"Tulip Packing".  Jesus Guillen. Oil.  33" x 33".  1992. Guillen family collection. Photo courtesy of the Skagit County Historical Museum
"Tulip Packing". Jesus Guillen. Oil. 33" x 33". 1992. Guillen family collection. Photo courtesy of the Skagit County Historical Museum

La Conner social justice leader Rosalinda Guillen painted a vivid picture of her late father, acclaimed artist Jesus Guillen, during two special presentations at the Skagit County Historical Museum last Thursday. 

The local museum is exhibiting the works of Jesus Guillen, whose keen, sensitive portraits of migrant farmworkers in and around La Conner uniquely capture the dignity and skill required to harvest the area’s agricultural bounty. 

Rosalinda Guillen added context to her father’s rich artistic legacy during separate appearances, one of which included members of the 2021 Leadership Skagit class. 

“My dad,” she explained, “always said that farmworkers know how to grow the food and protect the land. He saw sides of farmworkers that people didn’t think were possible – that there were writers, musicians, artists and future leaders out there.” 

Jesus Guillen (1926-1994) had seen those possibilities first-hand, she said. 

A native of Coleman, Texas, he was part of the “migrant circuit” that harvested crops all over the country during the 1950s. No matter where his work took him, Guillen always carried along art supplies – the tools of his other trade. 

“Wherever he went on the migrant circuit,” Guillen said, “he looked for museums and the local arts scene. The whole time he was doing that he was also looking for a place for us to settle.” 

That destination turned out to be La Conner. 

The elder Guillen, who with wife Anita raised eight children, was offered year-round work at Hulbert Farms just outside town in the early 1960s.

Ultimately, the family bought a home on Calhoun Street, which Guillen refurbished and where he was able to maintain a studio and entertain La Conner’s colony of widely recognized artists, including Guy Anderson. 

For many years he juggled farm work with his art, often trading top pieces for dental and medical services for his family. Guillen was also much in demand as a commissioned artist, though there was much with which he did not part. 

“We have so much art,” said Guillen. “Drawings and drawings and drawings of all the things he had seen. Everything he saw was a painting in his mind.” 

Memories are also in abundance. 

Guillen shared a story about the time she, her parents and one of her sisters, were en route from the Minnesota cherry harvest to the potato fields of North Dakota. They had found a gas station that served Mexican-Americans, only to have their good fortune literally go up in flames minutes later. The car that had been purchased with cash earned picking cherries caught afire. 

“We all made it out of the car, but all of our money had been put into that car,” Guillen was told later by her mom, who, at 92, resides in Mount Vernon.

“Our clothes were lost. Here we were with no car and no money. What were we going to do?” 

Fortunately, local residents who witnessed the inferno came to the family’s aid. 

“People came over and told us not to worry,” said Guillen. “They found us housing and a car.” 

Episodes like that, in which humanity and the dignity of life readily present themselves, are evident through much of Guillen’s art – whether on canvas or in stone, clay, gold leaf or other materials. 

In addition to capturing endearing family scenes, Guillen was repeatedly drawn to the images he saw daily in the fields. 

“He was adamant that farm work was important, highly skilled and that there is a beauty to it,” his daughter said. “He felt there was great dignity working the land.” 

That outlook, the belief that all persons are entitled to respect, was also reflected in Jesus and Anita Guillen’s parenting, said Guillen. All the couple’s children made their mark in the world, in fields ranging from finance and graphic arts to business and military service. 

Rosalinda Guillen, 69, who continues to organize on behalf of improved farm-working conditions, was the first woman of color hired at Skagit State Bank. Her dad likely would have preferred her being an artist to the demanding and daunting life of a labor activist. 

“I told dad,” she recalled, “that I’m painting a canvas for social justice.” 

And now she is doing the same for his remarkable life, during which he took great pride depicting the achievements of others.