It's the fortunate teenager who will come across this beautifully produced art book and its subject, self-taught folk artist Nicholas Herrera. Not only does Herrera describe his process, inspirations, and technique, but he speaks frankly about his wild youth, bad behavior, and the consequences thereof.
Using found materials, including parts of cars and motorcycles, he creates vivid sculptures full of drama and danger. His paintings are brilliantly colored, adorned with the violent imagery of Catholicism: flames, thorny hearts, daggers, and martyred saints. Whether cautioning the viewer against such vices as alcohol and drug use; calling attention to situations that Herrera finds unjust; or telling stories from his own life and the lives of his friends, the work is strong, masculine, and attention-grabbing.
Herrera's vocabulary and sentence structure are simple and declarative, matching the strong colors and blocky shapes of the art. Copious photographs of Herrera, his work, his surroundings and the people who have influenced him keep the book grounded in the real world. The book's weak spot - not an important one - is its organization, which jumps from Herrera's beliefs about water rights, his love of automobiles, and his daughter, for example, with no transitions in between and no section heads.
One instance of mild profanity and frank mentions of drug use should not keep this exceptional book out of the high school library, especially in schools with a strong art program, any manner of focus on traditional and traditionally-inspired art, or Latino students.
This art declares itself to be relevant and attainable, both in meaning and in execution - it practically dares the viewer to find a paintbrush or a welding rig and make some art that shouts. This book allows us to hear the artist's voice, too, calmly narrating his unlikely path and making it plain that if you have something to say, this is a good way to do it.
Adapted from a review originally published in School Library Journal.