He captures such intensity in a delicate pair of golden-brown eyes. It’s what lures most people to the artist John Huerta—to get a closer look at the striking women in his paintings. Their eyes stare back from vibrant canvases flush with bright shades of green and yellow that warm the soft curves of beautiful faces adorned in elegantly blended makeup that mirrors skull-like features and pays homage to Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
His studio, swathed in color and canvas, is Huerta’s sacred space. It’s in that space where he leaves all the stresses of everyday life behind while he delves into another world and paints as a form of art therapy. His work not only honors the pillars of women who made a lasting impact on his life, but also of dear friends, Hollywood starlets and dead rock stars, restoring their likeness in splashes of rich acrylic paint.
“Painting clears my mind. When I’m working on an art piece, I don’t worry about anything else,” Huerta says. “All I worry about is, does this color look good with this? I give myself that time.”
Since the early 2000s, before Disney’s “Coco” hit movie theaters, Huerta has introduced attendees at festivals and galleries throughout California to Día de los Muertos through his artwork.
But Huerta didn’t grow up celebrating the Mexican-born holiday that takes place on Nov. 1 and 2, with all its festive traditions honoring the lives of loved ones who’ve passed.
He remembers a friend introduced him to Día de los Muertos not long after his sister Rosemary died, followed by his grandmother 10 months later.
“I pretty much hit rock bottom, emotionally and physically and spiritually. I was drained,” Huerta says. “I had to express myself through art. I started doodling and sketching, trying to figure out what’s in there that’s going to help me through this.”
For hours, he found himself vigorously sketching, then examining the graphite-lined shapes and contours like loose tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. Once Huerta researched Día de los Muertos a bit further, he admired its customs that remember the dead through colorful homemade altars decorated with offerings such as the person’s favorite meals, treasured photographs and other beloved items.
“Realizing what it stands for, the tradition, the beauty of what it means touched me so strongly in my heart that I knew that’s what I needed to do,” Huerta says. “So I started doing sketches of people like Rosemary, my grandmother, or anybody who inspired me. Not necessarily everyone who had passed, but really anybody who had affected me in my life.”
Huerta’s series “Las Catrinas” is a collection of some of his first paintings, such as “Carmen Maria,” which features a woman with almond-shaped eyes and slick ebony hair tucked neatly under a crown of crimson roses. It’s the embodiment of Carmen, his grandmother, and Maria, his aunt, both women who raised him since he was 4 years old.
“He needed to go into art as a place of comfort and to let out a lot of deep, deep emotions,” says Huerta’s partner of 25 years, Pancho Sanchez. “It’s just part of the process for him. It blows me away just to see how people are drawn to his work. They gravitate toward it.”
People who cross paths with Huerta connect to his struggles with grief illustrated with such beauty on canvas. They become transfixed by his bold use of color softened by the imagery of flower petals and butterflies, symbols of rebirth and resurrection.
His colorful compositions of friends and family members also connected with the California Lottery in 2016 and 2017 when it commissioned Huerta to create original artwork for its seasonal Día de los Muertos-themed Scratchers.
“It was just an awesome opportunity because it was the first time they ever hired an independent artist to create artwork for Scratchers,” Huerta says. “That let me know that I could do this professionally.”
Huerta’s vibrant aura also caught the attention of the California Museum on O Street, where he and Sanchez, a master crafter and interior designer, have participated in its annual Día de los Muertos exhibition, alongside artists like Rob-O, David Lozeau and Francisco Franco, since 2013.
Together, Huerta and Sanchez create large, multi-tiered altars beautifully draped in decadent fabrics that feature Huerta’s original artwork highlighting popular Californians who’ve made a difference.
Except for last year, when the event went virtual due to the pandemic, the Día de los Muertos-themed exhibit at the California Museum typically sells out, according to Brenna Hamilton, communications and marketing director.
Hosted in the museum’s outdoor courtyard with live music, food and art vendors, the celebration of life is popular with adults and children spanning all ages and cultures. It grew from 300 attendees in its first season to nearly 1,500 in 2019.
“Over the years, John has always picked really great people to pay tribute to, from Elizabeth Taylor to Lucille Ball,” Hamilton says. “The first year, he paid tribute to Frida Kahlo, who lived in San Francisco for a period of time with Diego Rivera. It’s always interesting to see who he will include, and then, of course, the installation is very well thought out with such wonderful attention to detail.”
As Huerta looks forward to the return of this year’s festivities, with hints he may pay tribute to a certain cartoonist from Santa Rosa famous for creating the Peanuts gang, he’s also aware that events can shutter overnight. It’s a reality he experienced tenfold in 2020 when state restrictions barred large outdoor and indoor gatherings due to the pandemic, which significantly impacted his business.
Despite the unknowns, Huerta leans into his creativity and checks into his sacred space, where he continues to paint things that give him joy and peace, even during a time when the world feels uncertain.
His latest series of paintings features dozens of multicolored hummingbirds in mighty, phoenix-like golds amid twinkling stars or next to blooms of bright-orange California poppies. Each is unique, and although it strays from his signature Día de los Muertos aesthetic, the colors and energy radiating from each piece are unmistakably Huerta.
“When I’m creating a piece, I just get in this state of nirvana where nothing else matters,” he says. “The passion that I put into my pieces, the colorfulness, the playfulness of colors fighting each other for attention: I like to make my paintings so colorful because that’s how I want people to see me. And of course, everyone’s going to have their own interpretation, which is fine, but this is who I am.”
To purchase prints and original artwork by John Huerta, visit johnshuertaarte.com or stop by his art studio at 2331 K St. Studio hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Instagram: @johnshuertaarte05.