In Recess October 2021

‘More Sega than Cézanne’

El Paso attorney Patrick Gabaldon’s artistic sensibilities redefine one of America’s biggest international border cities

Interview by Eric Quitugua

Chris Harris Playing Guitar
“Painting was most definitely love at first sight, and now I can’t imagine a life without it,” Patrick Gabaldon told the Texas Bar Journal. Photo by David Davis.

Ask El Paso attorney Patrick Gabaldon what his city is like, and he’ll say it, like a prickly pear, has a rugged beauty blooming with brilliance. The cacti there can pop out of the smallest sidewalk cracks, and that sort of resilience is something he endlessly tries to capture in his paintings. Gabaldon’s use of bright and bold colors is appropriate for a place called the Sun City, where his work has bloomed from drink-and-paint events to album covers, galleries, and the New York Times.

WHEN DID YOU PICK UP A BRUSH FOR THE FIRST TIME? WAS IT LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT?
I fell into painting by complete accident in 2012. My wife, Monica, and I had just moved back home to El Paso and were invited by a close friend to one of those drink-and-paint businesses. Despite drawing cartoons of my professors and case-based comics all over my law books, I had never used a paintbrush before. The wine was plentiful, and we were supposed to paint a little mission village. The class was supposed to paint each part of the painting step by step, but it was moving way too slowly for me, so I went ahead and did my own thing. Before I knew it, I was almost done while the class was still in the early stages of the piece. I fell in love with mixing the paint, searching for the right hues, and then throwing it up on the canvas. A few weeks later we picked up our paintings from the shop and the instructor continued to encourage me to paint. My wife and I decided to gift some paintings to our family (they can’t turn it down!), and after sharing some of those works online, some friends started commissioning work! It’s been an amazing ride since then. Painting was most definitely love at first sight, and now I can’t imagine a life without it.

WHAT’S THE DRAW TO PRICKLY PEARS?
The prickly pear is my favorite thing to paint. I am constantly enchanted by its rugged beauty and blooming brilliance. To me, the prickly pear represents the people of El Paso, and I consider each prickly pear piece to be a portrait of my community. These cacti are everywhere but often overlooked—they grow out of the smallest crack in a sidewalk, and if you bump into one, you’ll never forget it. They grow and persist in the constant desert heat and bloom brilliantly during the driest of droughts. Changes come and go, but the mountain and the prickly pear remain. Much like the people of the border, the prickly pear is bold, proud, and beautiful. If you fly over El Paso, you will only see a brown mountain, but if you look closer, you’ll see so much more.

Chris Harris Playing Guitar
A common symbol in Gabaldon’s art is the prickly pear, which he says represents El Pasoans. “These cacti are everywhere but often overlooked—they grow out of the smallest crack in a sidewalk, and if you bump into one, you’ll never forget it,” he said. Photo by David Davis.

EL PASO PLAYS A BIG ROLE IN YOUR ART. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE SUN CITY THAT YOU WANT TO CAPTURE?
I want to capture the warmth of our landscapes, culture, and community. So often El Paso and the border have been defined by people who have never stepped foot in El Paso and speak with an arrogant authority on what and who we are. After painting for a few years, I shifted my attention toward making a new first impression for El Paso to remind myself of all that we have to be grateful for and proud of out here in West Texas.

WILL THERE EVER BE A POINT WHERE YOU’VE EXPRESSED ALL YOU NEED TO ABOUT IT?
Never! Mostly because there are so many layers to my hometown. So many perspectives, so much joy, sadness, grit, suffering, and beauty. I liken it to painting the sunsets. I could go out every day for a year at the same time to paint the sky and end up with 365 pieces. And no matter how many sunsets I attempt to capture, there will always be something I missed because I am also growing and changing.

ARE THERE THEMES IN YOUR WORK THAT SUBCONSCIOUSLY HAVE COME OUT THAT YOU DIDN’T INITIALLY SEEK TO PORTRAY?
Most definitely. The more I create, the more I rely on silence and focus. My focus and attention have revealed meaning in my pieces I didn’t quite expect. 2020 was a year most of us would like to forget. We lost neighbors, family, and friends to COVID-19. My community was brought to its knees by COVID right on the heels of one of the most deadly racist attacks on August 3, 2019, which killed 23 and affected so many. Not only was our community suffering from collective grief and trauma but I was too. My wife and I were isolated and anxious, and I knew that I had to continue to paint for my own mental health. Now looking back on those pieces, I can see anxiety and uncertainty—something that is still in my work.

YOUR COLORS REALLY POP. IS THAT INTENTIONAL?
Yes. For me, it is almost always about color. I learned early that when I spend less time mixing paint and searching for color, the better. There is some kind of seed planted in me when it comes to color choice, and the longer I paint, finding the right colors has only become easier. My goal is typically to express joy through color so finding the right shade of yellow or perfect purple is key to being happy with a completed work. I’ve also done a few pieces where the intention was a more muted look, or a more realistic style, and I just can’t do it. There is even a piece where I swore I was using muted colors, and after a 10-hour studio session, I stepped back and realized even my focused intent couldn’t overcome my natural draw to big and bold colors.

Chris Harris Playing Guitar
Photo by David Davis.

DAVIS WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR INFLUENCES? I NOTICED THERE’S A PIECE YOU’VE DONE THAT LOOKS LIKE A TAKE ON THE STARRY NIGHT.
My influences are from all kinds of sources. What I love most about San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz is his artistic vision and unapologetic commitment to his community. His art has also taught me to be more honest in my creation—to accept my creative process and art as an extension of myself rather than an attempt to be like another. I struggled with this concept for years and have only recently fallen into a more open acceptance of my own work. Another big influence of mine is illustrator Lalo Alcaraz, who is most known for his bold and controversial political cartoons. His work inspires me to be more honest and to take more chances when it comes to illustrations. I am also constantly inspired by fellow El Pasoan Christin Apodaca and her tenacious commitment to her craft. She is a force, and I am lucky to be creating at a time here on the border alongside her. The Starry Night piece you reference was the second image I had ever done. Though I appreciate the old painters, my artistic influence is more Sega than Cézanne.

TELL ME ABOUT DAWES. YOU LIKE TO MAKE DOODLES OF THOSE GUYS. WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THEM?
My first creative love is music, and every painting has a soundtrack. Most of them have some bits of Dawes in there and lots of my pieces were born entirely with Dawes playing in the background. Their music and the community that they’ve created is extremely important to me. I paint and draw what’s often on my mind, and there is no doubt that Dawes is usually in my headphones. We travel all over to see them and have made friends for life. I’ve also been lucky enough to interact with the band, and they are always incredibly kind. What I love most about their music is the depth of songwriting and timeless sound. When I first heard Dawes, they were the odd band out in my rotation, but the honest songwriting and continued growth has made me a lifelong listener.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PLACE YOU’VE SHOWN YOUR WORK?
My favorite showing was in downtown El Paso as part of a fundraiser for the August 3rd victim fund. Not only was it a great cause but it was an incredible opportunity for my work to hang alongside so many amazing artists I admire like Zeke Peña, Francisco Delgado, and Ortiz. One of the most fun places you can see my work is on our socks! It’s been so cool to have people share pics of themselves wearing my socks all over the world. I’ve also had some of my work pop up in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even in Good Trouble. Some of the cooler places my work has appeared has been on the social media feeds of some of my favorite musicians like Dawes and Jon Batiste. It is truly an honor and incredible feeling when anyone makes the decision to share or display my work. I still get a huge burst of joy when I see stickers I’ve made on people’s cars around town. It’s an incredible honor every single time, and I never get tired of people sharing photos of my work in their homes, on their water bottles, or on their feet. TBJ

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