For 65-year-old folk artist Elias Telles, art is about joy.
He tells you this with his words, but he convinces you with his laugh.
His words tell you about the time a 21-year-old Elias found himself captivated by a public access TV show about Leonardo da Vinci. “It really opened up a new world to me mentally. His paintings and his carvings and the way he looked at life. It looked so artistic. He really enjoyed life, and I think that’s what art is.”
But his laugh conveys his outlook on life as a whole. It punctuates and complements all of his stories, happy and sad alike. It celebrates the better times. It finds the moments of levity in the darker times.
One of those times is commemorated by a painting he has hanging on the wall in the home he shares with his older brother in Montebello, a city just east of downtown Los Angeles. He describes it as “almost all black with a little bit of yellow going about one third up. And you can see a bunch of bushes. Then off in the distance, there’s a ghostly looking house with two eyes on it. That’s from a dream I used to have quite a bit.”
The house is from the dream, but the clearing the house sits in was pulled straight from a real life experience when Elias was serving in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. Barely 18 years old, he was walking point on a patrol and heard a rustling in the clearing ahead. “I got down and told the guy behind me to go down the trail to bring the rest of the platoon. I thought the enemy forces were coming through, and I felt like firing, but you’re taught in the Marine Corps not to fire until you actually know what you’re firing at. So I held my fire and when they busted through the bushes and into the clearing, it was a nun with a bunch of school girls.”
Even the idea of what could have happened haunted Elias’s dreams. “That has always frightened me because I have little sisters of my own, you know? I think I woulda went crazy had I opened up and killed ‘em.”
But then comes the laugh. “I don’t think that nun had ever heard cussing like that before.”
Unlike his Vietnam dreamscape, a striking majority of Elias’s paintings come from a place of happiness. He picked up the paintbrush late in life, not until thirteen or fourteen years ago by his account, so in a way he paints out of relief that he has found his passion.
His life before painting was simple, but happy. As soon as he turned 18 in 1969, Elias joined the marines, following in the footsteps of his father, who served in World War II, and his great-uncle, who served in World War I. He was sent to Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Regiment and stationed with the I Corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, nearly at the border of North and South Vietnam. Though he says it wasn’t as easy as his fantasy of “getting issued dress blues real quick and having a girl on each arm walking down the street,” he has no regrets about his choice to serve.
He trained as a mason and worked until retirement, but for him it was simply an income. He did good work and never lost a job, but he never enjoyed it.
And then over a decade ago, everything changed. While tearing down a wooden fence as part of a side job, Elias “kept some of the wood and I woke up one morning with such an urge to paint, and I ended up painting some angels—full body angels on the wooden planks.”
From there, he couldn’t stop. “When I was a mason, I was good at it and I made a decent living. I dreaded going to work every day, but I did, and I think that’s factored into [my painting] because when I paint, I’m doing something that I really enjoy.” He began to paint landscapes that included farms and circuses, neither of which were settings he had lived himself, but rather they were places he wanted to experience. As he describes them, “real lively, real happy, ‘I wish I was there’ type of things.”
Elias is fully self-taught and identifies as a folk artist. He loves the community that folk art has opened for him, and if he can’t make it to a gallery opening or art show by bus, he asks a family member to drive him.
His only regret is having joined the scene so late in life, but his voracious appetite for art is helping him play catch up. When I tell him that there is a Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, he lights up. “Oh, is that right? Oh, man! I didn’t even know that one was there. Maybe I’ll get my niece to take me down there! Thank you!”
It’s the attitude of a man who has lived a full life but has been granted the opportunity to look at it through a fresh pair of eyes. But Elias didn’t always understand the value of his unique take on things until a chance meeting fourteen years ago at the Melrose Trading Post, a pop-up flea market at the epicenter of cool in West Hollywood.
Elias had just started painting and took one of his pieces—a portrait of a Mexican-American family in Arizona—to a flea market in hopes of selling it. A woman walked by and began to pick his work apart, piece by piece, explaining every little thing he’d done wrong. “She said, ‘It’s not centered right.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ She said, “You used the wrong colors.” I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ Then she said that the form wasn’t right. I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ She goes on and on for about thirty or forty minutes, and I’m being polite [because] I don’t want to get rude or anything.”
Finally, when the woman told Elias she didn’t even like the way he signed his name, much to Elias’s surprise, she insisted that she had to have the painting. “She said, ‘You didn’t go to school [for art], so don’t. Whatever you have, it came naturally. If you go to school, it’s gonna spoil it.’ She said she taught art for over fifty years, and to not let anybody try to teach me. So that really struck a chord. I was grateful for that advice.” He doesn’t know the woman’s name and he never heard from her again, but she bought the painting and gave Elias the confidence to continue to pursue an art career on his own terms.
Today, that path has led him to what is mostly a relaxing life living with his brother and painting in their breakfast nook whenever the mood strikes. He fills his days by spending time with his girlfriend and finishing a commissioned piece, but he’s excited to return to personal work. Although he likes painting for others, it raises the stakes of the piece for him. As he describes the nerves this kind of work produces. “The more thought I put into it, the stiffer my hand gets.”
Before he goes to finish the commissioned piece so he can enjoy some time painting just for himself, I ask him how long he’s been seeing his girlfriend. The laugh returns. “About twenty one years. She gets ribbing from her friends.”