How did I Become a Muralist: Gonz’s Story

Muralist

“I prefer creating murals because they tell stories. I love conducting research and learning more about humanity that way. My murals tell the stories with intention.”

“Gonz” Jove, BA Fine Arts ’78, is a celebrated and internationally-known muralist whose works graced Southern Illinois University’s Art & Design Building, the St. Louis Art Museum, Better Family Life Cultural Center, Washington University, Brentwood City Hall, Ellis-Porter Riverside Park Jefferson City, Mo, Christ Is The Rock Missionary Baptist Church in East St Louis, Universidad Mayor de San Andres, and other locations in Bolivia, where Jove was born. 

Muralist Journey

One of his most recent projects fills the entryway of Better Family Life (BFL) Community Center in St. Louis. Gonz spent 2 ½ years researching and creating a 95-feet-long painting, Missouri’s largest African American history mural. His keen eye for composition, detail, and mathematics is apparent in this and all his works. “I felt empowered to create this mural, a visual timeline beginning with the dawn of humanity to the rise of human civilization, through periods of resistance, oppression, and celebration. Many asked why he was selected because I’m not black. Gonz responded, “This is a human plight, and I’m human. We’re all the same.” 

After many years of living in the U.S., Gonz became inspired by the election of the first indigenous president and returned to Bolivia, not only to complete various murals in public and private spaces but also to share his knowledge and passion with local artists. The Bolivian Department of Justice commissioned him to translate his painting “Usurpacion del Boliviano” to a mural (42’ x 10’) located in the main boulevard of La Paz. This extraordinarily political mural, inspired by Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, was labeled by a foreign correspondent as “Bolivian history in 5 minutes.” Today, Gonz is considered one of the foremost muralists in Bolivia. 

Since returning to St. Louis, Gonz has painted murals throughout the city on walls inside and outside and is in constant demand. The range of subject matter only surpasses his determination to tell accurate stories by doing intricate research he is commissioned to paint. 

I was born and lived in La Paz, Bolivia, until the age of 10, when I emigrated to the USA. I drew and painted from an early age, graduated from St Francis De Sales High School in South St Louis, then formalized my studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, where I graduated with a BA in Fine Arts 1978 with extensive coursework in Architecture and Mathematics. Although my degree was sculpting, my main activity in art today is painting murals and producing sculptures. 

My life has gone through several stages, but my art was never far away. I always dedicated time to it, even when times were rough. As of recently, though, I have been immersed in my art, and I’m so grateful for that. But to get to this point, there was a long road to traverse with lots of barriers and pitfalls to pass, and this is the story of that journey. 

While living in Chicago, I became inspired by a new dawn in Bolivian history: the first indigenous president, Evo Morales Ayma, in 2006. In 2007 I submitted one of my most important paintings for a government-sponsored Art contest that so impressed the authorities, the Bolivian Department of Justice commissioned me to translate this painting called “Usurpacion del Boliviano” (The Usurpation of the Bolivian) onto a huge mural located in “El Prado,” the main boulevard in La Paz. This extraordinarily political mural, inspired by the works of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, was meant to serve as a discursively charged panorama of Bolivian history depicting the moments of both tragedy and resistance that have marked Bolivia’s complicated historical trajectory. Yet, it also portrays a positive vision of hope and optimism for the future. A foreign correspondent labeled it as “Bolivian history in 5 minutes,” and Professor Mark Goodale used a partial photograph of this mural to grace the front and back of his textbook “Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights.” There are various publications on my artwork, including a small biography: “After the Academy Memories of Teaching and Learning in the Land of Lincoln,” published by SIUE in 2012. 

After many years of living in the U.S. mostly in St Louis, I decided to return to Bolivia for this project and stayed for six years. After the success of this first mural, quite a few commissions came my way, ranging from small murals for private patrons to significant political and social murals financed by international embassies, public universities, and local government offices. All can be viewed on my website gonzjove.com. 

During this exciting time in Bolivian history, we completed various murals and sculptures in public and private spaces. Still, I had the chance to share my knowledge and passion with other young local artists. Some of who today make up our collective group of artists dedicated to the growth of muralism in LaPaz, Bolivia. Today not only can we see murals that we produced but other groups such as Apacheta. It was quite an artistic journey where I grew internally, as did my art. One particular art production that I feel played an important role in my development of seeing art as my main language of communication. It was called Namaste Gardens, where we painted murals, produced sculptures and reliefs, and surrounded this garden with art so that the person that walked into the garden became a part of the art. You can see this magical space on my website. So as you can see, this part of my journey to Bolivia played such an integral part of myself that I felt I found my function as a human being. I was ready to contribute to society and let the whole world know that I’m alive and well. 

Today I’m back in St. Louis; I was invited back by SIUE a few years back to participate in the inauguration of its new Art and Design West Wing, where I showcased my newest work along with photographs of all the murals that were done in the last six years. I was asked to give a few lectures on my works and a seminar on muralism where we painted a small mural with the aid of the top students of the painting department. It was quite an opportunity to interact with these young artists and let them know that dreams do come true if you are willing to put the work in. 

I planned to stay in St. Louis for a while. I would try to establish myself as a muralist, but it was not an easy task since I was not known here as an artist, so I had to start from square one. My only connection to the art world was Renee Franklin from the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM, we had developed a relationship since 2007. She asked me to produce a small community mural to open the new wing of the St Louis Art Museum. Once this was completed, I decided to pursue another project to paint a mural for the city of St Louis for their 250th anniversary. The first place I visited was City Hall with a written proposal and tried to see if I can talk to the mayor. It was not going to be that easy; they directed me to The Regional Arts Commission as this was the first place to start. The Regional Arts Commission (RAC) was about 15 miles from the city, which is where I lived, and my mode of transportation was a bike. So, whenever I made appointments to see these different people, I had to take the second set of clothes in my backpack to change after my long bike rides. 

When I finally got to see Roseann Weiss, the director at RAC, my doors started to open up. She liked my art and my idea of murals and was willing to support my quest for a St Louis Mural partially. I still had a lot of ground to cover to make this happen, and I ran very low on funds. I needed some income to survive, so Renee Franklin from SLAM introduced me to Better Family Life, a nonprofit organization, and they offered me a job as an art instructor. During the interviews, I showed them my Art Portfolio, which was composed of a small book I had made in Bolivia which showed all the murals we had painted in Bolivia plus some other art pieces.

Miranda Jones, the Director of the Youth Department, was so impressed by it that she called DeBorah Ahmed, Executive Director of the Better Family Life Cultural, Educational and Business Center. DeBorah had been looking for a muralist to paint the history of African American Plight in the American Continent in the newly renovated center. It was the perfect opportunity I was looking for to paint a mural for Better Family Life (BFL). A mural that Debora and Malik Ahmed saw a long time ago. This project took 2 and ½ years to complete. A good portion of the time was spent researching all remarkable eras of black history.

The mural starts at the dawn of Humanity. It ends with a vision of our community, redevelopment of this forgotten neighborhood on Page Corridor in the west end of St Louis. BFL was located about 17 miles from my home in south St Louis, a long bike ride at first which I trekked every day until I could afford a pass in the metro system then it was bike and Metro for a few years. BFL provided me with a lot of publicity since this mural, 95 feet long, was going to be the largest African American Mural in the state of Missouri. During the painting of this mural, The St Louis Art Museum sponsored a 14-week course on murals held at BFL, which was quite a success as we had a student exhibition at the museum. This mural opened several doors windows. I was on TV, and in fact, a documentary was produced. 

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Jeff Bezos Career Advice video

https://hecmedia.org/posts/black-history-mural-at-better-family-life?fbclid=IwAR3pqgk54t6Ecln_4pZ0im3TogTap8 kCTg_TOUuyOEq0Mlc_GyR64xqia1I. 

Today I’m still with BFL as a full-time Artistic Coordinator producing new art curriculums, set designs, and other art-related activities. Along with this, I have a full-time career painting murals, and my sculptures are starting to take off. My murals here in St Louis vary in themes, from religious murals in churches to political murals on the streets to private personal murals. I have appeared in several newspapers around the state of Missouri. In fact, in November and December of this year, I will be one of six St Louis Artists featured in The St. Louis Public Library’s Artist Spotlight, highlighting the work of professional local artists who impact the St. Louis community.

I have made a full circle. I own my home here on Page Blvd corridor and trying to get these beautiful neighborhoods revitalized and try to make more dreams happen. My philosophy on murals: Murals are pictorial stories that can be read and reread to understand the full message the artist is trying to convey. It is a form of silent activism but carries a loud voice to highlight the inequities of our fragile human existence. Without these mural stories, our cultural thread is severed, and the feelings and emotions of these creations are not transmitted in their full form. It is one thing to read about history but to see it through an individual who has passion. History is brought to life with its full passion and fury. In my murals, the stories I tell are really a woven tapestry of historical facts, outside interpretations, and my own artistic license to the work.

My murals, therefore, only have the credibility to the communities they represent if I’ve spent considerable and intentional time researching and learning about the narratives and people the mural seeks to represent. This can include reading online journals, viewing documentaries, attending community lectures, and interviewing and talking to community members about what the mural’s subject matter means to them. All of the research I conduct forms the foundation of my murals. In all truth, I can not truly or even adequately visualize these murals without putting in the time and energy to research them.

Without space to soak in the energy and history of my work, my work loses all credibility in the eyes of the communities who commission them. Painting a mural is more than sketching and scaling a piece of visual art. For me, it means becoming engrossed in the narratives it seeks to share and channeling the emotions of the community and moment in history the mural represents. When you do this right, and with intention, the work begins to speak through your soul. You can translate the anger of injustice into your brush strokes and portray the color of liberation movements on a wall. You become a part of the mural.

Also read How I Became 3D Artist & Art Director

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