On January 20, 2020, the Las Vegas arts community lost one if its brightest luminaries. On the following Valentine’s Day, “A Celebration of Life” memorial was held at Alex’s home-away-from-home, the “World-Famous Arts Factory” (a designation he coined for the building he loved). I was honored to speak at the service. Here is an essay based on the tribute I gave:
Photo Credit: Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
It’s hard to describe what a loss like Alex Huerta feels like. I think many of us still can’t believe it. It feels impossible to lose someone so central to the landscape of so many of our lives. There’s nothing that can take his place or fill his void.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me their own version of the same exact story: “Alex was the first person I met in Vegas.”; “Alex was my first friend in the Arts Factory,”; “Alex made me feel welcome as I was starting my art career.” …and on and on. Apparently like so many others, Alex was one of the first people I met when I moved to Vegas 15 years ago. I saw his art career begin and then over the years, I saw it blossom.
I watched him begin to experiment with bodypainting, and when I saw he was using acrylic paints on skin, I got MAC cosmetics to donate a full palette of their professional Chromacakes to him. When I heard those bodypaints were stolen just a few weeks later, I gave him another full set from my own kit. He felt uncomfortable accepting this help twice, so he surprised me by gifting me with the extravagant gift of what he told me was his very first oil painting, which I still have. Since then we became great friends, showing our artwork together, sharing art opportunities and supporting each other in ways big and small.
Since my son was little, Alex’s studio was a main stop every time we visited the Arts Factory. Just walking into the building would prompt Leo to instruct: “Let’s go see Alex,” because he was almost always there! He always had a hug for Leo, as well as some awful, stale bazooka bubblegum with terrible jokes inside. He would patiently answer all Leo’s questions as my kid curiously engaged with any new artwork Alex had made. The day after he died, many of us just naturally gravitated back to his studio, pulled by the power of his memory and our need to come together in our grief. Candles were lit, stories were told, my husband ran out to get Cane’s chicken for everyone, and an impromptu memorial sprang up among friends and relatives. Alex’s sister Roberta told my son Leo – “Oh, you’re Leo! Alex talked about you all the time!” and my son’s eyes lit up at the acknowledgement. He knew that Alex loved him, but it was great to hear it confirmed. Because it’s not often we get to confirm to our loved ones how much they really mean to us.
I feel particularly grateful that one week before he died, I was able to do just that: tell Alex how much he meant to me and the whole Arts Community.
My company Skin City was hosting a group of students from South Korea for bodypainting classes. I organized a tour of the Arts District as an activity after one day of class. Of course, the three powerful little art studios in the Southeast corner of the building had to be a stop: Dray, PeaceNart (Alex’s studio) and 3 BAAAD Sheep (the studio of his collective with Alexander Sky and Eddie Canumay). They opened their doors to us and I got to introduce the artists to the class through a translator. I described what a great friend Alex has been to me and so many in the Arts District. I got to praise his talents as an artist and arts mentor – and I got to say all of this in front of him. At one point, I described him as the “Arts Factory OG” – and the Korean translator just looked at me, naturally confused. I put both hands over my heart and re-phrased: “Alex is the beating heart of this building, and of this whole neighborhood.” Once this was repeated to the students in Korean, they all reacted with a group, “Awwwww!” and looked at him with such sweet, adoring faces that he laughed out loud. I will cherish that memory, and I’m so grateful for the chance I had to tell a friend how important he is to so many.
That same night, when we were arriving to the Arts Factory, I was given the gift of a final vision of Alex in all his glory, just one week before he left us. We were walking across Charleston Blvd to approach the building and I texted Alex to open the side door so we could climb up the metal fire escape stairs, to go directly to his studio. As we walked towards the building, he came out on the stairway landing and greeted us, his arm waving over his head, smiling. He looked so adorable and somehow so regal that we all stopped to wave back, the students yelling greetings in Korean. This for some reason made me laugh, and it wasn’t just me. These foreign students, all on their very first trip to the USA to explore American culture, were also struck enough to stop and laugh with me while we all took in this picture of Alex together. The sun was setting, the freshly-painted, multi-colored stripes of the Arts Factory building he loved so much were glowing, and Alex looked so happy. I remember thinking “Damn, look at Alex! He really is the Prince of this Arts Castle, out on his balcony greeting his kingdom.” It was so perfect, it just made me happy. Alex made so many of us feel happy – made us feel pride in our community and in each other.
If I can leave you with any message today it is this: tell your friends how you feel, hold their hugs a little longer, forgive each other, support each other. Find “peace in art” and in each other. It is what Alex would have wanted for all of us.
Portrait of Alex by Clarice Tara & friends
Photo by Steven Horlock
If you’d like to know more about Alex, NPR honored him with a beautifully written piece by Kristen Peterson.
And you can read Alex Huerta’s Obituary in the Las Vegas Weekly.