D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     August 2005

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Second Sight

Las Cruces artist George Mendoza lost most of his sight as a teenager—but gained an inner vision. An El Paso museum exhibit and a statewide day in his honor this month celebrate his "Vision of the Soul."

By Jeff Berg

"I always remember George as being cool. I met him at college during an archeology dig. He was tall—larger than life. He had the charm, charisma, humor and intelligence that made him a natural leader—a blind visionary. His huge smile could light up a room. He might not see well, but the girls sure spotted him! A chick magnet, he left us archeology geeks in the dust."

—Paul Hoylen. Jr., fellow artist and
friend of George Mendoza.

George Mendoza is an artist, author, public speaker and former para-Olympic athlete, who at the age of 15 started to lose his sight. Mendoza's loss of vision stems from a hereditary syndrome called fundus flavimaculatus. This vision disorder is characterized by numerous yellow-white flecks in the retina, often accompanied by a lesion in the macula—an area in the eye responsible for central vision—and corresponding macular degeneration. Though macular degeneration is a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly, fundus flavimaculatus typically strikes young people. There is no known cure.

George Mendoza with this issue's cover painting.

Mendoza does retain eripheral vision; however, he is classified as legally blind.

That hasn't stopped him from a career as an artist that many fully sighted painters would envy. In honor of Mendoza's achievements, Gov. Bill Richardson has proclaimed Aug. 4 "George Mendoza Day." The governor declared, "New Mexico, the land of enchantment, recognizes George Mendoza first and foremost for his art which touches our hearts and reaches deep in to the souls of all New Mexicans."

Aug. 4 also happens to be the date that an exhibit of 38 of Mendoza's paintings will open at the International Museum of Art in El Paso. The exhibit, entitled "Vision of the Soul," will run through Sept. 4. It opens with a reception on Aug. 4 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

"It is a very unique and special show—to have that many paintings on exhibit at once while the painter is still alive," quips Mendoza, who is also this issue's cover artist. "I have been invited as the featured artist, and there will be a total of 10 artists represented, some from the US and others from Mexico. The show has been in the works for eight months. I was originally contacted by Emma Castillo who worked at the museum, but she has since left to work in Costa Rica."

Previous showings of Mendoza's work have taken place in New York, California and France.

First Lady Laura Bush has also recently checked in, sending Mendoza a letter praising his "determination and fortitude" in overcoming the challenges of his disease.

A 30-minute documentary film about Mendoza's early life was released in 1989, narrated in part by renowned actor, Robert Duvall; it was screened last month at the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces as part of the New Mexico Filmmakers Short Film Showcase. Mendoza worked with Duvall on getting a feature-length version of his life story into development, but that idea has been put on hold while Duvall works on other film projects. The two men met in Santa Fe in the early 1980s through a mutual friend. "Even for someone like Robert Duvall, it is hard to get a film made in Hollywood, Mendoza says. "It has come close a couple of times, but each time there has been a setback."

Instead, a new documentary, "Visions of the Soul—The George Mendoza Story," is currently being filmed, with plans to air it on PBS, possibly in late 2006. Mark Medoff, another Las Crucean of many talents including playwriting and film directing, is the executive producer, and Duvall will host and narrate.

Another influential Mendoza friend is New Mexico resident and author Tony Hillerman. The noted mystery novelist has written the introduction to a soon-to-be-re-released book about Mendoza's life.

Another renowned New Mexico author, William J. Buchanan, who passed away recently, penned a short biography of Mendoza in 1994. The book is soon to be re-released in hardback by the University of New Mexico Press. The original edition had a foreword by actress Jane Seymour, whom Mendoza met in 1992 when he visited the set of her television series, "Medicine Woman."

The book mostly covers Mendoza's days as a competitive runner. "Buchanan caught wind of me, and thought my life would make a great story, so he sat me down and interviewed me," Mendoza says. "My story has a great beginning, middle and end, with a tremendous amount of events that make for a great mother/son story."

Born on Governor's Island, NY, in 1955, Mendoza had his parents separate and later divorce not long after he was born. His mother, Cindi Huber, also lives in Las Cruces, and has been one of his most important supporters throughout his life.

It was during a basketball game at his junior high that Mendoza's life began to change. A gifted athlete and star of the team, he experienced his vision suddenly faltering. After a few misplays, he found himself on the bench for the rest of the game.

 A trip to the doctor ended with a misdiagnosis of mononucleosis, and it was not until a later trip to a specialist that the real problem was uncovered. The disease progressed rapidly, and soon Mendoza had lost all of his central vision and 80 percent of his peripheral vision. He recalls severe headaches and blinding flashes of light, which compounded his loss of friends and placement in a class with mentally challenged children.

His mother's research into his affliction eventually led her to New Mexico in 1972, where her parents had moved several years earlier. She had found out that bright light can assist those stricken with the syndrome, and so sunny Las Cruces ended up being home. Shortly thereafter, Mendoza enrolled at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH).

Before his vision loss, Mendoza also was interested in track and field. Upon moving to Las Cruces, he rediscovered his passion for running while working one summer for the BLM. Using tracks that he laid out himself, Mendoza ran a lot, finding it therapeutic, emotionally and physically. While attending NMSVH, where he received his high school diploma in 1973, Mendoza set a number of high school track records.

Mendoza next attended NMSU, graduating in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in individualized studies. His running abilities lead him to the United States Association of Blind Athletes Olympic games in Holland in 1983, and also to the association's 1984 games in Long Island New York. He placed fourth in the 1,500-meter race, his specialty at that time, in both competitions. He still runs, but not in competitions nor everyday.

In spite of his athletic achievements, Mendoza struggled emotionally with his loss of vision for many years. At one point, he made a pilgrimage to the church sanctuary at Chimayo, NM. Located north of Santa Fe, Chimayo is said to be a place where many miracles have taken place for people with physical ailments. Although Mendoza did not regain his physical vision, it was here that he had a vision of another kind, and was able to start overcoming his bitterness about his blindness. In gratitude, he wrote a poem about his quest on a piece of board, and left it as an offering in the chapel. It remains on view on the santuario to this day. A folk musician, Pamela Polland, who currently resides in Hawaii, has put the words of the poem to song. Bonnie Raitt sings backup vocals on a recording of the piece.

"I was searching for something when I went there, and what I found was spiritual renewal," Mendoza says of his first journey to Chimayo. His pilgrimages to Chimayo continue annually to this day.

Mendoza's interest in painting, ironically, springs from his loss of most of his vision. He says he often paints what he "sees"—visions he sometimes sees in his head, as if to compensate for his lack of ordinary, physical vision. When Mendoz first started painting, he once told a priest about these inner visions, and the priest encouraged him to pursue his painting.

But how can he see to paint? The 1989 documentary about Mendoza shows an example of what he could see: If you were to take something and cover up the front of your eye, so that the center of your vision is blocked, that's what he sees. For example, if you were looking straight at a computer screen and if you had the syndrome, you could not see the computer screen, or the general area around it. But you could probably see a bookshelf or a lamp on either side of the monitor. It's like trying to drive using only your side-view mirrors.

Because the ability to see color is concentrated in the cone cells of the central part of the human eye, Mendoza must also paint in a world where color is, he says, "clear." Many of the vivid colors in his paintings come entirely from his inner visions, not from what he can see with his eyes.

Mendoza works with acrylics, he says, "and some oil. Sometimes I mix them. I paint every day in the summer, and in the winter I write everyday, but still take time to paint on about three-quarters of those days."

He's had little contact with his father, George Mendoza, Sr., who is the author of dozens of children's books. Mendoza's father also helped to create many of the characters on the long-running PBS television show, "Sesame Street," such as Big Bird, though his contribution is not credited on the program.

Mendoza says he thinks his father's occupation is odd, because he "hates kids." George Mendoza, Sr., lives in New York, and is currently experiencing some health problems.

The younger George Mendoza has two children of his own, Michael, who may soon be working in Washington, DC, after graduating from NMSU, and a daughter, Lou, who is working on getting her teaching credentials, also at NMSU. Mendoza's long-time companion, Estella Mayorga, teaches math and science to special education students at Zia Middle School.

Though estranged from his father, Mendoza has also become quite a prolific writer. He has several self-published titles already in print, including a fantasy novel, A Vision of Courage, which is the first of a series of books he's been working on for the last decade. He's written a half-dozen so far about a character named Michael Seymour.

Mendoza describes his work: "You know how Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz was from Kansas? Well, this is kind of like Michael from New Mexico. He is able to go through portals that are located in the Organ Mountains."

Upon going through one of the portals, Michael is able to see ancient landscapes, which are the first step to a spiritual lesson of some kind. In one of the books, Spirit Man, "he finds an magical white stone. It can be seen through, and what is seen depends on whether the person who is looking through it is good or bad."

As committed as Mendoza is to his writing, and as many exciting things as are swirling about him right now, his primary focus remains the opening of the show in El Paso. "We have also applied for an NEA grant and hope to show the exhibit in six other cities around the country over the next two years," he says. "I have also been approached by Exhibits USA to do the same kind of thing with them."

He will also be donating one of his featured works, entitled New Mexico Sunflower, to the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped after the El Paso exhibit ends.

 With the new exhibit and 115 paintings to his credit, Mendoza feels he is on the right path artistically. "My art is successful right now," he says. "I paint what I see, and God has given me the ability to do so."

The International Museum of Art in El Paso is located at 1211 Montana Ave., not far from downtown. Its exhibit gallery is open Thursday - Sunday, 1-5 p.m. For more information, call (915) 543-6747 or see www.intlmuseumofart.com.

Frequent contributor Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.

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