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Blue-collar look hides artist in Live Oak man
- WHAT: Artists reception for Yuba-Sutter Regional Arts Council's "Funky Folks" exhibit. Reception and exhibit are free and open to the public.
- WHEN: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday
- WHERE: YSRAC gallery, 624 E St., Marysville
The “Funky Folks” exhibit runs through Feb. 12
He spends half his life covered in dirt.
Ernie Leyva, installer of irrigation systems, digs ditches for area farmers and ranchers, lays their water pipes, replaces the soil.
But now, when work is slow, he spends most days in his Live Oak rental house letting his mind run things.
"I don't know why everybody goes apes--- over this," he said on a recent weekday, gesturing to a stack of unmatted, unframed abstract paintings he's created. "It baffles me that I even do it."
Some of his watercolor/pen and ink creations — a series based on the Tudors of England as interpreted by William Shakespeare's historic plays — currently are on display at the Yuba-Sutter Regional Arts Council's "Funky Folks" exhibit.
He's had two previous solo art shows at the gallery on E Street in Marysville, and a couple of Sacramento fine art venues have expressed interest recently in showing his work.
"Ernie's not too good at marketing," said Lily Noonan, curator of the current YSRAC exhibit. "But his style has been consistent since the 1980s, and it's so distinct."
"He's got his colors really down, doesn't he?" said Curt Sanders of Sanders Pump and Irrigation, Leyva's primary employer. A wall in his office on George Washington Boulevard in Yuba City features two framed paintings made by the colorful subcontractor.
One was inspired by Sanders himself — a reconstructed series of human features in pen and ink, awash in pinks and gold and accompanied by office accoutrements.
Sanders has known the painter for more than 20 years.
"He's way rougher-looking than he is," he said of the 67-year-old Leyva. "He's the last person in the world you'd think would do fine art work."
Leyva admits to having served some time behind bars in his younger days, and to having benefited from that time by reading voraciously.
He can and does quote from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in Spanish, and delivers an impromptu monologue with details about the life of early-20th-century French painter Henri Matisse, the writings of Nietzsche, aliens from outer space, a cat named Gizmo, and Nazis — all with clear transitions from one subject to the next.
"I think aliens dropped us (humans) off down here, 'cause we were screwing things up in the place they were at," he said. "And now, we've screwed it up down here."
Leyva expects, and gets laughter in response.
"My wife says I need a hearing aid and some common sense," he said, shaking his head.
"He's a unique individual," said Sanders, chuckling at the mere thought of Leyva.
But Leyva's talent, Sanders said, is no joke.
A Cal Poly graduate, Sanders himself grew up around fine artists from the San Francisco Bay Area. A branch of his family lived in that rarified world — as distant from Yuba-Sutter as the Seine. He keeps several still unframed works that he bought from Leyva in his office. Eventually, he'll display those as well, he said.
The artist, by contrast, grew up around nothing of the sort.
Part Yaqui Indian and part East Indian, he went to grade school in Tierra Buena and has been digging ditches for irrigation systems since he was 13, Leyva said.
His upbringing was rough, he said, and eventually he got something akin to parenting from a Japanese American family man and farmer "who was in tomatoes out where Walmart is now."
Back at home, the artist sits on the end of an old couch. A 1970s B-movie on the television serves as his background music. He works, not on an easel, but on a tray meant for TV dinners. He paints on watercolor paper that has been paper-clipped to cardboard for stability.
"I do the watercolor first, and I paint whatever comes to mind," he said, resuming his morning's project. "I just do it out of my head. My brain gets all screwed up — and boom."
The resulting painting more often than not features cool, vivid color, and patterned pen and ink, which he uses to create depth. He plays with familiar tropes such as faces depicted on playing cards and objects commonly depicted in still-life paintings. He also has done a series of jesters and clowns, all with Leyva's version of modernist perspective.
None of this, he said, is conscious.
Noonan said she would like to see his work get beyond the Sacramento Valley.
But she struggles sometimes even to locate him in Yuba-Sutter.
After shows at the Yuba-Sutter Regional Arts Council in 1995 and 1998, "he sort of dropped from the radar," she said.
"Then he just strolled in one day again."
That was in November.
Noonan has taken a special interest in Leyva's artwork and on getting him the notice she feels he deserves.
She chided him when he brought in large stacks of his paintings organized in random fashion for her to choose from for the "Funky Folks" exhibit. She wants him to understand which of his paintings might work well together, and to learn how to present them in a cohesive way.
She wants him, in other words, to focus on making a career out of his talent.
"A few baby steps," she said, "and maybe we can get him on the national stage."
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4712.