A Local Artist Explores Culture Through His Creations
Artist Zarco Guerrero’s creative characters explore the indigenous cultures of the world
“A mask can really express our humanity,” artist Zarco Guerrero reflects. “It can showcase anger, joy, torment, paranoia. It is the perfect medium, and it allows us to step out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.”
As one of the Valley’s most influential and inspirational creatives, Guerrero has been using his own special fusion of artistry and theater to entertain audiences and educate about—and preserve—the Southwest’s rich Latino heritage.
Born and raised in Mesa, Guerrero, who is of Mexican/indigenous ancestry, comes from a long line of artistic personalities. His father was a portrait painter, and his mother was a dressmaker. His grandparents, Pedro and Rosarita, founded the popular line of canned beans and sauces that still bear his grandmother’s name. And his uncle, Pedro E. Guerrero, gained international fame as the architectural photographer for Frank Lloyd Wright.
“I grew up in a really imaginative environment,” Guerrero says. “My focus was on sculpture. I wanted to create monuments and statues—realistic work.”
After graduating from Westwood High School in Mesa, Guerrero traveled to Mexico with the intent to study sculpture and painting. His work at the time was primarily in bronze, wood and stone. It was there that he was first sidetracked by masks.
“I became infatuated with the magnificent ancient masks that I saw in the museums, but also the use of these artworks in celebrations and festivals in the villages,” he recalls. “I was intrigued with this whole idea of putting on a mask and transforming into someone or something else. The cultural implications of them were fascinating to me.
“There’s a lot of physicality that goes into sculpture—it’s heavy, you have to carry it, you have to install it. But it’s also cold and just sits there,” Guerrero continues. “Whereas the mask is worn by someone who is dancing and playing instruments and interacting with people. I saw it as a living sculpture and painting all rolled into one. I went to Mexico with one thing in mind and, all of a sudden, I was taken on this other trajectory, which introduced me to the theatrical arts.”
During this time, Guerrero also met his wife, Carmen, a musician from Recife, Brazil. The couple returned to the U.S. in the mid-1970s and were immediately swept up in the Chicano Movement led by activist César Chavez, whose socio-political ideology added focus to their creative mission.
“Chavez said that we must be of service to others, to those in need,” Guerrero explains. “So as artists, we began to talk about how we could serve our community. What can we do through the power of art? My way to do that was to create a forum where we could celebrate our culture and keep it alive and vibrant.”
In 1975, the Guerreros founded Xicanindio Artists Coalition, now known as Xico, a non-profit organization that promotes Native American and Chicano arts. The group sponsors public murals, grassroots performances of Latin and indigenous music, and local festivals, and provides support to local visual artists.
The couple later went on to found Cultural Coalition, which addresses social issues through performances and public celebrations, such as Mask Alive!, El Puente Fest and the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration that has grown to draw performers and viewers from across the Southwest and showcases Guerrero’s unique, colorful and imaginative masks.
“Zarco has been a big part of the Latino art scene in the Valley forever,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning artist Gennaro Garcia. “It’s hard not to think about his work without thinking about what he does for the community.
“There are not a lot of people like Zarco,” Garcia continues. “He doesn’t do just one thing. We’re talking about masks, murals, bronze and wood sculptures, oils, acrylics—and then singing and making music. His craft is to educate us about everything in our Mexican culture.”
In the mid 1980s, Guerrero got the chance to strengthen and expand his skills when he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study in Japan. “I miraculously fell in with this family of carvers and became a master’s apprentice,” he says. “This guy took me under his wing, and I carved with him every day.”
Many of the masks that hang in Guerrero’s studio display classic characteristics of time-honored Japanese traditions. From the carving techniques used to the shape of the face, each piece harks back to a style that has been carried on for generations. “In Japan, you don’t carve your own style of masks. You do what the masters did because you can’t outdo them,” Guerrero explains. Trips to Bali added Indonesian influence to his work.
His studio, a stand-alone building set in the back garden of his Mesa home and decorated with colorful murals of Toltec imagery, brims with faces and figures carved throughout the decades. From modest wood masks, crafted mostly of mahogany and featuring elegant Asian features, to brilliantly painted grotesque forms adorned with horse hair, fur and shimmering metal conchos and dangles, the collection tells the story of the artist’s journey through the world’s cultures.
“Every mask is different, but they’re also all blended together,” Guerrero says. “I can’t say, ‘This is a Mexican man or this is a Balinese piece.’ Everything I do, from painting to sculpture to masks, has Japanese standards and aesthetics attached to it.”
Five large paper clay heads—three female, two male—sit on stands, awaiting their finishing touches. Designed for Borderlands Theatre in Tucson, they will eventually top 8-foot-tall puppets. “I’ve been struggling with these pieces for a while,” Guerrero remarks. “What fascinates me is the expression, and being able to capture that. It’s not until I start painting the eyes that I really starting dreaming about the character of the figure. I have to make sure that the eyes are correct.” They’re surrounded by a cast of Dia de los Muertos figures, Asian dragons, life-size maquettes for future sculptures, musical instruments and much more.
His stage characters have also played an important role in productions by Childsplay, a youth-focused theater company in Phoenix. “The first show we did with Zarco was “The Masquerade of Life/ La Mascarada de la Vida,” which ended up going to the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1991,” recalls artistic director Dwayne Hartford. “Zarco played the main character, and he also built these amazing masks for the show.”
Since then, Guerrero has been creating masks, performing and conducting workshops and classes for kids and their families for the organization.
“He’s just a true artisan. The expression and emotion that come out of his carvings, and the power they exhibit, are just beautiful,” Hartford says. “There’s just something about using a mask created specifically for a performance—it’s like having dinner at an amazing restaurant vs. a chain eatery. A handmade mask is going to help you tell the story in the way that you want it told. There’s an energy, a power that emanates from it. It forces you to listen and to watch.”