MN VOICES | Muralist on a mission

It never gets old for muralist Jimmy Longoria—watching harried Minneapolitans freeze in their tracks to bask in the radiance of what used to be just another drab city wall. Even on the bleakest of mid-winter days, it's hard not to be uplifted by the visual lithium emanating from the Chicano artist's urban canvasses. They are bombastic explosions of color and texture—exclamations of positive energy in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1970s, Longoria has been honing his distinctive style for over three decades. A cursory glance at his work suggests a pairing of Latin American imagery and storytelling with the application of Van Gogh or Picasso. However, it can be a challenge getting Longoria to talk about his art-at least in an aesthetic sense. Form follows function in much of his work, and the Hopkins-based artist is more ready to talk about this function than about form.

"I was looking at the graffiti here and I recognized some of it from places I had lived before-Southern California, Chicago, Texas..." said Longoria, pointing out various spray-painted scrawls along East Lake Street. "Gangs use these walls to announce their territory and advertise that you can buy drugs here. It's real simple-they're here because the market is good, and that market is suburbanite kids who come down in their moms' cars to buy drugs for the weekend."

Seeking a way to help stem the tide of crime and violence in this predominantly Latino community, Longoria has countered gang graffiti with his murals, consciously utilizing a very specific style to thwart would-be taggers.

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Some of Longoria's murals can be seen at 1229 East Lake Street and 323 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Longoria currently has a show at the Hopkins Center for the Arts that runs through February 27.

On February 11, the Lakeville Area Arts Center will present "An Evening of Art and Dance"- featuring a dance inspired by a painting of Longoria's-with choreography from Ballet Royale Minnesota.

Longoria will also have a show at the Plymouth Congregational Church from February 26-April 20, with a public reception on March 6.

"I call it urban camouflage," Longoria said when describing the dense, sweeping patterns that fill every inch of brick and mortar in his work. "The idea is to take away the wall so that gangs can't use this place to congregate. We leave no room for anybody to tag and we use every color that we can possibly get out hands on."

With such variety in hue and line usage, those who attempt to paint over Longoria's art find that their efforts simply disappear into the vortex of elements at play. He pointed out two nearby murals (done by other artists) that have not had the same success in warding off unwanted aerosol attacks.

Closing off corners to feuding gangs is but one facet of Longoria's counterattack on community decay. He is also a mentor to those who seek him out-and even to some who don't, including passersby who pause to admire his handiwork. Longoria and his wife, Connie Fullmer, founded the non-profit organization Mentoring Peace Through Art, which aims to serve Twin Cities-area youth. These kids range from reformed taggers and gangbangers to those who wish to beef up their portfolios for art school applications.

Longoria gives his young charges an incredible amount of freedom-and responsibility. Oftentimes, they are the ones conceptualizing and executing a mural's design. In the process, they develop leadership skills, they learn how to delegate tasks, and they amass their fair share of moxie by observing how the assertive Longoria carries himself.

"What happens when you work with me is you become fearless, " Longoria said of his tough-love teaching style. "I throw these kids right into the fray. Their chance for failure is greater than their chance of success, but what they're learning is real character-building stuff. They learn by doing. When something is learned under stress, it becomes ingrained in your mind."

Longoria's methods are working, and he's racking up some serious hardware to prove it. In 2008 he won a Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service. In 2009, Target Corp. featured Longoria in a nationally circulated newspaper ad, lauding his commitment to community service. In 2010, The Bush Foundation bestowed an Artist Fellowship on Longoria, making him the only Chicano artist to ever achieve this distinction.

And according to the spry 59-year-old, he's just getting started. In the spring of 2011, Longoria will team up with the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI)—the Minneapolis chapter of a nation-wide program seeking positive solutions to dealing with sentenced youths. Phillip Gray—the JDAI Community Alternatives Liaison-specifically recruited Longoria for this task, identifying the artist's knack for changing young people's lives.

Longoria hopes his efforts will ultimately have an effect beyond the street level. He yearns for a shake-up of antiquated systems in the Twin Cities arts community—especially when it comes to arts funding for children. "The cost of programming in Minnesota under the old arts and social service mentality is extremely expensive 'per square kid'—we as a society can't afford it," said Longoria.

"In Minnesota, we have this great reputation of supporting the arts. But we don't support art—we support arts administrators," Longoria continued, biting back vitriol. "You stack all these people up, and it gets very expensive at the bottom, where the real artists are. I scare the heck out of a lot of arts administrators because I get things done. There's no meetings, there's no committee, no wasting time and money. We just do it, and it works."

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