My first impression of Max Carlos Martinez was made over a dinner with several artists and writers hosted by a mutual friend.
Max was blunt and honest in a languid, French impressionist sort of way, and I bristled immediately at what I mistook for condescension. I was about 19 at the time, and Max was in his 50s—an older, gay, Albuquerque-born painter who so casually accepted me into his circle that I completely missed it. What was actually offered (implicit friendship) was lost someplace between his dry sense of humor and wit. I thought he was condescending, yet I felt I needed to prove myself to this older, relaxed man who was at once so incredibly New Mexican, but who seemed to ooze a kind of worldliness. Max invited me to what would later be called the El Zaguan Salons, but at the start, was merely a gathering of artists and writers who’d drink and talk late into the night at his home; the feeling was always of 1920s Paris. And though he rarely left his studio, Max was magnetic to creatives, and he plucked people he liked from their spaces, inserting them into his world.
Max lived at El Zaguan for ages, and it felt very natural to walk to his casita, a stone path heavily draped with vines and flowers and looming branches. Walking up to his door felt like something out of a different time and place entirely. It never felt like the same season. Walking into Max’s home meant heavy white walls adorned with his own paintings—the flashes of electric blue that pervaded his work and for which he was so well-known splashed on small pieces of heavy paper, artfully arranged, leading to the man himself. I’d usually find him standing before a piece of flat wood maybe 10 feet tall, coated in brush strokes that constantly shifted from visit to visit. There, he would tape up paper like some kind of massive easel combined with a painting in its own right. He always seemed to be bathed in the sunlight that poured in from the window, and turning to greet whoever was there to see him was both a well needed interruption from his hours of work, and also an impediment his progress. Max would wake up and start painting every single day. He’d stop and start as we sat down to chat over drinks.
As a kid, I left a volatile home behind and was bullied at school for being queer and emotionally unstable. Later, I left the now-closed Santa Fe University of Art & Design due to family tragedy, only to watch the school literally go down in flames when barracks on the campus caught fire. By the time I met Max, I was ready to fight anyone for any reason; I was more than ready to defend my art and identity and anything else if need be, and it wasn’t until he invited me to hang one of my paintings on the wall next to his own that it dawned on me—I didn’t need to fight for Max’s respect at all. I already had it.
His respect and friendship had put us on equal ground from the start, something I’d never experienced with someone I respected and looked up to so much/ Max, a powerhouse artist with a bright, sharp, dreamy mind, was a person you’d meet and never forget. As our friendship grew, I came to understand how much loss and strife had come with his identity as a young, gay Chicano in Albuquerque in the ’60s and ’70s: He survived the AIDS crisis while living in New York during the ’80s; he became a driven, self-made artist who, by his own description, once sold a painting for a pack of cigarettes when he was in his 20s. As a man who occupied a space that was Chicano, American, gay and working artist, Max passed on a lot of struggle and tragedy in casual jokes, but very often seemed to be preoccupied and dreaming, somewhere else, except for moments when a quick wit caught him and made him brighten up and laugh. He was always radiant when he would laugh, and a clever, racy or dark joke always tickled him.
In his home, Max created a space that was rich and welcoming for LGBTQ+ people across generations and places. In the summer of 2015, I visited almost every Friday for his salons, one of the most formative periods of my life as an artist. We held weekly readings and in-between drank wine and whiskey, smoked cigarettes and engaged in long, shifting conversations about art, politics, local news and the general frustration and anger central to being a poor artist, which many of us were. It was an informally queer space, the first time my identity was accepted without explanation or commentary and,tantalizingly, the prevailing question became “What else?” Queer writers would read their work aloud and, while getting half in the bag and into the spirit of the event, some of us would grab napkins and write short-form poetry to share just sd we could feel involved.
Max died on New Year’s Day last year, but our friendship allowed me a peek into his world and the vision he brought to bear—one of community, identity, art, acceptance, collaboration and the rich soil cultivated for ideas; the space for artists to grow. It was a taste of a community in which identity, creativity and free thought were not just welcomed, but encouraged; a space I was extremely fortunate to experience when I was so young. The importance and urgency of having informal, non-academic and non-competitive collaborative queer spaces has only become more obvious to me as I’ve continued on in life after my college experience and the El Zaguan Salons. These spaces become more and more necessary for LGBTQ+ people to foster around ourselves as we move through the good times and the politically volatile times. The only way through is to build community in that vein, to pull the members of that community close and build each other up. It’s on all of us to create this for ourselves, each other, and LGBTQ+ youth. To build and pass on the kind of space that Max Carlos Martinez made for me, and keep that alive, is the most meaningful way to remember and honor him.
Stephanie Thompson is a painter, sex worker and security guard in Santa Fe, an almost-graduate from the defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design, a leftist and a bottle blonde.