Since 1996, Artown has drawn Reno’s citizens to the downtown corridor by offering a literal month full of gallery shows, live music, and performers from around the country. From an arts news perspective, it can be a little intimidating. One could write two articles a day throughout July and still feel like the coverage is lacking. But all of the thousands of art pieces that will come to be displayed in the following months start with one: the poster.
This year’s Artown poster artist—selected by the Artown Board of Directors—is Mexican-born muralist and painter Edwin Martinez-Escobar, whose transcendent cultural style is all about representing his adopted home of Northern Nevada, welcoming those whose voices have been excluded from the art world in the past, and partying it up after two years of lockdown.
“We are in a gem of a place. I love Northern Nevada,” said Martinez-Escobar. “I mean, you could do the casino side and then you could also do the outdoor side. And, and for me, this is home. I’ve been to Australia and down to South America, and I think this is the place where my heart needs to be.”
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Martinez-Escobar moved to Reno from Mexico City with his family when he was nine years old. As a child in the United States, he was first exposed to two of the elements that would influence his artistic style in the future: other cultures and bright, fluorescent colors.
“I’d never met anybody from Asia, or people of color. … In elementary school, I got to chop it up with them and meet them and learn from their cultures as well,” Martinez-Escobar said. “And it just blossomed from there. I was always sketching in class. I was always drawing, and painting was one of my mediums that I never stopped.”
Coming from a background that combined indigenous Mexican culture with the influence of Spanish colonization, Martinez-Escobar found that his world only grew as he took on a career in the Navy at 18, serving two tours overseas. His love of bright colors, by the way, came from childhood exposure to the world of wrestling in the ’80s and ’90s.
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Once overseas, he picked up a reputation with his shipmates as an artist, and before long he was commissioned to paint murals on hangar walls and airplanes, and—of course—tattoo his fellow sailors. His experience with large-scale work stayed with Martinez-Escobar, who now considers murals to be his preferred medium.
“That’s my thing,” said Martinez-Escobar. “And I did get into graffiti when I was younger, but I was more into the art side, you know. I saw people from Germany and people from Brazil, even here, you know. There’s so many artists in Los Angeles and big cities that would do amazing pieces—pieces of art, and not just vandalism.”
In the years that followed, however, Martinez-Escobar admittedly stopped giving a “rat’s butt” about art other than his occasional tattooing job, as the daily grind of work and the weekend ritual of partying came to dominate his priorities. It wasn’t until the lockdown orders of March 2020 that he felt he had more time and interest in exploring the artistic community in Northern Nevada.
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“I never went to art shows, I never did any of that,” Martinez-Escobar said. “And I started to, and it’s like, I should have been here 20 years ago. I should have never freaking listened to ‘You gotta work and make money,’ you know what I mean? I should have just started and never left my art. Just imagine what I would be right now.”
In those short two years of painting and networking, however, Martinez-Escobar caught the attention of local artists and arts organizations and found a string of opportunities. He credits local artists like Joe C. Rock, Eric Brooks, Eric Burke, Anthony Ortega, and Chris Melzo, among others, as his influences in the Northern Nevada community.
“I got a phone call at the beginning of the year and it was Beth Macmillan, the executive director for Artown,” he said. “And she asked if I was interested in designing the poster for Artown—that she’s been following my work. And I was just in awe. I literally almost cried in disbelief. I talked to them and they gave me two words, ‘rebirth’ and ‘celebration.’”
From that prompt and with some collaboration with the Artown board, Martinez-Escobar developed this year’s poster: A flamenco guitar emblazoned with fluorescent colors and symbols of Northern Nevada, with a mountain bluebird ascending into a starry night sky. Some of the elements are self-explanatory and indicative of Martinez-Escobar’s penchant for blending cultural iconography. But the bird imagery specifically was his play on the notion of a phoenix—symbolizing the return of a local tradition after two years of uncertainty and regulation in the face of the pandemic.
“The first thing that I thought of: celebration, music, dancing,” he said. “I just had a visit to Oaxaca last year, and the culture down there is just beautiful. … And I wanted to show a little bit of that culture into my piece, especially the guitar, you know, like the Huichol art. And then also, rebirth. I thought about a phoenix, but then I said mountain bluebird. It was native to Nevada. [It’s] a mountain bluebird coming out of the ashes for us to party it up again.”
Aside from designing this year’s poster, Martinez-Escobar also plans to attend Artown festivities for the first time this year and will be holding his own gallery showing on July 20 at Mari Chuy’s Tequileria in the Rancharrah business complex.
In the meantime, he’s transitioned to working full-time as an artist over the past two years, taking on so much commission work he’s had to turn down some pieces due to time constraints—a first for him. He intends to keep painting and credits art as something that saved him from some of his worse habits. Ultimately, he hopes that he can help others in the Northern Nevadan Hispanic community explore local arts as he did.
“We need representation in Northern Nevada,” said Martinez-Escobar. “I’ve been here 30-plus years, and there’s a lot of Hispanics and a lot of people that have no idea what’s out there, especially our town because they’re working 24/7 putting food on the table that they forget to enjoy life. Even though we have a big community of Hispanics, not very many people relate to art because there’s not very many artists in our community that are out there. … I think that a lot of people just get their wings cut instead of spreading them and actually finding their niche.”
You can see more of Edwin Martinez-Escobar’s work on Instagram and in Double Scoop’s coverage of the 2019 Elko Mural Festival.
Artown is offering hundreds of art and culture events, many of them free, in Reno, Sparks, Carson City, and the North Lake Tahoe area from July 1-31. The full schedule is here.
Edwin Martinez-Escobar’s Artown image is available for purchase on posters, T shirts, and other merch here.
Cover photo: Matt Bieker
This article was funded by a grant from the City of Reno and the National Endowment for the Arts.