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Donkeys and Pandas and Apples, Oh My

Vienna man creates for public and himself.

Tim Allen found it was best to have faith in his friend. When Gus Garcia, a Vienna-area artist, was helping remodel Allen’s kitchen, he was skeptical at first. "He was putting on the paint," Allen said, "The very first stripe, I hated it."

He gave Garcia some leeway and waited. It took until almost the very end of the project before Allen could see how Garcia’s vision would materialize, but he was finally happy with the result. "It was amazing, the transformation he did," Allen said.

Garcia was born in Cuba. "I remember growing up, one of the big things was to have my own baseball glove, store bought," Garcia said. His family came to the United States in 1967 during the "Air Bridge" program. His parents had submitted an application to leave, and they waited to hear back. Those who were permitted to leave would be given only a few days notice before they would be put on a plane to Miami. "You were only allowed to take one suitcase per person," he said.

After landing, Garcia and his family stayed in a place called the House of Liberty in Miami for 25 days, before being sponsored by a church in Grand Rapids, Mich. The family moved there, and Garcia began to show his penchant for creating.

His mother would hand him coloring books, but they were too constraining for the young artist. "I wanted just paper. I wanted to draw," he said. He attended Kendall College of Design in Grand Rapids before moving out on his own, working for an agency developing advertising graphics. He still works in ad design now with Hechts, but he is hoping to be able to live from his other art. "I’ve always seen my life as having long-term goals and short-term goals. I’ve known that as I get older, I’ve just wanted to focus just on my art."

IN THE PAST few years, Garcia has participated in Washington’s public art projects, "Party Animals," decorated donkeys and elephants, symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, and "Pandemonium," decorated panda bears. More recently, he’s worked on a similar theme for New York City, developing an apple for a project there.

When Garcia develops ideas for these, he tries to incorporate the city into the art. "How does that piece fit with that city. The things are somewhat symbols of the city already," he said.

His Party Animal was a donkey, which showed politicians preaching the evils of drug use and then sneaking off for a toke, something that caught the eye of the selectors for the project. "We were basically looking for artwork that was dynamic," said Alexandra MacMaster, who was the person in charge of choosing the artists for the projects in Washington. "He has a playful side to what he paints. There’s a little more to it than what it seems," she said.

Garcia was very nonpartisan in his proposals. He had also designed an elephant that wasn’t flattering to Republicans. "In all cases, they [the designs] slammed the Party."

For the Panda, Garcia first cut it in half. He then reattached each half to what looked like a giant stamp. One side he painted with symbols of the United States, the other side honored China, the nation where the endangered bears are native. "The panda was all about what it means to the citizens. There really isn’t a political side, or any kind of message."

In the apple, Garcia's most recent project, he has designed the image of a city skyline. As the viewer circles the apple, he notices the city being alternately destroyed and rebuilt. "That’s really what New York is about," Garcia said. "It’s really about the city rethinking itself and making itself better. It’s really a metaphor for the country itself." All of his public artworks have been bought by private collectors.

GARCIA CONTINUES to work on smaller projects as well. He focuses on Illustration, murals and painting. "I’ve always wanted to have an outlet for my own personal creative ideas," he said.

Allen, who is familiar with Garcia's work, finds himself constantly surprised by his art. "The stuff he does always amazes me," he said. "Every time you think, ‘That’s so cool. How can you top that?’"

Garcia tries to vary his medium, sometimes working in acrylic, sometimes in oils, sometimes in other forms. His style, however, he believes he has finalized. Like many artists, now that he has developed one way of working, he is starting to try new styles. "For the longest time, I kept my own style. Now that I own it, I’m branching out in different looks."

He advises younger artists to do the same. "Talent separates good from great," Garcia said. While the mechanical techniques may come easier to more talented artists, they are not inaccessible to those who may be less talented. "You’ve got to commit yourself to art," he said. "You’ve got to work at it."

Like many artists working in different forms, Garcia advises that those who are starting in their path just keep working. "It doesn’t matter what you put in it. It matters that you keep something going."