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Born to create

A young painter expresses deep thoughts in a big way, and hopes his results get others talking and thinking.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002

It's not easy to make it as an artist.

But Alex Espalter-Torres, 29, has no choice.

It's in his blood.

Torres comes from a long line of artists. Joaquim Espalter, an ancestor on his father's side, was a well-known portraitist in 19th century Spain. A great-aunt on his mother's side painted as hobby, and his mother, Elsa Torres, who works for the Hillsborough County public libraries, paints landscapes in her spare time.

Torres says his father, Julio Torres, a machinist, also produces works of art: In the process of creating machinery, he gives metal form.

"Really what I'm doing is no different," Torres says.

In fact, when Torres was in school at Hillsborough Community College, he produced a lot of sculptures and mixed-media works using scrap metal.

Today, he works in two distinct styles. His color fields often evoke landscapes, but for the most part are large canvases covered with horizontal blocks of color that blend into each other. They pay clear homage to one of his inspirations, painter Mark Rothko.

The Death of Prometheus, named for the Greek God who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans, transforms from a brilliant orange at the top to an almost-black at the bottom. Ars Moriendi blends from white at the top to deep brown at the bottom. Both paintings bear Torres' signature drips and depth achieved with thick layers of oil paint.

His representational pieces, executed in pencil with hints of red, explore social and religious issues and usually include text.

He hung two in his studio for a recent open house at Gallery 1906, an artists collective in a renovated cigar factory on Armenia Avenue just north of Interstate 275.

Shepherd's Supper shows church leaders in one corner and pigs on meat hooks that blend into naked bodies.

The work is not intended specifically as an attack on the church, Torres says. He was an altar boy at St. Lawrence Church and still considers himself religious. But he wanted to make a comment about temptation and hypocrisy in general.

"Any great empire that's done good has also done evil," he says.

An Affirmation for Velazquez offers commentary on the universal impact of Jesus. Torres created the piece after seeing a painting of the crucifixion by 16th century painter Diego Velazquez while traveling in Spain. The beauty of the painting moved him more than its religious iconography, Torres says. Nonetheless, his drawing includes Torres' own rumination on Christ.

"I am a Jew, a Muslim, a pagan, a gentile, a prophet, a hunter, a healer, a human, a deity and a martyr," reads one line.

The passage ends with: "Who do you believe I am?"

Such statements could be made about any religious figure who left a mark on the world, Torres says.

What he likes about both drawings is that they get people talking.

"The better art should get you to interact with yourself and others," he says. "It's a visual language."

Artists, Torres says, are "writing with pictures, investigating yourself, society, what you see."

All of Torres' art is big. Few pieces are smaller than 3 by 4 feet, and many are more than 5 by 8 feet. He often spends a month on one painting, and some have been works in progress for a year.

Torres prefers to maintain total control of his work. He stretches his own canvasses and often even grinds his own pigments to give his oil paints the exact color he desires.

"When I'm painting and a couple of hours have gone by and the music is loud and I'm working in my studio, it's great. I feel total elation," he says.

His music collection is as eclectic as he is. Mozart and Bach share space with Tool, Dave Matthews, Enya and David Bowie. He loves his two poodles, and for fun plays ice hockey. He reads voraciously about all kinds of history.

He sells his artwork, but to help pay the bills drives the Zamboni at Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

"I'm just kind of going for it right now," he says. "This is the path I chose and it's the one I'm sticking with."

Alex Espalter-Torres

  • AGE: 29
  • PASSION: Painting
  • HOW HE PAYS BILLS: He drives the Zamboni at Ice Sports Forum in Brandon
  • PREVIOUS JOB: Shelving books at the public library
  • AMONG HIS TATTOOS: Michelangelo's Creation of Adam
  • HOW HE UNWINDS: Playing ice hockey in an amateur league
  • PARENTS: Cuban immigrants Elsa and Julio Torres
  • PETS: Two poodles, Shadow and Harley
  • GIRLFRIEND: Julie Camper, office worker
  • LENGTH OF SECOND DATE: 1-1/2 years and counting

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