. Therefore, some of the text in some stories displays a little oddly. Also, this database did not contain any links to photos, so though the archive contains numerous captions for photos, there are no links to any of those photos.

There are more than 230,000 articles in this archive.

In TucsonCitizen.com Morgue, Part 1, we have preserved the Tucson Citizen newspaper's web archive from 2006 to 2009. To view those stories (all of which are duplicated here) go to Morgue Part 1

Search site | Terms of service