Artist Alex Rubio's portraits chronicle the life's struggle of a burn victim

The muse for Alex Rubio's most recent work sought out the painter at his West Side studio. Omar Ali Oyervides was drawn to Rubio because he saw himself in his paintings, recognizing his own burned flesh in their thick texture and melting lines. Oyervides shared this with Rubio and told him about the accident that left more than half of his body burned when he was 4 months old.

"Immediately, this image came to mind of a child, an infant on fire. I wanted to learn more about this child's story," says Rubio. The accident happened on an Eagle Pass highway in 1975, when a butane rig lost control, veered off the road, and exploded. Its tank rocketed into a nearby trailer park, where it hit only two homes, those owned by Oyervides' mother and grandmother. The explosion destroyed one building and 51 vehicles, killing 17 people and injuring 521. Oyervides was airlifted to Wilford Hall in San Antonio, and later to Shriners Burn Institute in Galveston, along with a toddler who later died.

Oyervides' tale of survival is captured in Rubio's installation piece entitled El Luchador. The name can mean "fighter" or "wrestler" - a play on words referring to both Oyervides' life struggle and the name-calling he endured as a

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child. For four years, Oyervides had to wear a pressure body suit, mask, and mitts that reduced the swelling and scarring caused by his burns. The outfit, which revealed only his eyes, nose, and mouth, earned Oyervides the monikers Hijo de Santos and Mil Máscaras, names of actual Mexican wrestlers from his childhood.

Rubio uses these cruel names, along with others like Freddy Krueger, Pan Tostada, and Nightmare, to title a series of photos taken by hospital staff during Oyervides' infancy and childhood. (His medical file grew so thick that doctors called it "the Bible," and used it as a reference for treating other young burn victims.) The photographs reveal not only a progression in age, but an emotional maturation evident in Oyervides' eyes, which remain his most recognizable feature, as his demeanor changed from traumatized to content.

"In the series of portraits, I'm documenting his flesh growing around the scars. The titles are documenting the emotional scars left by friends and strangers and their words," explains Rubio.

Omar Ali Oyervides as a child

Along with the photos, Rubio is displaying Oyervides' protective outfits in shadow boxes, as well as old news clippings detailing the accident. Rubio has also created five new paintings for the installation, the centerpiece of which is a portrait of Oyervides depicted as a burning baby. The infant's flesh is drawn in Rubio's trademark style of rolls and arches that resemble fingerprints. His wrinkled skin seems to move on the canvas and peels off into violent flames of blue and bright orange.

This untitled piece is flanked by two hearts, Espíritu and El Corazón de Justicia y Injusticia. Both hearts are drawn anatomically correct, their individual parts labeled with numbers that correspond to a legend of quotes. For Espíritu, Rubio obtained quotes from 12 spiritual leaders in San Antonio; he chose this number for the religious significance of Jesus' 12 disciples. Thirteen local lawyers, judges, organizers, and "other luchadores" provide the quotes for El Corazón, offering their personal views on the concepts of justice and injustice.

None of the individuals cited in Rubio's paintings knew about the installation's central figure when they offered their thoughts - none except Oyervides, who contributed this quote for El Corazón:

"It makes me proud to see the kids who teased me when I was young now explain to their kids what happed to me. They remember how cruel they were, and I would rather them tell their kids that it's wrong to point and stare, rather than offer overdue apologies." •


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