Maria Bustillos is a sweet little old lady with a penchant for cleanliness and an eye for turning order into art. “If I leave [the stool] over there, the following day it is going to be really dirty. So that’s why I come and hide it over here. I want to see everything nice and clean. It makes me embarrassed when people come and see [the studio] all dirty.”
The most recent offender was a supply cabinet. “That cabinet was really filthy. I kept on looking at that cabinet so many times. I did not like it.” Her solution? Cover the cart with a space scene replete with astronauts, shuttles, and the Milky Way. That is the beauty of what Maria does at Southside Art Center in Sacramento. Where you and I might reach for a spray bottle, Maria reaches for a paintbrush and her art supplies.
Pointing to a torn cushion on the couch across the room, Maria wasted no time informing me of her intentions. “It has a big tear right there. And people will sit down and they go all the way down, you know? I’m trying to fix that. I’ll do some crochet and I’m going to be sewing it up. You wait.” She then paused before uttering, “You wait” another time for dramatic effect.
Since she began at Southside, Maria has painted most of the center’s stools and all the instructors’ desks. But furniture beautification is only a small portion of her art.
John Cameron, the program supervisor at Southside, has seen Maria’s style evolve since she first arrived at the center. “Maria came to Southside with a background in painting. Since she has arrived, she has branched out into other mediums such as collage and digital. She used to only create abstract, multi-colored designs. She has now grown to focus mostly on figurative [works].”
The El Paso native may be one of Southside’s premier artists, but her love affair with art started well before she arrived at in California. Her first major piece came to fruition when she was in her forties and still living in Texas. “I started doing the Nativity on the floor. I started inventing the picture, gluing it with tape and everything, whatever I could find, and I started making a real big painting.”
After her mother fell ill and was moved to a nursing home, Maria relocated to San Francisco with her brother in 2009, where she enrolled in the Creative Growth Art Center. Maria described her arrival to the Bay Area as a breath of fresh air. “I really admired California a lot. I told my brother, this is a different world because in El Paso they don’t have these kinds of schools. So, that was part of my dream. I wanted to do art.”
Maria received her first formal art instruction while at Creative Growth. Her inaugural project was a film called Flamingo Flamenco, which she admitted took her a while to complete since she did not know anything about computers. Maria credits most of her education to Michael Halls, one of the teachers at Creative Growth. “He was the one who brought me up. He started working a lot with me and I started progressing, [meeting] my goals.”
From film and computers Maria began taking classes in material art, where she chose Marilyn Monroe as the subject of her first quilt. From there, she learned to crochet, sew, draw, and work with clay. When her brother got a new job in Sacramento, Maria enrolled in Southside, where she discovered her proclivity for mixed-media collage.
“I am very good in ceramic. I do little roses but I only had that class on Mondays, and all the other classes [Southside] had were for art, so I said, ‘no big deal. I’ll just go ahead [and take those classes too]’.”
Looking at Maria’s art, one can detect two distinct influences. The first is religious, as is encapsulated by her numerous nativity collages, her depiction of the last supper, and her plan to create a collage of Noah’s Ark. She made clear, however, that her choice of religious subjects was less about her faith and had more to do with her parents. “I just wanted to do the last supper,” she said, reflecting. “It makes me more…closer to my folks.”
The second influence apparent in Maria’s art is celebrity, where she draws on famous subjects from across history. “Henry the VIII, I did that because he’s very famous and I just wanted to do it, you know. And I did also Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry the VIII.”
Maria could not remember how she first learned about the Tudor king and his daughter, but when asked if she had a favorite piece of art that she had created, her eyes lit up like sparklers. “Oh yes! I made one for Halloween. It had like a big kind of a beast with big teeth and underneath there was the bride and the groom, and the devil was in the middle.”
At this point Maria let forth a mischievous chuckle before continuing. And on the side was something like a statute with skulls and then on this other [side] was like a tire with a guy going, ‘help! help’. I like that one a lot.”
Explaining how something so macabre could come from such an adorable woman, Maria said that the reason she is so fond of the piece is because it reminds her of Día de los Muertos, her favorite holiday. She also admitted that she found pleasure in deviating from the lightness of her other works and creating something “spooky.”
Maria takes pride in all her creations. Whenever there was a break in our conversation, she would jump at the opportunity to tell me about previous pieces she had made, what she was currently working on, or what she had planned for the future. Maria is all business when it comes to her classes at Southside—a sentiment that she wishes more of her peers would embrace.
“I have to do a lot of thinking before I [begin a piece], you know. I see a lot of people right here, and sometimes I cannot concentrate, because they get me nervous. Everybody talks nonsense instead of paying more attention. We came here to do art. We didn’t come here to jibber-jabber.”
That said, Maria does not hold a grudge and is always willing to help her fellow artists with technique, color choice, and material selection. “I’ve seen some artists that I think they are struggling, not using the right technique, doing their art, so I just give them a little help.”
She points to her long history of trial and error as the primary source of her knowledge. “[I know my suggestions will help] because it worked on me. I’ve done so many paintings, you know. And that’s what makes me think of how the technique goes and all those things.”
Maria’s next project is to paint an entire floor with the colors she found from a photograph of India. The design she intends to use came to her in a dream, but she was unwilling to disclose what it looks like. She was, however, kind enough to divulge why she keeps returning to the easel. “My mind keeps busy. It makes me feel so happy that I’m doing something big, that I don’t even know how to start it [or] how to end it. And it makes the people feel good about seeing that kind of art.”
Fighting the urge to give Maria a hug, I settled for a handshake. Her grip was delicate, telegraphing the nimble touch required for the intricacies of her work. Having never interviewed a developmentally challenged artist, I was not sure what to expect, but in my post-interview conversation with Cameron, he summed up my experience perfectly.
“I personally feel that the majority of the world’s population have pre-conceived views about the developmentally disabled community. I don’t think most people realize how much skill, time, and effort can go into the work our artists create. It is important for us to see that the disabled community can be just as hard working and productive as their non-disabled peers.”