His art was big and his apartment was small. So Raul Maldonado, who moved furniture for a living, walked into the Hanover Park Park District Community Center in June 2009 and asked if it would be OK to empty his white, plastic garbage bag of poster boards onto the floor so he finally could get a look at the full piece he had drawn.
"I've seen a lot of stuff, but I've never seen that," says Susan Matthews, arts coordinator for the Hanover Park Park District, who didn't know what might come out of that garbage bag. "When I came back out a few minutes later, I was just floored."
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Maldonado, a Mexican immigrant who taught himself art by drawing images from TV he watched as a kid, had assembled a remarkable and complex composition made up of pencil drawings on common poster boards. By the time he had put all the 22-by-28-inch poster boards in the right order, the entire rectangular piece was more than 10 feet tall and even wider, and brought together images ranging from stylized Japanese anime characters to traditional Mexican art.
"He had never seen this big piece," says Matthews, who recognized Maldonado's talent with her first glimpse. "To feel that appreciation for the pure art of drawing, it was great. But to see someone come in who has never had an art class, has a whole system and has figured out what he wants to do, that's rewarding."
Matthews quickly booked Maldonado into the park district gallery for a show that September.
"Our visitors had never seen anything like this," Matthews remembers. The guest book gushed with praise for Maldonado's drawings. One visitor wrote, "Esta Chido Todo," Spanish for "It's All Cool."
Now Maldonado has taken his "Esta Chido Todo" art show to the museum Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outside Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, where it will be on display through Sept. 3. Matthews will give the free and open-to-the-public curator's talk about Maldonado and his art at 11 a.m. Saturday at Intuit. (See www.art.org for details.)
Then Maldonado's works will be on display for Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 6 to 23 at Elmhurst College, with a public reception with the artist on Sept. 20. "I was very impressed with his work," says Suellen Rocca, director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College. For more information, call (630) 617-3390 or search events on www.elmhurst.edu.
"I never thought in my life I'd go to a show with my drawings," says Maldonado, who is 27, single and working as a tree-trimmer after stints as a landscaper, furniture mover and factory worker. As a 10-year-old in Guanajuato, Mexico, Maldonado would hit the pause button to freeze images on the TV while he drew them in his lined school notebook. He moved to the United States in 2004 and thought about taking an art class.
"I was interested, but the money, it's expensive," Maldonado says.
"He doesn't need help. He needs his work to be seen," Matthews says. "It's so professional."
His art was fueled by a need to fill his empty apartment.
"I decided to do my own huge drawing to decorate my room," says Maldonado, who shares an apartment in Hanover Park with roommates.
Reminiscent of artists throughout history, Maldonado recruits assistants Humberto Ortiz and Jaime Venancio to help him with his larger works of art, Matthews says. Friend Fernando Flores, 50, a community consultant with a wide range of interests, helps connect Maldonado to others who might be interested in his art.
Maldonado experimented with materials before deciding on white poster board and Prismacolor pencils that he buys in packs of 300 and uses until they are nubs. His largest drawing, "81 cardboards," Maldonado says, is 40 feet long and took more than 450 hours to draw.
"My finger hurts at the end of the day," says Maldonado, who gets blisters from pushing in the hundreds of push pins required to hang his pieces.
"I'm never thinking about it; I just draw," Maldonado says, noting that he doesn't dare think about art while he is working his 7 a.m.-3 p.m. shift trimming trees. "If I think about it up there, boom, I'm coming (falling) down."
He doesn't sketch an outline of each massive work; he just sees it in his head and begins in one corner, he says.
"Just imagination. If I like it, I just keep going," Maldonado says. His works incorporate ancient Mexican temples with modern Chicago skyscrapers, clowns and skulls, Japanese cartoons and ninjas with swords.
"I like too much violence, terror, blood," Maldonado says with a laugh.
"That intensity just comes through," Matthews says. "The surface is so obsessive. It looks like skin, polished skin."
"I need to decorate my room with my own drawings to inspire myself," Maldonado says.
"This is completely nontraditional, but everybody loves it," Matthews says. "I believe in him, too."