Giving a Painter New Arms
I met Raul Pizarro in the spring of 2008. Butchlalis de Panochtitlan were presenting The Barber of East L.A. at the Claremont Museum of Art. It was a veritable who’s who of the Inland Empire queer chicana/o arts scene—a small but prolific community. Raul rolled up to me after the performance and asked about the tattoo on the back of my neck, a Mexican Day of the Dead skull with a Star of David for a third eye, sitting atop a Valentine’s heart, nested within the Hand of Fatima.
“It’s a memorial piece for my Grandmother,” I told him, “a symbol of protection, love, and intuition. Basically, it’s a reminder that my grandma always has my back.”
An informal gathering commenced on the sidewalk of that quaint street in Claremont village. Gender outlaws and border crossers, culture creators all of us. Raul and I talked for hours about symbology and art, sex and gender, death and rebirth. The one thing we didn’t talk about was our bodies.
Raul could still walk then, with these arm-brace canes he used for support. But I only saw him on his feet when he was moving from his wheelchair to his truck.
I was pretty much a dude still. Though I’d been out as trans for a number of years, I had given up explaining to people why I preferred female pronouns when I still rocked white kicks, true religion jeans, wife-beaters, a chinstrap, and the occasional do-rag.
The next week I visited Raul at his studio in Pomona, a small back house behind a dusty sliding gate. He was working on a series called Songs for Deaf God at the time, a meditation on corporeality, on the shame and loneliness that comes from being caught between worlds. Raul has a way of finding the most delicate beauty in the face of that darkness, something he’s learned through surrendering to his own fragility.
Raul was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. as a child. When he was still very young, he was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, a progressive deterioration of his muscles. The doctors didn’t expect him to live past adolescence. Growing up in a working class neighborhood beneath harsh religious pressures, Raul shouldered the burden of his disability like a heavy cross, swallowing the words of failed faith healers who convinced him he wasn’t believing hard enough to save himself. His blossoming sexuality was likewise taboo, but also the thing that freed him from blindly accepting the dogma of the church. As he would tell me years later, “I’d rather be a heathen in love than self-hating in heaven.”
It wasn’t all fire and brimstone, however. Raul had the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation, but where he really found release was with a paintbrush and canvas. Back in the 80s special education classes lumped all special needs kids into one room. At the time Raul’s symptoms were subtle, he hadn’t started falling down a lot, his joints hadn’t started to fuse. The teachers had students who required more hands-on attention, so Raul was often set up with art supplies and left to his own devices (yes, there was a time when public classrooms had art supplies). He taught himself to paint well before he was ever taught to read, another skill his teachers didn’t realize he’d missed out on until junior high.
Over time, Raul’s symptoms began to worsen, and he was forced to adapt his painting process to accommodate the rigidity of his spine and the lack of strength in his extremities. As his body changed, so too did his subjects. Tracing his work chronologically you can see his contemplation of ephemeral form, his glorification of classic beauty, his mourning for the loss of innocence, his confrontation with mortality, and most recently his sweetly absurdist reverence of the sublime.
In 2010 Raul and I began a creative collaboration called Revolution of the Flesh, inspired by the seminal 1968 Butoh performance Tatsumi Hijikata: Revolt of the Flesh. We both knew what it was like to feel betrayed by our bodies, me as a transgender woman living as a dude and him as a dude living with muscular dystrophy; We both learned how to fight against that betrayal through our art; mine: performance, and his: painting; We both relied on technology to transcend our situational limitations and self-actualize in spite of the odds stacked against us; me through hormones and surgery, him through powerchairs and assistive inventions.
On a warm autumn afternoon in his the sanctity of his studio, I danced with the paintings of Raul Pizarro. He took photos while I poured out my heart in sweat and tears. His canvases were my mirrors, and we reflected each other under the witness of my Butoh master, Diego Piñón. The goal was to create a painting that came from the dance, the dance that had come from the paintings.
But as it would happen, I moved to New York and Raul fell out of his affinity with the human form. The birth of his nephew marked a new source of inspiration. He came into the world on the autism spectrum, and didn’t begin to speak until he was 3 years old. When he used his words, which were rare and few, he would give Raul images to paint. “Dancing Panda” he would say, or “Elephant Reading a Story.” These became the Theatro del Mondo series.
Of course every Dia De Los Muertos Raul still returns to his Calaveras, a season project that has brought him much etsy acclaim.
In the fall of 2013 I launched my KickStartHer campaign to raise money for my gender confirmation surgery. I had finally committed to a medical transition and dove into the process full force, creating a solo musical about my life leading up to the change called One Woman Show. Raul came to New York to see the show. I took him to see CABARET on Broadway. We met Alan Cumming (one of Raul’s heroes). I didn’t say anything at the time, but something about the urgency with which Raul sprung for the tickets to fly across the country made me wonder, are we getting close, is he coming to visit me now because there may not be a later?
We rolled through Central park in the rain, his friend Aleckx perched on the back of the chair. Aleckz and Raul had been on many adventures together as part of their Life Says Yes blog, and flying to New York, they learned, was just as harrowing as hiking in Joshua Tree or doing a Color Run in San Diego.
Raul and I talked about Revolution of the Flesh and our dance/painting idea, now shelved. “We might as well wait until you get back from Thailand,” Raul suggested, “so I can paint you nude, in water maybe, like a lotus.”
The recovery from the surgery took a solid year, and toward the end of that year Raul posted something on Facebook confessing the thing I had feared the most.
“I’m finding it difficult to paint.”
He included in a comment a link to this YouTube video about robotic arms created for a child with MD.
“Does anyone know where I can get some of these? I’m sure they are super expensive.”
I picked up my phone and called him.
“Raul, If I can crowd-fund twenty thousand dollars to go to Thailand and get a vagina, I can find you some robot arms.”
I wrote to the company featured in the video—twice–and never heard back.
This past December, when I was back in LA I paid Raul a visit in his studio. We talked about the painting, we dug up photos from my dance with his art, we looked at my new vagina. He told me he was ready to paint the human body again, but he was nervous about his failing strength. Days before I arrived he had suffered a mini-stroke, his mind was still fuzzy, his speech still slowed.
“2016 is the year Raul. The year of your arms. The year of this painting. The year of your book!”
I’d been nagging him about creating a book of his artwork and writing for years, especially these past few, when his voice on social media began to take on a wise and almost prophetic tone.
“I don’t want this to be something that happens after you’re gone. I don’t want to wait for you die so people appreciate your work. I want you to be at the gallery opening, signing autographs with your bionic arms.”
“Who’d have thought,” he began, “all those years ago when I was staring at the back of your neck, who could have guessed this is where it would lead?”
Sometimes when God or The Universe or your own relentless heart wants something bad enough, a sweeping momentum seems to will it into action. When it came to getting a vagina, my the sense of Manifest Pussy was a tangible force, though the transformation of my physical sex took nearly two years. Raul’s arms, it turns out, are gonna be made in day.
The day after leaving his studio I visited Nina, another friend living in LA. She was excited for me to meet her boyfriend, Tony. We both run factories, in a sense. Mine makes musicals, and Tony’s makes technology.
Tony Long is the founder of the Northrop Grumman FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory), a company wide creative resource space that serves the nearly 8,000 employees on their Aerospace Systems campus. Once a month, the FabLab hosts a hackathon, where employees are invited to join teams and come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. Within minutes of meeting Tony, I told him I had a complex problem that needed innovative solutions. I showed him Raul’s website, the robot arms video, and minutes later we had Raul on the phone.
That night I wrote up a formal proposal and sent it to Tony and Nina. It was circulated around NGAS the next day, and their response was immediate, and inspired.
Two weeks ago a team of 4 aerospace engineers from NGAS went out to Raul’s studio to meet with him and his physical therapist, see his work, take measurements of his working space, and do these badass 3D scans of his arms.
Today, Friday January 29th, dozens of NGAS employees are locking themselves in the FabLab to come up with four different prototypes of assistive technology that will help Raul continue painting, and also assist him with everyday tasks like eating and drinking. Beyond the engineers working to design and construct these devices, many more members of company have stepped up to support Raul and this endeavor. A gallery space has been created at the FabLab and Raul will be presenting a solo exhibition of his paintings and small sculptures. The LGBT, Latino, and Differently-Abled employee resource groups have all signed on to attend the event to cheer on Raul and his pioneers.
The prototypes of the devices will be presented to Raul on Saturday, and the finalized designs will be gifted to him by NGAS.
It’s a miracle of generosity, ingenuity, and community. It’s also the most brilliant celebration of Art and Technology enabling Ability. We’re calling it the #hackARThon. I’ll be live tweeting the shit out of it, so follow me (@shakeenz) and Raul (@raulpizarroart), and check out my column on BrokeAssStuart next Thursday for a follow-up on the brilliant inventions these beautiful people are about to create!