Gabriel Velasquez doesn’t think of himself as an artist, says he isn’t one and simply admires those who are.
Especially artists in and around his native Columbia. But his wife Miryam says differently.
“Look,” she said, holding a painting so that its back side is to the viewer.
She flips it around, revealing a landscape as seen through the frame of a gate within a rocky wall. There are definitely several perspectives from which to view this picture, and though it doesn’t reflect the artist Ramon Pinto Pabon’s style, his signature can be found at the bottom alongside that of Gabriel Velasquez.
“And he is an artist,” Miryam Velaesquez said, looking again at her husband’s work. “He went to Pabon’s studio and painted beside Pabon.”
It’s true. Pabon is a name artist in South America, his work sought by collectors from throughout the continent. Gabriel Velasquez is his friend and gallery representative. When looking at the painting between his wife’s hands, you also can add the title of fellow artist to that list, because Gabriel Velasquez truly is a painter. But his mission isn’t to argue that point. He’s more interested in the artists he shows in his gallery, The Masters Gallery.
It’s located at 8775 Jefferson Highway, and along with Pabon, it’s the American home to works by 10 South American artists. The gallery will host an open house to highlight its artists from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 18.
“They’re all known in South America and Latin America,” Velasquez said. “And I know each of them. I visit their studios each year, and they show me their work. I pick out the paintings that we will show in our gallery.”
The Masters Gallery is the only American exposure for most of these artists.
“We show the work of some local artists, too,” Gabriel Velasquez said.
“But our gallery focuses on these artists from South America.”
He pauses for a moment for a quick glance at the work hanging around him. This is his passion, something that he does out of admiration for the artists and love of their work.
True, South America is Velasquez’s native home, but the United States has been his adopted home since the late 1970s. That’s when Velasquez moved his family to Baton Rouge and went through the legal process of becoming an American citizen.
Velasquez had earned his degree in economics before coming to the United States and worked as director of operations for “Disney on Parade,” “Disney on Ice,” the Harlem Globetrotters and the Moscow Circus through their Central and South American markets.
In the 1980s, Velasquez shifted his attention to musical talent and showcased internationally renowned Latin American artists, then later began Gabriel’s Cajun Concessions, which has served as a food vendor at hundreds of festivals throughout the state.
Velasquez and his family still run the concessions business.
“The concessions help us fund the gallery,” Maurice Velasquez said.
Maurice is one of the Velasquez’s three sons. He and his brothers grew up in the United States, and Maurice helps with the business.
“My dad loves art,” he said. “He loves the work of the artists in South America, and all of them are renown there and in Europe.”
So, in 2005, Gabriel Velasquez began his mission to introduce these artists to the United States by opening The Masters Gallery. The gallery’s name is fitting, because these artists truly are masters in art, each with his or her own style, each piece telling its own story.
There’s the work by Alba Bautista, whose landscapes blend with finesse, rhythm and harmony. Bautista also makes his own wooden frames.
And then there’s the painting “Blue Hope” by Ivan Guayasamin. A man’s face dominates this large piece, hands clasped on either side. His eyes are closed, his lips pursed as if hoping or praying for something wonderful to happen.
“Talk about this teacher is talking about an art heritage and prestige that has overwhelmed all borders of the universe,” the gallery’s statement for the artist said. “Guayasamin is always surrounded by the aura of passion and beauty.”
“Now, when you look at this artist, this could be a scene out of New Orleans,” Maurice Velasquez said.
He points to Celis Leon’s painting, “Billiards.” Maurice is right. The men could very well be playing pool in a dark hall somewhere in the Crescent City. Still, there’s something different about this painting, something that places it in a different place and time away from New Orleans.
This is no ordinary pool hall. The men are wearing suits, and viewers will get the feeling that the stakes are high, really high. Something exciting is about to happen in this game of pool, and Leon’s vibrant colors amplify this.
“The apothesis of an art work expresses much of the quality of its author and is reflected in several of his works, and the original, which reveals rightly giving color, depth and authenticity to this duel in pool, show us an authentic Celis,” the gallery statement said.
“We have several works by Celis Leon, and he paints in different styles,” Maurice Velasquez said.
“I love his work.”
Then there’s the impressionistic work by Pabon, who also is Gabriel Velasquez’s teacher. One of Pabon’s diptychs is featured at the gallery’s entrance, a scene of vines and birds that could very well be found in Louisiana.
The colors reach out and tempt the viewer to step into the scene, blending with it, bathing in the grays, blues and reds.
There are so many more South and Latin American artists’ names here to be mentioned, Jaime Granados, Alice Lopez, Omar Rios, Gregory Thomas and Hernando Medina among them.
Gabriel Velasquez will continue his yearly travels to South America to visit with these artists and bring their works back to Baton Rouge, exposing them to American audiences.
He’ll continue creating his own work along the way, his creations guided by the hand of a painting master named Pabon.