David Tineo paints best in early morning. Midday, there is too much light for eyes that see so little.

Tineo, Tucson's most prolific muralist, has achieved a measure of fame, but riches were never in the equation. To keep painting, he cut corners, scrounged materials, stretched his dollars and his own canvases, slathered craft paint on cheap surfaces.

He says the process is the important part, a point he made dramatically when he filled the walls and ceiling of Raices Taller art gallery with his images, then painted the walls white again. The art is still there, he says. You don't have to see it.

You don't have to see.

This is what David Tineo tells himself today.

That philosophical attitude could change as his world darkens. In the meantime, Tineo, 50, is struggling to keep his vision clear as his eyes cloud over.

His style is evolving. He has never fully challenged himself as an artist, he says, and maybe these limits will help him create something new, different, better.

He is legally blind now and his doctors don't know what is causing his macular degeneration, damage to the rods and cones on the back walls of his eyes.

These things are usually genetic and Tineo has inexact knowledge of medical history on his father's side. His father deserted the family when David was 11, leaving his mother, who spoke only Spanish and hadn't yet attained citizenship, to raise seven children.

His upbringing prepared him for an artist's life, he said. "You have a place to live; the bills are paid; you have transportation — you're all right."

Free to create

Above the painted door of his studio — a mural-covered shed behind his mother's house west of Downtown — is the slogan "Nomás Dios y el Artista."

"Only God and the artist" share the moment of creation, and Tineo has shared it again and again, inside restaurants and outside public buildings, on walls and ceilings and thousands of canvases.

After three decades, some of his public work has been covered over or demolished.

The intentional obliteration of one of Tineo's murals brought artist Maurice Grossman to the verge of tears. Tineo filled the walls and ceiling of Raices Taller gallery with painted stories of 40 people in September 2000, only to whitewash them when the exhibit ended.

"It was like painting over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and saying, 'Oh, well, it's here for a month just for the pope's birthday,' " said Grossman.

Some of Tineo's temporary work has endured.

The monumental mural on the north wall of the Tucson Museum of Art, painted by Tineo and Antonio Pazos in 1992 to celebrate an exhibit of Chicano art, was slated to hang for three months. It remains, faded but still dramatic, 13 years later.

Glare and frustration

At Kino Hospital, where his murals cover three walls of the cafeteria courtyard, the light is too bright when we visit them. Tineo can't read the inscription he left in the corner. "Basically, it says, 'Art heals.' "

"It is frustration when I look at it and I cannot enjoy what you're seeing now. I only see glares of bright light. I cannot handle the difference in contrast of light and dark right now, but I do know it's being enjoyed. It's being appreciated."

Whatever the cause of Tineo's vision loss, it is not a condition that is reversible without advances in medical science, said Dr. Richard Ober, chief of ophthalmology for the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System. He re-examined Tineo, an Army veteran, on Wednesday.

The left eye is better than the right. they test at 20/200 and 20/400, respectively. The cones, which control "straight-ahead vision," seem the most affected. The hope is that his eyesight will stabilize, leaving Tineo with the limited, mostly peripheral vision he has now.

There's no need to create metaphoric ironies for the story of David Tineo. A visual artist is losing his sight. It is a very private struggle that has already sent him to the hospital once during a stress-induced episode that mimicked a heart attack.

The public artist

It is also a public event because Tineo may be the best known artist in Tucson. He has agreed to let us follow him this year and tell in words what he has already painted.

Tineo has spent his life documenting Latino struggles, successes and cultural accomplishments while living the life he documented.

There are Tucson artists with more fame in art circles, but none whose work would be so recognizable, especially to the children who have painted along with him.

Those brush strokes on the murals at UPH/Kino Hospital and in schools across Southern Arizona and as far away as Colorado come from an army of kids in art education programs.

You have seen his work while dining at El Charro or El Parador, while walking across the University of Arizona campus, attending an event at the Tucson Convention Center, touring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, visiting your children's schools or catching a flight at the airport.

Tineo was restoring his earliest works, the murals at El Rio Neighborhood Center, when his deteriorating vision stopped him. The murals he began painting there in 1974 are a melange of symbols that celebrate his heritage and scenes that specifically depict the struggles of his neighbors, his people — "La Raza" — to build a neighborhood center and carve out a park from the city golf course.

Salomón Baldenegro, who helped lead demonstrations at El Rio and was among those jailed for occupying the golf course in 1969, said Tineo's murals are as important as the political struggle.

"They convey history and pride," said Baldenegro, who teaches about the Chicano mural movement in his class at the University of Arizona. "That's why they're such assets to our community."

As Tineo restored his El Rio murals last spring, he fought a bright, sometimes painful light at the center of his vision and found himself losing balance atop the scaffold. He had to abandon the job and give up teaching at Pima Community College.

He continues to paint, and is painting more than ever.

"I think it's because he feels he's running out of time," said his 21-year-old daughter, Adreana Wickberg.

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The artist at work

Tineo builds canvases by memory and instinct, using the space between an old desk and an equipment locker to measure the boards for sawing, keeping his fingers just outside the arc of his hammer as he listens for the sound that tells him whether he has bent the nail or driven it true.

He paints in early morning, with soft light coming through the high windows on the south and an open door to the north, augmented by a single bulb in a shadeless lamp.

His plastic bottles and tubes of acrylic paint are laid out where he can grab them without looking. His palette is a styrofoam meat tray, his paints and brushes bought at Wal-Mart or, occasionally, on sale at an art supply store.

He works rapidly, the canvas already outlined with a woman's form in four different movements. "This paint fights me. There's very little elasticity in these cheap paints," he says.

"This is called 'Jade Mask.' It's a representational-movement kind of thing; I'm not really concerned here about style. I like to work and kind of feel the body parts and the movement while I paint.

"I see colors but my blue fields are off a little bit sometimes. I lose more time trying to find my colors than I do painting."

The model represented four times in this canvas was the subject of several portraits. "I had to get this close" — he holds his palm about a foot from his face — "to see her features."

The gesturing forms take shape as he quickly dips his brushes in a series of blues, greens, reds, wiping them on his jeans. He takes a brush dipped in black and stabs at the faces in quick motions and they take on different moods.

"It's the states of emotion ... this is contemplation ... this is deep thought .... this is, 'Eh, I don't really care about him anymore,' and this one, 'Ah, he's finally gonna make some money.' "

He's talking about himself. He has never made much money on public art projects. He has worked as a counselor, as resident artist at schools and as an art instructor at Pima College, but mostly he just painted.

It was hard on his wives and his two children, he says, but he had to do it. "Since age 3, the only thing I wanted to do was paint."

He signs his last name in black in the upper right corner: "Tineo — the five letters my father gave me."

the five letters

my father gave me

Follow David Tineo's fight to maintain his vision as his sight fades in this occasional series of articles throughout the coming year.

On StarNet: Post your thoughts on David's life, his work and his impact at forums.azstarnet.com/

and view an audio slideshow of his work at www.azstarnet. com/slideshows/

● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.