By Noma Faingold
While many in the art world claim to care about making art accessible to the people, painter Jay Mercado actually does – with his welcoming street-level studio on California and 10th Avenue, with meticulous realism in every piece, with his personal, yet universal, subject matter and in the way he has embedded himself in his Richmond District neighborhood.
“My community influences my work,” said Mercado, 61, who has had his studio since 1994 and has lived close to the beach on the Richmond side since 2005 with his wife of 20 years, Teresa Marchese. “I’ve gotten to know quite a few people in the area. Its diversity is what appeals to me. Just taking a walk is an inspiration to me.”
His nearly daily ritual of stopping by All Star Donuts on the way to his studio has resulted in numerous still life paintings devoted to the donut, including a series bought by Genentech in 2015. Many have a majestic quality, with the ocean as a backdrop. They are as appealing as pop artist Wayne Thiebaud’s eye candy.
“I have become known for them,” Mercado said.
“A lot of his paintings have a wry humor,” said Jennifer Faris, who co-owns the Studio Galley on Russian Hill with her husband, Rab. Faris, who has exhibited Mercado’s paintings in several group shows for 10 years, notes that much of his work, concentrating on the daily life of the farm worker, is impressive in both scale and substance.
“Jay has a big social conscience. His farm-worker pieces come from Bay Area realist traditions,” she said. “It’s about where our food comes from. He portrays what a workday is really like. It’s important, especially now.”
One painting, titled “Watsonville,” shows a few farm workers hunched over while harvesting. The viewer sees arm muscle definition on the workers, with pronounced veins on their hands, as they grasp the veinous green leaves. There is a glorious, colorful horizon in the background, but you don’t see their faces.
“My artwork probes the timeless nature of farm labor,” Mercado said. “I’m trying to capture the difficulties of that type of labor. I’m trying to get people to pay attention to the humanity. I’m showing beauty and you can see the history of their life in their hands. Migrant farm workers are the backbone of the agriculture industry. However, they do not get the dignity and attention they deserve. I try to honor them in my work.”
Mercado’s paintings are part of a current exhibition called “Campesinos: Workers of the Land,” at Pajaro Valley Arts (PVA) in Watsonville, California. While the gallery is closed, the PVA website features a virtual tour and will keep the exhibit up at the space until Aug. 2, should the shelter-in-place order be lifted prior.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa and raised in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, Mercado had grandparents on both sides of his family who were farmers in Nebraska and Puerto Rico.
Based on his creative endeavors as a child, and while going to high school at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory (SI), it seemed natural that Mercado would become an artist.
“All my friends were doing it. We were the odd men out at SI,” he said.
Being on the Art and Publicity Committee gave Mercado and his friends a creative purpose.
“We had goals and it was collaborative. Everybody had their thing and people were aware that I could draw.”
Mercado let art go when he went to UCLA, majoring in English and political science. After graduating, he stayed in Los Angeles and went into advertising – on the account management side, not the creative side. He was successful but found it unsatisfying.
“I wasn’t enjoying it that much. It was stressful,” he said.
He started taking art classes at night at the Pasadena Art Center.
“It really boosted my confidence as an artist,” Mercado said. He quit his job and returned to the Bay Area temporarily to go back to school full time at the Academy of Art.
In the early 1990s, Mercado held positions at a couple of companies specializing in indoor murals for hotels and restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He worked on at least 25 large-scale murals, in such hotels as the MGM Grand and Luxor, before returning to San Francisco for good in 1994.
“San Francisco drew me back because it’s a very alluring city,” he says. “I wanted to see if something was still here for me.”
At first, Mercado did residential and commercial decorative painting and faux finish wall treatments to make ends meet. Now, most of his projects are commissions, though he sells his paintings online, at gallery shows and at his studio (when not closed due to COVID-19 directives).
Mercado’s latest commission is for The Matheson, a locally focused, artisanal restaurant in Healdsburg deep in the planning stages. There will be eight paintings, all related to the phases of winemaking.
“It’s compelling to create paintings with a space in mind and on a subject that’s meaningful to me,” he said.
During this shelter-in-place period, Mercado goes into his studio, but he also works from his home on 48th Avenue. He calls his dining room his “satellite studio.”
“I am very productive right now,” he said. “I find myself peeling away the non-essentials. But I do my art because I have to. It’s a needed form of expression.”
To view Jay Mercado’s work, visit: jaymercado.com; @jaymercadostudio on Instagram; Jay Mercado on Facebook.