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A Brush With Nature

TPWD artist Clemente Guzman inspires conservation with his wildlife paintings.

By Louie Bond

He moves the fine tip of the brush lightly, but with confidence.

With each small, silent stroke, a bit of golden light touches the curved horns of the bison, and a few pieces of straw appear on the coarse brown hide. Puffs of steamy breath dance from flared nostrils, while the beast’s luminous dark eyes reflect the snow-tipped winter grasses under his hooves. In the distance, the muted blues and reds of the mountains give the scene a sense of place — this landscape could be none other than West Texas. Time is left to our imaginations, as this could be a scene from today or centuries ago.

Bison

Bison in the snow at Caprock Canyons.

Like that iconic bison, Clemente Guzman’s life is a reflection of place and time. His skill as a wildlife artist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is unparalleled, but his connections with his subjects, his passion for his mission and his sense of the interconnectivity of life make him more than a gifted technician. For the past quarter-century, Clemente has used his talent to accomplish his goal — one that is more far-reaching than the creation of a work of art, no matter how beautiful that art might be.

Clemente’s goal is to inspire people to protect the gifts of the natural world. It’s a goal that takes him back through time to reflect on his ancestors in Mexico and his childhood working in the fields.

“Sometimes I think about our ancestors who walked on this earth for thousands of years and coexisted with wildlife and plants,” he says. “Here in Texas, depictions of wildlife can be seen in early rock art, a clear indication that nature was a big part of our spirit world. It’s still the core of our existence and survival today. That’s why it is crucial that each of us do our part to preserve and protect our rivers, wildlife and native habitat.”

When he’s not painting and drawing animals and landscapes for this magazine, for license stamps or for other agency projects, Clemente enjoys tracing his roots back to Mexico. His grandmother told him that her father was a full-blooded Native American, but she knew little else about him. In a worn cotton dress, with her long braids swinging, she told him stories about how her family lived off the land like the Native Americans, even making cooking pottery with age-old methods. His research led him to believe that their family came from the Apaches. Clemente embraces that heritage today, becoming a part of the Lipan Apache Nation of Texas. He considers himself neither Mexican nor Native American, though.

Family

Clemente Guzman’s father and grandfather and others on their way to pick cotton.

“I’m an American, not just an ethnicity,” he says. “I’m probably related to all the people in the world. If you study your roots back to when we used to hunt with spears and atlatls, we’re all the same. Culture and excessive pride divide us. It shouldn’t be like that. We’re all brothers and sisters.”

Clemente’s path to becoming one of the state’s premier wildlife artists had an unlikely beginning. His dad was a jack-of-all-trades cowboy who left the Korzick Ranch in Doss to raise his children in San Antonio. But work was hard to find, so each summer they left Texas to labor as pickers in various crop fields in Minnesota. The third-oldest of nine children, Clemente started picking in fifth grade. He remembers that they were lured by the promise of housing, but found none when they arrived, so the family slept out in the open in a city park near downtown. It was cold in the mornings, and three of the kids were still too young to work. Little roofed shelters were their only protection from the rain. The work shifted from sugar beets to kidney beans to peas to cucumbers, depending on the crop production cycle.

“Mom got up at 5 to cook us breakfast, and the smaller kids would bring us lunch, mostly bean tacos,” he recalls. “Working in the field, you’re always together. My dad had a certain pace. We worked even faster so we could break off from family and go way ahead. Tall bean plants would shade us, and when no one could see us, we’d drop down and rest in the coolness, but keep watch for Dad.”

Clemente realized from an early age that his life was different from the lives of the other kids at school. He and his siblings were pulled out of school early and returned late. There was a lot of discrimination against them, but most of his brothers and sisters went to college, and all have good careers.

“I give credit to my mom and dad,” he says. “We were poor and we didn’t have luxuries, but those things don’t matter. I had my mom and dad and my health. A lot of other people don’t have that.”

Clemente discovered his love of art at an early age; his love of wildlife began to develop during his teens. Summers in Minnesota exposed him to that state’s love of the outdoors and the reflection of that love in its renowned wildlife art. He also took notice of his father’s deep respect for the natural world.

Clemente recalls one particular incident that sparked his appreciation and artistic inspiration. When his dad was working on a construction site in San Antonio, a big opossum got in the way of the work. All the other workers were ready to kill it. His dad put a big, thick glove on his arm, and carried the opossum down six stories and out to a pecan grove. The opossum would curl back up to bite him and he would straighten it back down.

“All the workers asked why he didn’t kill it,” Clemente recounts. “He said, ‘Why? It’s a life! Life is beautiful. Animals have a right to live.’ To me that was powerful.”

Clemente is overcome with emotion at the memory, and struggles to regain his composure.

“Thinking about that, all the odds were against him,” he says after a while. “I would probably have killed the animal. All the pressure, the negativity. But he didn’t. To do the right thing, it takes guts.”

Eagle

With that kind of inspiration, Clemente changed the subject matter of his art from hot rods and fancy lettering to wildlife. His first wildlife painting was finished in ninth grade, a sparrow on a branch. He spent his senior year in Minnesota and met an artist who showed him a house full of wildlife paintings. Clemente was hooked and never looked back.

“Painting nature makes me feel real comfortable,” Clemente reflects. “My dad had me paint big portraits, but I never had the feeling for that. I can do it, but I don’t have that spirit. It’s a delight for me to paint wildlife. I get charged up. I get this energy that lasts for weeks. It’s like falling in love with someone, and that’s all you can think about.”

Clemente received a Migrant Council scholarship to attend a two-year college or vocational school. He visited what was then the Mankato Technical Institute in Minnesota and found a commercial art program, but was disappointed to discover that all the spots were filled. He asked the instructor to review his portfolio anyway. Impressed, the teacher moved Clemente to the head of a 75-person waiting list, and a few months later, he was enrolled.

“It was intense,” he says. “I knew how to draw and paint, but I didn’t know how to make money. There I learned how to make an ad, how to do technical illustration, how to draw a tool and make it look good.”

His dad took a $50 Ford Pinto four-door station wagon that was full of rust and weeds and beehives and got it working so Clemente could get back and forth to school. After graduation, Clemente got in that Pinto and headed back to San Antonio, taking a job in daycare and doing a little freelance illustration.

Clemente Guzman

Clemente Guzman at work.

“It never occurred to me to look at Texas Parks and Wildlife,” he recalls. A designer admired his wildlife work and called the agency on Clemente’s behalf. He met with Pris Martin, who was the art director at the time, but she told him there were no openings. Again, as in college, he took a chance and pulled out his portfolio. Again, she was so impressed that she wasted little time and called him a few months later to come work for TPWD in November 1988.

“We all come to conservation through different doorways,” says Lydia Saldaña, recently retired TPWD Communications Division director, who worked with Clemente for almost 24 years. “Clemente’s path to TPWD is a testament to what diversity of background and upbringing brings to the conservation work we are all passionate about. The most important resource we bring to bear in achieving our conservation mission is the human resource of employees like Clemente. His passion for wildlife and his work is evident with every brush stroke, and it inspires us all.”

Back in Clemente’s early days at TPWD, everything was done by hand, and most of Cle­mente’s work consisted of black-and-white illustrations and brochure designs. He got to dabble in color only for stamp artwork and a few guides. The first computer came a few years later, and soon he was free to work in color all the time. These days, he’s learned to incorporate digital photography into his process, and computers are an everyday part of his work. That bison painting featured on the cover was inspired by a digital image taken by Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine staff photographer and colleague Chase Fountain. Clemente used the computer to print out images of details — bison eyes and hooves, hide and horns — to turn the image into an ultra-realistic painting.

He’s been challenged and inspired by the addition of technology, even creating artwork for an agency truck that serves as traveling inspiration for folks across the state who see it drive by. But Clemente never forgets where it all began, so he takes daily hikes in nearby McKinney Falls State Park to keep his perspective.

“Nature inspires me to keep going; that’s why I go walk in the park,” he explains. “I get all pumped up. I look at all the little stuff, like the textures of rock. There’s always a deer or rabbit on the trail. It triggers my imagination. The beauty of nature comes from the light, and the light comes from the creator. If you’re humble and thankful enough, you can absorb that energy. It’s like taking a bath in the light — boom, it comes into you.”

It’s that very humility that makes Clemente shy away from talking about awards, though he’s won plenty of them. He says he prefers to focus on how he’d like to inspire others to protect habitat.

“If we all did our part, using native plants and supplying water, wildlife would thrive,” he says. “We all have creativity and inspiration, but we need to apply wildlife conservation in our business and our everyday life. In everything you do, think about whether it’s going to benefit nature or harm it. I think if you have that in mind, the world is going to balance itself better.”

Clemente has created beautiful wildlife habitat in his own backyard as well, and wants others to do the same. Even after 25 years at TPWD, he feels excited about his work.

“When I see my artwork used in a publication promoting wildlife conservation, man, I get chills,” he says with a smile and an irresistible twinkle in his eye. “I’m honored to paint for the people of Texas. Viva, wildlife conservation!”

bird


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