Gamaliel Ramirez, dead at 68, his Chicago murals captured beauty of Puerto Rico
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Gamaliel Ramirez left splashes of saturated color all over Chicago.
Though his formal education ended in grade school, he studied canvases at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Guggenheim Museum and taught himself to paint.
Mr. Ramirez created vibrant, powerful paintings and indoor and outdoor murals in Humboldt Park, Bridgeport, Englewood and South Chicago and at the CNA Insurance building in the Loop. He also painted murals at many schools, including Calhoun, Clemente, Benito Juarez, Kelvyn Park, Nash, Robeson and Stockton, collaborating with students and other artists.
Mr. Ramirez, 68, died May 21 in Puerto Rico, where he moved from Chicago in 2011.
A native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, Mr. Ramirez often painted the “Isla del Encanto” — Island of Enchantment. He lived in Chicago more than 40 years and called himself a “Chi-Nuyorican.”
One of his most recognized murals is “Birds of Latin America,” a tropical oasis on the side of a gray bank building at Division and Rockwell.
And at Division and Campbell is his “Sea of Flags,” with an exuberant crowd–including figures from the Puerto Rico independence movement–holding Puerto Rican flags. He worked himself into the mural, balancing an artist’s palette. It became the cover of the 2006 book “Puerto Ricans in the United States: a Contemporary Portrait.”
“Art belongs to the people,” he liked to say.
Though some of his works have, over the years, eventually been painted over, “He’s made his mark in the community with his murals,” said Eduardo Arocho, executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association.
“The community was always part of the projects — kids would help him paint,” said photographer Eliud Hernandez, former deputy director of the Illinois Arts Council.
Mr. Ramirez had survived lung cancer and continued painting. But after a fall in October that broke his arm and hip, his health deteriorated. Also, Hurricane Maria didn’t help.
“He wasn’t receiving any treatment at the hospital,” said Marc Zimmerman, a retired University of Illinois at Chicago professor and expert on Latin American studies whose book “The Short of it All” has cover art by Mr. Ramirez. “They basically put him to the side because they had hundreds of people dying, no power everywhere.”
Mr. Ramirez did undergo a tracheotomy and was too fragile to return to Chicago, so his daughter Michelle Ramirez arranged to move him to the USNS Comfort, a military hospital ship.
But he needed CPR, which left him with broken ribs, said his daughter, who went to Puerto Rico to help manage his care. After being in and out of intensive care, he went to a nursing home.
Growing up in the South Bronx, he started painting when he was 4 years old with a paint-by-numbers kit. When he was about 6, his family moved to Chicago.
“My grammar school education was a nightmare because I had an unknown case of dyslexia,” he said in a biography. “I was forced out in my last months of the 8th grade.”
He visited museums, drinking in the cubism and surrealism of Picasso and Dali, said Omar Torres-Kortright, executive director of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Armitage.
Mr. Ramirez helped found El Taller, a Latino artists collective in Lake View, according to Hernandez. He taught drawing and silk-screening for Urban Gateways and schools and at the Humboldt Park Cultural Arts Center, friends said.
After teaching some younger members of the Latin Eagles, the gang gave him one of his first outdoor mural commissions in the 1970s, he said in interviews, including one with the Library of Congress.
Zimmerman said some of his works are done in the style of “nostalgic tropicalism.”
“He is trying to capture this idyllic portrait of Puerto Rico before its modernization,” Zimmerman said.
Mr. Ramirez preferred to use acrylic paint. “He did not have patience for oil paints to dry,” his daughter said. “He even had a blow dryer” to speed the process.
He lived at various times in Logan Square and Humboldt Park and at the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park. His daughter said he moved to Puerto Rico to be surrounded by greenery, beaches and his favorite flower — the bird of paradise.
Often, his canvases depicted an urban-rural split — with half a cityscape and the other half a tropical scene.
Later in life, he performed original poetry.
Mr. Ramirez is also survived by his daughter Lisa Limas, brother Benjamin and two grandchildren.
From 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, a poetry reading and tribute is planned at La Bruquena Restaurant, 2726 W. Division, to celebrate his life. Another tribute is set for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. June 24 at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage.
Arocho said an exhibit of Mr. Ramirez’s work runs Aug. 3-Sept. 1 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery, 1301 N. Sacramento. He said Mr. Ramirez also will be honored at the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 Fiesta Boricua.