La Verne Magazine
Spring 2003

Touching Lives With Art

by Terry Birdsall
photography by Liz Lucsko

Painting the finishing touches on the Fairplex's archangel in the Millard Sheets Gallery on the last day of the Los Angeles County Fair, Sept. 29, 2002, Alex Zegouvia answers questions poised to him as he paints the words "unity" and "diversity" on the outer edge of the life-sized sculpture's wings.

He quietly touches people's hearts and souls as he creates each masterpiece on his favorite canvas-walls. His friendly smile and gentle voice are reassuring and pleasing to anyone who meets him. One feels a sense of calmness in his presence as he uses pieces of special drawing charcoal to create meaningful pieces.

Most people call him the "angel maker."

For 12 years, Alex Zegouvia, of Claremont, continues to draw falling angels. He says he is not a religious man, but he does believe in God. He chose the symbol of the angel because it stands for goodness. "In every religion and every culture, there is a representation of an angel," says Alex. "The falling angel is about choices." He draws the angel floating in different directions to allow the viewer to decide whether it is falling or rising. Many people have tried to guess the name of the angel, but he insists no one will-at least not while he is alive. The only clue he gives is that the angel is male.

Alex used to tag angels on walls in downtown Los Angeles. He would bring a Coleman lantern with him so he could see, making sure he finished by sunrise. He drew the angel with willow and vine charcoal that would dissolve in the wind and rain over two to three weeks so he would not cause permanent damage. "I wanted people to see it and watch it go away," Alex says. His favorite wall to paint was on the Southern California Edison Co. building in downtown Los Angeles on Fourth Street, where prying eyes could not see. Sometimes police officers would see what he was doing. When the officers saw he was not defacing property, they would come back and check on him. Some would even offer to bring him coffee. One time in 1995, a police officer watched with tears as he drew the angel on the Edison Building. Alex did not say anything, however, because he wanted to finish by sunrise. Over time, he would witness that the angel provoked emotions and positive changes in people. Alex remembers the homeless people and drug addicts on the street. Some would return, no longer tattered and torn, to tell him how the angel inspired them to get better. "It was an interesting experience, because people would come back and see me," he says.

The falling angel has been a theme that Alex eventually worked into his art. He did a series of four etchings in 1997-'98 called "Guardian Angel 1-4." The series is a statement of an observation, "self-realization through self-destruction" inspired by watching good people dear to him go through difficult times. Alex says he had to stop after the fourth one because it was beginning to affect him psychologically. It scared him, he admits. His philosophy about life is to "remain in shallow waters but fathom the depths-to walk gently and know that each step is a choice."

Alex's passion for art developed early. He was born and reared in the Philippines by his grandparents, who were both visual artists. "I took what my grandparents told me, and I ran with it," he says. His grandmother, a parochial teacher, told Alex he had the hands of an artist. Before he was 6 years old, she introduced him to art materials. "The other kids got to play with Play-Doh. I got to play with clay," says Alex. His grandfather was a photojournalist who had his own portrait studio. Alex worked with him in his studio, retouching black and white photographs with pencil. They did hand coloring with oil colors using very fine Q-tips, which they made themselves. His grandfather also taught him about photo processing, including sepia toning. "I used to get walnut brown fingernails from the fixer and the sepia wash," Alex remembers.

Although his love for art began in the Philippines, all of his accomplishments would be as an American. Naturalized in 1984, Alex is proud of his new heritage and artistic accomplishments. However, when he first came to the United States at 13 to rejoin his family, his parents had other ideas for him. Alex's parents wanted him to become a doctor, a tradition of many Filipino families. So, he worked hard in high school to please them by learning electronics and keeping up with his art in the process. After graduating, Alex undertook two years of college in the biomedical science program at University of California, Riverside. His professors told him that he would have a great future in neurology or as a surgeon because he was good with his hands. But his interests were elsewhere. In 1987, he left school to pursue the love of his life-art.

Alex chose to work and study in a variety of places: Los Angeles, New York, Barcelona and other parts of Europe. After traveling abroad, he moved to Venice, Calif., where he worked before moving to Pomona. He was quickly elected as director of the Southern California Arts (SCA) Gallery, where he served from March 2001 to February 2002. During his term, he was curator and did the installation for a show called "Desires Erotique A Fetish To Love ­ Or To My Valentine." The show was considered a big success because it brought in artists from the Los Angeles area. In the summer of 2002, the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts invited him to be the guest artist in the Youth Theater Workshop through the California State Polytechnic University Downtown Center for the Arts and city of Pomona Parks and Recreation. There, he displayed a copy of a new design of an angel. Only, this time, the angel was not present in the design. Instead, it was the canvas for the design.

Alex entered an angel design in the artist competition held at the Millard Sheets Gallery to paint a "divinely inspired" life size angel canvas during the 2002 Los Angeles County Fair, held Sept. 13-29. His angel was especially selected and purchased to support "A Community of Angels," a public art project in Los Angeles that provides money to youth programs. "It was really difficult to choose the artist because all the designs were really different from each other," says Christy Johnson, curator for Millard Sheets Gallery. "I liked this artist's boldness and theme. It showed the artist was professional." Gallery officials were searching for an artist to design the angel while fairgoers passed through the museum. The criteria for selection were how the design could be viewed from a distance, how it related to the shape of the angel, and how it related to the theme. Alex's design was especially selected.

Alex was honored and grateful for the opportunity to address a topic so near to many Americans' thoughts one year after the attacks on U.S. soil-"our oneness as Americans," he says. The design features an American flag rippling diagonally across the front of the canvas, with flags from six other countries intermingled and flowing from it. The outer edge of the angel's wings is painted in gold with the words "Unity and Diversity" in black type repeated in a continual pattern.

"With this Fair Angel of Unity and Diversity, I invite [people] to remember the direful tragedy that occurred in New York last year, and never forget that in the strength of our cultural diversity; we will move forward as one America we remain united. Work together, listen to one another, support each other and learn together."Alex feels that art is about fairness. "It's a balance between the viewer and the object and the artist is in the middle creating it," he says. "Lots of people came to the Fair looking for me," he says. "They saw the TV show, "Inside the Inland Valley"explaining I would be here." He says he really enjoyed the experience. He talked to many children and shared how the painting process works-"similar to coloring in a coloring book."

One wonders whether he really is a messenger sent by God. Both Alex's work and his presence have an amazing affect on people. He relates a funny experience: "Two nuns motioned me down from the ladder one day while I was painting and asked me, 'Would you remove your hat?' And, when I did, they said, 'Oh, that's where your halo is.' "

The Fair Angel of Unity and Diversity was loaned to a dedicated angel exhibit called "Angels Upstairs," in Pomona's antique row. Terry Lynn Taylor, writer of eight popular books on angel consciousness, including, "The Alchemy of Prayer," curated the exhibit. "Alex is an incredible artist, he's the real thing," Taylor says. "He's good at getting a message out of unity ­ a spiritual message ­ acceptable to everyone." She says the beauty of Alex's art is that "people can pick up a real sense of spiritual and unity, but it's not forced on them." Alex says he puts certain queues in his pieces that evoke feelings in people about themselves. People who have purchased prints of his etchings share their feelings in response to the queues. "If you look slowly into the Guardian 1 angel etching and study it, the message becomes apparent," Alex explains.

As for settling down, he does not plan to for a while. "My ideal nirvana is a small house in the middle of lots of land and all around are sunflowers." For now, Alex is enjoying the journey. He says, "Art is a way of life; it's how you tread gently in everything you do."