One painting at a time, in a new exhibit of Chicano art at the Indiana State Museum
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the same guy who said, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a bowl of lard with a hair in it,” (Cheech Marin as Louis Corsican in Cheech and Chong: The Corsican Brothers) also said this: “… the Chicano School of Painting has always been about reinterpreting a culture … [it] combines stylistic innovation, blends traditional Mexican popular and religious iconography with modern images of urban angst, and reflects the continually evolving role of Mexican Americans, or Chicanos, within the larger ‘American’ society.” And yet … it’s true. Cheech Marin, famed half of the duo Cheech and Chong, is still best known for his enduring (and endearing), nearly plotless Cheech and Chong movies that more or less celebrated the joys of dope, women and lassitude, beginning with the release of Up in Smoke in 1978. While Cheech and Chong films are still racking up the royalties as the No. 1 weekend video rentals, Cheech has long since moved on to other things since Corsican Brothers, the allegedly final Cheech and Chong offering.
Among those other endeavors are numerous roles in other major films, and more directing, writing and making music — including the bilingual children’s album My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver, with a follow-up album anticipated. Few, though, are aware of Marin’s humanitarian work, and fewer still know about his extensive Chicano art collection and his love of visual art in general. Marin’s Chicano art collection, said to be one of the largest in the world, forms the core of Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, opening in Indianapolis on Saturday, Jan. 31 at the Indiana State Museum. Marin is the driving force behind this effort to recognize and encourage awareness of the ongoing contributions of contemporary Chicano artists.
The accompanying exhibit, Chicano Now: American Expressions, furthers the additional goal of presenting the diverse heritage of Chicano culture, in this case through a multimedia exhibit with hands-on, interactive displays. The pair of exhibitions was most recently on view at the El Paso Museum of Art prior to its visit to the ISM, which marks its first stop in the Midwest.
After Indianapolis, Chicano will tour nine other U.S. cities within the next three years. I had the rare opportunity to speak with Marin, a third-generation Mexican American, from his home in California in anticipation of the Chicano exhibits. I
n an attempt to bring the past and present full circle, I asked Marin about his Cheech days, his early years as a collector, how he discovered Chicano art and why he believes art is so important.
NUVO: Tell me about your upbringing in South Central L.A.
CHEECH MARIN: I lived in South Central L.A. until I was almost 10 and we moved from there to the San Fernando Valley, so we went from very suburban to very rural. I went to high school in the Valley.
NUVO: How “Chicano” was your neighborhood, and were your cultural roots emphasized as you grew up? Or to put it another way, were you raised with a strong sense of your cultural and ethnic heritage?
CM: It was all around me. It was amazing because the neighborhood I grew up in was all black and the one I moved to was all white, so you’re kind of reminded at each juncture that you’re Chicano. My grandparents spoke Spanish but I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. I learned it later on.
NUVO: I loved your comment that you left California State University-Northridge “eight credits short of a degree” to “pursue pottery and avoid the draft.” I know this ushered in your fateful meeting with Tommy Chong when you moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and worked for Chong in his topless club. But did you actually pursue pottery?
CM: Oh yes, I did. I left college at my last semester. I [had taken] a pottery class and that became my life. And my pottery teacher had an ex-student who was opening up a shop in Calgary, Alberta … so I worked for him and helped him get his shop together but he couldn’t afford to hire me. But there was a very famous potter who lived close by and I walked over there and he gave me a job. So I was his assistant then. Well, eventually I made my way to Vancouver because I decided to get back into doing show business. So when I was living in this little place with the potter I started dancing with this tour group, but their first group show was in Hawaii. I couldn’t go to the U.S., so I started to work in a skiing village but I broke my leg … eventually I made my way to Vancouver and through one person or another I was introduced to Chong and he was running this improvisational theater company. So I joined this company as a writer first of all and then I’d fill in for other performers and then eventually started performing myself … by this time, I was back into my music.
NUVO: Do you still have some of your early pottery pieces?
CM: Being an entrepreneur, after school I went door to door selling them all. They sold out in like an hour.
NUVO: What prompted you and Chong to move back to Los Angeles? Did you have to convince him — or did he convince you?
CM: You aren’t going to go that far in show business in Vancouver. We had to move to either New York or L.A., and New York is really cold, and I was from California. But I was wanted by the FBI … so I had to come back under an assumed name. I came back under the assumed name of Bill Clinton.
NUVO: You and Chong, it goes without saying, had quite a successful time of it, for 15 years, in fact. After making eight feature films together — with Up in Smoke  alone topping $100 million at the box office — you easily could have retired. Why did you and Chong decide to split, and was your next career move, or creative transition, clear to you at this time?
CM: It was time to move on as far as subject matter and exploring other things. We kind of said everything we were gonna say. And it kind of came to a point where it was a struggle for leadership [of the creative group] … I didn’t want to control the group, but I didn’t want to be controlled. So we said good-bye.
NUVO: Are the two of you still friends?
CM: Oh, yes. We’re pen pals.
NUVO: What, in your mind, accounts for the tremendous success of the Cheech and Chong movies?
CM: We were right in the middle of a cultural sea change vis a vis the Baby Boomer generation … and nobody was really addressing what was happening in comedy terms. It was all music and the heroes were Crosby Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell, but nobody was addressing comedy. We were musicians really, so we tried to put it into comedy. We were really surprised that nobody followed our lead. I’ve always said success is 90 percent inspiration and 10 percent perspiration.
NUVO: Are there common threads between the Cheech and Chong style humor and what you’re doing now with music and children?
CM: A basic sense of humor follows through whatever personality you have ... [you’re always asking], what do you sense is funny? How does the world look to you? That’s your own unique brand or perspective.
NUVO: You seem to be continually evolving as a creative person, and success has followed you, it would seem, throughout your career. What is your primary goal as an artist — and I mean that in the general sense.
CM: Actually, [my goal is] to please myself, to have some sense of satisfaction for having given birth to something. That’s kind of my goal, to amaze myself. Within that definition, there’s amazing and pleasing and satisfying an audience, so those go hand in hand. The definition automatically includes pleasing the audience that I’m addressing.
NUVO: What interested you in collecting art initially — and how long have you collected?
CM: I was always interested in art from a very early age. I think it was the influence of growing up in the Catholic church and the liturgical art, which, for many centuries, was our art, so I decided very early on if I can’t do it myself I want to know about it. Just to be more educated in the general sense. I wanted to walk into a room and say, that’s a Picasso, that’s a Chagall and that’s a Miro. Every Saturday I’d go to the library and study … and then you start seeing some patterns emerge, and you learn about the history and learn about what they were trying to do. [You could say] I was an “art history major” at a young age. What it did was it made me develop an eye, and that eye carries over into everything: what your album cover looks like, your house, your furniture, your clothes. Just like you’re developing a sense of humor, you’re developing a sense of aesthetics. What I didn’t know, really, was contemporary art, then I married an artist and she started taking me around to contemporary galleries, and during that process I started discovering Chicano artists.
NUVO: What was the first piece of art you bought and, if you don’t mind my asking, how much did you pay for it?
CM: I started collecting Art Nouveau glass when I was in New Orleans and I saw this vase in a window, and thought, what is that? So I went in and talked to the guy … and that started my education in to Art Nouveau. It was a Daum vase; I think I paid like $500 for it.
NUVO: Do you still collect Art Nouveau?
CM: I appreciate it but my talent is “getting it” [discovering what is not yet valued] early when no one else does and buying it up and then selling it.
NUVO: What is your primary goal as a collector of art in general, and as a collector of Chicano art?
CM: I have been a collector in general of all kinds of stuff. I started collecting matchbook covers and marbles when I was a kid … That collecting mania has always been part of my life … [early on it was] Art Nouveau and Art Deco … there again it was part of developing an eye; having one eye on aesthetics and one eye on commerce. I appreciate having beautiful things around me, it makes my life fuller. Chicano art in particular has been this wonderful and incredible journey for me, discovering what it is and where it came from and how it’s changing … It represents a lot of things; on a purely artistic level, it represents a growing spiral from a lot of different stylistic viewpoints, [all reflecting the experience] of being Chicano in the United States. We Chicanos happen to be a very artistic lot, from myriad different stylistic approaches … it all pertains to the experience of being Chicano, whether it’s historical or religious or spiritual or gender based or abstract even. It’s a dynamic experience so it’s ever evolving. It’ll keep expanding as the population expands; now we’re the biggest minority. Every state in the union now has a burgeoning Latino population. In the end, really, on a purely artistic basis, the goal is to transcend the experience. You don’t have to be Chicano to appreciate Chicano art, just like I don’t have to be French to appreciate Impressionism. It is a school of art that is very specific but that is also very general. It’s a very universal subject.
NUVO: What is your goal for the Chicano exhibits?
CM: My goal for Chicano is to give these artists an audience. To break [them] out of their little niche and expose the rest of the nation to their art. You can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you see it. This is that process, of seeing the art. And to have these painters that are making world-class paintings stand on the stage with any painters who are working on the world stage today.
NUVO: What do you look for, now, as a collector, particularly in collecting Chicano art? Or, put another way, how would you characterize your collection of art — is there a particular type of imagery you’re drawn to, or a style of painting?
CM: Primarily I’ve collected paintings. The one hallmark of the Chicano school of painters is that they’re painter’s painters. They’re not minimalists or conceptualists, they’re brush on canvas painters. There’s a tactile quality to their work. They work in … very traditional modes of painting. But their subject matter goes all over the place, and their stylistic approach goes all over the place, but they’re still speaking about the same thing. And I think that’s the definition of what a school is … I had a lot of flack from the museum establishment, who said, “We don’t use school anymore.” You know what? You just gotta get hip. If a school is defined as where you go to learn … then this is a university, not a school.
NUVO: How will the Chicano exhibit make a difference in our perceptions of Chicano art and culture?
CM: This whole tour is about opening doors. And it’s also the acceptance and the realization of Chicano art in the mainstream. This is mainstream art, and the Chicano Latino contribution to the culture is mainstream; we’re one of the main threads of the cultural fabric. So the Latino population don’t think they’re second class. That’s why we insisted on major museums. What marginalizes us is our own perception of ourselves and others’ perceptions of us; it has nothing to do with facts.
NUVO: The stated purpose of the Chicano exhibit is “to advance and support the cause to establish Chicano art as a recognized school of art, while helping inspire a new generation of artists and art enthusiasts within our communities.” What is the greatest challenge to accomplishing this goal? What is its greatest promise? And why have Chicano contributions to American culture been overlooked?
CM: I think it’s an institutional attitude that the Latino population in general has been marginalized as not being truly American, because the history books are written back East. The United States history has been writ large at Bunker Hill … It’s a part of tradition that we’re getting a bigger picture of now and it’s [about] how to do that movement in an inclusive and embracing manner so that everybody feels a part of the same journey. That’s part of my goal: to make the Latino population take part of the system when they’re reluctant because they’re not being addressed. If they’re not being addressed, what motivation is there for them to participate?
NUVO: Do you believe that art “can change the world”?
CM: I think art can change the world. I mean, I don’t think it can get a specific Senate bill passed. It changes the world in this way: how it affects you personally, whether it’s a public sculpture you walk by on the way to work or something you see on television … it lets you know that there’s a bigger idea, a bigger ideal out there, something to strive for. Man is an artist. And art speaks to that part in your soul. It sometimes gets buried … all it has to do is be activated.
NUVO: Any final thoughts?
CM: I would like all the people that can possibly get to this show in Indiana to please come. Remember, you don’t have to be Chicano to appreciate Chicano art … It will be around for a long time so get to know it now.
‘Chicano’ Grand Opening Celebration Be one of the firsts to see the exhibit, listen to the sounds of The Iguanas, participate in activities for the whole family and meet exhibit creator and entertainer Cheech Marin. Jan. 31, 1-5 p.m. 232-1637, www.indianamuseum.org.