EEarly versions of Manuel Pecina’s fine art photography employed a makeup artist and an assistant. They were drafts.
The portraits of seven deities who make up his Deidades, which is on display at the Kente Royal Gallery in Harlem, New York, November 3-21, required a small team, including costume designer Ricardo Alarcón, two makeup and painters, a hairdresser and an assistant.
All 20 pieces in the exhibit were produced over the past two years, but he began making these lifelike portraits of modern Mesoamerican gods in 2008.
And now it’s the end.
“I’m going to take it out with these seven deities,” he said.
New York artist and dying doula Marne Lucas presents the show alongside his own, Coup de grace, “Black and white infrared thermal photography and collage works on paper exploring mortality, spirit and transformation”.
The two met because of her connection to Dallas as a former Artist-in-Residence at CentralTrak, the artists’ residence at UT Dallas.
He immediately recognized his Bardo project by reading the realm that some Buddhists believe to lie between death and rebirth, the “bardo”.
Lucas partners with artists with life-threatening illnesses, working to advance ongoing “legacy projects” like Pecina’s Portraits of Gods.
Ixchel in Jaguar and Juracan by Manuel Pecina.
“I contacted her because I have a terminal illness and my only cure is a lung transplant,” Pecina says.
Pecina was born in Rockwall and has always been a traveler. He has lived in Spain, France and various parts of the United States. He moved from Los Angeles to Oak Cliff in 1993 and bought a house in North Cliff with his ex-wife. They have a son, Sebastian, 22, who also lives in Oak Cliff and has two children under the age of 2.
Pecina’s artistic career has run parallel to a career in IT. Life in middle management finances life in art. Previously, he worked in the aviation industry, first on military and commercial helicopters and jets, then on helicopter ambulances at Addison Airport.
“I used to fly a lot and fix things that were shaking or making noise,” he says.
Then he started photographing airplane interiors as a commercial photographer and obtained an MA in Fine Arts from UTD.
He describes himself as a “busy body” which means he can never stand still. From 2012 to 2015, he owned and operated Ant Colony, a gallery at 417 N. Tyler St.
The climactic opus in Deidades began with his lifelong curiosity for religion. He was brought up in Catholicism and is of Jewish descent on his mother’s side, and none of his beliefs were fully imprinted. Then he started to learn about the Mesoamerican religion, and he realized that it was part of him too.
“I just felt like these were three different religions that I was stuck between,” he says.
He was influenced by a book, David T. Raphael’s Conquistadors and crypto-Jews of Monterrey, which tells the story of Jews who avoided persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. This made him want to delve deeper into Mesoamerican religions.
The positions and costumes of the models in Pecina’s portraits are taken from her study of books by anthropologist Julia Guernsey, a professor at UT Arlington.
Ricardo Alarcón is a Mayan dancer who produced all the costumes and headdresses.
“It doesn’t matter what we worship, or it does matter,” Pecina says. “At the end of the day, religion is there to provide us with therapy, whether it’s meditation, prayer, or chanting. He is there to help us stay focused, stay motivated, and maintain a certain motivation that helps us stay connected to the earth and help others uplift.
Pecina was first examined in April 2016 due to shortness of breath. He says he knew he was in trouble when the doctor called about his test results and asked if he was a smoker, although he had never smoked in his life.
The diagnosis came about five months later: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
It is an environmental disease that causes scarring of lung tissue, making it difficult to breathe, and it gets worse over time.
“It has nothing to do with an autoimmune disease,” he says. “It’s not COPD. I have learned that there are over 200 different lung diseases. I was lucky enough to contract one that they don’t know how to treat.
He is independent and loves to roam, but he continues to find new limits. Last summer he drove from Texas to California and went up the Pacific Coast Highway. It stayed in Washington state for a while, then moved back down, hitting Utah and Colorado. Driving alone in places at very high altitudes caused his oxygen saturation to drop considerably.
“I was fortunate to have my portable oxygen concentrator with me,” he says.
But it was scary.
“My new limitation is that I can’t go beyond 2,800 feet without oxygen,” he says.
His next trip will be to the Texas coast this winter.
He says he is currently taking a dozen medications. One of them, an investigational drug called nintedanib, costs almost $ 10,000 a month, which he has a grant to cover.
His lung function has improved so much recently that he was downgraded to the transplant list. But he is considering stopping the drugs after meeting people in a support group who have already lived 10 to 15 years with the disease without transplants or drugs.
It manages the anxiety the disease brings through restorative yoga and opposing nostril breathing.
The images for the series were chosen this summer while Pecina and Lucas were in Los Angeles.
“It was useful to me because art is one of the things that helps me forget about illness,” he says.
Pecina, 61, considers herself retired and enjoys camping. He has really taken to making coffee outside and enjoys sleeping on the floor without a tent, under the stars.
The end of this series is not the end of his work as an artist. His house is currently on the market and he wants to move into a living / working space where he can focus on his next project: modern portraits set in the Renaissance era.