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Trailblazing Chicana painter Nora Chapa Mendoza named 2024 Kresge Eminent Artist; annual award now $100K


Nichole Christian

Nichole Christian

Celebrated painter, cultural activist and gallerist Nora Chapa Mendoza has been named the 2024 Kresge Eminent Artist, considered metro Detroit’s most prestigious arts award.

“It’s an incredible thing to have happen in your life,’’ said Chapa Mendoza, 92. She is the 16th recipient since 2008 of the award recognizing a lifetime’s contribution to an artist’s chosen forms of expression and the cultural community of metro Detroit.

The honor includes an unrestricted prize of $100,000 (new this year – it previously had been $50,000) as well as production of a short film, a monograph, and other efforts to elevate the year’s artist by Kresge and Kresge Arts in Detroit, an office of the College for Creative Studies (CCS), which administers the effort.

“Her work conveys a rare combination of grace and perseverance in the face of the innumerable societal obstacles placed in the path of an artist with Chicano and Indigenous roots,’’ said Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson. “She has inspired multiple generations with her full and powerful embrace of the overlapping causes of women, migrant workers and civil rights.”

The increase in the award size follows a decision by The Kresge Foundation to boost the region’s direct support to individual artists by upping both the per-award amount and the number of Kresge Artist Fellows, a companion program to the Kresge Eminent Artists. This summer, Kresge Arts in Detroit will announce 25 Kresge Artist Fellows who will each receive $40,000. Previously, The Kresge Foundation funded 20 fellows annually at $25,000 each.

“The larger number of larger awards expanded and deepened our decade-plus commitment to direct support to the working artists of greater Detroit,” said Rapson. “The increase in the Eminent Artist Award now follows suit to honor artists whose lifetime legacies contribute profoundly to today’s cultural vibrancy and whose impact will be felt for generations to come.”

An art piece by Nora Chapa Mendoza entitled "Frida" that stands five feet tall. It includes an image of the artist Frida Kahlo encased in half a violin case.
Chapa Mendoza’s 2013 piece “Frida,” which is more than five feet tall, was part of her solo show last year at the Scarab Club in Detroit. (Photo by Dalia Reyes)

“With deep ties to CCS and the Detroit community, Nora Chapa Mendoza is an inspiring example of an artist, educator and activist,” said College for Creative Studies President Donald L. Tuski. “Her dedication to addressing critical messages about civil rights and Chicano identity in her artwork communicates important historical and current issues. It is an honor to administer the Kresge Arts in Detroit program on behalf of The Kresge Foundation and to celebrate Nora Chapa Mendoza as the 2024 Kresge Eminent Artist.”

For Chapa Mendoza, this year’s Eminent Artist Award follows a banner 2023. Last fall, Detroit’s historic Scarab Club bestowed Chapa Mendoza with its highest honor, an invitation to “sign the beam.’’ The decades-old tradition has left a literal mark on the storied building’s ceiling and side beams with the handwritten signatures of 200-plus local and internationally renowned artists. Among the signatories are Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, Norman Rockwell, Marcel Duchamp and previous Kresge Eminent Artists Charles McGee, Bill Rauhauser, Marie Woo and Shirley Woodson.

The signing was the culmination of Chapa Mendoza’s solo show at the Scarab Club, “Stages of a Life: A Retrospective.” The exhibition included assemblages, papier-mâché reliefs, and various mixed media works as well as paintings “as a captivating visual diary, offering profound insights into the rich tapestry of experiences that define her life,” as described by gallery director Dalia Reyes, who likened Chapa Mendoza to Frida Kahlo.

At the time, Chapa Mendoza viewed the honor as the zenith of a five-decade career that has taken the work of this largely self-taught artist “all over the world.”
“Putting my name up there, I mean, up there with Diego, that’s tops. It doesn’t get much better.”

Then just before Christmas, she got the call from Kresge Arts in Detroit.

“I thought it was a scam,” she said. “I still don’t believe it, that someone just called me up and offered me a chunk of money. It doesn’t really make sense, you know. I only do what I love. Every day I have to eat – I have to paint. Nothing special – just life.”

But Chapa Mendoza’s life as an artist is, in fact, a wondrous tale.

Colors of Culture and Politics

The walls of her West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, home and the attached garage – converted to a studio years ago – are lined with tributes to her artistic and social impact.

Chicana artist Nora Chapa Mendoza is wearing paint-covered smock and clothes as she stands in the middle of here art studio surrounded by canvases, art pieces and framed award plaques and thank-you letters on the walls.
Artist Nora Chapa Mendoza in her West Bloomfield Township studio. She says that working in her studio is something that she has to do daily, like eating. (Photo for The Kresge Foundation by Erin Kirkland)

The framed award plaques, thank-you letters and official salutes from various social and government leaders reflect lifelong involvement in various causes including the fight for labor rights for migrant and farm workers, for women’s rights, and using art to expand awareness of Chicano history. She has also been recognized for uplifting her blended Native American ancestry and was named a certified elder of Kanto al Pueblo in Mesa, Arizona, in the 1980s.

She is especially proud of a signed letter from Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Association, known today as the United Farm Workers union. In the late 1980s, Chapa Mendoza met Chavez at a conference. He learned she was an artist and later commissioned her to create a series of six paintings and a special collection of postcards to benefit the union’s efforts. The postcards and paintings were seen all over the world, she recalls. On her desk, she keeps a framed photo of the late Chavez as a reminder of his legacy and their work together.

As a founding member of the Michigan Hispanic Cultural/Art Association and the former owner of her own gallery, Chapa Mendoza is beloved as a pioneering champion of Hispanic culture. Visual art, community observers say, just happens to be her means of expression.

In 1999, Gov. John Engler presented Chapa Mendoza with the Michigan Artist of the Year and Governor’s Award in recognition of long-standing cultural commitment to the state and, most notably, Southwest Detroit.

A mixed media painting by Nora Chap Mendoza with images of a woman with a crown and decorative robe and an artist with a painter's palette.
“Metamorphosis” (1986) by Nora Chapa Mendoza. (Photo by Carrie Williams Acosta)

“In Southwest Detroit,’’ explains Osvaldo “Ozzie” Rivera, a well-known Detroit historian, musician and community activist, “there was a celebration when she signed the Scarab Club beam, a celebration across sectors, not just the artistic community. The business community showed up.’’

Rivera was a part of the five-member panel of metro Detroit artists and arts professionals, selected by Kresge Arts in Detroit to choose the 2024 Eminent Artist. Also on the panel was award-winning dancer and choreographer Gina Ellis.

“I just loved her work,’’ Ellis said, but added that “her continued involvement in the community is what stands out.’’

Other panelists were 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist Shirley Woodson, poet Dawn McDuffie and arts and culture producer Drake Phifer.

Chapa Mendoza’s unwavering commitment as an advocate for Chicano art and culture has also been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution. In 2018, a researcher for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art paid a visit to Chapa Mendoza with a request that she consider donating her papers, lectures, notes, sketches, exhibition catalogs and photographs as a way of documenting Detroit’s Hispanic arts and cultural contributions. Chapa Mendoza’s donation spans 1963 to 2013.

Rebirth in Detroit

Detroit is not the city where Nora Chapa Mendoza was born, but it is the place where she came home to herself first as an artist and as an activist.

Chapa Mendoza’s city of birth is officially listed as Weslaco, Texas, in the heart of Rio Grande Valley. She entered the world there, just miles away from the Mexican border, on Jan. 20, 1932, as the youngest of Casimiro and Josefa Chapa’s three children.

Chapa Mendoza recalls her childhood as one of poverty and pain. Four days after Chapa Mendoza turned 4 years old, her mother died. Casimiro, a house painter, was suddenly a 25-year-old widower with three small children: Nora, the youngest; Jaime, the eldest; and middle-child Raquel. (Today, at 92, Chapa Mendoza is the sole survivor.)

An mixed media art piece titled "Children's Camp" by Nora Chapa Mendoza .
“Children’s Camp” (2014) by Nora Chapa Mendoza. (Photo by Dalia Reyes)

“We lived in a one-room house,’’ she said. “There really wasn’t much opportunity.’’

Images of family members working the land in and around Weslaco — plucking citrus fruits and picking cotton, often beneath a white-hot sun — remain vivid. “I remember after my mother’s death, my aunt tied a potato sack to me, one in front and one on my back, and took me to pick cotton with her.’’

The aunt — who had eight children of her own — and Chapa Mendoza’s grandmother became the primary caregivers for young Nora and her siblings for a number of years while their father, set out for Galveston, nearly 400 miles away, in search of more plentiful work.

The family’s struggles and agricultural lifestyle delayed Chapa Mendoza’s introduction to school until age 8, the year she began learning to speak English. Though she had to struggle to catch up academically, school opened a new world. It was where art first piqued her interest. She remembers being captivated by the vivid colors and images on Mexican calendars and in comic books.

Later, when she was reunited with her father, that early spark began to catch fire. With her father’s encouragement, Chapa Mendoza picked up paint brushes. “Cans of paints and brushes were always around in the house. My father was the first person to encourage me, to teach me about colors.’’

Years later, in 1953, at age 21, she married, and followed her husband, Sam Mendoza, a doctor, to Detroit, where he did his residency. She brought her passion for painting with her – but only as a hobby.

The couple soon became parents to two children, daughter Laurie in 1956, and son Sam, two years later. In sync with the times, her husband, Chapa Mendoza said, insisted motherhood be her focus and priority. “He wanted me to paint,’’ she said, “but just in the basement. He didn’t want me exhibiting or anything because he wanted to be the person earning the money and supporting me,’’ Chapa Mendoza recalled.

In 1973, Chapa Mendoza chose divorce. The choice changed everything. “It was a huge thing to do back then, a metamorphosis,’’ she said. “It felt like a rebirth. My whole life changed, and it hasn’t stopped.”

Chapa Mendoza studied art at the College for Creative Studies, then known as the Center for Creative Studies, and at Madonna University in Livonia. She also studied independently with well-known local artist mentors including painters Richard Kozlow and Ljubo Biro.

She became a founding member of Nuestras Artes de Michigan, a collective of Latin artists with chapters in Detroit, Pontiac and Ann Arbor. In 1981, she made a larger leap with the launch of Galeria Mendoza, in Detroit’s Harmonie Park district. The gallery was considered Detroit’s first solely Latin American showcase, with Chapa Mendoza’s paintings regularly paired with at least one new emerging Latin artist. Chapa Mendoza closed the gallery three years later to focus on her own painting.

Chapa Mendoza’s trajectory has been wide-ranging, involving various mediums — oils, acrylics, canvas, boards, paper scraps, even a collection of discarded violins —  partly because of her own fierce insistence that “beauty is in everything.’’

An abstract painting by Nora Chapa Mendoza titled “Cottonwood Creek” that combine landscapes, abstractions and figurative elements.
Chapa Mendoza’s “Cottonwood Creek” from 1995, 31 ¼ inches by 40 ½ inches. Many of her works combine landscapes, abstractions and figurative elements. (Photo by Carrie Williams Acosta)

Initially, she sought to showcase this belief primarily through figurative paintings and drawings. Whatever she saw she worked to render with exactitude. “It’s like making a photograph, a way of seeing things.’’

Slowly, she turned her eye toward large oil-based landscapes. There, she discovered her most satisfying form, abstracts “with a little something hidden,’’ she said, referring to the playful way she likes to hide figurative images and forms within her landscapes.

Sometimes she chooses symbols of her Chicana heritage and Indigenous spirituality. She hides her fascination with horses in bold hues, too, along with a love of the female figure as an enduring study. “Abstract is more freeing. I don’t have to know, I just paint. The canvas and the colors, they take over. Whatever comes, comes.’’

Chapa Mendoza’s paintings and assemblages have been widely embraced by corporate and private collectors including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, actor Edward James Olmos, Aretha Franklin, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and former GM President Jack Smith. In 1998, Fidel Castro was presented with one of her paintings after two solo exhibitions in Cuba featured her paintings, which have also been exhibited as far away as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Egypt.

“I feel very honored by the life I’ve had,’’ she said. “I knew when I came to Detroit that it was special. I’m grateful to still do what I love every day and to represent my cultures. It’s a gift.’’

Chapa Mendoza joins a list of 15 previous Kresge Eminent Artist: visual artists Charles McGee, Ruth Adler Schnee, Marie Woo, Shirley Woodson and Olaymi Dabls; musicians Marcus Belgrave, Patricia Terry-Ross and Wendell Harrison; writers Bill Harris, Naomi Long Madgett, Gloria House and Melba Joyce Boyd; photographers Bill Rauhauser and Leni Sinclair; and composer-impresario David DiChiera.

This spring, Kresge Arts in Detroit will release a short film on Chapa Mendoza’s life and art produced by Desmond Love. The Kresge monograph will be released in the fall, available at no cost while supplies last and in perpetuity for download online. Printed copies of the book can be preordered here.