It’s 1 a.m. and dark out when Narsiso Martinez, wearing a headlamp, makes his way to the fields. After a full day of back-breaking work picking and cutting asparagus, he’ll be paid for the stalks he’s chopped to the right length, but if they’re too short the company will trash them.
“We only get paid for the ones that are the right size,” Martinez said. “And what I discovered later is they actually use those trashed parts. They’d send it to the warehouse and they’d bottle them, and they would still make money off of it, but we wouldn’t get paid for them.”
One year, a man from El Salvador’s trailer caught fire, Martinez remembers. Luckily, the man was able to escape before his entire home burned to the ground and all his belongings were destroyed. Martinez said field workers rarely complain about their living conditions, oftentimes because they don’t know how to improve them.
“That was the year I was moving for graduate school, and most of my stuff went to him because he didn’t have a bed, any clothes, he didn’t have anything,” Martinez said.
These are the people—and the conditions—Martinez hopes to draw attention to with his first institutional solo exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art, Farm Fresh, depicting the workers he spent countless days laboring with and getting to know while paying for his college education.
Martinez, 41, moved to the United States about 20 years ago from his hometown, a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico, to join his siblings in Washington and Los Angeles, in pursuit of a better life.
While working for large produce companies in Washington differed from the jobs he had growing up on his family’s farm in Oaxaca, where the food they grew—mostly corn, beans and squash—was meant to sustain them for the year and the animals they raised were sold when money was scarce, the labor was familiar.
“When I first started going in the fields I was pretty quiet because my intentions were not, I’m here to paint farm workers, it was more because I needed the money to go to school,” Martinez said.
After taking English Language courses and earning his GED, it was an art history class at Los Angeles City College that reignited his passion for portraiture. He was also inspired by the work of Vincent van Gogh, whose scenic paintings resonated with Martinez’ experience in the fields.
Growing up in Oaxaca, Martinez would often sketch the faces of his neighbors, then he began drawing images of celebrities he’d find in magazines. His friends would ask him for the portraits and his neighbors encouraged him to continue.
“It made me feel good because people liked them, or I guess they would pretend to like them,” Martinez laughed. “But at least it made me feel good to be good at something, and I would just keep doing it.”
Martinez began taking classes at Cal State Long Beach, continuing to work in the fields between semesters to make a living. Back then, he painted the fields as they were, as landscapes or picturesque orchards, but it wasn’t until later in his college career that he started creating more conceptual work.
Now more curious than quiet, Martinez would make an effort to meet others in the fields, to see where the old men, the women, the kids he’d seen working, lived. Most slept in trailers in parking lots, many were from Mexico, but other Latin American countries as well, including Guatemala and El Salvador, Martinez said.
He began to include the people he worked alongside with in his work and began experimenting with cardboard as a surface instead of canvas. But when he brought in one of his first cardboard works to class, his professor questioned, “I don’t know how serious you are with this.”
So he became serious.
Collecting discarded produce boxes from grocery stores, Martinez renders figurative images of the workers onto the tan surface using charcoal, acrylic paint, gold leaf and more.
His expressive portraits set against the bold and manufactured logos of various produce brands seem to shout: this is the person who picked and boxed the apples you bought at Ralphs yesterday, this is the tired worker who harvested the asparagus you ate with enjoyment last night.
“I would always talk about this idea of me representing the farm workers or the working class against the rich people[…]then when I did the drawing on the cardboard it evolved to become more about the farm workers versus the agribusiness,” he said. “That’s when everything kind of clicked.”
Martinez has shown his work in multiple galleries, including the Centro Cultural Cinematografico Mexico at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles and the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, but felt that his message wasn’t reaching those who needed to hear it most. Farm Fresh, he said, holds special significance because it gives his work a new platform at the Long Beach Museum of Art.
“Now we have the opportunity to show the experiences of the farm worker, or to show that farm workers are as important to the economy as any other group of workers in the nation, to other kinds of audiences, not just the Latino community,” he said.
Martinez often talks about a woman depicted in one of his portraits; part of a couple he met while working in the fields. The husband became abusive and was deported to Mexico, leaving the wife to raise their two kids on her own. Last time Martinez heard from them he found out the boy was in college and the girl was about to graduate from high school.
“How do you better yourself in the fields? What’s going to happen over the years? Are your kids going to continue doing the same thing that we’re doing, that’s a question that I ask myself,” he said.
“One of the things that I have experienced is that by going to school you can learn how the system works,” Martinez continued. “And then you have options and you become aware, so that’s why I feel like farm workers should encourage their kids to go to school and to finish college.”
He doesn’t make much of a living from his art, at least not yet, but that’s not the point. It’s a matter of giving a voice to the voiceless, shining a light on those left in the dark. Martinez was happy to voice that and eventually people started noticing the unfair pay at the ranch where he once picked asparagus. The company had to raise the farm workers’ wages because no one wanted to work there anymore.
“I’m so happy doing art, I know that it’s hard, sometimes you have to bus tables, have a second job, and I’m happy doing it,” Martinez said.
Soon after Martinez graduated from Cal State Long Beach with his master’s degree, he considered heading back to the fields, but several opportunities, including artist residencies at Long Beach City College and the museum, and a timely Dedalus Foundation grant, kept him in the studio and out of the orchards.
“Last summer was the first summer I did not go to the fields,” Martinez said. “Plus, my brother was really mad when I told him I would go back. He was like, ‘Is that why you went to school? Why would you want to go back to the fields?’”
Farm Fresh runs through January 6, 2019 at the Long Beach Museum of Art, located at 2300 E. Ocean Blvd. For more information, visit the website here.
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