When Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson declared Jan. 26, 2022, Octavio Medellín Day, he honored the artist whose fingerprints are all over North Texas.
The Dallas Museum of Art continues this celebration with Octavio Medellín: spirit and forman exhibit exploring his influence on the Texas art scene through his art and teaching.
“Octavio Medellín was a great artist and a very influential mentor and an exemplary citizen of Dallas,” said Dr. Agustin Arteaga, museum director Eugene McDermott.
Presenting around 80 works, the exhibition is on view until January 15.
“Medellín believed that each material had a unique soul that should guide artists as they shaped their ideas,” said Dr. Mark A. Castro, Curator of Latin Art Jorge Baldor and Curator of the exhibition. “At the same time, he felt that compelling art drew on the artists’ strengths in the mind, instilled into the work during creation. For Medellín, it’s the blending of form and that intangible spirit which gave art the power to move hearts and minds.”
Born in Matehuala, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, the family from Medellín immigrated to San Antonio in 1920 to escape the uncertainty that followed the Mexican Revolution. When he briefly studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, he focused on painting.
“He learned to carve on his own. I think he probably had a lot of lessons at home,” Castro said. “He said he had just experimented. He found his voice on his own.
He returned to Mexico City after hearing about the thriving art scene and meeting some of the most important artists of Mexican modernism.
He traveled the countryside along the Gulf Coast, meeting craftsmen working in rural areas.
Upon his return to San Antonio, he began creating sculptures in wood, clay, and stone.
The spirit of revolutioncrafted from Texas limestone in 1932, reflects the complexities of history.
“He thinks back to the Mexican Revolution, which had such a crucial impact on his life but also on the direction the country is taking, now ten years after that conflict,” Castro said.
The sculpture features three allegorical figures: a soldier, representing those who fight for freedom; a serpent, representing ancient heritage; and a woman with her arms raised in blessing, representing the impact of Catholicism and Europeanism. The three figures intertwine, suggesting a complex national identity.
“What I love about this job is that it’s a real tangle of relationships,” Castro said. “He understood how messy history is.”
The hanged man is one of the outstanding works of Medellín. The figure with a noose around his neck was a common sight during his childhood in Mexico.
“For him, it was a memory,” Castro said. The work also evokes the lynching of minority men during the Jim Crow era of his adopted country.
The iconic imagery of The hanged man appears in The history of Mexicoa column carved from Honduran red mahogany fluidly representing the nation’s ancient era, the Spanish conquest, the Mexican Revolution and Reconstruction.
“It’s amazing work because it really invites your participation. You have to walk around it to really see it,” Castro said. “It also evokes Mexican murals with this idea of moving through a space to tell a story.”
Medellín’s work caught the eye of art patron Lucy Maverick. She paid his salary so he could focus solely on art, and she supported his 1938 trip to Yucatán to study the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. The journey inspired drawings, prints and decorative objects.
Although his works became more abstract in his later career and he experimented with mediums such as printmaking, pottery, mosaic and stained glass, Medellín returned to the motifs he encountered on this trip.
“It was that time in his life that he talked about frequently and that kept affecting his work,” Castro said.
Medellín taught throughout his career, leaving a living legacy of artists. He taught at the North Texas State Teacher’s College (now the University of North Texas) and at SMU. In 1945 he began his 21-year tenure at the school of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. He opened the Octavio Medellín School of Sculpture in Oak Cliff in 1966. The school is now called the Creative Arts Center and is located in East Dallas.
More than 20 years after his death, Medellín is considered a beloved mentor and guide.
“Every former colleague, peer, or student I’ve met has a story of when Octavio Medellín inspired or challenged them, pushing them to grow and find their artistic voice,” Castro said.
This exhibition also highlights the public works of Medellín with preparatory drawings and photographs from the artist’s personal archive. Among the color drawings of the completed works is a proposal rejected by a local Episcopal church. The designs included a note explaining why the church had not moved forward with the concept of Medellín’s candlesticks and baptismal font.
“They didn’t like it to be so, like they said, airy, not solid enough and not traditional enough,” Castro said. “And they were very clear that they felt he was uncompromising. You start to see those times where he really chooses to keep his directors on the way he wants to work.
Medellín’s public works are still part of daily life for Texans: the mosaic murals of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Clairvaux near White Rock Lake; the fused glass window of the Austin University Catholic Center; and a series of fused glass windows salvaged from the now-demolished Trinity Lutheran Church in Dallas, which are now installed at Moody Performance Hall and Love Field Airport.
“They are literally part of our community, bringing people joy, offering comfort and enriching their daily lives,” Castro said.
Learn more at https://dma.org/art/exhibitions/octavio-medellin-spirit-and-form.