JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
BAYFIELD – Eddie Martinez is fascinated with Mesoamerican culture – the Chacoans, the Aztecs, the Mayans.
He can talk to you about it, he can write about it and he can definitely draw it.
But what he really wants to do is teach. He wants people, particularly his fellow Latinos, to know about their ancestors’ role in pre-Columbian America. After a career in the entertainment biz, including work as an illustrator for Walt Disney, he also knows how tricky that is.
“If I say I’m going to talk history, everybody goes to sleep. But if I say I’m going to talk about ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ then they go, ‘Ooh, I wanna hear about it.’”
So the Los Angeles native, who now lives in the hills outside Bayfield, is excited about the task he has created for himself. He’s eager to finish his illustrated historical novel. And he’s jazzed about the possibility, however slight, that his book Search for Don Juan and Aztlán, three-plus decades in the making, could become something big.
“I would love Disney to say, ‘Eddie, we’re gonna make a movie and money’s no object,’” Martinez says with a chuckle in his second-floor artist’s studio. “But that’s never going to happen. So I figure if I step into it as a book, it’ll maybe gain some interest.”
He lets the thought hang briefly.
Whatever happens with the book is gravy. Martinez has already had an enviable, fascinating career, which began about the time his mom was teaching him the ABCs. She’d show him an “M,” and he’d say “it’s a bird.” The “D” was a watermelon slice.
“To me it was always picture language,” he said. “I guess I just started drawing very early.”
One of his first graphic art jobs was in an outdoor sign shop, but the lack of creative opportunity frustrated him. Fortunately, he had a more pragmatic, left-brained wife. “The yin and yang,” Jessie Martinez describes them. While she maintained a steady income for the family, which eventually included five children, Eddie made the financially painful transition to the movie and TV business, working as a scenic artist.
After a couple years of establishing his credentials, his talent caught the attention of production designer John DeCuir, whom Martinez helped earn an Academy Award for “Hello, Dolly.”
Martinez yearned to work for Disney. He was trying desperately to land a position at WED Enterprises, the company formed by Walter Elias Disney to create theme parks.
“I couldn’t even get past the receptionist,” he said, until one day he got a call from DeCuir, who was working on the Hall of Presidents at the soon-to-be-opened Disney World in Florida. DeCuir asked Martinez: Are you available? Can you come for a meeting?
“Whatever he’d say, I’d just automatically say ‘yeah!’” Martinez laughs.
Martinez spent much of 1969 and 1970 at Disney, painting murals that illustrate the history of the U.S. It was the “pre-show” at the Hall of Presidents, which features talking animatronic figures of presidents.
After that, Martinez says, “the doors just flew wide open.”
On the stairway to his studio in Bayfield, Martinez introduces his guests to framed portraits and drawings, many of his treasured works. One is a colorful portrait of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse; it’s a copy of a small portion of a 55-foot-long, 6-foot-high mural of famous Americans he painted and installed at Disneyland in 1975.
“It was an honor to paint Walt,” Martinez said,“to have the opportunity. This is something I could never have imagined.”
Still to come was perhaps his most challenging project – designing Mexico’s pavilion for EPCOT Center at Disney World. Martinez’s services were sought when the original plan had “too many pińatas,” according to one complaint. He worked on it for three years, and it opened in 1982.
If you’ve been to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip, you’ve seen Martinez’s work in action. In the early 1990s, he was the architectural theme designer of the highly successful 636,000-square-foot luxury mall and designed the Festival Fountain Show at the mall’s west end. The show features laser lights and animatronic Roman statues of Bacchus, Apollo, Pluto and Venus conversing. (Martinez says it hasn’t been maintained well and should be scrapped.)
He retired in 2002. He and Jessie moved soon after to Bayfield, where a daughter had settled.
Now, he says, he wants to “pay it forward,” to create opportunities for others and to teach. He’s hoping Search for Don Juan and Aztlán is that vehicle that spurs interest in Mesoamerican culture, that shows Latinos how their ancestors created impressive societies before European explorers arrived.
Among his fans are Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history at Fort Lewis College, and Stephen Lekson, curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History and author of the newly released A History of the Ancient Southwest. They marvel at his illustrations of Chaco Canyon’s Casa Riconada.
“I think his thinking and his presentation is masterful,” Lekson said. “Really fun to look at.”
The U.S.-Mexican border has inadvertently led to erroneous conclusions about how Mesoamericans, including Aztecs, moved around North America, some archaeologists such as Lekson now suggest.
“The Mexican border is fiction,” Gulliford said. “Eddie is one of those real creative individuals for whom the border doesn’t exist, and he is helping the rest of us see that.”
So Martinez continues to work on his book.
“It’s a spoonful of sugar. It’s content,” Martinez says. “So it’s the double E. It’s entertainment and education. Trying to reach young minds.”
It’s not easy. But Martinez has proved he knows what it takes to get it done. Stay tuned.
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.