Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

Adrian Aguirre ('09 M.F.A.) often walked to the area where Denton day laborers were waiting for their next job. He was looking for his next subject.

He found Alcalá, who was the de facto leader of the gathering place. Full of charisma and stories, everybody liked to talk to him. And Aguirre liked drawing his face.

Gisele by Adrian Aguirre

At an immigrant center, he ran into Gisele from Honduras.

"She had a very powerful story and I think I captured her personality in the portrait," Aguirre says. "She put up a very strong persona. Once you started talking to her, she was a young girl. She had to act a certain way to protect herself."

And then there was a guy from Tijuana who was so happy with his portrait that he showed the drawing, which Aguirre gave to him, to his girlfriend.

"It sounded to me like they were often taken advantage of, and that's why I think gifts as small as a sketch were appreciated," Aguirre says.

Aguirre puts a face to immigrants and day laborers whose stories are often untold. And Aguirre is getting attention for his work, with features in Western Art & Architecture and being named one of the "12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now" by Southwest Contemporary.

Alcalá by Adrian Aguirre

"For me the border has been an important factor in my life," he says. "We need more voices advocating for immigrants."

His inspiration is drawn from his own life experience. He grew up in Juarez, Mexico, and went to school in bordering El Paso. He has been drawing since he was a child -- and he noticed the murals in Juarez, especially one on a hospital's building wall that showed how health care was brought to the masses following the Mexican Revolution.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in graphic design from New Mexico State University, he wanted to study painting and chose UNT for the high reputation of the College of Visual Arts and Design.

He learned from professors like Matt Bourbon, Vincent Falsetta and Annette Lawrence, whose work was often conceptual compared to Aguirre's traditional portraits. He said taking Lawrence's class was transformational in that he learned not every work had to be finished.

"Let the viewer use their imagination -- that's more powerful than finishing everything in a drawing," Aguirre says.

Ricardo by Adrian Aguirre

Regularly, he adds color to the portrait but leaves the rest in black and white -- such as in this illustration of day laborer Ricardo.

"One of the things that I like about drawing is that you can often see the hand of the artist. I render some areas more carefully, while in others, I leave the initial gestural marks. This gives it more energy. And with color you add another layer of emphasis."

Approaching potential subjects is not always easy. He is shy, and the subjects can be reluctant, too. When he visits the camps for immigrants, he asks them if he can draw their portrait and explains what he's trying to do.

"That opens a lot of conversation. A lot of them are creative. You can start talking about other things and what they have aspirations for."

His subjects are depicted holding papers or eating or waiting. He'll give them the drawing. He takes a picture that he will use to create the painting.

Aguirre combines this work while managing the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and teaches at El Paso Community College and Doña Ana County Community College in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

He would eventually like to see his work exhibited at museums. But he's often satisfied with the work itself.

"Sometimes you get on a roll," he says. "You kind of lose yourself. You're focused on painting. It's not necessarily relaxing but it's a good experience."