Nora Chapa Mendoza, 88, to exhibit artwork during Street Art Fair

Still going strong

For renowned artist Nora Chapa Mendoza, 88, painting is her therapy, in a sense, and it’s something she’s compelled to do every day.

She’ll be showing some of her work — art that often has themes aligned with women, Native Americans and Hispanics — during next month’s Wyandotte Street Art Fair. She’ll be in a booth in front of River’s Edge Gallery, 3024 Biddle Ave., as an honored guest of gallery owner Patt Slack.

“I’ve been with River’s Edge since way, way back, even when they were in their first location,” Mendoza said. “I used to take my work there to get it framed, back when Jim (Slack) was still alive. Then they decided to represent me.”

Today, her art, much of which is abstract expressionist, has been “represented” all over the nation and the world, but Mendoza is loyal and devoted to the friends she’s made along the way.

The artist has earned a great many honors over the years. In 1999, she was awarded as the Michigan Governor’s Art Award – Michigan Artist of the Year, and in 1996, she was chosen as one of eight artists who participated in the renovation of Detroit’s Music Hall. In 2011, she was named Visual Artist of the Year by the Wayne County Council for the Arts, History & Humanities.

Her work is included in many collections, public and private, as well. Among private collectors who have acquired Mendoza’s work are the late Aretha Franklin, actor Edward James Olmos and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. In Detroit, corporate collectors of her work include General Motors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Ford Motor Co.

“I’m included in the American art archives in the Smithsonian,” she said. “I feel very good about that.”

The University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies also has archived her papers.

Mendoza, who lives in West Bloomfield today, was born in Texas to Mexican parents, and began doing art as a young child.

“I was definitely born an artist,” she said with a laugh.

She moved to the Detroit area in 1953 when she was 21.

“I attended classes at the Center for Creative Studies (now the College of Creative Studies) way back in the day when they had a little building, mostly to confirm to myself that I really could paint,” Mendoza said.

She also attended Madonna College (now Madonna University in Livonia), always working to improve her painting techniques.

Some time after she moved to Michigan, her marriage came to an end.

“After my divorce, I had no money to raise my children,” Mendoza said. “I had to have a job so finally I started doing art fairs. And when paintings sold, I thought, ‘This is good, I can do this.’”

Always, she faced some discrimination for her Mexican heritage. Mendoza, through her art and her activism, hoped to create a better world, where people of all ethnicities were valued. She struggled to get her art into galleries.

In 1978, she, with other Latino artists, formed Nuestras Artes de Michigan (NAM), with chapters in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Lansing. She is a founding member of the Michigan Hispanic Cultural/Art Association, as well.

“Way back in the day, it was really difficult to get galleries to show my Hispanic or Indian influenced work, so finally I just opened my own gallery,” Mendoza said.

She opened Galeria Mendoza in southwest Detroit in 1981. Her gallery became known as the first Latin American art gallery ever established in Detroit. And little by little, her paintings continued to gain attention and to sell.

In 1999, Mendoza was named official liaison to the Michigan Latino Arts and Culture Initiative, a collaboration of Casa de Unidad, the Michigan Council for the Arts, and the Michigan Department of Education. She held art workshops in Detroit to encourage young people. She was named as a member of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, a post she filled for 10 years.

Her career, when she looks back, amazes her. She has traveled the world with her art, including two solo exhibits in Cuba. One of her paintings was presented to Fidel Castro. Mendoza still laughs when she remembers how people in Japan followed her around everywhere she went as if she was a rock star.

“It went beyond what I thought it would ever do,” Mendoza said. “But if you’re a real artist, you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the fame. You do it because you must do it.”

Mendoza, who attributes her longevity to clean living and inheriting good genes, still paints every day. And even now, after decades of working, she sometimes gets so lost creating art that time just disappears.

“Sometimes I even forget to eat,” she said.

What inspires her?

“I guess things that I find unjust or unfair, anything that gets an emotional reaction from me — angry or happy or whatever — it all just comes out in my painting,” Mendoza said. “I guess it’s like my therapist, only a whole lot cheaper.”

On her website (norachapamendoza.com) is this quote:

“In order that my art reflect my life, it is inevitable that the artist free the spirit and spontaneously embrace the soul. Each day, I look eagerly to yet another opportunity to observe and express the pain and dignity of human endeavor.”

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