As a young painter, Tony Lemos had an understanding of impermanence. He grew up in the homes of the elderly people his mother, a nurse, cared for. He spent much of his time with the aging – some with Alzheimer’s disease, some with Lou Gehrig’s disease – which helped him form a deep compassion and an understanding of how time is fleeting. This is why he uses water, the source of life, as a medium for his work.
When did you start drawing and painting? Since I could pick up a pencil really. My mother, she was a (private) nurse her whole life, and she took care of this gentleman named Arthur King. (He painted) in his room. My mom has some work of mine from when I was 3 years old, of me copying his work. He was a Southwestern artist. He did Native portraits. I only learned about that probably, like, four years ago. My mom has eight kids, and so these kinds of things kind of just pop up here and there.
So you lived in the homes of the people your mother was caring for? I grew up in 12 different convalescent homes, so there was a lot of shuffling going on. Private adult care in the state of Arizona wasn’t legal, so we would get kicked out of our homes and move to another house.
What was that like for you? Like having lots of grandmothers and grandfathers around. They would eat with us and watch TV with us. I would feed them when they couldn’t feed themselves. I would change their bedpans when that needed to happen. By the time I was 14 years old, I was a full-on caregiver. It definitely had a massive, massive impact on my life.
How does that influence your art? Dramatically. I did do a show at the Durango Arts Center. A couple of pieces that were about impermanence. (Making my work) is an ephemeral process; it has to do with sacrifice, has to do with understanding that time is obviously fleeting.
Do you think you would be a natural caregiver if you didn’t grow up in this environment? There’s definitely conditioning that happened there. When you’re dealing with people who can’t speak or communicate their needs, you have to learn how to understand their body language and figure out how to satisfy their day-to-day. You have to learn a different type of communication. I mean, it’s turned me into a very sensitive individual and a very empathic individual. It taught me compassion on a major, major level. That’s something that’s lacking in our society. The way we deal with our elders and the whole process of passing is tucked away.