Jesus Arrue has the city of Valencia in his DNA. From the wrong side of the tracks, he overcame a poor but happy background, thanks to his wonderful family, and now includes Madonna among his stellar roster of clients. Eugene Costello met him at his studio in El Carmen…
Jesus Arrue is a true son of Valencia, an artist from a very humble background who has achieved international success, and now numbers Madonna among his clients. I visit him at his studio in El Carmen; he could not be more welcoming.
His story is one from the wrong side of the tracks, an inspirational one. We have allocated 20 minutes for the interview, and already his PR adviser is twitching; we end up taking an hour and a half.
He couldn’t be more open. “When I was a child, we lived in a very poor neighbourhood, the old Barrio Chino near Mercat Central, which was in those days full of prostitutes, drugs and despair – I loved it,” he says. “I grew up in that environment. We lived on the fourth floor of an apartment block, a finca, which my parents still live in to this day.”
He has six siblings, he tells me, two of whom became police officers, the oldest and the youngest. He remembers the barrio with great affection. He says this with a wistful smile.
They were poor, but happy, he discloses. “Dad was a construction worker and later a carpenter, while my mother was a cleaner,” he confides. It was a hard, tough life for her, raising six kids on minimum wage, he admits, and usually by herself because his dad was usually working.
“All of us siblings had an artistic outlook,” he tells me. “We all used to paint all over the pavements and walls of the neighbourhood with paints and crayons. There was a prostitute who was always on the same corner, an older lady.”
He found it strange, he says, because she had her family elsewhere, and would take a bus to the barrio to take up a position on her corner. She would arrive in civilian clothes, says Arrue, then change into a short skirt and a blouse showing off her “ample bosom”. They would see her when they got back from school or were on their way to the market, he explains: “We would always say hi, and she would always say hi back.”
And as she always saw them painting, explains Arrue, one day when he was still a young child, she called him over and gave him a box of sketching pencils and a sketchpad. He drew a picture of her, and gave it to her. As Arrue grew up, he became a graffiti artist, he says, and worked all over El Carmen: “I had a huge depiction of Bowie on Calle Benificencia,” he says.
“One day when Arrue was still a young child, a street prostitute on the corner opposite his building called him over and gave him a box of sketching pencils and a sketchpad. He drew a picture of her, and gave it to her…”
Growing up in those difficult circumstances, he says, encouraged their artistic vein: “We didn’t have toys, our parents couldn’t afford them. So we made our own fun. To the point that when Fallas was on, we would make fallas ninots (puppets), mini-ones, of course, out of plasticine, and we would display them on the street to either sell or so that they would leave us a few coins.”
In fact, they had their own competition among themselves to see whose was best, he says.
Arrue explains: “Out of the six siblings, two of us have become professional artists, although all of us are artistic, and that comes from my dad’s dad, and my dad himself. We are a very close family, almost like a gypsy family, where we all support each other. It has been tough not seeing them throughout the pandemic.”
He tells me, he has worked at everything, even cleaning staircases and stairwells with his mum, while studying psychology. He is from a very humble background, and proud of it. There is an art school here that specialises in arts and crafts that he also attended, he tells me, but he didn’t finish either because he got sucked into Valencia’s nightlife scene.
“I needed to make money to pay my bills,” he explains, “so between the nightlife jobs and as a shop assistant in a clothing store, I had no time to study.”
“But my art was never left behind, it was always parallel to whatever else I was doing. I only need four hours’ sleep each night and I always had some kind of little studio for doing my art after working each night.”
He used to paint to order for commissions to make sure money kept coming in, he says, adding that he had no life and that he worked all day during the week and came home back to paint. At weekends, he worked all weekend in bars and clubs – and still found time for his art.
“My success came slowly,” he says modestly, “but it was all word of mouth until I hit the big time. I am now 47 and at the age of 40 I took the crazy decision to give up all my paid work and take the gamble of opening a studio to dedicate myself to my art full-time.”
He got really lucky, insofar as he points out, “as I am surrounded by amazing people from my family and my network who are my support team.”
He used to just about survive by painting and then a miracle happened, in his words – he sold a piece to Alejandro Sanz [the famous Spanish singer] and everything flowed from there. And his Instagram account helped him to push the whole thing forward even further until he sold one to Madonna [in August 2020]: “Madonna and Bowie are always present in my work,” he says with pride.
I ask him about the Madonna story: “It was weird because I received a private message via Instagram from one of Madonna’s dancers,” he discloses, “and a personal trainer was telling me that Madonna was right next to her, and she loved the portrait of Madonna on my Instagram.
“I didn’t believe it so I ignored it at first. Then a couple of days later, in the middle of the night our time, she messaged again, and said, ‘Right, I’m here with Madonna, she wants to buy the painting.’
“I said, “Excuse me?”, which I got via Google Translate, and then Madonna spoke to confirm she wanted it. And then – this was August 2020 – they came back to confirm they wanted to buy it. Madonna! Imagine!”
To Arrue, reproducing a picture or a photo strictly as it is – “hiperrealismo” – does not work; as he says, “in the end, it would be just a copy”.
He explains: “I use images to build upon them, but I don’t copy them”. The same happens with his visions, he interprets them in “his own way”, he said as he shows us one of his favourites pieces, a prostitute tormented about guilt about her vices after a night full of excess: “This is a portrait of the mental shower you take the next day,” he says, sadly. It’s not a real person, he explains, but an amalgamation.
He explains: “Sometimes, I work from my imagination. One of my favourite pieces over there is one that came out of my head, the woman in torment.”
“It is the aftermath of the excess and torment of drugs, vice and sex, it is a study in guilt based on personal experience. I worked in clubs as a go-go dancer and this was inspired by some of my colleagues, women who were beautiful on the outside but in torment within.”
This piece in particular reminds him of the prostitute who first helped him, he says, and of night shifts in bars, as a dancer, bar-tendering, and cleaning tables. While we admire his artwork, we look for a seat to relax and chat further.
The room is filled with incredible pieces, and he tells us that his full collection is currently dispersed around the world, with shows in London, Madrid, Pamplona, Santander and that he has also exhibited in such far-flung sites as Vancouver, Hong Kong, Shanghai, not just Valencia.
I ask him, what is his view on the painting local scene in Valencia today.
“The city of Valencia was – and is today – the cradle of many amazing artists, so I feel that the Ayuntamiento, associations and so on should promote or invest much more on the artisans of this craft,” he says with passion.
He recalls that he painted a menina in Madrid and won an award for his work: “To this day, no governmental Valencian offices have purchased one,” he says, sadly. “All of my success has been due to hard work, but with no local recognition.”
His husband works as the administrative officer of his business, and after his success with Madonna, I ask if he decided to increase the prices of his work, as many artists would. He tells me no.
I ask whether I could afford one of his pieces. He laughs, and says: “It depends on the size of the piece, obviously!”
He points out that, in his line of work, you can sell five paintings one day, and none for months.
We conclude with Arrue telling me: “This is a family business. My husband runs it, my brother-in-law looks after it and I only care about spending time with my family. I am Valencian and proud of it.”
I finish by asking him: “Pensat i fet?”
He laughs uproariously, and places his hands on my shoulders: “Sí, es así! Pensat i fet, Eugenio!”
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