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The Art of Nostalgia

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: May, 2016, Page 32
Photos by Carrie Evans

“La Trompeta” by artist Frank Ybarra, acrylic on canvas, 30"H by 40"W.
Painter Frank Ybarra captures the history and culture that make Arizona special

Nostalgia and family life guide the brush of artist Frank Ybarra, whose lighthearted acrylic works feature elements of cubist style and vibrant, joyful color juxtapositions. His paintings capture fond memories of the people, history and cultures that define Arizona, with a playful nod to his Mexican roots and his Phoenix suburban heritage. Viewers often recall something from their past when they look at his work, from childhood trips to visit Southwest icons and popular landmarks, to memories of lazy summer days and happy family celebrations.

Ybarra’s signature style is energetic and vivid, and he infuses his subjects—family, friends, pets, food and desert scenes—with whimsy and symbolism. Using dynamic shades of red, blue, yellow and green, Ybarra engages his viewers with candid snapshots that celebrate moments from his Hispanic upbringing. There are images of festive fiestas and front-yard siestas; there’s even a portrait of his pug, Roxxie, dressed like Frida Kahlo.

Ybarra, at home and happy in his studio, played trumpet in school and has fond memories of his father’s appreciation of mariachi music.
His personal favorites are those that honor his family, including paintings of his father, wife and children. Folksy depictions of his mother making tamales and sweet treats are so lovingly rendered that the aroma of homemade tortillas and empanadas almost leaps off the canvas. A particularly sentimental piece shows his black Labrador retriever, Olive, who recently passed away, proudly sitting on the lawn as a stream of water gushes nearby. There’s a glint in her eyes as she shows off her new toy—the sprinkler head that she dug up. Today, that large painting, entitled “Busted,” hangs in his garage studio. “Los Traviesos” has a more universal appeal. In it, two young brothers roughhouse in the front yard as their mother scolds them and their grandfather naps beneath a shade tree. “It hits close to home for a lot of us,” Ybarra says with a mischievous grin, noting that he hails from a family with six children (two brothers and three sisters).

Ybarra also draws inspiration from the landscapes and familiar landmarks of the region. Some of his well-known works feature images of Camelback Mountain and Tovrea Castle, as well as local hotels and restaurants, including Pete’s Fish & Chips and Bill Johnson’s Big Apple. He’s also regarded for his simplistic still lifes—a frosty margarita; a can of salsa that was a staple in his mom’s kitchen; his father’s favorite record album, complete with masking tape that kept the cardboard cover intact. These ordinary scenes of a life well-lived become extraordinary through the transformative properties of the paint and Ybarra’s unique talent with the brush.

“My art started out as a takeoff of Picasso’s style with a humorous twist, and I kept the cubism effect,” he explains of his abstract style in which objects are fractured into geometric forms or “cubes.” His pieces also take on a pop-art touch, with their positive, lighthearted feel. “There is nothing negative about my paintings,” he says. “It’s nice to hear people say they get a happy feeling when they see my work, and that it reminds them of something in their own lives.”

“White Dove of the Desert” features Tucson’s Mission San Xavier del Bac, which Ybarra also painted for Arizona’s centennial celebration. Acrylic on canvas, 48”H by 60”W.
A humble man with a ready smile, Ybarra was born and raised in a working-class  neighborhood just north of the Phoenix airport. His keen interest in art developed early; he vividly recalls drawing on brown paper grocery bags as a toddler. “My mom and dad would come home from grocery shopping, and I would take apart the bags, unfold them and spread them out on the floor to draw. My parents and siblings were all very supportive of me.”

Ybarra also credits Joanne Rapp, his art teacher at David Crockett Elementary School, who nurtured his budding talent. His love of art flourished during his years at East High School in Phoenix, followed by studies at Scottsdale Community College and Arizona State University.

Now a full-time artist, he is working at the easel in his North Phoenix home studio by 11 a.m. and stays until nearly midnight most days, often accompanied by the classic sounds from his extensive vinyl collection or the hum of the TV. His optimism and enthusiasm seem endless. There is just so much in the world to paint and so many things to put down on canvas, notes the 58-year-old. “If we don’t have any plans as a family, I am in here every day.”

His work has been displayed in local and national galleries and exhibitions. In 2012, he was chosen by the Arizona Tourism Commission to create works for the state’s year-long centennial commemoration. The Celebrate the Arizona Experience campaign, which included billboards, posters, advertisements, street signage and more, featured Ybarra’s paintings of Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. His pieces are also widely collected, with works gracing homes from California to New York.

Antics by the artist’s dog, Olive, prompted this painting, “Busted,” acrylic on canvas, 60"H by 42"W.
Enthusiastic art patrons are eager to sing his praises. “Frank captures the beauty and joy of desert living,” says Marion Donaldson, development director for Arizona School for the Arts. “His artwork transcends conversation and communicates the universal human experience with reverence to family and friends and growing up, pop culture and music that becomes the soundtrack of our lives, and connection to nature. I love the story he tells that quickly becomes mine, too.”

Elizabeth Reich, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Arizona, displays Ybarra’s “The Hope of a New Day” on her office wall. “The lithograph features two of my favorite Arizona images, saguaro cacti and a hummingbird, and the rays of the sun in the sky remind me of our state flag. It is hanging right in front of my desk, reminding me each day of why I am so lucky to live in such a wonderful place.”

Ybarra would agree that he, too, is lucky to live in the Valley, and when he’s not working in his studio, he spends his time actively engaging in his community and helping others. Throughout his career, he has mentored and inspired young artists. His cheerful paintings comfort patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and he frequently donates original pieces to nonprofit organizations to assist with fundraising. Ybarra also works with foster care and at-risk youth through Free Arts of Arizona, and he often invites “wish kids” from Make-A-Wish to his home for a day of painting, laughter and lunch. A two-time colon cancer survivor, Ybarra understands what it’s like when life is interrupted by cancer.

An extensive collection of vinyl gets Ybarra’s creative juices flowing when he’s working in his studio.
“I really enjoy spending the day with these young cancer patients, painting and sharing battle stories,” Ybarra says. “I do a lot of speaking at schools and love to encourage kids. I share my story of how I got to this point and tell them, whatever their interest is, to keep moving forward and not get discouraged. Even if their dream is to be an NBA player, which might not be so realistic, I tell them there are so many rewarding ways to be involved, even if it’s just coaching their kid’s team some day.

“I think I am much more relaxed and calm after cancer,” he reflects. “I’ve learned to look at the bigger picture and not let the little everyday hassles get me down. Cancer was scary, but I always knew in my heart that I would get through it. It was just another detour in life. I knew the cancer couldn’t stop me because I have too many paintings that I want to do. I am very lucky because this is not work but something I love to do.”

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Based on a portrait of his daughter and plucked from his imagination, the artist says this collage was inspired by his affectionate memories of Christmas, family and Southwest landmarks. “Miracle of the Poinsettia,” acrylic on canvas, 36"H by 28"W. • Ybarro's paint oalette • Ybarro’s adaptation of cubism is seen in this landscape. Angular-shaped rocks contrast the soft forms of cacti in “Sonoran Overlook,” acrylic on canvas, 48"H by 48"W. • The artist’s trip to Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Mexico, inspired this painting, “Una Tasa de Café,” acrylic on canvas, 48"H by 60"W.

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