Kansas City artist Mauricio Zúñiga in his studio at his midtown home (photo by Jim Barcus)
The veteran Kansas City painter is a champion of fellow artists who strives to make the artistic university open and welcoming to everyone
“When you’re dreaming, you always go back to where you were born.”
For local artist Mauricio Zúñiga, his dreams lead back to the small town of Poncitlán in the west-central Mexican state of Jalisco. And although Zúñiga’s journey has taken him around the globe and seen him embrace various roles — painter, photographer, mentor, curator and cultural ambassador — his creative roots remain embedded in his hometown.
Zúñiga emigrated to the United States in 1976 and 10 years later earned a B.A. in photography from the University of Illinois. He speaks fondly of his studies, and he was able to earn a living documenting family events like weddings, birthdays and quinceañeras. And although he still enjoys the technical craft of taking a picture, Zúñiga started painting in 1996, when he moved to Kansas City.
“I always wanted to do it,” he admits, “but I was so afraid of the empty canvas.” Fortunately for Zúñiga, Poncitlán proved to be an irresistible muse.
“I like to tell stories of my childhood, things that I witnessed.” In reflecting on those formative years, Zúñiga hypothesized that there isn’t a lot of difference between growing up in Mexico or the United States, but every individual town has its own flavor. And the palate of Poncitlán was “the foundation of the stories I tell.” His subjects, spawned from childhood memories, span the gamut of human experience in a way that is both humble and viscerally relatable. Swimming in a river at night, getting to know people in a small-town neighborhood, religious themes and even visitations from ghosts have all informed Zúñiga’s paintings.
Describing his style as a mixture of cubism and surrealism, Zúñiga begins his process with a sketch, even if “the ideas in my head don’t always end up the same at the end.” What’s important is that the final product, a synthesis of the supernatural and the autobiographical, sparks his audience’s imagination.
Accessibility also informs Zúñiga’s process, and he is proud of the fact that much of his material comes from hardware stores or recycled construction supplies. “I challenge myself to create . . . using common materials, not expensive art stuff.” In the same spirit, he embraces a heresy of the art exhibition world and invites viewers to touch his artwork, bringing a tactile, interactive component to what is typically a passive experience.
Zúñiga’s modest disposition belies the success he has found with his approach. He has exhibited at venues including Truman Hospital, Kansas City; the Consulate General of Mexico, Raleigh, North Carolina; and The Late Show Gallery, Kansas City; and in 2015 he received the ArtsKC Virtuoso Award.
Beyond his presence in the region’s galleries and public spaces, Zúñiga has built a legacy as a champion for fellow artists. “I like to help the newcomers,” he says. “People are already artists when they go into and come out of the art institutes. They need to learn self-promotion.” Zúñiga’s advice for new artists is inspired by what one of his instructors at the University of Illinois once shared with him. “Take a business class. Dress well. And never say you’re a starving artist.”
And although he remains committed to supporting the professional development of younger generations of artists, Zúñiga strives to make the artistic universe open and welcoming to everyone. Reflecting on his own experience as an immigrant, he acknowledges that many people who come to the United States do not have the same opportunities he did to attend university and pursue their creative passions.
Zúñiga observes that many members of the Mexican community in Kansas City are focused primarily on earning a living. “They come here to work, not to see art.” As part of his activism, he has been collaborating with the Mexican government to reach people in artistically underserved populations. In 2017, Zúñiga’s exhibition “Past and Present” opened in the Mexican Consulate building in Kansas City. Featuring 27 oil on canvas paintings, the show explored the relationship between people’s origins and how our backgrounds shape our future sense of self.
Zúñiga’s partnership with the Mexican Foreign Ministry proved so successful that he was invited to show an exhibition titled “Cuentos y Colores Mexicanos” at the consulate in Raleigh, North Carolina in spring 2022. As is customary for Zúñiga’s exhibits, visitors were encouraged to touch the richly textured oil paintings. According to the Mexican Consulate General, the project “conveyed the beauty of Mexican culture.”
Ultimately, Zúñiga hopes that by reaching more Mexican immigrants with these endeavors, he can inspire people to appreciate art in new ways or even for the first time. While continuing his work as an artistic emissary for the consulate, Zúñiga maintains a busy schedule of painting, mentoring and even curating.
When asked for the secret to his success, Zúñiga offers a simple answer. “I never say ‘no’ to anything.”